I'm going to begin this blog with a topic that I typically avoid like the plague. Television trainer discussions.
By television trainers, I think most of us know by now what I'm referring to. Television personalities with little to no education, promoting punishment, flooding and salacious television in the name of ratings and of course... cash.
I will attempt to remain somewhat on the sidelines by not calling anyone out by name but rather going straight to the problem as I see it and as I experience it. The rogue and unprofessional antecedent arrangements that cause risk to the general public through misinformation, resulting in mass misconception surrounding in-home training.
Specializing in reactivity cases and having a commitment to maintaining a clean personal/professional bite record as a trainer, I have had to revisit and revise my safety protocol often. Even after all of these years, as much education as I can possibly absorb and with as many cases as I have seen, every now and again something will occur that will cause me to consider revisions to my safety protocol.
It is imperative to maintain a safe environment for myself and any trainers that might accompany me, as well as for the humans & dogs I am working with. A bite effects everyone involved but it is particularly detrimental to the dogs that we are trying to help.
While the vast majority of my clients are extremely diligent with compliance to my safety protocol, there are situations that cause me to take a closer look at how I am communicating my safety rules and why they are in place.
Over the past several weeks, there have been a few cases that have again brought this to the forefront that I think would be helpful to share.
First of all, let me say this: Unlike the edited for television examples, no trainer worth their salt would ever enter an environment with a dog with any acknowledged potential bite risk, without taking substantial safety precautions. At the bare minimum, the dogs must be on a leash and well-controlled. Most often they are not in the environment at all when I enter the home and at times they are muzzled during my initial visits.
*All dogs are on leash when I enter a private in-home session, regardless of the type of case, age or breed of dog that I'm tending to.
At no time do I leave the responsibility of reading body language up to an owner. This is not due to a lack of trust in the fantastic folks that I work with. When I am hired to work with a dog with a potential to bite, it is not the responsibility of the owner to judge how best to initiate exposure and progress with training. When I take on a reactivity (aggression) case, I am assuming responsibility for ensuring that the environment is managed properly and that everyone adheres to a safety protocol. While the owners must assume responsibility for compliance, it is the trainer/behavior specialist that sets the safety standards and together, we work to ensure success and safety.
What does all this have to do with television trainers?
First, the saying “ignorance is bliss” begs dissection.
Rarely, but often enough to mention, owners will assume that we are somehow able to come into a home, guns a-blazing and for no other reason than our chosen occupation, will somehow remain safe amidst variables that are uncontrolled. More than a handful of times in the last year, owners have suggested that I come into a home and have a seat on the couch and if I don't move, chances are 'good' that I will be safe. Of course, that is a hard NO.
I realize that these uncontrolled situations occur every day and miraculously, do not result in any event / bite. Unfortunately, the alternative happens all too often, frequently resulting in what some have coined unprovoked bites. They are of course, entirely predictable and while I don't like to use the word provoked, “anticipated” fits the bill.
I have an absolutely wonderful new client that sent a video of her friend sitting on the floor to greet her reactive dog. The decision to position herself on the floor was of her own choosing, not the dog owner's choice. I just about swallowed my tongue when I watched the dog approach the friend sitting on the floor, holding her dog bowl full of food. The dog's eyes fixed on the eyes of the friend, body rigid, little to no movement... The friend probably assumed that the dog was approaching the food. A few seconds into the dog’s rigid body language, the friend noticed a potential problem and turned her head in hopes that it would end there. At that final moment, the owner was thankfully able to interrupt and redirected the dog.
I watched a similar incident at a hardware store where an unsuspecting, very kind staff member, approached a nervous dog, knelt down in front of the dog and completely missed the dogs body language “screaming” discomfort. The dog became very still, fixated on the gentlemen's face and without a proper interrupt and redirect, this situation could have resulted in a facial bite.
Scenes like this play over and over again on television. TV trainers enter homes without any safety protocol in place, bust threshold by disrespecting an individual dog’s need for spatial boundaries and disregard the dogs body language that to a professional’s eyes, is extremely clear.
I have also entered homes where it appears the dog is on a leash/controlled and before I can say anything, the owner has either dropped the leash or removed it. In these situations, I have a pre-planned escape route that I determine from the minute I get out of my vehicle. While this might seem a little dramatic, keep in mind that not all owners understand the potential. What I refer to as “love blindness” can affect the best of us. We love our dogs. We see them at their best and it is very difficult to imagine them at their worst.
My safety protocol requires a multi-action contract be signed by the client. This contract is written to protect the trainer, the family of the dog, any animals in the home and the dog’s that I am there to help.
At times, comments are made suggesting that the safety protocol might be a little overkill for a particular dog. As a trainer, I am well aware of the negative impact a leash can have and whenever possible, the leash is removed quickly so as to see the dog safely in the least stressful way possible.
It is important however for a client to understand that the safety protocol is as much for their benefit and for the benefit of their dog as it is for the trainer’s physical well-being.
An experienced and educated behavior consultant will always require that your dog be under control and will respect the potential risks to themselves, your family and your dog.