The Importance of Collaboration and Mentoring in Dog Training

Written by Dawn Jacques

I am new to the dog training world. I, like many of us in this industry, have always had a passion for dogs and how they learn. As a certified dog trainer, however, I am new. This is not my first career, which definitely affects my perspective on this issue. My first career was as a trained social worker in the healthcare field.

In social work and in most of healthcare, there is a culture of give and take between professionals. People readily share information in an effort to provide the absolute best care to clients. Doctors refer to specialists, social workers to doctors or therapists, etc. Older, experienced staff mentor and guide younger, inexperienced workers because they are eager to share the lessons they have learned and to help promote best practices within their field. This is the world I came from, and why I was so surprised when I opened a pet care company.

Two years ago, I opened a dog walking and pet sitting business in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. I was shocked at how few people wanted to network, discuss business ideas, share techniques or have a dialogue about issues in the industry and how to address them. Everyone was protective of how they did business and their “turf”— completely different from my training in the healthcare field. It took me a long time to build relationships, some of which have become great friendships, but still, I am taken aback by how pet professionals, especially dog trainers, do not support one another or wish to collaborate with other professions.

I have several years of experience in dog care, but am just beginning to offer dog training as a service in my company. As part of my certification through CATCH Trainers Academy, I was educated on the principles of LIMA and positive reinforcement techniques. I embrace them and wholeheartedly support them. Many of the same principles applied in my previous work, too.

As the owner of a dog walking and pet care company, I find that our clients trust us, and look to us for guidance when there are behavioral issues with their pet. I often refer to trainers who are experienced and specialize in working with specific undesirable behaviors, such as leash reactivity, separation anxiety, or dog-dog aggression.

My belief is that professional, certified trainers are best equipped to help the owner work through these issues. However, we are often responsible for walking the dogs, or pet sitting while the owners are out of town, so we often end up seeing these challenging behaviors too. Several of my clients have asked if I or my staff could observe and be part of their training sessions, and I am thrilled when they do. I think they understand the importance of collaboration.

The reason I value this opportunity is twofold:

  1. Observing the training session allows me to offer insight to the trainer if needed; many times the dogs react very differently with me and my staff than the owner. This may help shed light on the issue for the trainer.
  2. By observing the training session, I am able to hear exactly what the trainer wants done and why they want it that way, as well as watching their timing. This makes it more consistent when I go back and train my staff, instead of the trainer telling the owner, who tells me, and then I tell the staff, which can easily turn into a game of telephone!

Collaboration also provides the client with peace of mind that the trainer and dog walker are working together and that they see the world in the same way; the consistency is comforting to a dog owner who is already dealing with uncertainty and challenging behaviors. There’s also more scope for exchange of ideas — perhaps my staff have stumbled upon something that works with a particular behavior that the trainer has not thought of. That doesn’t mean that we are more knowledgeable, but that our staff who are with the dog daily may have something to contribute to the conversation.

In addition to collaboration, I believe strongly in the power of mentoring, being willing to have conversations, problem-solving, and teaching. The reality is, every experienced trainer was new at some point. When we are new trainers, there is a world of doubt and uncertainty. Sure, I know the science behind operant and classical conditioning, I understand desensitization and counter-conditioning (all theories first based in human behavior and well-understood by most professionals in the human services field). However, my knowledge does not take away the uncertainty that all new professionals have when they begin their careers.

The truth is that confidence comes from experience. When we have successes and when we walk through some challenges, we learn and grow. This growth gives us confidence in our field, and a self-assuredness that we do know what we are doing. I can honestly say I was a great social worker, and I still use a lot of the skills I developed in my previous career every day; but I have some insecurity about offering training to new clients. I will overcome this, and I will get comfortable, but I know that I am not alone. I have a mentor, who I adore and am so grateful for, but not everyone in my circle is so supportive.

My first client

Shortly after opening for dog training, I received a message from a previous dog walking client. Her 1-year-old Great Dane was having some behavioral issues, and she was looking for a trainer. This client was impressed with how I personally handled her dog in the past and wanted me to do the training. I met with her and had some reservations about whether I was able to help her.

The dog had developed a habit of jumping on people when they entered the home or yard. He was recently asked not to return to his day care due to a fight that he was involved in, which caused injury to the other dog. While his owner and I sat outside in her back yard talking, her dog would repeatedly nip at her, pull her clothes or the cushion she was sitting on, and nip or pull at my clothes as well. The dog’s owner shared that the dog had been biting more. In fact, he had bitten her through a heavy winter coat and left a red mark on her elbow, and he had bitten a service worker in the back yard (no injury to the service worker, but his coat was torn). I explained to the owner that this dog’s behaviors were concerning and that I wanted to review my notes and possibly speak with a colleague before moving forward, which she agreed to.

When I got home, I contacted two dog trainers, whom I have referred clients to in the past. I held both of these trainers in high regard, and knew that both followed the guidelines and principles that I wanted to incorporate in my dog training career. I reached out seeking advice on whether this behavior was more advanced than I should handle at this point in my career, and if not, seeking suggestions on how to address the issues in a manner that was effective and followed the principles of LIMA. I got two very different responses.

The first trainer I called, was a trainer with a few years’ experience. I have worked with her with a few clients in the past and knew that she supported LIMA and force-free training. When I first met with this particular trainer (let’s call her Trainer A for now), I told her that I was interested in getting my certification in dog training. In fact, she is the one who guided me toward CATCH Trainers Academy.

Trainer A’s response was to give me no advice, and state only that I needed to learn to follow my gut and not rely on others to help me. She then proceeded share with me that she was no longer comfortable with me being part of training sessions with her and my dog walking clients.

When I asked why that was, Trainer A stated that she was concerned that I would take her ideas and “present them as [my] own.” She stated several times that she was worried about getting “burned.” I reminded her that we were working together, that there is value in coming together, and that everything she did in her sessions was based on theories that have been around for a long time. Still, she was not budging.

Trainer A’s responses left me feeling like I was not going to succeed as a trainer, that the field was so competitive and cutthroat that I would only be able to learn from mistakes — mistakes that I did not want to make if I didn’t have to. After all, there are the lives and relationships of the owners and dogs at stake.

My next call was with an experienced certified behavior consultant whom I have worked with in the past and even worked together with my own dog (we will call her Trainer B). Her response was uplifting. She absolutely confirmed that the dog was most likely not the type of client I should take on as a beginning trainer, she explained why she thought that, and offered suggestions for wording to the client. Trainer B was encouraging and reaffirmed what I had assessed correctly, offered a different viewpoint on some items, and left me feeling more confident in my decision to be a dog trainer and to pass on this one client.

The client understood and was appreciative of my openness and willingness to tell her that I felt the dog’s behaviors were serious enough to warrant a specialist look at them. I referred her to her veterinarian for a workup (the behaviors were rapid onset, developing in a little over a week), followed by a referral to a veterinary behaviorist. I stressed with the client that if she was having a difficult time finding a veterinary behaviorist or a certified behavior consultant, she should call me and I would help her. I gave her the names of three businesses I fully trusted and knew well.

Why is this important?

As a new trainer, I am learning that many in this field are like Trainer A. They feel that they cannot and will not help new dog trainers because it may take away from their client base. I have heard many dog trainers speak who believe that it is of no benefit to them to help new “competition.” I would argue the exact opposite is true — there is great benefit in sharing ideas and helping the new and upcoming generation of dog trainers.

Experienced dog trainers have a wealth of knowledge, developed through years of experience, to share with new dog trainers. They have the opportunity to help new dog trainers avoid the mistakes they made early in their careers. Not only can the knowledge be passed from one professional to another, like many trades do with apprentices, but it offers a chance for experienced professionals to also have their thoughts and processes challenged.

The give and take between two individuals is by far the best way for both to grow and learn. Plus, you never know who you are mentoring! I may be newer to dog training, but I have 25 years’ experience in social work. Who knows, there may be a day when my experience would enable me to help Trainer A with a difficult client situation. In addition, I have experience training a deaf dog — many dog trainers do not understand the special approaches needed to make a deaf dog feel safe and secure in a new home, or how to help shape behaviors without a verbal cue.

My deaf dog, Murphy, who I have recently trained to be comfortable in a muzzle.

In addition, helping a new dog trainer allows you to help another trainer firmly grasp the principles of positive reinforcement, force free, and LIMA. That means more dogs are helped in a caring and supportive manner, while strengthening the relationship of pet owner and pet. This benefits all positive reinforcement trainers and definitely helps more dogs, and isn’t that why we are all in this profession? The more young dog trainers can be mentored by the right professionals, the fewer of them who will be mentored by dog trainers who believe in outdated dominance theories and the use of aversive equipment to get a dog to do what they are told.

Lastly, guiding and mentoring a new dog trainer will benefit you, as an experienced dog trainer, down the road. As a social worker, I have mentored and guided some of the smartest people in the field. I can look back and recall when they were nervous, just starting out, and were making simple mistakes. Now these same people are some of the most competent in their fields! When we share our knowledge with each other, we have a chance to raise up the profession of dog training together. When I have a client who needs a dog trainer who specializes in a certain behavior, I will refer to people I know and trust, not just anyone, and certainly not someone who does not want to work collaboratively with me.

For those of you who are experienced, I hope you will consider mentoring, guiding, and shaping those of us who are newer to the field. As a group, dog trainers have some incredible knowledge to share!  There are plenty of dogs who need help, and to be honest, we all need a helping hand once in a while. I am not saying that you have to tell a new dog trainer all of your company secrets like how you find clients, your marketing strategies, or how you budget your finances! What I am suggesting is that by allowing a new dog trainer to come to you for advice, to mentor them and help them find their passion and specialty, the profession as a whole will benefit.

“Collaboration and community over competition” is my motto in my business. I will continue to work as collaboratively as I can with other professionals. As my dog training career takes off, and it will, I will welcome other professionals and newer dog trainers into conversation with me — that’s how we all grow. I hope you will do the same.

Dawn Jacques, CDT, BSW, is the owner and founder of Milwaukee Paws Pet Care.  She is a licensed social worker of 28 years and a recently certified dog trainer.  She works closely with clients to provide the best care for their pets, using science backed, positive approaches.  Her belief in this system is so strong that all staff Milwaukee Paws Pet Care are certified Fear Free professionals and are certified in pet first aid/pet CPR.  Follow Milwaukee Paws on Facebook and Instagram to learn more.