Dog training school: what not to do to your customers

Article about my attempts at finding a dog training school in the Netherlands
By Laure-Anne Viselé, January 2011

March 2013 update: Putting our money where our mouth is

So, after years of preparation, we are finally opening up our own dog training school! Read more to find out about OhMyDog! Dog training school (The Hague).

(attached: American Veterinary Society of Animal Behavior’s pamphlet on How_to_Choose_a_Trainer_(AVSAB))

So I am a dog trainer looking to register with a training school as a customer, and am not having a great time of it. Bit of context: I am an expat in the Netherlands (French Belgium/UK background), so am approaching the whole thing  with the eyes of a foreigner.

Why I want to join a training school

  • Roger (my dog) likes it
  • I want to keep my finger on the pulse of the industry’s do’s and dont’s

So far? I have learnt A LOT OF don’ts

Dog training school: 1st attempt

It took 2 e-mails and 1 chase call to get someone to react. Bad start, but fair enough. I loved it once I got there.

They were using the dominance model (minus point in my books), but they used  ‘positive methods‘ (reward good behaviour/ignore bad behaviour), so it was harmless enough I guess.

After a while, it was starting to become clear that there wasn’t much of an agenda beyond the first 2 classes, and it felt like they were just making it up as they went along. After receiving 3 different certificates for the exact same course, most of my classmates gave up.

I, ever the loyal one, subscribed to “obedience level 4″ (mmmmh…). They would let me know the exact date in a couple of weeks. That was September  2009 (coincidentally when my kid was born). My kid has learnt to walk, speak and use the potty in the time that it has taken them not to respond (despite many chase mails/phone calls).

After about months of trying – like I said, loyal – I gave up and started shopping around.

Dog training school: 2nd attempt


The instructor answered all my questions promptly (plus point), and referred me to the Admin department. They ignored my first three e-mails (just asking basic stuff), and finally responded quite irately.

After a lot of headache, I finally got to register. We’re weeks ahead of the next cycle, so I keep asking for the planned lesson day (I have two jobs, one kid, one dog, and I study. I need to plan ahead).

I got the confirmation… Two days before the class begun. Sure enough, it was an impossible day. The worst thing is: there were two possibilities, but they never thought to contact me about it, despite my asking for this for-like-ever…

It took another six months (and a dozen e-mails) to send me a three-liner about the next start date: another four months down the line, same vague conditions. I gave up.

Dog Training School: 3rd attempt

I had a phone conversation with a training school owner. It was all looking good, so she asked me to complete the (lengthy) registration form.

After a couple of weeks of deafening silence, (I) call  back. The lady explains that, given Roger’s level, I need a more advanced training school. Minus points: letting someone fill in the form knowing you can’t help them + then not getting back to them… Getting quite frustrated at this point.

Dog Training School: 4th attempt

I got in touch with another local training school explaining that am non-negotiable on my ‘positive methods‘ condition.

The owner calls me back, and it looks like our training philosophies differ. He uses what’s called ‘balanced methods’ (reward good behaviour/punish bad behaviour). The guy is lovely on the phone, but it’s clearly a no-go for me given my professional allegiances and the methods I preach to my own customers. I try to leave it at that, but he keeps trying to convince me to change over… His role model appears to be Cesar Millan, a professional whose methods I have severe reservations about.

Here is how it went:

Gentleman trainer: “Do you know Cesar Milan?” [Gosh, it’s going to be one of these conversations when ‘having grown up with dogs’ and flashing white teeth qualifies you to educate the public about dog behaviour] “He doesn’t use positive-only methods, and the dogs respect him“. [As verifiable statements go…]

Me: [as tactfully as I can possibly manage it] “His methods are the subject of quite a bit of controversy among behaviour scientists” [“en-bloc rejection”, more like, but still trying to be diplomatic. Not here to convince anyone.].

Gentleman trainer: “I’d rather be respected by my dog and Cesar Milan than by scientists“. [At this stage, my eyebrows were stuck in a semi-permanent state of skepticism]

He continued to insist I drop by, so I ended up vaguely committing to come take some pictures when I got a chance, but I know the encounter is bound to be awkward to manoeuvre. Maybe I will – the guy was lovely.

Don’t get me wrong, the guy was adorable: very polite, and everything. But the whole episode felt like a Catholic priest trying to argue a Rabbi into breaking holy bread. It’s just: “Dude! Please get a hint. This is not going to be a good match. Do you seriously thing I am going to revise my entire professional belief structure on the basis of one phone call and the same old unconvincing arguments?”

Standards in the dog professions

Think that it’s time for me to get my dramatic heels on, and slam some doors and make some rude phone calls (no, not that kind of rude phone calls)? Nope. I am still bending over backwards on the off-chance that I might get a spot somewhere… Anywhere.

And THAT is why I am crying out for stricter standards in the professional dog world (more on this in Interview with a behaviourist).

All am asking is that you, please, kindly:

  • get back to your customer’s (cherry on the cake: in a polite way)
  • tell your customers the planned class day well in advance
  • be truthful about the limitations of your services
  • keep yourself as educated as you can (watching National Geographic does NOT count)
  • do not pressure your customers into changing their views

So, if you have just moved to the Netherlands and are looking for a positive training school, start early.

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