By Gary Wilkes
It is commonly accepted that puppies need training. Millions of them are trained at big–box stores, in parks, and privately, in–home. Many of these pups know how to sit, lie down and walk on a leash. Their puppy training was effective, but ultimately useless. That’s because no one ever takes a pup to the shelter because it can’t do simple obedience tasks.
Pet owners take an animal to a shelter because it bites, soils the carpet, chews things to pieces and jumps on children and guests. Without solutions to these problems inexperienced pet owners eventually dump the pup—most often, reluctantly.
Note: Despite the fact that releasing an animal to a shelter is the responsible thing to do, humane zealots uniformly denigrate these people as being somehow deficient because they draw the line at a bite mark on their child’s cheek or repeated destruction of their carpets, furniture and other possessions.
Virtually no shelters have training programs proven to stop such behaviors. The result is that the next time, the person is less likely to take an animal to a shelter or suggest that to a friend. In the world of the humane industry, we humans must choose to live like dogs rather than teaching dogs to live with people. Not many people accept that choice, forever.
The solution to this problem is a reevaluation of which behaviors are most important to pet owners and therefore most important to a pup’s survival. Learning how to safely and effectively curtail unacceptable behavior is the key to this process and the key to the pup’s longevity.
As a groomer, you are a trusted professional and confidant. You have more contact with the owners and pups than anyone else—more than veterinarians, trainers or shelters. If you can steer your clients through the hazards of puppy ownership, the animal lives and you keep a client.
Practical matters first
Not every groomer wants to be a trainer or provide training services. You don’t have to. You do have to find someone who can help your clients. Here are some of the things you need to ask to make sure you find the right trainer for your clients’ dogs.
• Can you stop a single behavior, now? For about half of the dog training and behavior world, this question will cause a seizure. They will stammer out some kind of nonsense about teaching an alternate behavior with treats or “extinction”—meaning not giving a treat when the dog does the unacceptable behavior. These are pipe dreams.
First, you didn’t teach the puppy to sink his teeth into you. It’s a normal behavior generated by instinct whether you reinforce it or not. Teaching the dog to sit rather than to jump on you is like suggesting that if I teach you French, you will never speak English. Animals use behaviors that work for them in specific contexts. If you go to France, you speak French. If you meet a Frenchman in America, you speak French. If you meet an American in Paris, you speak English. If the dog is taught to sit as an alternative to jumping on people, it will still jump on people that look like anyone they have successfully jumped on, or when no treat is present or when they simply make a mistake.
• Trying to extinguish the behavior by withholding reinforcement is equally mindless. If you go to a pop machine that eats your money, that will not stop you from using pop machines. You will simply seek another one. If that one pays off, the behavior of “putting money in a pop machine” regenerates instantly—meaning extinction leaves a permanent possibility that the behavior can come back at full force, at any time.
Learning to stop a behavior now requires knowing how to inhibit a behavior—and that can only be done by tying an unpleasant consequence to it. You can stop a dog from jumping up on you by saying “NO” and swatting it with a throw pillow. Anyone who would rather see a dog dead than apply the equivalent of a serious pillow fight to save their life isn’t working with a full deck. There is no polite way to say that. Simply being in a shelter awaiting euthanasia is far more upsetting than a pillow fight in your own home.
Note: It is considered unethical in all of the medical and psychological professions to withhold treatment known to be effective. Saying “NO” and bonking a dog with a pillow is effective at immediately stopping a dog from jumping on people. It is not harmful. It is lifesaving. (Do not use a pillow with piping or buttons that could scratch an eye. Otherwise, you are good to go.)
• Do you know how to fix a housetraining issue where the dog soils its crate? While most housetraining problems are not this severe, if a trainer understands how to turn around a dog that has absolutely no concern about where it eliminates, you have found someone worth knowing.
• Do you use punishment for housetraining? This is a deal breaker. If a trainer attempts to scold or punish a dog for housetraining, the normal result is a dog that sneaks off and makes sure no one is watching when it must pee or poop. Housetraining solutions must be positive—preferably with treats.
• Are you “all positive”? If the answer is yes, this is also a deal breaker because it demonstrates a lack of logic. The act of putting a dog in a crate to stop a behavior like jumping on guests is a form of punishment. It is not the most powerful or speediest way of stopping the problem, but it may work—or not. If someone claims they are “all positive” it means they would not use this tool to modify a dog’s behavior. Likewise, they are implying that the unpleasantness of cutting out a matt somehow traumatizes a dog. After all, if “harsh” treatment causes behavioral trauma, grooming salons aren’t exempt in the dog’s mind. This is a clear indication that their agenda is more important than saving lives.
Teaching dogs to do mock obedience behaviors without teaching survival behaviors is a questionable and widespread practice. The most common complaint of pet owners after taking an obedience class is that it didn’t work in the real world. Finding a trainer who understands the needs of your clients is your best tool in keeping pets in their homes—and in your salon. ✂