The dog trainer - also known as the interspecies relationship counsellor

I had to freshen up on the latest research for my work with the 2-legged kind of client this weekend, and found a very interesting piece of information that I wanted to share with you, as it really made me think.

I was researching about what makes a good couples therapist. Luckily, I have access to a lot of research, which lead me to the Gottman Institute for couples, who are world renowned in investigating effective methods for couple’s therapy.

Here is one scientific-based fact about what makes a good couples therapist that I would like to share:

The Gottman Institute’s research shows that most conflict in couples (about 69% in fact) is perpetual. That means it has no resolution, and is based on lasting differences in personalities and needs. Therefore, therapy needs to emphasise helping the couple manage conflict such as this, rather than just focussing on resolving them. Research suggests that a good couples counsellor is not just a superior problem-solver, they also have to offer a lot more than that.

You are possibly wondering (and fairly so), why I’m writing this blog post, as so far it hasn’t mentioned the word “dog” or “canine” or “dog trainer” once.  Well, you see, to me dog trainers are couples counsellors. Very special ones in fact, as two very different types of species are in a relationship and are trying to make it work. And, very often the relationship is in trouble, and they call on you the dog trainer to fix it.

Like many canine behavioural problems, a multi-facetted, consistent approach is usually recommended. However, people crave and push for quick, easy solutions. I’m sure clients have tried to pressure you to “fix an annoying dog problem with a quick fix”?

It seems as if many people don’t have a lot of patience these days and struggle to delay gratification. So what does this mean for the human-canine couple and for you as a dog trainer?  Especially if science tells you, that a good couples counsellor is more than a super problem solver?

Firstly, I really encourage you to stand your ground and not fall for the “let’s fix things with a magic wand” trap. You are a professional and you are trained in applying the right intervention for the presenting problem. So stand your ground. Kindly, but assertively push back and educate people if they push for an unrealistic quick fix.  They hired a professional, so give them your professional opinion. If you feel uncomfortable in this situation, always reach out to colleagues or refer them on.  You are also allowed to refuse to work with people. And, you would be surprised how many people change their attitude, if they can detect that you are not afraid to walk away.

Secondly, set the dog and human up to win and motivate them with positive experiences.  It is important to keep the human-dog couple motivated throughout the (sometimes lengthy) journey. In my opinion, a good behaviour modification program has the right balance of improving the skills of the human-dog couple, whilst also helping the couple focus on their strengths and integrate fun and positive experiences into their lives. Focussing only on the bad and ugly might seem to be the most efficient way, but it neglects how to motivate and keep people committed to working on their relationship with their dog.   In fact, if the dog trainer’s assessment of the problem reveals that there might be some genetic disposition for the dog’s challenging behaviour or chronic pain, it is even more important that you, the dog trainer, incorporate fun, relaxing, relationship bonding experiences into the human-couple’s life. Because they might have to work on things for the rest of their life, due to differences that need to be managed and simply can’t be overcome.  Thankfully, a great trainer will always improve the situation, but it might never be ideal or might take a fair amount of time to get there.

By incorporating positive experiences, I mean whatever the couple enjoys without it negatively affecting the behaviour modification program. For instance, cuddling together on the couch, having a great game of tug-of-war, going on bushwalks, etc. and working on quality bonding time. In fact, in happy lasting relationships in the human world, happy couples have a 5-to-1 ratio of positive-to-negative affect and interaction pattern. So they have a lot more positive interactions, rather than negative ones. I’m aware that we can’t translate this ratio to the human-canine couple, nevertheless, it shows how important positive interactions are for humans, as otherwise they might not want to commit to a long-lasting relationship that has to overcome challenges. Just to clarify, this doesn’t mean that I’m promoting positive-only training tools. I do believe that a balanced approach is very necessary for a healthy relationship, as long as the dog thinks it is fair and is given enough education and options of control over the situation.  We always want to set the dog up for success. Always.  And hopefully the human-canine couple develops into a great team.

Thirdly, highlight and show people when they have a great bond and a positive experience with their dog. For instance, if the dog owner practices social walking and the dog checks in with the owner, let the dog owner know how special that is.  Praise them for a great team effort. Even if you have explained the theory at the beginning of the exercise, and you have praised them in the past, keep doing it if they are doing a good job. It never hurts to repeat it, and it builds confidence in the dog owner. It also educates people, how a happy human-dog team functions and looks like, as some people have no idea what a healthy relationship with their 4-legged friend could look like.

For many great dog trainers these processes come naturally, and I do believe that this is helping them achieve the best outcome possible. So keep in mind, that a great couples counsellor isn’t just a super problem solver, they also stand their ground and take the time it needs to deliver good results, also exploring and building on the strengths of the couple and motivating the couple with praise through their journey!

If you have any questions, please comment below or message me.

Have a great day,

Birdy & Luna