Downeast Dog News
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Reflections on 20 Years as a Pet Care Professional – Changes in Training Methods

By Don Hanson, ACCBC, BFRAP, CDBC, CPDT-KA | Oct 02, 2015

On October 11th, it will be twenty years since my wife Paula and I closed on Green Acres Kennel Shop, becoming its third owner. Most of the time it seems like that was only yesterday. However, when I pause and take time to look back, I can see the many changes in our profession: the products and services we offer, the standards to which we are held, societal attitudes towards pets and the changes in ourselves. For my next few columns, I’ll be sharing my perspective on some of these changes.

As we planned our move to Maine and Green Acres, I was looking forward to becoming more involved in dog training. We had taken our own dogs to several dog training classes in Wisconsin, and it was something I really enjoyed. Gus, our Cairn Terrier, had several behavioral issues and dealing with those piqued my interest.

We arrived in Maine in the middle of October, 1995. At that time, our training methods involved lots of verbal encouragement and praise, little or no food rewards, and the use of choke collars and corrections. It was the era of dominance and proving ourselves to be the superior beings and with this attitude, the book we most often recommended was by the Monks of New Skete. The premise of the time was that since we were superior, dogs existed to serve us and do our bidding out of respect (read fear). Science has spoken, and we now understand how erroneous much of the information upon which we based training was; our profession has come a long way in these past 20 years.

Early on, we recognized the importance of further honing our training skills. I joined the Association of Pet Dog Trainers in 1996, and Kate and I attended an Ian Dunbar training seminar in the summer of 1996. The methods we learned were so very different, and we came away from that seminar excited about incorporating games into our classes and with an interest of trying to use food rewards.

In 1997, with the encouragement of Dr. Dave Cloutier at Veazie Veterinary Clinic, we expanded class offsite to the Veazie Community Center. This meant we could offer even more classes each week, as we had previously been working out of the retail area after hours. It was at this time that we took on our first assistant trainers; we were now offering more classes than Kate and I could teach on our own.

At the same time, we were teaching in Veazie, we began the remodeling of the loft above the store into our own training space. While not ideal, just like our students we wish it were larger, it has kept our class sizes smaller than average and our instructor to student ratio higher than average which we feel is of great benefit to our students. Today, we teach as many as 14 classes per week, both inside and outside, the latter dependent on weather.

In early 1997, I attended my first seminars on clicker training. These seminars got me experimenting with my new Golden Retriever puppy, Tikken. In June, Tikken and I traveled to upstate NY to attend a Volhard Top Dog Instructor Camp for a week. Their focus was on motivation; not with rewards, but with corrections via a choke collar. I was really torn and was on the fence during the entire week. I learned what I could about student management and instructional techniques, and while I learned a great deal, at night I found myself working with Tikken using my clicker and food rewards.

Gus and I continued to train, and that summer, we were enrolled in one of our advanced classes which Kate, our Operations Manager, was teaching. During recall work, we were to put our dogs on a stay at one end of the training field, walk to the other end of the field, and call them to us. Gus stayed like the little trooper he was, and when I called him, he came, but at a snail’s pace. As I recall, we did that exercise twice with the same result. At the end of the class, Kate took me aside and asked, “Do you and Gus do anything that’s just fun? He’s clearly not enjoying this, and I can see that you’re disappointed in him. Why don’t you take some time off and stop classes with Gus?” Yes, I had just been kicked out of class by my employee. I am so grateful that Kate had the wisdom and the courage to make that suggestion as it was the best thing that could have happened for the relationship between Gus and me. That was the last training class Gus ever attended. Instead, we played fetch, and I taught him how to do silly things like spin using the clicker and a target stick.

After the Volhard experience, I attended another clicker training seminar, and my mind was made up. I was a bit concerned about the reception that I would get from the public as this was a huge shift away from the predominant training methodology in the area, but in August of 1997, I sent out a press release and got great coverage from our friends at the Bangor Daily News. When an article is on the first page of a section, above the fold with a color photo of a dog, people read it. Before the day was over, I was getting calls; “How do we sign-up for your clicker training classes?” Still testing the waters, I quickly developed a clicker based curriculum, and Green Acres’ first two clicker classes were off and running. At the end of those two classes, I decided I no longer had any interest in training with corrections. I still wasn’t sure if the market would support this kinder and gentler form of training, but I was inspired by other trainers, such as Gail Fisher, who had made the switch, and I knew what we had to do. I’m glad to say that many years later, I had nothing to worry about. Our training program has grown by leaps and bounds precisely because of our focus on science, kindness, and getting results.

In November of 1998, I attended my first APDT Educational Conference and Trade Show, five solid days of learning and networking opportunities. One month later, I was invited to join the APDT’s Education Committee by APDT’s founder Dr. Ian Dunbar. The committee was charged with developing and implementing the profession’s first certification exam. This was a major step forward for the dog training industry. In 2001, I was one of the first Certified Trainers. Since then, a total of seven Green Acres’ trainers have been credentialed as Certified Professional Dog Trainers. Four have since moved on to different career paths, but that does not diminish their accomplishment. More and more people are looking to make sure that a trainer has a CPDT credential before enrolling their dog in a class. Just the idea that we now have a credentialing body for our industry, where none existed 15 years ago, shows great growth in our field.

From faulty science to evidence based science, from harsh methods to gentler ones, and from an egocentric to a dog-centric understanding, you can see that there have been a great number of changes in the world of professional dog training. It is with great anticipation that we will continue to see those in our field continue to study, learn, and grow over the next 20 years and beyond. We still have much to learn, but I am confident that should we choose it, we are headed in the right direction.

 

Don Hanson is the co-owner of the Green Acres Kennel Shop (greenacreskennel.com) in Bangor and the 2014 Association of Professional Dog Trainers Dr. Ian Dunbar Member of the Year. He is a Bach Foundation Registered Animal Practitioner, Certified Dog Behavior Consultant, and Certified Professional Dog Trainer. He produces and co- hosts a weekly radio show and podcast, The Woof Meow Show heard on The Voice of Maine  (103.9FM, 101.3FM, 1450AM & woofmeowshow.com) every Saturday at 7:30AM and Sunday at 8:30PM. Don also writes about pets at his blog: www.words-woofs-meows.com.