As trainers and behavior consultants we try to be everything to everyone. If they have an animal, and they reach out for help - or even show interest - we try to be that resource. Obedience, house training, barking, puppy socialization, aggression and biting; we want to do it all.
In some ways we can. We CAN be a voice for reducing stress and negative consequences by being based firmly in in the world of positive reinforcement. We CAN press for humane and kind treatment of all pets. We CAN strive to teach personal responsibility to owners, and inform them as to the standards their pet should expect.
But we cannot do everything. There are things we are: and things we are not.
There is nothing wrong with recognizing your space, your niche. I, for one, do not do protection dog training. I worked around our police Canine Unit, and I learned from observing them. I respect Canine handlers and trainers. They have a tough and complex job: to teach a highly selected dog a series of extremely challenging behaviors, and to maintain absolute control over those dogs while respecting their limits. If a police Canine is deployed towards a subject, and the subject suddenly surrenders, that dog has to be stopped in place. Immediately. Despite the dog's sincere desire to "bite bad guy". That sort of control and training is extremely difficult, and is is just not my "cuppa" as my English friends would say.
Others are best with puppies. They take little balls of potential and fur and teeth and turn them into well socialized, well behaved, bullet-proof pups that can handle anything that comes their way, while keeping their puppy sense of wonder and natural positive outlook. This is a special kind of magic to me.
Some of us work on specialized topics. Competition obedience. Agility. Field work.
In my case I work with difficult dogs and aggression. Sometimes that is aggression that has literally gone off the scale and resulted in a human death.
That doesn't make me any better, or more talented than anyone else. That is just the niche that I have fallen into.
That is not a niche that many need, or even want, to join. It is not for everyone.
And that is the point of this. There should not be a contest between trainers to do it all, or to be the baddest, or deal with the most difficult dogs, or...whatever. Each trainer, each instructor, each Rescue person, each shelter worker, should find where they can be most effective.
We need to avoid the trap of trying to be everything to all dogs, all people. I read a lot outside of the dog world, and business author Seth Godin has a great take that applies to dog training:
"We think we’re designing and selling to everyone, but that doesn’t match reality. It makes no sense at all to dumb down your best work to appeal to the longtime bystander, because the bystander isn’t interested. And it certainly makes no sense to try to convert your biggest critics, because they’ve got a lot at stake in their role of being your critic."
We need to avoid "dumbing down" our best skills to meet the needs of everyone. We need to do our best work where we are best. I would be wasting my time, and my potential clients' time, trying to take on training a dog-human team in freestyle dancing (and my wife and girls would back this up - the idea of me dancing should cause fear and trepidation). That is not my space.
I do slightly disagree, in our field, with one thing Godin says. We CAN try to convert our critics, and in some cases we must at least try because we are talking about humane and kind treatment of our canine friends. It is essential to try and teach relationships based on mutual trust and respect, not dominance and fear. But even then we need to remember: many of our most vocal critics have a vested interest in being our critics. Their existence is sometimes based on and grounded in proving us wrong. They have a lot at stake. But more on change, belief, and resistance to change in another blog.
For now, remember that we don't have to be spread all over the map. In my view, we can stand on certain central principles while specializing in what we do best. We can work within our special niche and do our best there while recognizing our own limits.
Those who know me know that I love the writing of author Neil Gaiman. His works range from thoughtful fantasy to, well...Neil Gaiman. But Neil is a font of wisdom, sometimes in surprising ways. Recently, greeting the New Year, Neil said the following:
“Try to make your time matter: minutes and hours and days and weeks can blow away like dead leaves, with nothing to show but time you spent not quite ever doing things, or time you spent waiting to begin.”
Time. Make your time matter. With our dogs, time is the most precious thing we can give them. Our time, sharing our lives, being part of our everyday, no matter how boring and predictable.
Don't waste your talents or time. Don't try to be everything to everyone. Be the right person for someone.