Magical Science, Scientific Magic: What People Think I Do VS. What I Really Do


There’s a lot of misunderstanding about what dog trainers and behavior consultants really do. The profession has evolved a lot from the days where the dog trainer took the leash from the owner, taught the dog some obedience cues, ran them through their paces, and handed the leash back. These days, we know a lot more about the science behind how animals learn, and while obedience cues are all fine and good, they are just a small part of the whole dog behavior and training profession. Especially when it comes to modification of behavior issues, the wealth of techniques we draw on is far more vast than just commanding a sit or asking for a stay (or yelling “NO!” which is not a behavior, it is an interrupter). With the lack of quality information out there, it can be hard for folks to have realistic expectations. Owners are often surprised when they start working with a reputable trainer to find out what training sessions really entail.

You may have seen those memes on the internet that show an activity or profession and say, “What people think I do.” There will be a sometimes glorified, sometimes archaic, and sometimes downright inaccurate depiction of the career or activity. Then there will a follow up pic that says, “What I really do.” This will usually be more realistic and less dramatic overall.

Training as portrayed in the media often looks, well, flashy. There are memes, tv shows, Tik Toks…..all showing dogs doing impressive tricks and high level behaviors with lightning fast response times. There is generally tons of training behind these kinds of behaviors that is not shown – dog agility champs, for instance, don’t usually get there in a matter of months. On the flip side, there is also plenty of material out there showing lunging, snarling dogs in situations that are scary for them or in situations they’re not ready for – and somehow, magically, they are often subdued enough by the trainer to look “calm” to the innocent bystander.  You often also see dogs looking shut down with low body language, walking in a circle with their owners around other dogs, or forced into down/stays near each other.

Honestly, I’m not sure how people navigate the dog information on the internet without pulling their hair out. From what your training session should look like, to what your dog should be able to do, to what behaviors are not o.k.  – there’s a lot of bullshit out there and a lot of it contradicts itself. 

Here’s some things that may happen in behavior modification sessions with Rockstar Dog Training: 

We may just sit, walk, or be near something. This is desensitization.

Here’s a definition for you: Desensitization happens when a dog is exposed to a stimulus at a low enough level that they are not eliciting a fearful response. This means that if your dog is afraid of people and they are 50 feet from a person but not showing stress signals, you may be desensitizing them to this person. So, sometimes people might not even know we’re training if we are working on desensitization. It might look like we’re just hanging out. 

I may ask “Is this helpful?”

 I am looking for feedback from the learner, in this case, the human. I want to know what feels helpful to my clients. I also want to help people reflect on what we’ve done in the session and how they can take that forward into everyday life with their dogs. The majority of training happens when I’m not present. I need to know if my clients are feeling empowered to implement the strategies we cover.

You may feel like you aren’t doing much. That means you’re doing it right. 

The best training sessions would make the worst tv shows. A calm session where not much happens is good training. You’re actually doing a lot. But you’re not constantly cueing, rewarding, or heeling with your dog by your side, and your dog is not constantly being exposed to trigger after trigger (yikes-that sounds too hard for anybody!).

We won’t always be teaching new skills. 

Sometimes we just need new scenarios in which to practice. When I was a baby trainer, I was worried that if I didn’t introduce new skills each session, my clients might get bored. Whoops! I have since learned that my client dogs don’t necessarily need 50 behaviors trained in order to meet my clients’ training goals. Also, introducing new skills each session doesn’t lead to mastery for the dogs or the humans. Introducing new scenarios, however, can help with proofing and generalization. A few more definitions for you: Generalizing is when we help the dog learn to have consistent behaviors in a variety of scenarios. We use proofing to do this, teaching the dog to do behaviors in response to certain cues, and to abstain from the behavior in response to other cues. 

We may leave.

If your dog is overwhelmed, or for that matter, if someone else in the environment is overwhelmed by your dog (think about an 80 pound reactive dog who is just starting training and is barking at someone else’s brand new puppy – not o.k.) then we may leave the area or reformat the session. We can plan all we want, but while we’re planning, life is happening. We can’t control all factors in the environment (you already know that if you have a reactive dog!) and remaining in a situation that isn’t successful is training your dog to be unsuccessful. 

I’m not going to pass out if your dog jumps on me.

I don’t want your dog to jump on me. But I am trained to see the motivation behind behavior, because behaviors do not occur without a reason. If your dog does an unwanted behavior, we’ll look first at why. Did you know that some dogs repeatedly jump on people because they’re stressed? That’s pretty different from what we’re told in the media: Dogs who jump are “naughty”, “untrained” (that may be the case), or (sigh) “dominant.” I will probably not respond if your dog jumps on me, barks at me, or mouths me. I’ll help you first look at why the behavior is occurring, and then we’ll make a plan to target the behavior.

I will remind you: Training is Happening Anyway.

When you are walking your dog down the street, training is happening. Reinforcement and punishment take place daily no matter what we humans do. Clicking, treating, redirecting, and cueing behaviors are a part of the equation. But when none of this is happening, learning is still happening. Your dog is still taking in information from the environment. That specific image in your brain of what training looks like does not need to occur for your dog to be learning. 

So my training meme would look something like this: 

What people think I do: Ride in on a white stallion, grab their dog by the leash, command it to sit, wave a magic wand, and make everything better. I’m in a fantastic outfit, by the way.

What I really do: Sit calmly in the park with you, help you note body language signals indicating your dog is calm or stressed, know and guide you through the science behind each step, and empower you towards a better life with your dog. I’m just wearing jeans.

It’s not magic, it’s science! 

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