When someone calls a dog trainer about dog training, they are often frustrated and upset. When they got their dog, they had an idea of what owing a dog would be like. When they got their dog, they had a dream. By the time they pick up the phone, that dream is in danger. Many may fear that their dream is dead.
Dog trainers are often told that they are the dog’s “last hope.”
This article isn’t about why that’s the case. Many great trainers have already written about that subject. What I want to talk about is what we should do with that.
How do we handle the “last hope” client?
Let’s start with the obvious fact: We want to help them, or perhaps more accurately, we want to help their dog. So everything we do should be done with that goal in mind. We want to help. We want to save this relationship.
So how do we do that? What approach gives us our best hope of success?
The first thing we have to do is get them out of desperation. Before we teach them a thing about their dog. Before we offer any solution we have to change their desperation into inspiration. This matters, and it matters a great deal.
The truth is, when the client calls you desperate, the time and expense of training is an unexpected and unwelcome interference in their plans. They didn’t budget for training this month. They didn’t plan their schedule around daily training sessions. There is a good chance they are going to have to skip an event, or forgo some planned purchase in order to fit the training into their budget. Unexpected expenses never make us feel good. We accept them as necessary, but we’d always rather we didn’t have them. So when the owner is seeing training primarily as a necessity rather than an choice, they are likely to feel a little bad about both the money and the time. Maybe not a lot, but some. If it’s what they have to do, it’s going to be a lot less pleasant than what they want to do.
Dog training should not be viewed like death and taxes: an unavoidable inconvenience.
The best hope for the dog and the owner is their best effort. Their best effort starts with their best mindset.
The same people who happily dropped a $1000 on the dog, and another $700 on dog toys and $500 on the puppy’s first vet visit without blinking, will often complain about an $800 training package. Why? Because it’s feels like it’s being forced upon them. It is in response to a problem. They aren’t interested in being good with their dog, they just want to be good enough.
Buying an new car excites people. Having a car repaired upsets them.
Dog training feels a lot like car repair to people who are desperate.
But it doesn’t have to. And that starts with the initial consult.
Our job is not to merely tell them how we can solve their problem. Our job is to rekindle that dream they had when they got the dog in the first place. Get them excited about the future with their dog. Make them happy with the entire idea of having a whole new dog with limitless possibilities. Make it seem like an investment in years of adventures to come rather than throwing money at a problem just to get back to normal.
When people are excited to invest in their dog, they don’t resent spending the money on training (but you’d better be able to deliver that dream!) and they don’t resent the time they spend working with their dog. If the desire is to connect with their dog on the deepest level, then they will do the work. If they are just interested in doing as little as it takes to get back to normal, every obstacle becomes an excuse to not train today. The difference between “It looks like rain, I probably should just stay inside,” and “It looks like rain, I bet I can squeeze five minutes in before it gets bad,” is only a shift in desire.
When the owner is invested in having the dog of his dreams, they see setbacks differently than when they are desperately trying to train the dog so they can get back to not worrying about the dog. Moving towards your dream is always more rewarding than moving away from discomfort. Get them moving towards the dream.
Don’t tell them how you can solve their problem. Paint a picture of what the trained dog is going to look like. Tell them what life will be like when their dog is not merely good enough to make life bearable, but when their dog is a well-trained amiable and responsive companion.
Approaching the last hope dogs with this in mind will sow the seeds of continued success.
Remember training isn’t a race to the finish line because there is no finish line. Sometimes people who are desperate need to be shown that their finish line is just the beginning. We can offer so much more than just fixing the problem enough that they don’t mind living with the problem. We can create for them so much more than the bare minimum.
Acknowledge their problem, tell them that you can help and then tell them about what else you can do. Be inspired by the potential they and their dog have. Be in awe of the beauty of the human/dog relationship when it’s built on trust and communication. Let your words, your voice, and your body language communicate that you’re not content to just get them out of trouble. Let them know that you want more for them than they might think is possible right now. Believe in yourself, believe in them, and believe in their dog. Tell them that you are not just there to fix the car. There are dozens of mechanics that can do that. You want to make that car the most amazing car they’ve ever owned and you can do it with their help.
If they believe in the goals, chances are they will succeed where others might not.