Simple, but precise

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Animal training professions are unregulated, which means that anyone can hang a shingle and call themselves a dog trainer. As a result, there is a wide variety of advice about animal training on the internet and in real life, and in many cases, unfortunately, dog trainers put more emphasis on marketing themselves than in learning about ethical, compassionate, science-based behavior change techniques.

One of the outcomes of this phenomenon is that there are a lot of highly effective marketing campaigns that sell people on how quick and easy their “system” is. If you have a dog with behavior issues that range from being a nuisance to being downright dangerous, who wouldn’t want a solution that is quick and easy and requires almost no effort on your part? Of course that sounds appealing. It’s a perfectly natural thing to want that.

The problem is that those quick fix techniques are the modern day equivalent of snake oil. They work by shutting down behaviors. It is, in fact, quick and easy to shut down a behavior in many cases. But shutting down behavior is problematic for many reasons. Although we don’t have the time in this article to go into those reasons in-depth, a quick summary boils down to this: shutting down behavior is like masking a symptom of disease rather than diagnosing and treating the disease itself. It’s like giving cough syrup to someone with lung cancer to make the cough go away instead of diagnosing and treating the cancer itself.

If we truly care about the animals in our care, we care about their physical, behavioral, and emotional health. Which means that we want to address the root cause of behavior issues, identify and meet their needs, and teach them life skills to help them navigate the world more safely and successfully. And because behavior is a complex interplay of multiple complex systems, that isn’t always a quick and easy process (although sometimes it can be!).

We can’t wish away the complexity of behavior, nor should we try.

That said, a good trainer or behavior consultant should do two things for their clients:

  1. Take the simplest approach possible.
  2. And when a simple approach isn’t possible, they should break the complexities down into a series of simple steps.

We often have clients tell us, “I can’t believe how simple this is!” And yes! In many cases we can break things down into small enough steps that each step feels very simple and doable for our clients.

But here’s the other catch: these steps are simple, yes, but they are also by necessity precise. In many cases people may try to implement a simple strategy, but it doesn’t work for them because of one tiny detail that makes a world of difference. I tell my clients all the time, “The devil’s in the details.” And it’s those little details that can trip us up.

Sometimes a client will tell us, “I followed the training plan 100%, but it’s not working.” We can hear the defensiveness in their voices. We can see that they think we think they’re lying and they haven’t really done the work. Or they’re thinking, “Have I been lied to? Does this method even work, really?” In reality, we believe them! It’s easy to follow a training plan almost entirely but miss a small detail that makes a big difference. And that’s just the reality of working with complex sentient beings!

So instead of trying to find someone who will give you the simplest, quickest solution possible, find someone who will help you fully navigate every aspect of your pet’s physical, behavioral, and emotional health in ways that feel simple and doable to you.


Now what?

  • If you find that the training plan you’ve been given is too overwhelming, let your consultant know. Don’t be afraid to ask them to break it down into smaller, simpler steps for you.
  • If what you’re trying isn’t working, work with your consultant to make sure there aren’t any details that may have fallen through the cracks.
  • If you are a current or aspiring behavior professional who wants to learn how to break complex behavioral journeys into simple, sustainable steps for your clients, we’ve developed the Pet Harmony Mentorship Program to empower our students to become competent, confident, compassionate behavior consultants. We welcome you to join us!