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Dog owners beware: Anyone can buy a dog training franchise

Lately, more than ever, I am getting inquiries from clients who have already done dog training with “so and so,” or other companies, and were unsatisfied for one reason or another. These people have spent a lot of money in some cases, but didn’t get the results they were looking for. You may imagine this is sometimes the customers fault– and it is… sometimes. But as a pro myself, I can get a pretty good idea what sort of professionally-trained foundation a dog has, or has not had. I hear complaints about other trainers all the time, and I usually take it with a grain of salt, preferring that they focus on what we’re doing now and going forward. Most of these trainers I have never heard of anyway, but clients are more frequently telling me about dog training companies with multiple locations, or in many cases, franchises. These are not the big-box stores like PetSmart and PetCo that are known for their sub-standard version of “training” and wasting peoples time once a week for 150 bucks, these are companies charging a lot of money and promising big results.

To further investigate this concept, I began with a quick Google search, typing in “dog training franchise.” A flurry of results came up. Some of the names: Bark Busters, Fetch Pet Care, Zoom Room, Off Leash K9 Training, Sit Means Sit, Dog Wizard Academy, and many more. It’s not the route I chose to go in my career seven and a half years ago when I started my own business (after years of apprenticing and working for other companies), but apparently this is a popular thing. I have no particular issue with a well-researched individual purchasing into a dog business franchise to run out of their home, but it’s worth a deeper look behind the marketing.

One of the benefits to a franchise is immediate marketing power, and these companies don’t hesitate to tell you that people are willing to pay good money for dog training, and know the brand names. Each brand has something to boast– amazing fast results, guaranteed programs, a special (ultimately meaningless) certification, “featured on tv,” and soforth. But marketing can be misleading. Let’s say the trainers at the headquarters of your franchise had part in a tv episode on “Animal Planet.” Regardless of the fact that they’re not even in the same state, are staffed with completely different trainers, and did the tv spot years before you even joined the company, you can now advertise on your own website: “As Seen on Animal Planet.” That’s positive marketing power. Unfortunately, it can also work in the opposite way. In the past 2 years alone, three Sit Means Sit trainers were charged with animal abuse. Because it’s a franchise, they are independently responsible, but this is caveat emptor to you dog owners: Regardless of the company’s name, know who is training your dog.

What I am also concerned about is the amount of training these freshly minted dog trainers receive.

To see if my concerns were valid, I viewed the websites of four different dog training franchises. They all advertise solving behavior issues, off-leash training, and more. One called “Bark Busters” did not provide any information on length of franchisee training, they ask you to contact them. I have zero respect for Bark Busters as a training company, and I have nothing more to say about them at this time, other than– if you use their services, best of luck to your dog. The other three franchised companies provided more info on their offerings. A company called “Dog Wizard Academy” had a very bright, informative website and offers 12 weeks of hands-on training for new franchisees. However, the topics covered are broad, naturally, and include “aggression,” which in my professional opinion takes much longer than 3 months to even touch upon, let alone become proficient in. In the other 2 cases, companies called “Off Leash K-9 Training” and “Sit Means Sit,” offer 3 weeks of initial hands-on training to the new franchisee. Yes, that’s right– apparently, 3 weeks is all it takes to learn how to be a dog trainer, work with complex behavior issues, and operate a business… Well, that and anywhere from $15,000-$96,400.

A lot of people nowadays want to start their own business and have a career change in life, and that’s great. But dog training is not just something you jump into by hanging a shingle. You will quickly be out-classed. The following is an example of what I found online (I added the bold):

Are you interested in starting  dog training franchise?  Have you always wanted to be a dog trainer? Turn your passion into a dog training business!

As an Off Leash K9 Training trainer, you will spend 21 days at our facility in Northern Virginia, observing and taking part in over 240+ hours of dog training! … At the end of your 21 day training, you will have all the tools, knowledge, and know-how to deal with basic obedience, advanced obedience, and behavioral modification. You will be able to make dogs look like the dogs in our 500+ before/after videos! You will also have a website and everything else you need to get you started in the dog training world!

Let me get this straight. You will have “all the knowledge” and “a website and everything else” in 3 weeks. In my opinion, that’s simply not possible, particularly not the “everything else.” There is no way to master these sort of skills in 240 hours… You’d be about 9,760 hours short of the “10,000 hour rule” of mastery. But even if you do gain an array of positive training and business skills, what about basic math skills? 21 days to become a dog trainer is advertised as “240+ hours of dog training.” I have never heard of such an intensive program that you go 21 days straight for ELEVEN+ hours each day. It doesn’t seem possible, and lends me a degree of skepticism (something I already have a healthy level of).

To be fair, some of these companies do offer continuing education, yearly seminars, and phone support– but what about the dogs these franchisees will be training fresh out of the gate? Do you want your dog to be a guinea pig for a brand new trainer with only a few months of experience under their belt? If you do, that’s fine, but I personally would not pay that kind of money for my dog to be a newer trainers learning experiment.

So how long does it really take to become a dog trainer? I understand everyone wants to jump in and make money, but the reality is, when I have an apprentice trainer who is learning how to train dogs, they are not even allowed to do a private obedience lesson with a customer with less than SIX MONTHS of training under their belt, and more in some cases. The average time to produce a dog trainer is ONE YEAR, for a basic-level trainer, who works with obedience but not more complex behavior issues or aggression. There is no “quick way to rake in the cash,” and you need more than a fancy website, you need more than a well-trained personal dog– you need to provide quality training from a foundation of knowledge and hands-on experience in a variety of venues.

If you want to become a successful dog trainer, buying into a corporate franchise is certainly one of your options, and it does work out well for some people. But it’s certainly not the only option. To be clear, I am not saying all the franchise-owning trainers are bad or sub-standard trainers– absolutely not– it fully depends on the individual person. If they are a driven self-learner, I’m sure they could find a way to compensate for any lack of experience, and work to become a well-versed, competent trainer. In some cases, a franchise trainer may be an already working and adept dog trainer who decided to make a smart business decision and team up with a company. But as a dog owner myself, I don’t want to simply know what “brand” is training my dog, I want to know who is training my dog. What have they accomplished, what’s the scope of their experience, and will they deliver up to the expectations of a big-name company? To know this, you will have to look past the smoke and mirrors of marketing, and learn how to choose a dog trainer.

Are aggressive dogs the fault of the owner?

They say dogs are a reflection of their owners. But when unwanted aggression becomes a big issue, can we place the entirety of blame on the dogs owners?

“Is it all the owners fault their dog is aggressive?”

First, let’s define “aggressive dog” as a dog who displays aggressive behavior with intent to bite or do harm to a person or animal.

I would not say it’s “always” the humans who have created the issue. Sometimes it is true, sometimes it’s not. There are many cases where a dog begins to show unwanted behavior, and it is not handled properly by the dog owners. They may not know what to do, or fail to get help. Or they may inadvertently be encouraging the unwanted behavior. There are some people who could virtually make a Pug into an aggressive monster (through permissiveness, mixed signals, and being a poor handler themselves), but not always. Most dog owners we work with do acknowledge that they have made some failure or some mistake in handling of their dog, which has led to worsening problems. I appreciate that they do not want to blame the dog, but recognize they are part of the problem, too. Because if they are part of the problem, they will be part of the solution.
There are cases where you could take the biting dog out of the equation and replace it with a number of other more “average” dogs, and the owners would’ve had no problems. Sometimes it is the dog. They got a dog who is a handful. I meet the dog, and I say “WOAH, that is a lot of dog.” Some dogs are just more challenging, and require more time and training than others. Maybe the dog has a lot of drive, power, or maybe has a lot of “edge” to it. Not everyone is equipped to own a more aggressive type of dog. Just like not every parent would be equipped to handle a child with a behavioral disorder. On the other hand, some dog owners choose a higher-intensity dog with more aggression to it, and they don’t mind. It’s when they are not equipped to own the dog they have issues. A strong dog often needs a strong owner who can be consistent and prepared to work out any issues. But some who are not equipped for it get a dog who is predisposed to have certain traits, and they raise it very typically, socialize it, and do their best with what they know. But it still turns out how it turns out. This is because a dogs personality is not “all how you raise it.” You wouldn’t be surprised if you got a terrier that lived to chase down critters, or a hunting dog who followed his nose, or a German Shepherd who was protective of his home. Dogs behavior is strongly influenced by genetics and instinct, as well as early rearing, training, and various experiences. So often a dog turns out with behaviors that are in accordance with its genetic programming. Especially if human owners don’t nip problematic behavior in the bud at once, the first time it rears its head. Many genetic behaviors can be tempered, re-directed, or controlled through training. That’s the work we do every day. But if not immediately addressed properly, aggression issues always get worse.
Sometimes people make uneducated decisions. A lot of times, actually. I had a client who wanted an easy-going family dog, and purchased a Cane Corso, a large powerful dog breed. They chose this breed because they had a friend with one, and that Corso was very social, chill, and almost lazy. But that was just one dog. They decided to search for a breeder, and they found an ad online for Cane Corso puppies for sale. They did not meet the dogs parents first, ask the breeder for references, or research the dogs breeding and lineage. As their new dog matured, he became suspicious of people, and was skittish and reactive, despite attempts to socialize him. He was also strong and difficult to control as he grew. One day when a stranger bent over to pet him, he reacted negatively and lashed out. He bit them in the face, sending them to the hospital for stitches. His owners decided not to give up on him and to seek guidance from a professional trainer. He was young enough to greatly improve with intensive training, and had owners who were committed and did all the follow-up lessons. So in this case, they were able to keep their dog and successfully modify his behavior. Every case is different. Sometimes a dog is genetically cut out to be nervy and sharp, or even unstable. Sometimes they’re normal stable dogs with an edge. Even good dogs do “dog things,” including protecting their territory, and this can often lead to a bite incident. A dog with little guidance can’t tell the difference between a “bad guy” he is supposed to bark at or bite, and Bob the neighbor who comes to the back door to say hi.  This is why dogs who have protective behavior have to be not only trained, but supervised and properly contained, such as a securely fenced yard. To sum it up, a dog who bites may be genetically unstable, or may be totally normal, it depends. Either way, the owners are going to have to change how they handle the dog. They will need to gain obedience control, respect, and learn to read their dog. To resolve behavior issues, they will need to change the way they live with the dog, and zero in on what behaviors they are reinforcing or allowing to continue.

The prognosis for long-term success depends on the dog and the owners. Every cause and type of aggression is different. Remember that you are your dogs leader. He depends on your guidance to navigate the human world he is a part of. Set your dogs up for success.

Most bite incidents could have been avoided, had the following been kept in mind:
1) Know your dog, and protect your dog. You may imagine you need to protect others from your dog, and this is true, but your dog needs to be protected from making poor decisions, too. For example: If you have a protective or nippy dog, and a cable installer is coming over, put your dog in another room. You know your dog might act sketchy, and you know you might be distracted. It is not worth risking your dog making a poor decision. There is no benefit to leaving your dog loose in this scenario, but there is risk. Similarly, if you know your dog can be testy with the vet, use a muzzle. Condition them to wearing it ahead of time. There is no reason to take risks that have no benefits.
2) Train early, train often, and train properly. Don’t wait until your dog has bitten 5 people, get training as soon as you obtain your dog. Even if you adopted an adult rescue dog, begin setting appropriate habits and establishing yourself as the pack leader immediately. It’s not just the obedience commands, it’s learning how to communicate with your dog, and how to handle problems as they pop up. Not all training is equal! Taking a treat-based class at  PetSmart is not equivalent to real-world obedience skills taught by a professional training facility. Dogs need a large amount of positive reinforcement, but they also need discipline. A dog who has no discipline will end up insecure and will often become out of control and unpleasant to deal with. Dogs who have only discipline and no praise will become depressed and sometimes fearful. Dogs must learn what to do (good stuff), and what not to do (unwanted stuff). There has to be a balance. Common sense tells us that ignoring a bad behavior is often not significant enough to make it stop. There are several effective ways to stop bad behaviors: Physical correction or averse response to stop the behavior, take away the benefit of doing the behavior, reinforce incompatible behaviors, or prevent the behavior from happening.
3) Feel free to get a second opinion. When you have a dog who bites, everyone you know seems to have an opinion. Some will say it’s not the dogs fault, some will say the dog has a screw loose and should be put down, and some will say “try this” or “try that.” Take the advice with a grain of salt. Speak to your vet to rule out medical causes and get a full check-up, but know that most vets are not dog trainers and may have limited knowledge of dog behavior training. Some vets may have never even owned a dog. Get opinions from qualified trainers, but feel free to get a second or third opinion. Make sure the trainer has references of similar case and uses fair and humane methods.

 

-Jennifer