I know you want the absolute best for your dog. From finding a great vet to the perfect behaviourist to investing in pet products from companies whose business practices resonate with you, where you spend your money matters. You want the best for your budget and also to do business with someone whose values align with your own.
Values matter. Not in a my ethics are better than yours kind of way. At least not only that. It’s OK to be discerning about who you spend your hard earned cash with. In fact you should be. Especially when you are a) going to spend a significant amount, and good behaviour help doesn’t come cheap and nor should it. And b) you are going to be spending a significant amount of time with this person. Wouldn’t it be nice if you kind of got on? Or at least had the same kind of priorities and intentions as far as what the training should look and feel like.
Will they be your next bestie? No, probably not. But wouldn’t it be great if you could gel a little, maybe *gasp* have some fun while you’re working together? Or maybe you would prefer a more formal relationship, that’s cool too. But how are you going to know what they’re like and what they think is important without asking a few questions?
So if you’ve recently found someone you think would be the perfect dog behaviourist, here’s a list of questions to ask before hiring them. Of course, you can always ask ME these questions as well!
What To Ask When You Find a Dog Behaviourist You Like
1. What is their philosophy and approach to training?
Does it align with how you want to live with your dog? Do they talk about building behaviours and a behavioural repertoire? Setting your dog up for success? Or do they talk about a balance of rewards and corrections or punishments so your dog knows when they’ve got things wrong?
I fall on the side of setting up for success, building behaviours and repertoires with never intentionally using aversives or applying corrections. If you feel strongly that dogs need to know when they are wrong, we aren’t going to work well together.
2. What techniques do they think work best?
This is a follow up to the previous question. If they’ve said they use positive reinforcement – what exactly do they mean by that? Will they use clicker training? Reward with food or toys? And if they’ve said they use corrections – how will they apply those corrections? Will you be expected to use a check chain? Prong collar? Shock collar?
I don’t hide the fact that I believe aversive-based training is detrimental to the welfare of dogs and other animals (humans included). Positive reinforcement, clicker training, using food, toys, enrichment will be the basis of any plan I devise. I will not use equipment like check chains, prong or shock collars. I will not intentionally set the dogs up to get it wrong so we can apply a correction. And if they do get it wrong, nothing will happen. Other than going back to the plan to figure out what needs changing.
3. What are the biggest mistakes they see pet parents make?
There’s no right answer here, but there’s probably plenty of wrong ones! Do they talk about things like expecting too much too soon? Inconsistency? Or not being alpha/strong/a leader?
Does the way they speak about it make you feel like you’re going to be in trouble all the time? Or do they speak to how they will help you overcome or avoid these pitfalls?
My answer is it depends, but it’s never not being an alpha or strong enough leader. My job is to help you and your dog be successful. So if you’re making mistakes it’s on me to either teach you the skills you need, break things down adequately, or to change the plan.
4. Have they ever dealt with a pet with your special circumstance?
Whether that’s your dog’s age, physical abilities, medical needs or the problem itself. Do they have experience with the behaviour problem you are having, maybe they specialise in it? If your dog has special dietary needs and they use food based techniques have they had to tackle that before?
Even if they’ve never dealt with your particular set of circumstances, a good behaviourist will be able to pull on their past experience and learning to figure out the right thing for you and your dog. That might mean they have more questions than answers to begin with – but that’s good! That means they’ve got some ideas swirling around and they want to narrow down options.
5. Ask them to tell you about a challenging case they worked with and how they accomplished their training goals.
They won’t be able to give you identifying information but they should be able to tell you how they worked with the family and their dog. In broad terms the techniques and/or methods they used and what the outcome was.
They may be able to provide testimonials or even references from previous clients.
6. How will they help you with your main concern?
They won’t be able to give you specific instructions until they’ve started working with you and understand all the context surrounding the problem behaviour. But they should be able to give examples, or general information on how they will help you.
For example, for a dog that barks and lunges at other dogs on lead, my general approach is:
- Management to avoid the problem behaviour in the first place.
- Get everyone’s needs met (your’s and your dog’s).
- Teach you dog body language so you can understand your dog better and recognise problems earlier.
- Teach specific skills to you both so there are several choices in what to use depending on the situation and how your dog is feeling about it.
- Use those skills in such a way that your dog begins to feel better about the other dogs when they see them out and about and have the skills to make better choices about how to get the outcome they want. Eg. moving away themselves rather than barking and lunging to make the other dog move away.
7. What’s their policy about between-lesson help?
You *will* need support to implement your dog behaviourist’s advice. Even the best written plan will need adjusting, and there will be times when you will need reassurance and guidance to stay on track. How will they provide that support to you? Is it baked into their service or is it an added extra? Or will they leave you with the report, tell you to email if you have trouble and leave it at that?
I feel really strongly about this. Robust support systems are essential for successful outcomes in my experience. And I also feel that it shouldn’t be up to the client to have to reach out for the help they need, the support should be built in and reminders are part of that. That’s why full packages where follow on sessions and different support routes are built in to prevent overwhelm and and protect progress are what I offer and recommend.
8. Is there any guarantee as part of the work?
Anyone guaranteeing that they can “fix” your dog in X number of weeks is a big red flag. Not only does your dog not need fixing, but outcomes cannot be guaranteed especially not within a set timeline. There are too many variables with things like behaviour to be able to guarantee a result.
What your dog behaviourist should be able to guarantee is how they will work with you and your dog. How they will treat you and your dog, the methods they will use, and the support they will give you.
I guarantee a safe judgement free zone, commitment to excellence and efficiency with empathy, to bring you relief and lasting change, and dedication to kind, fair, science-based methods for both you and your dog.
In my experience, pet professionals LOVE talking about their job and LOVE making sure they are a good fit for the dog and family. My advice: If it doesn’t feel right, it probably isn’t. If they avoid answering your questions, keep looking. If they answer all the questions and on paper you align but you’ve still got a niggle, you can keep looking. The relationship between client and behaviourist is important. It’s not a one-off (or at least it shouldn’t be) so it needs to feel right. You are going to have to open up your life to your behaviourist so they can help you, you need to feel safe and comfortable to be able to do that. So make sure you get the right person for you.
If you have any questions and want to know how I can help with your dog behaviour problem, I’d love to talk. Book a free call and you can ask away.