When you hire a dog trainer, you probably assume their goal is to evaluate your pooch and improve their behavior. Psych! Dog trainers actually spend most of their time assessing and shaping you, not your dog.
“Everything’s a clue,” says Victoria Stilwell, world-renowned dog trainer and star of the international television series It’s Me or the Dog. “If I’m going into a home where a dog has a particular kind of behavior issue, then as soon as I get out of the car, I’m beginning to look for environmental clues as to why the dog has a specific behavior issue.” That includes how your home is put together, who’s living there, who’s coming and going and “how much the dog looks at one person, if I’m working with one person, or how much the dog interacts with other family members. That gives me a lot of information about who the favorite person is, and also what that relationship is like.”
Upon realizing you’re the real subject of analysis, you may feel uncomfortable, but being studied is a necessary part of improving your relationship with your dog. “A lot of people, I think, start to become nervous when a trainer comes into their home, because nobody wants to be told that they’re doing something that exacerbates their dog’s negative behavior,” Stilwell says. “But that’s the trainer’s role; it’s not to judge, it’s to point them and guide them in the right direction, and teach them skills, like we teach dogs skills.”
This means, when you hire a dog trainer, you should anticipate that you’re going to have to make some changes and do a lot of the work. “If they don’t continue what the trainer has given them, then the dog’s never going to learn,” Stilwell explains. “They have to be prepared to go all in.”
It also means that dog trainers are both people persons and dog persons. “If you want to be a dog trainer and you don’t like people, then don’t become a dog trainer,” Stilwell tells me. “I teach my students at my academy, Victoria Stilwell Academy, that they aren’t the most important trainer in their client’s lives, the client is, because we’re not with the dog 24/7. It’s our job to motivate people as well, and give them the skills that they can [use to] train their own dogs, so that’s why dog training is a lot more than just teaching dogs different skills; it’s all about teaching people how to be their own dog’s teacher.”
So, uh, maybe wear your good shirt when the dog trainer comes by.