Friday, December 4, 2015

Don't be a cover band: The Dog Trainer as a Creative Professional.

For a number of reasons, most that have nothing to do with dogs, I have been reading quite a lot about people in creative fields and the challenges they face. Articles about process and design catch my eye, and "How they work" bits demand a click - even when they are sunk among other clear click-bait articles. Maybe I'm trying out new methods of being productive, and maybe...I'm just finding more productive looking ways of goofing off.

In either case, the whole idea of creative professional struck a chord, and it finally dawned on me why: we as dog trainers and behavior consultants are creative professionals!

As you scratch your head, wondering what we could possibly be creating when we work with a dog that growls at strangers, think about your job a moment. You are presented with a dog that needs training or, in my case, has developed behavior that is undesirable or even dangerous to the dog and to the humans involved. You look in your tool box and you find what you hope is the right wrench to fix the loose wing nut, and truck on your way. Case done, move along.

This strategy works for most situations, and there are plenty of trainers who operate adequately doing just that. After all, how much brain power and creative muse does it take to teach the average dog to walk on a leash? Most trainers have a "system" that they apply across the board. Many trainers have a nice set of nesting boxes that contain their sets of responses to the usual problems, and most times that works just fine. People and dogs are better off, lives are put back on track, and all is well in Pleasant Valley for the weekend.

But. That is not always what happens. There are plenty of dogs and people that don't fit big box training. Their special problem just doesn't quite match the program. Sure, a particular trainer may have a bunch of glowing reports from clients: "Oh, the trainer at Doggies R Friends did such a wonderful job teaching Flitzie how to sit and not poop her crate-I was at my wits end. Thanks to Progressive All-Around Animal Training Inc. International for their help." But what happens when little Flitzie needs more than a cookie-sit and some regular walkies to get her on track?



What happens is that owners often bounce around from trainer to trainer, never quite finding the right box to cram Flitzie into. And that is where the owner has to look for a trainer or behavior consultant that has become a creative professional.

To begin, according to much of the material that I have been reading, a creative professional (or at least a good one) is constantly looking for the hook, the particular angle that suits the client's needs. They are constantly recognizing differences, not just repeating successful similarities. If a client wants a template, a canned instant product, they can just Google it online and do it themselves. Instead, a good creative professional is looking outside regular templates. Not everyone is Coke, or Starbucks, or whatever. In the design world people like Aaron Draplin deliberately push beyond templates. Todd Henry, author of The Accidental Creative, puts it succinctly: "Cover bands don't change the world: don't be a cover band."

With truly challenging dogs and their problems, we can't be cover bands. We have to develop skills centered around problem recognition and solving. We must look deeper than whether Flitzie sits. We can't just say "You have to be the ALPHA" in an Arnold voice and hope everything will be fine. In the more challenging cases we have to look for the real problem, not just the issues the owner presents. We have to develop new ways of looking and asking questions. Sometimes we have to develop new answers for those questions. Sometimes we have to go beyond just new answers for old questions, but look for new questions. Although the statement is trite and worn, "if we always do what we have always done we will get what we have always gotten" is really true.

So what do we as trainers do when we run into these new issues? What about old issues that just don't respond as they always have? What do we do with that one dog that just didn't read the instruction book?

We become creative professionals.

We learn new looking. We constantly adapt. We push beyond the templates.  We dig deep in our toolboxes, and if we don't have the right tool we make one.

Making and creating are not just things that people with brush and pen and chisel and screen full of code do. Creating is not restricted to pouring over the sketches of a new product. Creating and making apply to our field, to our interactions with both dog and owner. There are times when the old ways and our comfortable habits are just not enough. We have to draw out new fonts, customize our User Interface, or even come up with a brand new operating system for a client population of one.

This is not wishful thinking. This is the future. This is our responsibility, our duty to our clients two and four legged. We may not be able to save all the animals in the world, but for one dog we can change the whole world.

Cover bands don't change the world. Don't be a cover band. Change someones world.