Mentoring in Animal Behavior — What Makes a Successful Mentor-Mentee Relationship?
Over the years that I have been running Wagging School I have taken on instructors to assist me, and have taught them science-based principles along with my particular take on applying training methods to real world problems. Accordingly, while I love dogs and want to help them, I do this by equipping their guardians to be kind and effective. A requirement for this is to build the capabilities of instructors.
About ten years ago, returning to work after having hip replacements, I began working with a group of trainers, with a view to developing their skills and passing on my knowledge so I could delegate the heavy lifting to them and focus more on my writing and workshops. Thus, my mentoring program was established.
In this article I will describe what it looks like, what I think we have achieved and what lessons this might have for others in our fast-developing profession. There has never been a more exciting time to be an animal trainer.
A person being mentored is called a mentee. When I was setting up the mentoring program a friend who was an editor jokingly put “mentoree” into her phone and it came up with the word “meteorite”. A meteorite is a rock from space that flashes across the night sky before crashing to earth. Clearly nothing to do with mentoring. I made a whimsical association of ideas, and named my group the Meteorites, giving them the byline “shed some light – make an impact”, which expressed the purpose of the group, namely to promote our understanding of training and behavior and to bring about change in our emerging industry. This distinguishes the program from conventional ones, that aim to further the careers of the mentees.
Key features of the program
I think that anyone who works with animals in any capacity needs to know more about training and behavior. People entering the field need to develop the skills to get from where they are to where they aspire to be.
My passion is for the mentoring program to support and guide people in that journey.
The background of the mentees
A mentee might be:
- A volunteer instructor at a community-based dog training club,
- A hobbyist wanting to become a better trainer with their own dog,
- Someone who has been dealing with a complex behavior problem in their own dog.
- Someone who is moving on from training their own dog to becoming a professional trainer.
- A professional trainer who wants to be part of a program of continuing learning and skills development.
- A volunteer for a charity, including a shelter or rescue organisation.
- A retiree wanting to spend more time expanding an interest into a new, maybe part-time career.
- A younger adult wanting to make a mid-life career change.
We have both women and men in the group. This is an advantage in an industry in which the vast majority of trainers are female. Some dogs react differently to men and women, so having “decoy men” available is useful. Having a tall man is a bonus. Two have beards and one can be persuaded to wear a funny hat.
The program is run as a group
This is a crucial feature which is responsible for many of the strengths of the program.
- Working as a group, we talk about “Team Meteor”.
- Members give practical and moral support to each other.
- As mentees develop their instructing skills, they work as a group conducting classes.
- Assisting with reactivity classes, in which the dogs have to be distanced from each other, requires instructors to have exceptional abilities to communicate with each other during the class as well as understanding the training methods, techniques and concepts that I have imparted to them.
- Working as a group also provide opportunities for spontaneous talks, and interactions between various mentees outside of the formal activities.
Combining theory and practice
The mentoring program has both a conceptual/theory component and a hands-on practical component. This is fundamental to my philosophy, and is designed to remedy a shortcoming that I see in existing professional development pathways – the lack of hands-on experience.
- Once a month we meet to watch a DVD or a session from a conference, followed by a discussion.
- Once a month, usually two weeks later, we meet to do some hands-on training and skills development.
The hands-on component is more than just the opportunity to handle dogs or instruct classes. It is designed to increase the skills of participants.
Does this happen, and how is it assessed?
- In the case of a very experienced mentee, I noticed he was modifying his approach. He was proceeding more slowly in consults, and covering each aspect in more depth. I have argued that doing too much too quickly can result in less progress, more stress for the dog and in some cases can lead to the dog biting in the training session.
- Another hands-on session, after considering the life of “streeties” (dogs who are not owned) featured practical workshopping of enrichment activities and the development of dogs’ social skills, while still complying with the strict regulatory requirements in our suburban and inner urban environments.
- They also looked in detail at handler skills needed to allow dogs to meet successfully on lead, and outlined the process for transitioning to off-lead interaction, while avoiding the well-known problem of undesirable behavior in dog parks
- Meteorites demonstrated the use of puzzle toys and problem-solving challenges. This is very different to fine-tuning a well-established technique.
I regard this as another distinctive feature of my program, which is not found in conventional mentoring programs.
- Another session developed observational skills, and the interpretation of subtle canine body language. This was a “road test” of the skills that mentees will teach to less experienced handlers in their own classes.
Format for practical components
We have had various formats for the practical component of the Program over the years. For example, Meteorites might participate in Wagging School group classes. Participation can take the form of either:
- Working their own dog,
- Handling other dogs.
These experiences are quite different.
- Assisting in small, informal ways.
- Being given responsibility for instructing in one segment of the class.
- Eventually taking the class as the principal instructor but with the mentor or a senior instructor nearby to give advice or support if needed.
- Going through a similar process with 1-on-1 consults, including home visits (observe, assist, instruct under supervision, instruct independently but with my support).
Training their own dog
During face-to-face meetings some Meteorites would bring their own dogs and work on a current issue, challenge or training task. One might want their dog to be able to settle down, be calm and not bark in that environment. Another might want their friendly but excitable dog to meet and greet a person without jumping up, so we set up a scenario for that training goal. Only one mentee is handling their dog, but others get hands-on experience, by being a “decoy person” for meet and greet training. They have to be aware of their own body language, be calm and quiet, and implement the steps of a shaping process. I might say “next time approach a bit more quickly or move in a more animated way”.
This is a tangible way of learning about shaping. Many people grasp the principle of successive approximations, but putting them into practice is another matter. When do you raise your criterion? And by what increments?
I give mentees feedback on their practical skills. I specialise in what I call “tweaking”, which is modifying the handler’s technique, sometimes in small ways which make a big difference.
To illustrate how this can work, in one session two mentees worked their dogs, while the others watched, sometimes making comments. Their brief, as an exercise, was to teach a relatively simple new behaviour. They each did a mini-session of a few reps, and had a break while the other mentee took her turn. They each did three short sessions.
On the night, I commented on the handler’s body language, excessive talking, confusing or distracting hand movements and specifics of technique. Sometimes the handler didn’t realise what she was doing, but by the third session, she had cleaned up her technique, eliminating extraneous, ambiguous and confusing messages. Guess what? As a result, her dog was responding better and learning the new behaviour noticeably quickly.
Other mentees commented that they made similar technical errors in their own training, and at least one person went home and made a video of himself going through a similar exercise. Knowing what to look for, he was then able to modify his technique.
Handling another dog
Meteorites sometimes handle each other’s dog. The person with a Miniature Poodle has the experience of handing a Malinois. Moreover, when handling someone else’s dog they take greater care about what they are doing, and try not to make mistakes. They don’t take the dog and the training process for granted, and train more “mindfully”.
Over time Mentees deal with a variety of dogs (breeds, sizes, temperaments and levels of training). Training principles might be generic but fine-tuning your strategy, timing and technique to suit individual differences requires greater skill.
We discuss which dogs are coming before each session. We did several sessions with an extremely fearful dog, workshopping various approaches to building confidence and reducing fear of people. In that case, she was the only dog present.
If several dogs are attending, we consider the likely dynamics between them. If there are several dogs who are lively and excitable, we plan who goes where, what distance is needed between them and whether visual screening is needed.
I wrote a list called the “Top Ten Key Concepts in training and behaviour.” They are concepts related to my approach to training. It’s a systematic way to monitor what the mentees have covered. I use the same topics for presenting seminars to members of the public. Mentees who are up to speed on that topic can assist with presentations to less experienced trainers.
Processes for dealing with concepts
I don’t just want mentees to be able to rattle off a definition of “backward chaining”. I want the concept to become embedded in their training practice. This is achieved by having a dynamic interplay between the theory and the practice.
Sometimes I will ask “what concepts are present here in this training scenario?” Or I might say “do you realise that these three introductory Treibball skills have been back chained?” Or “what difference would it make it they were forward chained? (And no, the opposite of back chained is not front chained.)”
There must be robust and wide-ranging discussion concepts. This depends on ensuring safety, relationships of trust and confidentiality within the group so issues can be explored at a deeper level. This is all the more important given the toxicity of social media.
While the mentoring program provides an opportunity for intensive learning it is not the same as running a course. My mentees have done a wide range of courses. Mentoring rounds out learning from courses and puts it in a real-life training context. It allows mentees to process their learning, and make it part of the continuing ethical re-evaluation which is part of the journey. I hope that mentees are committed to kind, ethical and effective methods, but they are free to question and explore without being vilified for departing from doctrine. Apostates are welcome.
Senior members now act as mentors for newer people. This includes:
- Discussing and applying concepts.
- Giving feedback about training techniques.
- Inviting newer members to attend their classes or consultations, to broaden their experience of training activities in the real world.
My role as Mentor
To mastermind the program.
- I decide that there must be a conceptual component and a hands-on component.
- I design the way mentees deal with concepts.
- I plan what concepts to introduce when and in what way, and how to link this to the hands-on training sessions.
To create a safe space for all issues to be explored.
I believe there is a climate which leads people using social media to attack any departures from orthodoxy. Science-based behavioral training is adopted with a quasi-religious zeal.
The provision of a safe space is vital, when Mentee Kim Doe could be subjected to toxic persecution if it becomes known that she put two fingers on her dog’s collar. People have been driven to suicide for less.
I asked Meteorites for input into this article. One member commented that an essential part of the relationship was that a mentee could ask any question – no matter how “stupid” or ill-informed – and not be mocked, belittled or humiliated.
To tell or to ask?
It is tempting when you have expertise and want to pass it on to do so by telling mentees what they need to know and do.
The “paradoxical” approach1 is for the mentor to ask mentees about their experience and opinions. This leads to more engagement and team work in the long run.
One example of this was after our first “Pig Day Out” workshop, in which we were clicker training rare breed pigs. Having made a lot of mistakes, we brainstormed what had gone wrong. Then I asked the group “what can we do to make it more successful next time?” Asking them, not telling them.
Role of the Mentees
The role of the Mentee is:
- To make my coffee.
- To sweep the floor.
- To be yelled at by me (some people do this one very well).
One of my little jokes…
Mentees make commitments to:
- Attend core activities, as much as practicable.
- Share their diverse experiences with the group.
- Ask and answer questions in a helpful and respectful way.
- Participate in practical training activities at a level commensurate with their abilities.
- Train in front of the group and to give or receive feedback.
Criteria for joining
I have no explicit criteria for entry into the mentoring program. Participants have joined at different times and have been at different levels.
A personal as well as professional commitment to animals and animal welfare is essential. A commitment to both ethics and effectiveness in animal training in turn leads us to follow science-based practice, in particular non-aversive training methods. As Mitchell (surname?) said at the Australasian Animal Training Conference, we are “empathy-inspired, evidence informed”.
This is not to say that prospective mentees should leave their critical faculties behind. I encourage diversity and change, within the broad context of non-aversive approaches. I teach specific exercises and concepts, based on what is most appropriate for my typical clientele. Meteorites may advocate a different approach, based on needs of different client populations.
We revise and review commitments each year. I have tried hard to ensure that the core commitments are not onerous.
Core commitments made by mentees to the program are:
- To methods and approaches,
- To the principle of continued learning,
- To attend regular meetings for admin and news (usually now online),
- To attend a face-to-face meeting for the hands-on component,
- To attend a face-to-face meeting for the theory and concepts component.
Emerging from strict COVID lockdown, “hybrid” formats are becoming the new normal. We now alternate between face-to-face meetings and remote meetings, using an online platform.
Extra or elective opportunities
Optional extras include:
- Being an instructor or assistant in group classes.
- Sitting in on and assisting with my private consults.
- Attending and assisting with seminars and workshops that I offer to the broader dog training community.
- Participating in occasional excursions, e.g. to the Melbourne Zoo or to the Dingo Foundation.
- Participating in specific workshops, such as the Pig Day Out
What happens when commitments are not met?
I am not good at dealing with such situations, so one answer would be “avoidance”. To remedy this, I developed a form for all Meteorites to fill out, which includes detailing reciprocal obligations. I would rather people make their contributions in good faith and monitor themselves rather than having to be policed, although this may result in unequal contributions within the group. This informal approach does not lend itself to scaling up.
Commitments in a general sense (code of conduct)
My style is not to spell these out. For example:
Treating other mentees with respect, turning up for meetings (other than in exceptional circumstances) and giving your apologies as far in advance if you are unable to attend should not need to be said.
However, there will be occasions when participants do not meet acceptable standards. One mentee then drafted a statement of commitments. I think 2 people signed, one of whom abided by the terms and conditions set out and the other didn’t. The others just said, “well, we’re the ones who are here. We voted with our feet, so you know who is committed.” Signing a document was not what they regarded as definitive.
The “Aunt Maisie” excuse
I often refer to Aunt Maisie in the mentoring program as well as in training classes. As far as commitments are concerned, the Aunt Maisie defence can go either way.
- Aunt Maisie has just died.
“Prop her up against the wall, attend the meeting and deal with her body tomorrow.”
Much as I would like my mentees to do this I admit it is an unreasonable expectation.
- Aunt Maisie has just invited you for a cup of tea.
“No, sorry, I am not available. I have my mentoring program meeting on Sunday afternoon. Any other 162 hours of the week would be fine.”
A Meteorite choosing to make a low-level social activity a higher priority than attending our meeting is one of the things that can make me cry. I want to be appreciated. I want attendance to be a high priority. I want mentees to regard participation as a privilege, and to organise their lives around it.
However, I also make the point that their commitment comes NOT from wanting to please me or meet my criteria for membership. It should come from the mentees finding the program valuable and therefore making a commitment which reflects the high priority it holds for them. Having a sick or injured dog who needs to be looked after or taken to the vet is always an acceptable excuse. It would be a contradiction to put your dog’s health and welfare at risk in order to learn how to be an ethical animal behaviour professional.
Another member tried to elucidate what kind of social engagement provided an acceptable excuse. It was her 30th wedding anniversary. I did say “my brother is celebrating his 55th, so I will excuse you in 25 years time”, but my mentees know when to treat my remarks with disdain!
I offer Meteorites the choice of paying for my time or reimbursing me by means of making a reciprocal contribution.
The reciprocal contribution means that a Meteorite does some task for me in lieu of paying for my time. This can relate to their expertise or or sometimes generally lending a hand for something.
- A retired graphic artist and designer designed templates for my books and publications.
- A professional photographer does photo shoots for me.
- “Techie guys” help me with my computer set-up and various tech issues.
- Another member helps with transport of furniture and equipment.
- Members with admin skills carry out many essential tasks that I am bad at.
I am prepared for my mentees “to make me cry”, but that is not so much a requirement of the program as an unintended consequence. Most of my mentees have made me cry, some more often than others. Those that haven’t just haven’t been with me for long enough.
I believe my bond with the Meteorites is strong enough to cope with some argument and conflict. On one occasion a mentee had made an ill-considered remark denigrating what we were doing. I stormed off, only to come back a moment later, saying that I couldn’t leave because I had got a lift with this mentee and he was driving me home. Humour is one of the highest calibre forms of defence, and my remark broke the ice, allowing us to recover and continue.
Outcomes of the mentoring program
Mentees have emerged with skills which made them employable in some of the top jobs – such as working in the behavioral training team at a shelter, or joining a guide dog program. One employer said that she wanted people “coming off my assembly line”, with two years of intensive experience in my program after completing their vocational courses.
The outcome should be the acquisition of expertise. But what is expertise?
- Expertise is competency-based, but it should not be developed in a narrow technical sense. Deeper abilities might emerge from “hanging out” with the mentor, shadowing and copying their mannerisms like a student following a Zen master.
Assessment of competence is a difficult issue.2 I have instituted a multi-facetted process for development of skills. Integration of concepts and practice is the key.
The issue of assessing competencies is problematic. I instituted a multi-faceted assessment process for mentees. One outcome was the development of a more formal process of learning and skills development designed to take the mentees to the next level.
- Expertise requires a practical component to assessment along with some personal contact with the mentor.
I would like to say that best practice is an outcome, but I hesitate to do so because our knowledge base is a river which never ceases to flow. Best practice is never attainable – it asymptotes.
A good mentoring program should:
- Provide for both a theory / concepts component and a practical hands-on training component.
- Provide opportunities for learning and skills development, while not being the same as a course.
- Provide the opportunity for mentees to “process” and apply learning.
- Recognise the personal input of the Mentor, who brings their unique approach and perspective to the Program.
- Provide a safe environment for participants to share and explore ideas, without fear of attack or recrimination.
- Offer a program based on an understanding of what is required to take individuals from where they are to where they want to be.
Pros: My mentoring program demonstrates the outstanding results achievable with personal input.
Cons: It is expensive, time-consuming and can only work with a small number of participants.
A way ahead?
Is it possible to design a program which retains the qualitative benefits of personal input while being scalable and cost-effective?
Online courses can be leveraged, wide-reaching and scalable, but cannot provide for the face-to-face personal contact with the mentor. Participants are harder to engage, and no amount of reading, watching videos or doing online multiple-choice quizzes will result in expertise.
Mentoring can be personalised, immersive and customised. The key challenge is how to get the benefits of both.
Live video sessions may go some of the way to meet this need. Annual or occasional meetings, perhaps taking the form of a “residential camp”, can be held. However feedback throughout the program will be limited by numbers, so is scalable only to a limited extent. Instead, individual feedback can be given to participants by a group of assistant mentors, possibly experienced graduates of the program,
Some feedback may be given with the appearance of being individual. For example, if there are 1000 participants and 300 of them make a common mistake which can be seen in their training homework video, assistants can go through all the videos, identify who makes “common error #1” and the principal Mentor can record a comment about this error, which can then be given to all 300 participants. This provides some of the features of personal feedback.
The biggest challenge in my opinion is to provide some structure and guidance for practical hands-on training. One solution could be for the Mentor to have training partners. These would be skilled professionals in various parts of the world who could provide a venue and opportunity for a face-to-face practical component, in accordance with the Mentor’s guidelines. The conceptual component could be done online, to reach many people.
Hybrid programs may be the way ahead. The priority should be personal input by the Mentor and active feedback about the hands-on components of the program, leading to more meaningful assessment of expertise at a deeper level. Scalability is desirable but should not occur at the expense of these features of the mentoring program. It may be worth considering more experienced organisations such as Rotary International, with elaborate structures for combining international and local groups and activities. Hybrid online and practical elements allow for scalability.
In conclusion, I have found it very rewarding to run a formal mentoring program.
The Meteorites have become a network of trainers who never stop learning. Some members have achieved their career goals, but have continued to be part of the group. This shows the value of having a supportive network in an industry which can be stressful and isolating.
Fulfilment for me lies in seeing people develop in their confidence, understanding and practical competence. A simple indicator of success is that I can with confidence delegate to mentees the job of consulting with clients, including those presenting with complex or challenging issues. I give them backup, but increasingly I notice they they are on the right track, and don’t need detailed input. I am also pleased that mentees working in other roles, such as rescue or shelter assessment, are assuming more responsibility and can safely work with difficult dogs. While I have the opportunity to pass on my style of working, I don’t aim to produce clones. The advantage of having a group rather than one-on-one mentoring relationships is that members engage with each other and can also give me a valuable learning experience about how my ideas can be adapted to work in diverse settings. Mentees report back to the group, so there is a constant interplay between concepts and applications, with all-important opportunities to tweak training techniques and improve outcomes for our animals.
- Peterson, S.M. & Snyder, D., (2023) The Paradoxical Nature of Leadership and Mentoring. Operants 2023(1).
- I would like to acknowledge the importance of personal communication with Ken Ramirez on this subject.
I have been the proprietor of a dog training business called Wagging School, located in Melbourne, Australia, since 1993. The emphasis of my training has been to help clients to develop their skills to deal with pet dog training. I regard practical pet dog training as the most challenging specialty. It covers the widest range of behaviors in unpredictable and distracting real-world environments. I have pioneered the use of “positive” methods, covering many strategies to modify behavior without resorting to aversives.