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A Dog Trainer’s Guide to Best Practices

The right skills at the right time

It's a great time to be a dog trainer! More and more pet owners are seeking training for their dogs. Shelters and rescue organizations are recognizing the value of training in keeping pets in their forever homes. And veterinary professionals are witnessing firsthand the benefits of training—faster and easier examinations and less stress for canine patients. What this means to me as a trainer is that I have more opportunities than ever to collaborate with others who share my goals of improving pet owner-dog relationships and strengthening the human-animal bond.

The many roles of dog trainers

Building relationships with clients
and their pets is a joy for me.

(photo credit: Laura Monaco Torelli)

Professional dog trainers may wear many hats. Some of us have the joy of seeing a wide variety of clients and dogs in a typical day. We may start the day with a pre-adoption consultation, help the excited, and exhausted, owners of an 8-week-old puppy at midday, and end the day working with a client to implement a training plan for a dog under the treatment of a veterinary behaviorist for a behavior disorder.

Some trainers like to wear just one hat—teaching families and puppies the skills they need to begin a journey of lifelong learning, or finding the perfect home "fit" for dogs in shelters. Other trainers really enjoy working with behavior cases, situations where a client's dog has a behavior issue or a disorder that requires diagnosis and treatment from a veterinarian or veterinary behaviorist.

I am a multiple-hat trainer. I really love the opportunity to work with a range of clients and animals in any given day.

Contacts and connections

Clients find trainers in many ways. Some clients find trainers on their own, via an internet search or picking up a business card at the local pet boutique. Sometimes friends or family members make recommendations. A referral could also come from a veterinarian, another trainer, or the rescue organization from which the dog was adopted. Keep in mind that the referral cycle sometimes goes the other way—I recommend that clients seek guidance from a veterinarian or a veterinary behaviorist.

Dog trainers provide a type of behavior assessment triage with clients and their dogs. Many times the undesirable behaviors clients report with their dogs are simply due to lack of training. But sometimes trainers suspect that something more may be going on.

In those situations, the client should be referred to a veterinarian or a veterinary behaviorist for a medical and/or behavioral diagnosis. The qualified medical professional can determine if a treatment plan is needed. When a veterinarian or a veterinary behaviorist becomes involved, my goal is to continue working with the client and dog to implement any training plans that may be prescribed.

When a potential new client contacts me, I always ask how they heard about me. I may ask the client directly, but I also include this question on the information form that all new clients complete. This information is important to me for several reasons. I like to know the source of a referral so that I can thank the person who referred the client. Because I work closely with veterinary professionals and other referral sources, I also like to determine referral sources so that I can determine any obligations or responsibilities I have for communicating about training plans and progress relative to the client who was referred to me.

Best practices

As a professional dog trainer, I have a plan for interacting with clients and referral sources. I think of my plan as my "best practices," and believe in applying best practices toward all of my clients, regardless of the case or the referral source. My best practices help me to focus on my responsibilities and goals with each client and/or referral source.

My goals are to ensure that my clients are supported and that all parties involved in a case are consulted and kept in the loop.My goals are to ensure that my clients are supported and that all parties involved in a case are consulted and kept in the loop. This is especially important when I'm working with clients on behavior cases. Even if you are a trainer who does wear the "behavior-case hat," the reality is that every professional dog trainer comes across behavior cases at some point. In addition to your own best practices, consider whether you have further ethical obligations and responsibilities when working with clients and referral sources.

I would like to share my own best practices. With each new client, I use this protocol, almost like a checklist, to help determine my role and responsibilities in the given situation.

  • Behave professionally. This guideline refers to "common sense" decisions and behaviors—arrive on time, be prepared, dress appropriately, and so on.
  • Treat clients respectfully. I treat my clients as I like to be treated by the professionals I work with. For example, I always maintain client information confidentiality. I do not joke about or criticize my clients to colleagues or others privately or publicly (on social media, for instance).
  • Keep the dialogue safe and open with clients. Earning a client's trust is a privilege. When a client contacts me with questions, I see that as an indication that the client is committed to the management and training steps I have outlined. When clients have questions, my goal is to validate them for asking and allow them to speak freely and openly. I strive to answer all questions that fall within the boundaries of my role as a trainer—questions that are training or management-related. For questions that fall outside my role, I refer clients to the appropriate professional.
  • Refer questions to the veterinarian. Clients do sometimes ask questions that fall outside the scope of my practice. Some examples include questions related to medication side effects or dosage or questions about medical conditions. Whether or not the pet has already been diagnosed by a veterinarian, these types of questions must be referred to a veterinarian. I can validate a client for asking the questions, while at the same time recommending how to get the questions answered, even facilitating the communication process between the client and the veterinary professional.
  • Keep the dialogue safe and open with related professionals. The people and practices that refer to me are precious resources. I strive to keep lines of communication open with them so that we can all collaborate and help clients and their pets succeed. Simply touching base with a client between appointments can make the difference in success or failure.
  • Follow up with clients. Find out how clients are progressing with their training plans and goals. This is especially important working with clients on behavior cases. Simply touching base with a client between appointments can make the difference in success or failure. Perhaps the client is struggling with part of the training plan, or has found that the time commitment more than he or she can handle. This information gives me an opportunity to make adjustments to the training plan and help the client move forward.
  • Establish and follow a protocol for interactions with clients and referral sources. My best practices are only useful if I practice them! It is also essential to teach the protocol and consistent communication procedures to every trainer or staff member who may interface with clients and referral sources. We convey our professionalism and commitment with our unity.
  • Keep records. Maintain accurate and detailed records of all interactions with clients and referral sources. My reasons for documenting my lessons and correspondence with clients are multi-fold. A system keeps details clear for me, and it lets me share important information with the referral source and/or the client's veterinarian. A strong record-keeping system also provides a permanent account of communications, actions, and events if a dog bite or other situation ever brings into question my liability in work with a client.

Sample scenarios

There are several common scenarios that trainers encounter with clients and referral sources. You may not find yourself in all of these situations, but I include them to share a brief summary of how I utilize my best practices to maintain my professionalism as well as my respect for my clients and other professionals while we work toward our common goal of helping clients and their dogs.

Scenario 1: Housetraining

Clients I'm working with report that their one-year-old female dog, housetrained for months, is suddenly urinating in the house. I suspect an underlying medical issue.

My role is as the trainer; the veterinarian's role is to examine and diagnose.What are my responsibilities in this situation? My first goal is to convey the importance of getting the dog to the vet promptly. But I must also communicate to my client in a way that the client is prepared to ask the veterinarian for a diagnosis and will not construe from my reply what the medical condition could be. My role is as the trainer; the veterinarian's role is to examine and diagnose.

This is one of the most straightforward scenarios I encounter in my work. Most often, my client is willing to schedule a vet visit promptly. In many instances the client's veterinarian is the person who referred the pet owner to me for training services! In that case, my protocol is simple. I share with the client that due to the sudden onset and frequency of the dog's urination in the house, I recommend a veterinary examination as a first step. I also make a quick call to the vet's office to alert them that I have recommended that the client schedule an appointment.

After the client has seen the vet, I follow up with the client and, depending on the results of the exam, create a training plan as needed. Since I have an existing relationship with this veterinarian in this case, I also make sure to follow up with the vet to keep him or her aware of our progress.

This simple protocol serves several beneficial purposes. It sets the tone for the client to continue to look to the veterinarian as a trusted resource for the dog's overall health and wellness. I believe that this plan of action also assures the veterinarian that I am a professional to whom he or she can refer valued clients with confidence. I understand the boundaries of my role and the necessity of veterinary intervention.

Scenario 2: Family dog and child safety

I receive an inquiry from a potential client who found my name on Facebook. The woman reports that her family adopted a dog from a local shelter several months ago and that they believe the dog is approximately three years old. Recently, the dog has begun to growl at her five-year-old son.

Before we schedule an appointment, the potential client asks me if I can guarantee that the dog is not going to bite her son. I validate the question, explaining that I understand her concern and her desire to ensure that the dog will not bite. But, I politely explain that I cannot make that guarantee. Ultimately, we end the call without scheduling to meet.

In this scenario, even though I am never hired or paid by this client, I still take time to think about my responsibilities. What do I need to think about regarding my own liability? First, I need to document the conversation for my own records. Since I was never hired, do I need to be concerned with liability? Probably not, provided I have proper documentation. If I ever hear that this dog bit the child, I will be able to produce records of what transpired between the pet owner and me.

My records will also come in handy if I have any future communication with this client. I can't remember every conversation with every potential client, so documentation is a good practice in general. In this instance, if the potential client had been referred by her veterinarian or the rescue from which the dog was adopted, I would have taken the additional step to follow up with the referring party. Documentation gives me peace of mind.

Scenario 3: Client inquires about medication side effects

Everyone works together toward a positive vet visit.

(photo credit: Laura Monaco Torelli)

In my practice I am fortunate to have the opportunity to collaborate on behavior cases with veterinarians and veterinary behaviorists. The veterinarian's role is to diagnose and prescribe medications as needed. My role is to work with the client under the direction of the veterinarian. Here is an example of that interaction in one scenario.

I am working with a client to help implement the behavior modification plan the veterinary behaviorist designed for her two-year-old dog. During our appointment, the client asks me if I think her dog will have adverse side effects from the anxiety medication.

What is my responsibility? I have received detailed instructions from the veterinary behaviorist and I understand why the medication was prescribed. I have worked with other clients whose dogs are on the same medication. Does this knowledge change my role? No!

As always, I make sure to validate the client's question so that she feels she can always come to me for help. Next, I explain that the veterinarian who prescribed the medication is the qualified and licensed professional and can answer that question. I can even help facilitate my client getting her question answered by offering to ask the veterinarian. When I offer to be a liaison, I show support for my client. By following my best-practices protocols I also provide the prescribing veterinarian assurance that I am not crossing an ethical line.  

Resources

There are many wonderful resources available for pet trainers, veterinary professionals, and others in the animal care field.

The American College of Veterinary Behaviorists (ACVB)

The American College of Veterinary Behaviorists is a professional organization of veterinarians who are board-certified in the specialty of Veterinary Behavior. Note that if there are no ACVB members near you, many offer phone consultations with referring veterinarians.

American Veterinary Society of Animal Behavior (AVSAB)

AVSAB promotes and supports veterinarians who treat the behavioral problems of their animal patients.

Certified Applied Animal Behaviorists (CAAB)

CAABs often work in partnership with referring veterinarians and veterinary behaviorists.

Scenario 4: A dog with a bite history

A potential client finds me through an internet search and asks for my help with her adult dog that has recently bitten a family member. Based on the information obtained from both the client questionnaire and our initial meeting, I feel that the dog may have a behavior disorder. I would like to recommend that the client seek the expertise of a veterinarian who can determine whether there is a behavior disorder, make a diagnosis, and create a treatment plan.

Can I sometimes predict what the veterinarian will diagnose or prescribe? Yes. But as an ethical dog trainer, I know that it is outside of my role to make any predictions to my client. My awareness of these predictions is simply my cue to recommend that my client contact the veterinarian.

In this particular scenario, the client found me through her own internet search and I am not acquainted with her primary veterinarian. But I do have a relationship with a nearby veterinary behaviorist. Should I refer the client straight to the behaviorist? No! That would be bypassing an important person—the primary veterinarian. My first step is to refer the client back to her regular veterinarian. I can provide a summary of my assessment, which my client can share with her veterinarian. I reach out to the veterinarian as well, introducing myself and offering to share my observations. It's important to note that my assessment will not include any information that my client or her veterinarian could construe as a diagnosis. Instead, I will share only information about what I have observed and hope will be useful to the veterinarian as he or she begins an assessment of the situation. Some veterinarians choose to work with their clients to diagnose behavior disorders, while others prefer to refer to a veterinary behaviorist. By involving the primary veterinarian, my hope is that I have helped the veterinarian make a decision about next steps and perhaps a decision about initiating a referral to a veterinary behaviorist.

My goal is to help my client get the help that she and her dog need. The best approach is one that keeps all parties involved. If my assessment is useful and helpful for the veterinarian, that is great! If not, I respect that it is still the vet's role, not mine, to diagnose and treat any potential conditions.

Most training professionals work very hard to build trust with local veterinarians. Following best-practices protocols helps to build and strengthen those relationships through mutual respect and collaboration.

Moving forward

I hope the scenarios I've shared give you ideas on how to proceed when you find yourself in similar situations. Having a plan in place allows you to draw from previous experience and employ your best practices to whatever situation you may encounter.

For me, best practices relate not only to trainer ethics, but also to my own integrity. When I feel like I am doing what is best for my client, at the same time respecting the roles of the parties involved in various cases, I feel proud of my role as a professional dog trainer.

Keep up your best practices!

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About the author
User picture

Laura Monaco Torelli, Karen Pryor Academy Certified Training Partner (KPA CTP) and a member of the KPA and ClickerExpo faculties, is the Director of Training for Animal Behavior Training Concepts in Chicago. She works in collaboration with veterinary behaviorist Dr. John Ciribassi at Animal Behavior Partners, and is staff with Chicagoland Veterinary Behavior Consultants. Since 1991, Laura has worked with and trained beluga whales, dolphins, sea otters, seals, river otters, and penguins (at the John G. Shedd Aquarium in Chicago), primates, large cats, birds of prey, reticulated giraffes, Arctic foxes, horses, parrots, macaws, tree kangaroos, and red pandas (at the San Diego Zoo and Brookfield Zoo), and, of course, dogs (just about everywhere). Laura has spoken at many professional conferences and has appeared on various broadcast media.

Julie Shaw's picture

Fantastic

What a well written and fantastic article. The behavior team should include the veterinarian, veterinary technician and a qualified trainer, afterall, we all have the same ultimate goal of promoting and protecting the human-animal bond.   What a wonderful time to be a veterinary professional, animal trainer and pet owner!

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