Why “Board & Train” might be right for you and your dog July 2017
Isn’t it ironic that the majority of my job as a dog trainer is spent training humans? We all know that in an ideal world a dog owner learns how to train their dog themselves. However we don’t live in an ideal world. People with high pressure careers get dogs, people who don’t have time for dogs get dogs, people adopt dogs who have deep rooted issues that overwhelm them, and in some cases people underestimate how much work a dog can actually be. So, is it a bad thing to hire help with the training? Is it ok to send your dog to a “training boot camp”?
The answer is not always cut and dry but I lean heavily toward yes; provided you know where you are sending your dog. There are a lot of Board and Train programs in which dogs are mistreated or trained using harsh and inhumane methods (shock, choke, prong, yelling, etc.). Dogs in those types of Board and Trains usually come home shut down and lifeless. They may appear “calm” and well behaved because they have learned to be helpless. These types of Board and Trains are the ones we typically hear horror stories about. So how do you know how to find a good Board and Train where the trainer uses humane (reward based, force free) training methods?
First know what to look for in a dog trainer:
Ask questions about the exact training methods the trainer employs by asking them to answer these three questions (my answers in brackets);
What exactly will happen to my dog when he/she gets it right? (Food rewards, sometimes toy rewards or opportunities to access spaces/people)
What exactly will happen to him/her when he/she gets it wrong? (Ignored, no rewards given, removal of rewards such as the end of play or the temporary loss of freedom in a time out)
Are there any less invasive alternatives to what you propose? (Not to my knowledge)
Ask questions about the logistics of the boarding program (my answers in brackets):
Where will my dog stay during the day and sleep at night? Will my dog be kennelled or living in home? Where do they stay when they are left unsupervised? If kennelled how much time do they get to spend outside of the kennel? Can I see the space in person? (Reputable trainers will open their doors to show you the space the dog will be living. With me your dog will live in my home as one of my dogs, they can sleep in a dog bed in my bedroom at night or if they need to be in a crate, in the living room just outside of my bedroom. Clients are always welcome to come inside my home and see the space.)
How many dogs will be there at a time? (I only take one dog at a time for boarding; two if the dates overlap by a couple days and the dogs will get along. Many good trainers can accommodate more dogs safely.)
How many training sessions a day will my dog get? (I do at least two per day at meal times.)
Can I visit my dog throughout the training period? (Absolutely, anytime.)
Does the trainer provide me with updates/photos/progress reports through phone/email? (I update owners every few days via email and post photos on social media every day. If an owner wants more communication I am happy to offer that)
Does the trainer do a session with me beforehand to determine my goals and define what they will be working on? Do they do another session after the training is completed to transfer the skills to the owner? (Yes I put a HUGE emphasis on these two sessions.)
Does the trainer offer guarantees and/or promises to fix the problems? (Never. Any professional trainer knows that behaviour change depends on the dog and the circumstances. I cannot know how long it will take to train a certain dog. I can offer rough estimates only and I still make my clients sign a waiver stating that they are aware I offer no guarantee of results).
But shouldn’t owners train their own dogs? Why get a dog if you don’t have the time for it?
Imagine this scenario for a moment: Your toilet breaks. You have no idea how to fix it, and so you call a plumber. You pay him to come over but instead of fixing the problem for you, he begins to teach you how to fix it yourself. The plumber leaves you with some reading, a list of tools to buy and says he will be back in a week to help you with the next steps. In the meantime not only is your toilet still broken, you have to continue to live with the problem until the plumber can teach you everything you need to know to fully fix it.
Does that sound good to you? Do you want to become a “mini plumber”? While this may appeal to some, it won’t appeal to everyone. Most people need the problem fixed efficiently and properly. Similarly, not every dog owner wants to become a “mini dog trainer." Some of them just need a problem fixed so they can enjoy their dog's companionship. Obviously a dog is more complex than any inanimate object, so seeking professional aid shouldn't feel inappropriate.
But shouldn’t owners do the training to develop a better relationship with their dog?
Here is another scenario for you: Children go to school to learn from teachers. Does this damage their relationship with their parents? Would children have better relationships with their parents if they were home schooled (some may, but some may not depending on how good the parents are at teaching)? Would you prefer that teachers come over to your house once a week and teach you how to teach your child for that week? Will you be able to do as good of a job as the trained professional?
Professional dog trainers are able to install and proof obedience behaviours as well as condition emotional responses much more efficiently than the average owner. What a pro can accomplish with your dog in 2 weeks is often exponentially more than the average dog owner and it shouldn’t take away anything from the dog’s relationship with their owner.
But what if the training won’t transfer from the trainer to the owners? Once the dog gets home could he/she fall into old habits?
Of course dogs struggle to generalize, and of course some owners will drop the ball; but a good trainer will put a large emphasis on the “transfer training session” in which the owner is shown what the dog learned and how to maintain that behaviour. I not only demo and coach my clients through the transfer, I also write concise and clear instructions for them and offer unlimited follow up support over phone/email to ensure they are set up to succeed. I also explain that certain problem types are less ideal for Board and Train than others. Anything that requires a large management component in the owner's home (house training, chew training, digging, etc) will not transfer easily and will require more leg work afterwards from the owner. Certain problem types do not work at all in Board and Train (Separation Anxiety and many types of aggression for example). Basic obedience on the other hand typically transfers beautifully provided the owners follow my instructions, primarily that they pay up like a trainer! To learn more check out my other blog “the dog trainer's secret!”.
In summary I don’t believe it is harmful to have a (force free) professional dog trainer do a large chunk of your dog's training for you. If you are one of those people who have more money than you have time, one of those people who are at their wits end with your dog, or someone who simply feels they would benefit from Board and Train, I believe you are doing your dog a service by hiring a qualified professional to help. You are ensuring your dog gets the best quality of life despite your own limitations, and there is no shame in that. We all deserve dog companionship.
One of my favourite clients, Lyla the border collie puppy, passed out on my couch after a long day of learning!
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