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Trainer Spotlight: Sara Scott on Transitioning to Virtual Training

Sara Scott is a veteran Bay Area dog trainer who has recently switched over to an online video-based model. Sara works with her clients using a unique format in which her clients submit videos and Sara provides ongoing feedback and coaching to help them reach their training goals. Sara is now working with clients all over the world and finding great success with this new system!

I chatted with Sara (virtually) recently about her new business model, what other trainers should think about when considering an online model, what dog owners should think about when hiring a trainer, and more. 

Hi Sara! Thanks so much for taking the time to chat with me. Can you share a little bit about your background - how long you have been in business, where you're located and what services you currently offer?

I’ve been training dogs since 2000 and started off teaching group classes at Tony La Russa’s Animal Rescue foundation, Oakland SPCA and San Francisco SPCA. I spent time after this in the rescue world and focused heavily on pit bull rescue before checking out the world of dog sports and getting my toes wet there. Currently I offer behavior consultations and private lessons through an online learning platform and specialize in helping people with dogs who exhibit aggressive or fearful behavior problems.

How has your business model changed since Covid? 

I’ve switched over to an online video-based learning program. I create a customized training plan and then teach the client how to practice and implement the plan with their dog. I am finding that having clients review their training videos helps them to learn quicker and to be more effective trainers for their dogs. As we know, being an effective trainer and having good mechanical skills is a necessary piece of changing your dog’s behavior. Instead of seeing clients once a week or once every other week for an hour, I see them regularly throughout the week online.

Was this adjustment difficult for you and/or the clients? What snags did you run into? Was it a challenge to not see clients + dogs face to face? 

I found the adjustment made many things more simple. Schedules no longer need to line up and clients are free to work on training whenever they are able to fit it into their individual day. Because I am able to give more regular daily feedback, I find it easier for clients to stay on track with practice and homework. I also find that this model weeds out people who are hoping for a quick fix or believe that you will train the dog for them. The biggest challenge in not seeing dogs face to face is that I don’t get to pet dogs as much as I used to!

I definitely see the advantages over what I was doing before and I had no idea that it was going to go that route when I first started, as it was more a survival tactic for Covid than a thought out choice. But I’ve been doing a lot of skill-based fitness training online and have been learning those skills in this exact same format. People in the fitness world have been doing this for a while, way before Covid times started, and that was helpful in learning the ins and outs of coaching online and teaching people skills via video-based learning models.

In what ways do you think this model is better than the previous one? What are the pros and cons? 

Scheduling and finding time for training is more simple with the online model. Clients can do their homework, practice and send in their videos whenever they are able to fit the time into their day. 

Clients are learning more quickly how to be effective trainers and how to understand their dogs more clearly as video is an excellent teaching tool for humans. I’m also able to see behavior snippets of anything and during any time. If your dog is having trouble at 10 PM at night, I’m able to see that or if your dog is having an issue when the family is home and you’re all eating dinner, I’m able to see that as well. With a traditional training model, where I show up at your house for an hour, it's harder to work on behavior problems that are not presenting at that time. 

The other benefit I see with an online model is helping clients develop an ongoing training routine. And of course the secret to having a well trained dog is regular and smart practice! I will never ask you to sit down and practice with your dog for an entire hour, and so with the online learning model, you’re learning how to practice a little bit every day with your dog. Regular practice is the key to results. 

To be successful, you do need to be comfortable videotaping your sessions, committing to regular daily practice, sending in your videos to me online and setting time aside to review my feedback to apply to your next practice session.

Do you think you'll go back to face to face or a hybrid model, or will you stay 100% online? 

At this time, I don’t see any benefit to returning to a face-to-face model and plan to stay fully online going forward.

What advice would you have for other trainers looking to do something similar? 

I would recommend that they learn about online human learning models so that they can apply that to their dog knowledge.

So many people have adopted dogs over the past year. What are three key pieces of advice you would offer to any new dog owner to help set up them and their dog for success? 

Because the dog training industry is not regulated, it’s important to do your research and find a trainer who uses evidence-based best practices. Second, understand that you are the main one responsible for teaching and strengthening behaviors you would like to see your dog perform and there are no shortcuts. And third, training should be fun and rewarding for both you and your dog, so if things feel stressful or uncomfortable, it’s time to reevaluate and seek out other options.

What advice would you give to a dog owner who is interested in hiring a trainer? 

Look for a trainer that utilizes evidence-based best practices and upholds a code of ethics. Ask them about certifications, professional education and practical experience. Ideally you want a trainer who has all three. Third, ask for references and check out reviews.

What are some of the special issues or considerations that you're seeing with owners who have adopted dogs during the pandemic? 

Most dogs who were adopted during the pandemic are settling in and adjusting to life just fine. Of course, people are having the regular issues that they typically have when they adopt a new dog. While many dog trainers were worried about behavior problems developing during this time, dogs are fairly resilient creatures and I am not seeing a lot of behavior problems directly related to the Covid lifestyle. 

Why do you advocate for positive reinforcement based dog training and handling? 

Positive reinforcement means adding something to the equation to strengthen a particular behavior. We never really know if something is functioning as positive reinforcement until we apply the technique and see the behavior change validate the intended purpose. As well, I believe that labeling is a problem in the dog world and is not particularly helpful in teaching owners how to be good trainers for their dogs.

I advocate for training that does not purposely utilize the application of pain or fear and that provides the dog with choice and consent when working with the owner. I believe that all animals are sentient beings and deserve to be treated as such.

Thank you so much for your time Sara! To learn more about working with Sara, visit her website, services page, or Instagram page. Sign up for Sara's e-newsletter