Have you ever worked with a trainer and experienced this moment? 

You’re fumbling your way through something…

And your dog is looking at you like you are crazy…

Or perhaps they aren’t looking at you at all…

Because they’ve decided your attempts at training aren’t worth the energy? 

And all of the sudden, your trainer takes the leash…

And it’s like your dog is a seasoned pro? 

Like your dog has been doing whatever it is you’ve been fumbling through his or her whole life? 

Yeah, me too. (Sucks, doesn’t it?)

And it happened with a couple of my clients recently. 

In fact, one of my amazing clients blurted out “But you’re good at this, and I’m not!” As we worked our way through training a complex behavior for dog sports.

I corrected her and said “I’m well practiced. And you’re not. But there’s an easy solution to that problem.” 

And another of my clients had the same struggle…

She said “I just feel like she doesn’t respect me. She was perfect for you, and as soon as I take the leash, she knows she can get away with reacting. It’s like she’s playing me.” After her dog had a reaction to my goats, barking and pulling on the lead in an effort to chase them.

Listen, it can be easy to take your dog’s behavior personally…

Especially when your trainer takes over and your dog snaps to attention faster than you can call their name. 

But the truth is, this isn’t about respect…

It’s not that your dog likes me better…

Or sees me as a “leader” or as their “alpha”…

It’s far simpler than that. 

I just teach different lessons than you do.

Here’s an analogy that I love. 

Think of everything a dog enjoys in its world…everything a dog finds pleasurable or reinforcing as a paycheck. Some paychecks are bigger than others, but everything a dog loves can be considered payment for a job they perform.

Paychecks could be the food reward you have in your hand…

The could be attention, affection or praise…

They could be chasing goats (which for some dogs is really, really fun)…

They could be barking to relieve frustration…

They could sniffing a tree, or marking on a walk…

They could be making a person who is scary back away…

Everything your dog finds pleasurable or desirable can be considered a paycheck, whether it’s a classic reward, like food or toys, or an action they take that they find reinforcing. 

Now, think of your dog’s behavior as a job – one they’ve been hired to do. 

There are two big differences between me, a trainer of nearly two decades, and an owner that is just learning the ropes. 

  1. I’m very careful about the job my dog gets paid for
  2. As long as the dog has known me, I’ve always been that way 

Let’s look at the example of my amazing client walking her reactive dog around my goats. 

When the dog moved with me, I “paid” her consistently for sticking with me…

For paying attention…

For NOT paying attention to the goats…

This was the job I hired her for. And I made sure I paid her in a way that was worth her while. This was no minimum wage job she was doing. 

Not only that, I set up my training session so she would NOT get paid for doing any other job. I made the other options pay less, or pay nothing at all. 

I made sure working for me was the only choice, and I made sure that my payment and bonuses were well worth her time. 

And here’s an important fact. The dog knows I’m a great employer to work for. She doesn’t have to question it. As long as I’ve known her, I’ve always been that way. 

Now, let’s look at where the owner struggled. 

As they approached the goats together, the dog looked at her, back to the goats, and back to her again. 

She was never paid. 

She didn’t earn so much as a “good girl”. 

This wasn’t intentional – it’s just what happened. There are a lot of moving pieces in dog training, and it can be tricky to get them all right. 

But tell me…

What would you do if you showed up to work, your boss dumped a really challenging project on your desk, and told you the company was broke and he didn’t intend to pay you, but hoped you’d stick it out? 

Yeah, that’s what I thought. 

So this particular dog sought employment elsewhere. 

She pulled out towards the goats. 

This got her owner’s attention, to which she responded with a cue, and an instant food reward. 

Paycheck received! 

Then, when the paycheck stopped coming, she looked for alternative employment again. 

And went from simply pulling a little, to pulling and barking at the end of her leash. Which not only earned her owner intervention, but also got the goats running a little bit which acted as a bonus to the paycheck she made happen. (And FYI, she is NOT afraid of the goats. She’s a total party girl. She thinks chasing them would be ultra fun, and she’s frustrated that no one will let her do it!) 

Now the tricky part about this is…

Not only did the dog find other employment that paid better, but she has a history with her owner. 

She’s not totally certain what job she gets paid for because her owner has hired her for so many different jobs in their time together as they’ve been working through her reactivity. 

I mean, think about it. As is the case for most people, the expectations were completely different before hiring a trainer. 

So she already walked into this with a question mark about her employer and her paycheck. 

The great news is, as soon as her owner began paying her for the job she wanted her to do, the dog became an excellent employee, and stayed focused around the goats as they moved past them together. 

Listen, I hate thinking of rewards as paychecks. Because I don’t want to paint a picture that I have to ‘pay’ my dog to work with me. Like working with me is some painstakingly awful thing that I have to bribe my dog to do. I like to instead create work that is a “paycheck” in itself. But there is no doubt the analogy is strong one. 

Because the truth is, your dog doesn’t listen to me because he or she likes me better…

This isn’t a popularity contest. 

And dogs don’t behave or fail to behave based on respect. 

Respect isn’t real in dog training. 

And here’s the tough love (and this one might sting a bit)…

If you think your dog doesn’t respect you, or that they listen to their trainer better because they respect or like them more, you’re letting your ego train your dog…and your ego is a terrible trainer.

Our dog’s behavior is a direct result of the jobs they get paid for. 

So next time you hit a roadblock in your training, and you feel that pesky ego beginning to take the leash (and folks, we all have an ego, and it gets in the way for ALL of us at times. Trust me, there’s no judgment here) ask yourself these questions…

What paycheck is my dog after? (What is the reward they are seeking?)

What are they getting paid for? (What are they doing to earn that reward?)

What job would I rather hire them for? (What would I rather they be doing?) 

How can I make my job more attractive than the job they are currently working at? (How can I set up my training so that my dog consistently chooses to work for me?)

It’s not always easy to answer these questions. They can get pretty complex at times. In fact, I don’t expect you to have the answer all the time. But the more practice you have, the easier the answers to those questions are to find.

And check it out…

Even if you don’t have the answers to these questions, the more important piece of this exercise is to realize that your dog’s behavior isn’t personal. It’s simply them doing the job that they are consistently being paid to do. And the moment you realize that, is the moment you fire your ego, and start getting really effective in your training. 

Meagan Karnes
Meagan Karnes

Meagan has been training dogs professionally since 2002, most recently working with private security, military and law enforcement to provide K9s for high level applications. She owns both The Collared Scholar, an online dog training academy, and 690 Security Services, a company that trains and deploys Executive Security and Protection K9s to private customers. She recently partnered with both Average Frog and SM Leaders, who repurpose the proven performance principles of the Navy SEALs for individuals and organizations.

    7 replies to "It’s not about respect: The REAL reason your dog “listens” better to your trainer"

    • Jenny Haskins

      Sorry. I think respect is essential in dog training (teaching, animal training, etc)
      We MUST respect our students/pupils/co-workers, etc. Without this we will fail

      • Meagan Karnes

        This is a great point. I do agree, we must respect those we teach 🙂

    • Jenny Haskins

      You asked:
      “Interested to know, what is your definition of respect? And how does one earn such respect from their dogs?”
      Respect is considering others’ feelings, not asking for more than they can give, and giving according to your ability to give.
      It down NOT equate to obedience or fear.
      I think our dogs respect us when we respect them. When they know they can trust us 🙂

      • Meagan Karnes

        Yes. I edited my reply as I misread your comment. Thanks for sharing your perspective 🙂

    • Gill Vlahovic

      That is a really great perspective and has made me think even more about how to handle my dog. Thank you

    • Courtney

      Hey Meagan,
      I am so happy that I came across your website. I’ve been reading it for hours! I’ve got 2 female beaucerons and it’s been a bit of a struggle but we’re slowly getting there! I’ve got a few questions if you don’t mind. Did you have an email?

      Thank you!

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