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I can still remember the first time I left a clients house feeling I had saved a dogs life. As I drove slowly away my emotions moved from tears to joy. The owners had become desperate, were stressed, losing sleep and fighting options and decisions they felt they needed to make. They had a dog that was considered aggressive and they recognized the social liability of this. They had tried many dog trainers who had offered anecdotal advice and punishing options that had worsened the dog’s behavior.
The dog they had once loved had become a chore a daily battle and a liability. Very quickly we established what needed to be done, they offered as much commitment and compliance as necessary and I offered then hope. Things worked out well and the relationship improved. The behavior change program showed immediate results that motivated them onwards. A dog’s life was saved.
This is an extreme situation but not an unusual one. There is nothing more joyful and rewarding for a Dog Trainer and Behavioral Analyst than knowing you can quickly impact the life of a dog by providing tools and techniques that owners can use to change their dogs unwanted behavior.
The tools and techniques that are most effective are minimally invasive and intrusive and actually strengthen the relationship bond between the dog and its owner. The goal is always to reduce the animal shelter population, keep dogs in their homes enjoying a quality of life that impacts the quality of life an owner should experience. Dog ownership is very rewarding, it has to be a win-win situation for both the dog and the owner
Bailey enjoying the cool weather
The techniques used for changing behavior are either operant conditioning techniques or respondent conditioning techniques. Respondent conditioning techniques are used for addressing conditioned emotional responses for example behaviors such as fear, panic or anxiety that are controlled by the autonomic nervous system. Operant conditioning techniques are used for changing operants which are behaviors that are controlled by their consequences (Miltenberger 2004).
Respondent conditioning techniques for changing behavior focus on the antecedents, the stimuli, setting events and motivating operations that contribute to or elicit the problematic conditioned emotional responses and the operants they motivate
(Miltenberger 2004). Respondent conditioning techniques and procedures used for changing behavior are a combination of, a) In vivo systematic desensitization where the animal is systematically and gradually exposed to the problem stimulus while maintaining the animal below the conditioned emotional response threshold, b) counter conditioning a type of exposure therapy where the problematic conditioned emotional response is replaced with a more desirable or appropriate response and c) attention exercises that promote relaxation by redirecting the animal’s focus (O’ Heare 2009).
In contrast to respondent conditioning, operant conditioning behavior change techniques change the operants by controlling the postcedents and affecting those that have an effect on the behavior, i.e. the consequences. Operant conditioning takes place when a response in a given situation is reliably reinforced; there is a contingency between the response and the reinforcer. Shaping behaviors and differential reinforcement are operant techniques for changing behavior that focus on developing appropriate target behaviors, referred to as the constructional approach (O’Heare 2009). The application of positive reinforcement, negative punishment, negative reinforcement and positive punishment are all procedures that can be used to affect and change behavior with or without extinction trials. The least aversive and invasive operant conditioning behavior change techniques, shaping and differential reinforcement, also positively affect respondent behaviors (Miltenberger 2004).
O’Heare, J. (2008) Behavior Change Programming and Procedures 2009, CASI,
Miltenberger (2004) Behavior Modification Principles and Procedures Third Edition, Thompson. USA