Interview with a Certified Dog Trainer: Sit, Stay, Smile!

by Mary Haight on May 25, 2010

border collie face
Image by via Flickr

We’re talking to Eric Goebelbecker today, Certified Pet Dog Trainer, owner of Dog Spelled Forward Dog Training in New Jersey about the pursuit of understanding dog behavior, and helping people unlock the wonders of their dog’s natural abilities; to paraphrase Eric, making learning fun from both ends of the leash.  

1. Eric, can you tell readers what made you decide to become a dog trainer, and how you pursued your interest?

I decided to become a trainer after adopting Caffeine, a dog that threatened to make my wife and I crazy. We went to classes at St. Hubert’s Dog Training School (where I now teach) and I was hooked. I was attracted by the science and the ability to communicate with another species. [Make sure you come back to this link – it shows how easy it is to confuse what a dog needs with what we have been conditioned to *think* she needs]

 2. What’s the philosophy behind your training?

 First and foremost, training is communication. We’re trying to tell the dog what we want her to do. If we can do that and make it rewarding for her, the rest is details.

Second, training should be fun for everyone involved. If we can turn it into play for both ends of the leash, things happen faster and tend to “stick” more.

3. How much of your training involves psychology…I know your job requires human psychology, too, but how do you assess the needs of say an abused dog?

 I guess it depends on how you define the term. I don’t use the term “canine psychologist.” I’m not aware of an accredited school that offers such a degree and while the field of psychology includes animals, there’s no real applied animal psychology field that I have read about.

Most of my training uses a behavioral approach. What is the dog doing? What are the triggers? What are the consequences? What can we change to get more of what we want and less of what we don’t? You can go a very long way with this simple approach.

If a dog is displaying a great deal of fearful or aggressive behaviors (like a dog that was abused might) we need to work on changing how they react to the triggers before we can focus on the behaviors we want. This is done by pairing the unwanted stimulus, such as people approaching, with something good like food. This is called counter-conditioning and systematic desensitization and is a process used with people too. I don’t see this as psychology but as behavior modification.

What I find curious is that oftentimes the people who criticize a behavioral approach as treating dogs like “robots” and spend a lot of time claiming to understand a dog’s motivation, try to punish aggressive behavior without directly addressing the underlying cause.

 4. At what point in your training did you decide to open a business? Did you start training people and their dogs as you advanced your own learning? How did you market yourself? [This will give you and idea what the difference is between a dog trainer who is Certified and one who is not, and how high the barriers to entry are in this field.]

 After about 3 years of assisting other trainers for 8 (often more) hours a week, attending a bunch of seminars, three week-long in-depth classes, and then another year of still assisting other trainers while working as a trainer at a kennel, I decided to hang a virtual shingle. (I’m also still an instructor at St. Hubert’s and will be for as long as they’ll let me.)

My focus is more on “obedience” than behavioral problems. I’m very selective about the fear and/or aggression cases I will take on, and will refer stuff to more experienced people at St. Hubert’s when I think it is a better fit. I also think the classroom-based “Feisty Fidos” program there can do a much better job of dealing with many dog-dog aggression issues than anyone can with private sessions.

My marketing seems to be doing a good job because the majority of the people that contact me are what I consider my target audience – families with rambunctious (usually adolescent) dogs that just need some structure, consistency, and better trained humans. [We knew it, didn’t we!]

Like most service businesses, word of mouth is critical for dog training. A friend with a good (or bad) experience is going to more of an impact that a clever advertisement every time. Other than that my only real marketing has been the website. I try to communicate what I know and how I work as clear as I can and let people make a decision before they decide to contact me (or not.)

5. What are a couple of the toughest bad habits or behaviors to re-train and can you tell us why?

 The big two are pulling on leash  and jumping up for greetings. These behaviors turn up in just about any breed or temperament of dog. They are remarkably resilient behaviors because the dogs get rewarded for them, regardless of how much the people are complaining, yelling, pulling, and pushing. Forward progress on leash is a reward. Attention from people is a reward.

For pulling on leash I can usually help the people get significant progress with something as simple as the right harness and teaching them to stop or change direction when the dog pulls. Likewise, removing attention from a jumping dog can make a huge difference. But these methods require discipline from everyone involved. The key to eliminating the behaviors is a change in perspective on the part of the humans – they need to realize how the dog is being rewarded and how to stop it from happening further. People will often resist making these changes because they believe the dog should change first, not them.

6. There are a lot of gadgets, or aversives, out there to stop dogs from doing things people don’t want them to do, like incessant barking – and there must be twenty  different products for that problem alone. Then there’s the choke chains, and prong collars, and devices that emit compressed air or a high pitched sound inaudible to humans to fend off aggressive dogs. What do dogs really learn from these devices and are any effective in the long run?

If the dog does learn, it’s one of two things: “when I stop doing something an unpleasant feeling goes away” (negative reinforcement in behavioral terms) or “when I do something an unpleasant feeling begins” (positive punishment.)

But this doesn’t always happen. If the reward is still more compelling than the aversive, the tool will not work. Have you ever seen a dog gasping for air while pulling his owner down the street? How well is that choker working? (Before the comments start, yes I know that a choker or sorry, “a training collar” will not stop pulling without some additional work and being properly fit.)

Many of these tools also carry some risks. When we use painful or frightening aversives, the potential for “fallout” – unanticipated side effects – is present.

For example, dogs often bark for a reason, such as people or other dogs approaching. If, while they are looking at a person ,they bark and receive an electronic shock, is it possible they will associate the shock with the person?

7.  Are you specializing in any particular training or are you a generalist?

 My favorite “problem” is the over-energetic and “out of control” dog. Usually about 8 months old, little or no training, and in a completely unstructured environment. I really enjoy these situations because I can make some very rapid progress and love seeing a family discover how great their dog actually is once we “stop the madness.”  [Ever considered working with a class of shelter handlers:)]

Generalist is a term I see a lot in the training community, but there are a lot of people that specialize in various sports and of course, in aggression. Early on I wanted to specialize in aggression myself, but I’m more interested in the over-energetic goofballs now. There are a lot of them!

8. If there’s one thing you would want people to understand about training, what would that be?

 Your dog will learn what you practice with him, whether you are “training” or not.

9. If people can’t come to you for lessons, do you have any literature, videos, or a simple lesson plan that might bring some relief or a better understanding of the mindset that is required to train their dog?

 That’s what my blog is for, really. I have a training help page  that links to most of my tutorials, while many of my blog entries are about mind set: where I attempt to tell people how to communicate with their dogs. I am also considering a DVD series where each disc will focus on a specific problem.


Full disclosure, I have “known” Eric as a fellow blogger for about six months, first noticing what I considered to be his excellent approach to training, and then very impressed by his even-handed matter-of-fact desconstruction of Cesar Millan training methods to help the public “get” why so many vets and trainers were upset. Since then,  I’ve shared his training videos and posts with new foster families, adopters, and friends. Nothing like great posts to keep us coming back for more!  Many thanks to Eric Goebelbecker for his time and thoughtful, informative  answers.

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