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Testing Potential Pet Trainers

Posted: Aug. 21, 2012, 4:45 p.m. EDT

Knowing what to look for, and what techniques are popular, can allow retailers to find the right partnership opportunities.
By Steven Appelbaum

I have been a professional dog trainer since 1980. In fact, for the first 15 years I was in business, I trained full time, never having less than 30 or so clients. This doesn’t count fielding calls from potential students or establishing networking relationships with pet stores, veterinarians, groomers and other pet-related professionals.
It also doesn’t take into account the time that all small business owners spend just keeping the doors open and the bills paid. The bottom line is I spent an average of 60 to 70 hours per week working as a trainer for well over a decade.

Dog training
Most of the cases I dealt with involved behavioral challenges owners were having with their pets. So my focus was problem solving and general obedience. Solutions had to be based on realistic expectations since most of what I did then (and the majority of trainers do now) was really owner training.

After all, short of moving into someone’s house, there was little opportunity to teach a client’s dog to stop going to the bathroom in the living room. This was something the owners had to learn to teach. This meant that, as a trainer, I had to be equally as adept with people as I was with their pets. In the 32 years since I first started, here are a few things I learned that are relevant to pet product retailers anywhere in North America.

1. Dog trainers are very valuable service people for pet retailers to forge relationships with.
2. Retailers need to know a bit about training and trainers in order to choose the right ones to associate and work with.
3. Retailers ought to have an idea as to the types of relationships they desire with trainers.
4. Working with a dog trainer can stimulate customer loyalty for pet stores and increased product sales.
5. A good dog trainer can also help to educate staff.
6. Trainers also afford pet stores excellent opportunities for cross promotion of other services.

Let’s briefly look at the first two points.

First, dog trainers are valuable to work with because of the type of clients they attract. The typical student in a dog training program is an involved dog owner with some discretionary income. What’s more, these students are paying the trainer for their advice, which means suggestions on product purchases and other services are going to be taken quite seriously. Not only does this mean that students of dog trainers are exactly the type of customers retailers need, but trainers can also be highly effective at educating already existing customers to be more knowledgeable shoppers.

Second, one of the things that stop retailers from forging relationships with trainers is a lack of knowledge about training and trainers in general.

Here are a few things every retailer needs to know about behavior. Trainers use a technique known as positive reinforcement (+R). If a customer wants a dog or cat to repeat a behavior more often, reward that behavior in a positive fashion. A good example of this is chewing. How do owners curtail a chewing problem using +R? Reward and thus strengthen the act of chewing the correct items. After all, if the dog chews the proper items 90 percent more than they do currently, isn’t it logical they will chew the wrong items far less often? Considering that retailers sell most all of the “right” things to chew, this is a very important thing to embrace.

When speaking to trainers, ask they use +R and then ask them to define it and give an example. If they can’t do so in an accurate and understandable fashion, consider someone else.

The next technique to consider is negative punishment. If a customer wants a dog or cat to repeat a behavior less frequently, remove any reward for that behavior. In the case of chewing, a trainer might suggest not giving the dog free run of the home until the dog has learned to chew the right items.

Positive punishment is one of the most confusing behavioral terms. Most people ask themselves how punishment can be considered positive. The thing to understand is that the term positive in this context isn’t about “good” or “bad.” Instead, positive refers to the addition of something and negative means taking something away.

Let’s look at an example. To address a chewing challenge, a trainer suggests using a repellent spray to make the act of chewing the incorrect items far less rewarding. You can usually identify trainers who rely on positive punishment because their focus is often on making specific behaviors less pleasurable in the hope the behavior will occur less often.

The accent is more on the negative than the positive. While this type of training can be effective in many situations, it can be unpopular with clients and runs the risk of being too harsh, though that depends on the trainer. This kind of training is less common now than it was when I first started.

Armed with this basic understanding of behavioral training techniques, it should be easier for retailers to speak with and screen trainers based on their ability to explain the kinds of methods they use and believe in.

Steven Appelbaum

Steven Appelbaum is the president of Animal Behavior College, a vocational institution devoted to helping animal lovers succeed in animal careers. Appelbaum has been a professional animal trainer for 30 years. He is the author of the book “The ABC Practical Guide to Dog Training,” and is a freelance writer, lecturer and consultant.



The Education Series: Training & Behavior Modification column is brought to you in part by Farnam.


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