A VA and a Dog Trainer!

I have worked in a number of jobs during my 37 year working career and all of them have added skills to my tool box. The last 15 years however I have been working as a small business owner grooming and training mostly human and dog aggressive dogs. Many people see this job in my resume and are amazed that I have gone back to offering services as a Virtual Assistant.

As an animal trainer and communicator there are many skills I have learnt that have a great deal of application in all businesses. As animal trainers we are working to change behaviour, likewise as business managers we are seeking to change the way our staff and customers behave. Changing behaviour  is about knowing how learning theory operates and how  behaviour is changed and in that regard there is no difference in working with people or animals. As dog trainers we work with a wide spectrum of people from old to young, cognitively capable to impaired, accepting of techniques to downright hostile as we train the owner not the pet.

How do we learn best?

Our society is based on a punishment mode. Speed and you get fined, not pay your bills on time and you get fined. Does it stop you long term? Extensive researching into modern dog training methods has discovered that animals learn better if we use positive reward rather than positive punishment (e.g. fines). Rewarding the behaviour we want and ignoring the behaviour we do not want. Dopamine is a feel good chemical that is released in the brain when behaviour is rewarded. We know that constantly punishing for any behaviour does not help the animal to work out any alternative acceptable behaviour. Seriously how many of you only keep to the speed limit when you see a police car around or travel through a fixed speed camera. Long term there is no change to the behaviour required. With animals we know that behaviour that is rewarded occurs faster and stays longer. A method called extinguishment acts to remove the unwanted behaviour.

What is the most effective way to train?

In animals we learn to break the ultimate behaviour we require down into very small increments, called splitting the behaviour. Instead of asking for a perfect drop we reward moves towards the desired behaviour. This clearly communicates to the animal that they are on the right track and stops any frustration they may experience not being able to understand what we require.

We also use a force free method – the animal chooses to provide the behaviour and are not coerced into it by the use of punishment based tools such as shock or prong collars. Animals that give behaviour freely are more likely to offer that behaviour faster in the future. We also set the animal up to succeed and then reward when they do rather than letting them fail and punish them for the failure.

Animal training methods are also based on not attempting to change the underlying hardwired behaviours of the animal. Learning why they do what they do and how to read minute body language cues means we are working in the confines of the animal and not asking them to become something that is totally alien to them.

So how can I apply these concepts to running a business?

When dealing with clients or staff if we think in terms of rewarding the positive behaviour we want rather than punishing the behaviour we don’t like, we are more likely to increase the likelihood that the wanted behaviour will recur. Staff that are praised for doing a good job and just redirected quietly when doing things wrong are more likely to see us as excellent bosses to work for. How often do you pass a staff member who is doing everything right and stop to say “Great job”?

When issuing invoices reward for early or prompt payment rather than punishing for late.  As a groomer I charged a higher price for casual jobs that were messy and more aggressive and made sure that my regular clients were given the normal price that they perceived as a discounted price. This rewarded those who booked more often. Unlike many groomers who add an extra cost to those who leave a groom longer than 6 weeks. Over time more clients came more regularly and I was presented with dogs that were easier to groom. Your clients will be more likely to promote your business as they get a good feeling (the dopamine effect) from dealing with your business.

How often do you, for no apparent reason, contact a client and reward them for being your client?

One great idea I have seen used is the addition of mints to received orders. These small items always make me smile when I open the package and I think favourably of that business in the future. (I like mints!)

Break any behaviour you want down into smaller increments. This is the basis of much of the internet approach of offering a free ebook or offer, then a level one package then a higher level more expensive package. When dealing with staff mark and reward any movement towards the wanted behaviour. Don’t just wait until staff or customers are providing the ultimate behaviour you would like.  For Virtual Assistants have a service that the clients can use to try for very low risk. A hire for an hour package. Get them in to experience what your business offers and them move them on to using more and more of your service.

Set up your staff training courses by firstly understanding where they are at, their individual personalities, skills and weaknesses so that they are set up to succeed not to fail. Write training manuals that outline requirements rather than leaving staff to guess what to do in any situation and then punishing when they get it wrong. Humans, like animals need clear communication. Reward your staff for coming up with innovative solutions or pointing out problems in the systems.

There are many other methods such as empathetic listening, conflict management solutions and cognitive dissonance that will be explored in other blogs on this topic.

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