Fatigue in the workplace

When new dog trainers enter the workplace, they think that working with dogs will be fun all of the time. They soon realize that dog training is a job like any other. One with highs and lows. One that can be dull and repetitive. One with politics. And one that has a higher burnout rate than many other professions.

Just as well-intentioned humans can burn out at the workplace, so can teaching dogs. Do not ever forget that even a dog with a fantastic work ethic will need to have a hobby and participate in training exercises that are not related to his job.

There are several signs that your teaching dog may be suffering from fatigue in the workplace. If you start to see any of these things happening, always be proactive. If any of these behaviors begin to crop up, it’s time to go back and build your dog back up. By the time you notice these behaviors, it’s likely that your dog has already reached his threshold and you’ve got work to do in order to have a mentally healthy dog once again. The trick is to notice some of the preliminary signals your dog gives you to tell you that one of these behaviors is on its way to occurring, so you can start doing some work to bring your dog back to a state where he is working happily once again.

Shutting down

Who does it? The dog who is fearful of doing something incorrectly or who is anxious about the situation that he’s been thrust into.

What does it look like? It can range from simply stopping work, to looking around the room, to learned helplessness. No matter what you do to try and fix this, your dog will not work. Your dog is stressed out and needs a break.

How do you fix it? Build behavioral elasticity, buoyancy and your dog’s ability to work through frustration. My favorite way to do this is to shape tricks and other behaviors. Shaping behaviors enhances dogs’ creativity and teaches them to think through distractions. The more tricks they learn, the more apt they will be to tackle challenges head on instead of melting in the face of anxiety.

Acting aggressively

Who does it? Dogs who are overworked on emotionally stressful duty, or those who feel like they do not have an escape mechanism, especially those who work in the capacity of doing socialization exercises with other dogs or acting as the decoy for other dogs during reactivity conditioning.

What does it look like? Aggression is a systematic way for dogs to resolve conflict between themselves and someone else. Watch for the dog who communicates his willingness to guard against or thwart a potential adversary. He’s trying to say, “See these teeth? Hear this growl? I would be a formidable opponent if I had to fight you!”

How do you fix it? First, ask yourself, “Is my dog happy doing this work?” If the answer is “no,” then you need to think long and hard about whether to continue to work the dog in this capacity or whether it is in your best interest to substitute your dog out for another, or continue by using verbal explanations, a dummy dog or a video.

If you decide that you must have a dog to work with you in the capacity that elicited an aggressive response, you need to be sure to do the following:

  • Balance the amount of time that you are working on the exercise that elicits aggressive responses from your dog so that it is minimal compared to working on exercises that your dog actually thinks are fun. A good balance to keep in mind is 10%. For example, if the exercise that your dog finds stressful is being the calm dog while working with a reactive dog, then be sure that dog reactivity cases only comprise approximately 10% of his training time. The remaining 90% of his training should be exercises that your dog finds reinforcing, including games of fetch, trick training, agility training or shaping with a clicker.
  • Quit while you are ahead. In any situation where there is a chance your dog will display an aggressive response, err on the side of ending the session well before you see him reaching that threshold.
  • Be sure that your dog is having positive socialization experiences with other dogs who have a balanced and appropriately matched play style to your dog.

A note about aggressive reactions in your helper dog/safe socializer:

Having a dog who is a socialization master is a dog trainer’s dream. Truly rare is the dog who is calm, sociable and stable, willing to play with a timid puppy or correct an adolescent dog who is a bit too intense while playing. If you have such a dog, count your blessings. But also keep in mind that, just because your dog enjoys socializing with other dogs, it doesn’t mean that you can’t burn him out with it.

In my experience using teaching dogs as safe socializers, if you don’t balance the dog’s work with a healthy dose of fun interaction with other stable, playful and well-matched dogs, you will quickly create a cranky dog who overcorrects other dogs or corrects a dog prematurely, or when it is entirely unnecessary. Another clear sign of burnout in a dog who is doing socialization with other dogs is that he begins to avoid contact with other dogs in a social situation.

Many dogs begin their careers of working through reactivity or dog aggression as flexible, young dogs. However, lesson after lesson of being barked and stared at can wear thin on a dog. You may notice that, as you continue to work with the dog in this capacity, he begins to fixate on the reactive dog, and may even mimic the other dog’s aggressive responses.

Lackluster work performance

Who does it? Your superstar dog. The one who you can take into any situation and always makes you look like God’s gift to dog training. The dog who you can communicate so fluently with that he seems to understand your language, and watching you work together is like witnessing a dance. The dog who has loads of training under his belt and knows how to do many things…but is being pushed to perform a cue that he only understands bits and pieces of or doesn’t understand at all.

What does it look like? Lackluster work performance usually presents as either a dog who “for some reason is just not listening” or as a dog who tries to defuse what he was asked to do by attempting to initiate reinforcement of some type. Many times you will see lackluster work performance in a dog who almost understands what you want from him, but doesn’t fully grasp what you actually want.

This dog has likely done some guesswork, and may be proficient at getting it right more often than not. But when the pressure is on and the dog truly does not understand what you want, this dog is so worried about not getting it correct that he will find ways to self-reinforce or elicit a game to lighten up the situation.

Ways that a dog will elicit reinforcement include:

  • Compulsive sniffing: Sniffing has so many benefits to dogs. It engages their olfactory senses, promotes passive socialization and clears their heads. If your working dog stops working temporarily to initiate a sniff session on his own, it is less likely that he has to urinate, and more likely that he was overwhelmed by a working session and needed to take some space from it.
  • Bounding around and initiating a game of chase.
  • Demand jumping or barking.
  • Compulsive scratching.

How do you fix it? Three words: Be more clear. As the owner of a dog who is willing to take a guess and oftentimes guesses correctly, I can tell you firsthand that it can be very frustrating when your perfect working dog just seems to be “off.” This is the time to step back and ask yourself: “Did my dog really understand what I was asking him to do?”

Perhaps you did proof your dog’s stays while in a mildly distracting environment. But you just asked him to hold a sit-stay in a park with squirrels running amok while you worked with another dog 25 feet away. Did you proof that? Or maybe your dog has been demonstrating how to do a regular bar jump on an agility course for months, but has never even seen a broad jump. A jump is a jump after all, right?

Wrong. If your normally eager dog suddenly becomes distracted and begins avoiding work in favor of doing other things, ask yourself honestly, “Have I actually taught my dog what to do in this situation? And if I have, have I proofed it well enough that he’s ready to demonstrate this concept in front of a novice handler and her dog?” If the answer is no, then you’ve got some homework to do.

Injuries in the workplace

As a dog trainer, if a dog gets hurt on your watch, you may feel like it’s the end of the world. While most of the incidents dogs are involved in can be avoided with care, patience and precision, accidents do happen. Here’s what to do if you find yourself in a situation where either your dog partner becomes ill or injured on the job or, worse, your dog hurts another person or dog

What kinds of injuries are common in a teaching dog?

  • Cuts and abrasions
  • Bites
  • Sprains, strains and muscle pulls
  • Death (while rare, you must be prepared for even the most extreme situation)

How can you protect yourself…and your dog?

Twenty years ago, people would scoff if you even so much as mentioned an insurance policy for dog trainers. So, professional dog trainers were forced to take out a general business liability policy that covered certain things but left them unprotected or under-protected should they be sued by a client for injury to the client’s dog. In fact, in the eyes of the law, a dog is an article of personal property, thus worth only what was paid for the dog. But today, dog training and animal behavior have become accepted professions, and insurance policies specific to dog training have become a very real thing.

Several companies have begun writing policies specific to dog trainers and other animal behavior professionals, which cover not only the people who come through your doors, but also the dogs. If you are a practicing dog trainer, you need business insurance to protect yourself and your assets. But what’s the difference and benefit to taking out a policy specific to dog trainers as opposed to just a general liability policy?

The big difference is that an unendorsed general liability policy will exclude coverage to personal property—including a dog—in the care, custody and control of the insured (the dog trainer). Whereas a specialty policy will have an endorsement that gives back this coverage up to a sublimit that is chosen by the insured. This can range from $10,000 to $200,000 and in some cases includes vet medical expenses for the insured’s teaching dog.

But be sure to read the fine print! Policies will typically limit coverage for vet medical expenses to $1,000 or $2,500. And while medical expenses for dogs can easily exceed $2,500 for a serious injury, a policy via one of these insurers is better than a general liability policy purchased from a company that does not specifically insure trainers.

How much should a dog trainer expect to pay for a dog training policy? The average premium, according to Business Insurers of the Carolinas, who offers a comprehensive policy specific to dog training professionals, is about $500 per year, although premiums start as low as $300 and can reach as high as a $2,500, depending on the exposures and coverage options that are needed for the individual training business.

Policies are based on gross sales. In an insurance company’s eyes, the more sales you have, the more training you are likely doing, therefore the more coverage you need. Most of the other insurance providers cover trainers under a business owner’s policy and base their premiums on property rates, and their minimum premiums typically start at about $500. The problem with this approach is that property is not a dog trainer’s true exposure, as many work out of their homes and have very little property. These insurers will include some great coverages that most dog trainers would never, ever need. They will also sometimes be less expensive than the other policies, but as mentioned above, their coverage is not nearly as broad for what professional dog trainers real need is: protecting the dogs they train and the public/clients from injury.

What if your teaching dog gets hurt at work?

Under select insurance policies, you may opt to have coverage for a trainer’s owned demo or helper dogs written into the policy. In these cases, your teaching dogs are covered while they are working in a training class, a lesson, or out at a trade show or conference. As such, they are treated exactly the same as a client’s dog should they be injured as a result of working under your guidance. So research insurance policies carefully, and if you intend to utilize a demo or helper dog while you work, look for a policy that specifically offers this type of benefit.

What if your teaching dog hurts another dog?

What happens if your teaching dog hurts another dog will undoubtedly be unique to your individual situation. Much will depend on the severity of the injury, how the client handles the incident and whether or not legal action is sought. In any scenario, you should have the client’s contact information. Verbally make sure that the client and the dog are okay.

If they state that they are, follow up with an email no later than 24 hours after the incident occurred. In this email, you should confirm that everyone is physically and emotionally stable and moving forward from the incident. If the client’s dog had to receive medical treatment due to injuries that were sustained as a result of an interaction with your teaching dog, it is up to you to cover it. You may either do this out of your own pocket or submit a claim to your insurance company.

What is covered will depend on your individual insurance policy. Keep in mind that dogs are considered personal property under the law in all states. Under a liability policy, when a dog is injured, it is considered property damage, and all liability policies will only pay actual cash value (replacement cost minus depreciation) on a death claim. Insurers will vary regarding payments for veterinary medical care.

Some policies would pay actual vet medical costs incurred up to $10,000 or the limit chosen, but most insurers will limit to actual cash value of the pet (which is a huge difference). Although you should strive to utilize best practices and sound decision-making to keep all parties safe in dog training, accidents still happen.

I recommend you have an attorney on hand before you need one. Foster a good professional relationship with them, so that if you ever require their services, you have someone in your corner who knows you and your business.


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