By Kristi Benson
As dog trainers, we may frequently find ourselves sitting across the kitchen table from our clients in something of a conundrum. While we may have been called in to assist with house-training, or jumping up, or biting strangers, or any other typical concern, clients do not always stick to the script. For example, we may find out that the dog who is eliminating inside the house is also chewing the walls when left alone, or that the dog who is jumping up on guests cannot be enticed to do a recall at the park. Many dogs are truly a ‘one-issue dog,’ absolutely, but many dogs can be neatly assigned to what I like to call the ‘laundry list’ category. What I mean by that is that, just as we are finishing up our preliminary notes, our clients pipe up with yet another “oh, and one more thing” for us to consider.
In addition to our client’s assessment of their dog, we can also, of course, make our own assessment based on what we observe during the consult. Some dogs are clearly barking out of fearfulness, despite a guardian labeling them as “defiant” or “demanding.” And some dogs are clearly just joyful and playful dogs, jumping up and mouthing, despite a guardian labeling them as “aroused,” “dominant,” or “frustrated.”
Our clients, no matter how they couch things, want our help. They may ask for their dog ‘stop barking at kids’ or ‘stop being dominant’ or ‘stop pulling on leash’ or any other of a thousand things. They may want to ‘increase their bond’ or to ‘teach the dog to listen.’ But no matter what words are used, or the tone they are delivered in, our clients sit across that kitchen table asking us for help. And although they want help for the things that are important to them: the jumping, the inappropriate elimination, and the chewing, they also need help for the things that are important to their dog (enrichment, anxiety, exercise, and other welfare improvements), and important in terms of public safety.
In some cases, we can address our clients’ questions and needs in a single consult. Perhaps they just needed some normalizing, a gear change, some clever management solution, or another quick tip. However, in many cases, dog training takes time and can take multiple sessions. And so we meet with our clients over a few weeks or months and provide specific support for each step of the protocols and plans we’ve selected together. This is especially the case for fearful or anxious dogs who may need a carefully orchestrated desensitization and counterconditioning protocol, along with veterinary consults.
If, as is so frequently the case, not every behavior issue can be addressed at once, how do efficient and clever dog trainers handle these ‘laundry list’ dogs? The answer, in my opinion, is good counselling, good communication, and great triage.
What is Triage?
Triage is a term typically used in medical contexts, and it refers to the work of triage nurses. They assess a group of wounded individuals and make the call about who should be treated first, and who can wait. They make the call on what is the most important wound or person to treat, right now. Choices must be made here, under pressure, and for the greatest good.
But the ability to triage is a fundamental skill for dog trainers as well. Selecting what to work on (and how many things to work on) relates to our clients’ priorities, and it relates to the iterative nature of dog training, but it mainly relates to our client’s time, their habits, and their bandwidth. Dog trainers (typically) enjoy training dogs. We take our dogs to dog sports, we sign up for online classes or research trials, we file or dremel or snip our dog’s nails on the weekly. But we’re not (and I say this with nothing but affection) particularly typical in this. Most of our clients love their dogs, as we love ours. But many of our clients do not love training dogs. They like the product, not the process. And just like we accept with gleeful fascination that some dogs like fetch and some dogs like salmon snacks and some dogs just don’t, we must accept with professionalism and supportiveness that although some of our clients will like training their dogs, many others will find it to be an absolute chore to be endured only to reach their goal: a trained dog, a good relationship, and renewed joy.
Our clients’ time on the one hand and their emotional and educational bandwidth on the other are both limited and precious resources. Thus, when considering both the amount of time and energy our clients have to train their dogs and the repetitive, progressive nature of dog training, we simply must prioritize. And prioritization is where triage comes in: once we have normalized any behavior that doesn’t need to be addressed through training, we must then identify all the issues our clients need help with, determine good training or management protocols to address each (both temporarily and with an eye to long-term outcomes, as needed), and then work with our clients to triage. What issues will be addressed first? What can wait?
Triage in Action
Although new issues will come up during training and our own observations are useful and informative, many clients have a good understanding of what they’d like to work on with their dogs right from the start. They know the types of problems, and they know the various contexts these problems show up in. We must gain a reasonable idea of what the client wants and needs, and then reiterate it back to them. I like using language like, “Here is what I’m hearing from you as the list of things you’d like to work on. Did I get this right?” Once a list has been settled, with the recognition that it can always change as things evolve, it is time to prioritize.
For each item on the laundry list, it is reasonable to provide the client an idea of what the training and management will look like. Here, I prefer to give my client concrete language. “Once we start training for the leash reactivity, we will do a session or two during which your dog will learn the new behavior we want to use to displace the barking and lunging. You’ll need to do 10 minutes of homework a few times a week. Then, we will start to work either out on walks, or I will bring a dog along. In the meantime, I’ll give you a good list of options that will allow you to get great exercise and enrichment without having to handle all those explosions on walks.”
Once I’ve clarified what the training and management looks like for each item on the to do list, I typically toss the ball back into the client’s court. I simply ask, “What would you like to work on first? What is the most pressing thing for you?” It is neither my job nor my right to dictate how my clients feel about things (outside of issues of public safety and dog welfare, as discussed below). I recognize what I can easily cover in the initial consult, and with the help of great management options, I know I can safely manage for most other options. If the laundry list is long, and management will be intensive, I may ask the client to select one (or even no) items from the list to start, and spend the majority of our session laying out how we will prevent problem behaviors or fearfulness from cropping up, with whatever combination of management and enrichment we settle on together.
I try not to impose much in the way of my own preferences for triage, although I certainly do my best to get the general feel of each training protocol across to my clients. Instead of dictating, I sit across the table from them, in their lives, with their dog. I understand that I’m encroaching on their time and resources, and almost certainly in ways they didn’t expect when they first contacted me. An important aspect of being a professional, and a kind professional, is to respect the priorities and boundaries my clients lay out for me.
Public Safety and Animal Welfare
In my opinion, there are two occasions when it is imperative for a dog trainer to take the reins and make a firm call about triage. The first is when public safety is at risk, and when appropriate safety measures including muzzles are required. In particular, dogs with poor acquired bite inhibition must be appropriately managed. Second, those dogs whose welfare is compromised require welfare-increasing activities and changes to be at the top of their to do list. Although there are differences in how dog trainers approach this aspect of our practice, and although gaining client buy-in in respect to aversive practices and tools may be a delicate dance, clients who have dogs lacking in basic welfare must have this aspect caringly, but steadfastly, addressed.
In other cases, the client’s choices about priorities may cause delays or otherwise negatively impact other required training protocols. If this is the case, it is important to clarify to the client that this is the case. The decision is still theirs, but it should be made with as reasonable an overview as we can provide.
Making It to the Spin Cycle
Once we’ve got a good catalogue of behavior issues from our client and our own observations, a well-prioritized to do list is a fantastic tool for any dog trainer. The to do list helps us firm up our own planning by giving each behavior issue its own attention and weight. It ensures we do not follow the client into the no-man’s-land of labeling behaviors or inaccurate interpretations of perceived character traits. A good to do list also clarifies where training plans and protocols might collide problematically, or where they might coalesce in efficient ways. For example, can we choose to train a behavior with a differential reinforcement protocol and then use that same behavior in multiple training plans? But very importantly, the triage decisions made between dog trainers and our clients allows us to act, with very open communication, as a team. We show our clients the training involved, and we show them that we respect their time, their interest, and their safety. Our clients trust us to be realistic and thoughtful about their dog’s training needs, and careful triage is one of the ways we can meet their expectations of professionalism, competence, and care.
This article was first published in BARKS from the Guild, May 2020, pp.35-37. For more great content on all things animal behavior and training, you can sign up for a lifetime, free of charge, subscription to the digital edition of BARKS from the Guild. If you are already a subscriber, you can view the issue here.
About the Author
Kristi Benson is an honors graduate of, and now on staff at, the Academy for Dog Trainers (academyfordogtrainers.com), where she earned her Certificate in Training and Counseling. There, she leads special projects and is in charge of the weekly webinars, along with student coaching and grading. She also recently gained her PCBC-A credential through the Pet Professional Accreditation Board. In addition, she runs a training business in central Manitoba, Canada, where she works with dogs who need help with obedience, fearfulness, aggression, or any number of other issues. She also works with clients across Canada via video chat, specializing in underserved areas and helping dog savvy guardians of competition dogs with behavior modification tasks. She writes a blog for her own business, has had several guest posts on Dr. Zazie Todd’s Companion Animal Psychology blog (companionanimalpsychology.com), and regularly writes for the Academy for Dog Trainers’ blog and for Dog International. For 10 years, she ran a sled dog micro-rescue with her partner, and fostered, house-trained, obedience-trained, and rehomed numerous racing sled dogs. She is Fear Free certified (Vet level one, Dog Trainer) and is on the Fear Free Speaker’s Bureau. She has a BA and MA in archaeology and works part time as an applied anthropologist with northern communities in Canada’s western Arctic.