Humility in Dog Training: The Burnout and the Fire From the Ashes

Photo Dec 25, 12 39 28 PMAnyone who knows me even a little bit knows I am passionate about what I do. I love my work. My facility in Birmingham Alabama is my baby. It’s 10,000 square feet encompass my life’s work to this point. I have dreamed of it since I was a small child; sketching, designing, and dreaming it into existence for as long as I can remember. I knew who I was as a professional trainer – I was a champion of humane training methods. I was driven by an almost otherworldly motivation to have one of the best, most innovative, and carefully thought out facilities available and completely dedicated to force-free training. My “baby” became a reality almost two years ago. Each day I still walk through it’s front doors in awe that it is mine.

We have had almost 5000 training sessions since we opened our doors in the Fall of 2013. I have a team of trainers and employees who make me proud every day with their passion and thoughtfulness. And yet, at the beginning of this year, I found myself falling into a deep state of burnout. I still found joy in my work. I was training dogs who had never had a “bad day”. They knew only kindness and gentleness in their training. I have dedicated my life to the science of canine cognition and learning. I have dedicated hours upon hours of reading, examinations, certifications, seminars, and courses. I was outspoken and well-known in my field for my firm stance against aversive training methods and their scientifically proven fallout. Each new scientific study produced on canine cognition would be dutifully incorporated into our training protocol and policies. Our clients were pleased, their dogs were happy, and our business was successful. Surprisingly, in the face of all this success, I was feeling unsatisfied, exhausted, and had what I learned to call “the burnout of compassion fatigue”.

I had many friends who encouraged me through this time; some knowingly and some unknowingly. It would be impossible for me to mention them all and thank them for their unending support. I found myself leaning heavily on the support of my close friends, Judy Luther (DogStar Training) and Jennifer Arnold (Canine Assistants). I had known Judy for several years and Jennifer and I had become friends through a seminar I attended in March of 2014. Shortly after attending this seminar, Judy and Jennifer began developing the program that is now called Bond-Based Choice Teaching®.

It was in the months following the seminar in March of 2014, as Judy and Jennifer were developing Bond-Based Choice Teaching®, that I made many frustrated, depressed, sometimes crying phone calls to these compassionate women. I then found my worldview beginning to change. It was slow, like most major changes; creeping up on me in ways I didn’t recognize. It is this change, the humble feeling it brought, and the healing it is now bringing that I would like to share today.

There have been many wonderful articles and studies published in the last several months discussing new understandings of how dogs bond with their humans (please see references below). It seems that each new study published further proves that our beloved dogs are social learners, well aware of our human behaviors and emotions, while showing an astounding ability to adapt, imitate, and assimilate into our intricate human social and emotional cultures. It seems that everyday the professional dog training and behavior community has a new and brilliant study teaching us how to use social learning and bonding in our training sessions. I, like most of my force-free colleagues, was thrilled to read these new studies. I found myself thinking, “Yes! We’re already doing this! So excited to have a great study to reference when explaining it to clients.”

I would share these thoughts with Judy and Jennifer, and they would patiently, kindly, and gently guide me to think about these studies more thoroughly and thoughtfully. I was confused and sometimes frustrated, arrogantly feeling that I was already successfully incorporating the Bond Based Choice Teaching® methods. The dogs in my program were doing bond oriented training. We’d been doing it for years. And then it happened. I began to question - was I really? Jennifer Arnold would say, “warm fuzzies trump everything else”. She asked me (always gently and kindly as is her way) if anything could be more aversive or emotionally damaging to my dog than withholding my love and affection. Only by showing my love and affection when my dog did as I asked, or behaved in the way I had conditioned him, was I refraining from using the most powerful aversive known to man - conditional love. My world crashed around me as I began to consider what performance-based affection did to the soul. Whether it is you or me or someone you care about, each of us knows the life-long damage done to people raised believing they had to be “good enough” to receive love.

All of us have spent hours talking with and consoling either ourselves or a loved one as they muddle through the many issues of believing they have to earn the love of their spouse, their parent, or their God. I had so many questions - many months of questions. It seemed every hour of every day I had questions. The behaviorist inside of me was screaming, “I can’t teach that way! It will reinforce the behavior!” It was a year, a solid year, of fighting the truth that was forming inside me. I love behaviorism; however, I no longer see my world as a behaviorist. I see my world through a fuzzier, softer, and ultimately less exhausting lens. I was humbled as I realized that I was expressing love to my dogs, and teaching my clients to express love to their dogs, only if the dog met my set goals and criteria for success. I was using the most aversive punisher available - the removal of my bond to manipulate dogs to perform the behavior I desired. I was raising a generation of dogs so desperate to please me that they could think of little else.

The purpose of this piece is not to explain how Bond-Based Choice Teaching® works. I will leave that to the eloquent Jennifer Arnold, as she is far more experienced and able to explain it than I. The purpose of this piece is to share with you how, from the ashes of burnout, I found the fire to see the dog-training world in a different way. My entire facility and all of our teaching has converted to Bond-Based Choice Teaching® in the last several months. I have seen the dogs blossom and our clients find permission to love them unabashedly. I have seen our dogs (ranging from adorable puppies to very dangerous aggression cases) transform under the simple premise that I will show love to you, steadfastly and consistently, no matter how you respond.

We still teach many things the same way at Roverchase. All of our client dogs know how to sit, settle down, walk nicely on a leash, and come when called. Our skilled service dogs can still turn on lights, open doors, gather objects, and alert to medical issues. Behaviors considered rude by the human race are still considered rude and alternate behaviors are still taught. It’s the soul of the place - the understanding from which we do everything else - that has drastically changed. No longer do we pull our outward affection away from our dogs when they make a choice that is different than we desire. We are less concerned with reinforcing only desirable behavior and much more concerned with meeting emotional needs. When we are in doubt, we show our love abundantly and without temperance. We love them much more the way they love us; unconditionally, without distraction, and regardless of some preconceived merit. I am seeing myself fall in love with my passion again. I am seeing my dogs fall endlessly in love with me. And I have fallen ever more deeply in love with them.


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Positively Expert: Abigail Witthauer

Abigail resides in Birmingham, Alabama where she owns Roverchase, a large dog training and care facility. Abigail has been training dogs professionally for 15 years and resides with several animals, most famously, Mr. Big the Chihuahua (Instagram @MrBigChihuahua).


3 thoughts on “Humility in Dog Training: The Burnout and the Fire From the Ashes

  1. Dominika

    So how do we teach a puppy to stop mouthing and jumping up -tearing clothes withough withdrawing attention while it's being 'rude'. Do we for example teach a sit or fetch a toy I guess and ask it do do that instead? We have to be relying on the fact that the behaviour is taught well enough that the puppy responds when greeting people, is that right? My friend is bringing a puppy home in a couple of weeks so I'll have my hands full teaching the humans as well.

  2. Faith Bavonese

    My rescue taught me this. He is always the good dog, just sometimes while doing stuff I don't like.

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