You are not stupid. Please stop saying that you are.

A personal tale of stereotype threat

One of our collection managers was showing me how to use the digital camera. We’re not talking a point-and-click here; this was some sort of Nikon, with a herd, maybe even a plethora, of lenses; this was shades and remote flashes set up in the photography room for the purpose of documenting specimens.

I’d been shown how to use the setup a few years previously, but since I hadn’t used it in the intervening time, my memory of the appropriate settings and icons had faded somewhat, and I’d asked Dave to take me through the basics again. He kindly found time to do so.

I felt guilty, since the collection managers are always busy, and I dislike interrupting people, especially very busy people. So I babbled. Like an idiot.

“Sorry about this,” I babbled, “I’m just really stupid with cameras.”

Dave just smiled and shook his head, and after he’d left the room I stared at my tray of specimens and I had a moment. A capitalised Moment. A goddamn epiphany.

What. The. Fuck. Kate. I snapped at myself. What the fuck did you just say?

I did a media production subject in undergrad. I’ve developed black and white film. Silver nitrate and I have hung out like buddies, if one of those buddies can permanently stain the skin of the other. I didn’t pursue media production (although it did play an indirect role in me switching from Creative Arts to Science, but that’s another story). I didn’t reveal a heretofore unknown talent for the captured image like a beautiful photographer butterfly emerging from a wannabe novelist coccoon.

But I know how a camera works. I’m not stupid with cameras. Apertures, exposure time, depth of field – all those concepts make perfect sense to me. It’s just that I don’t remember what the icons on the dial represent relative to the kind of photos I would like to take, and that’s an issue of memory, not an issue of stupidity.

In fact, even if I hadn’t previously been taught about those concepts, that would be a case of ignorance, not stupidity.

This wasn’t the first time I’d had such a moment, but it was the first time I’d really, really noticed myself doing it.

I’ve noticed other women doing it.

I did my PhD in a university lab that, during my time there, was comprised entirely of women. Apart from some teething issues with a bullying R.A., it was a great work environment, and I still consider them close friends and some of the best people I have ever worked with.

Let us be clear. These are all highly intelligent women. They were all doing PhDs in science. They were all capable in a laboratory environment.

There was so much apology, so much self-deprecation in regards to their abilities, that it was no wonder a bully found fertile ground to play with it all in those early days.

I’m finding it a little hard to write about real people without making generalisations and naming names, so understand that the following stories are broad strokes.

I used to think I was dreadfully stupid at chemistry. I managed to scrape an H1 in the last required chemistry subject for my degree, so clearly this wasn’t a logical position. It took four months of work as an analytical chemist at CSL Pharmaceuticals (I was temping between finishing my Honours project and starting my PhD) to realise that the chemistry I was doing was just some basic maths and measurements, and once I realised that, suddenly it got easy. Chemistry is – or can be – an extremely complex discipline, but I wasn’t doing it at that level. My first year undergrad was actually sufficient to get by for the tests I was running.

This meant that by the time I started my PhD, making basic stock solutions held no fear for me. It took the uncertainty in the eyes of a colleague to remind me that, prior to working at CSL, I would have been really nervous even about putting together TE buffer (dead easy to make), let alone the phenol-chloroform-isoamyl mix (even easier to make, technically speaking, but with a significantly higher chance of burning and fuming and generally doing oneself harm).

It was really common for my colleagues to constantly put themselves down and second guess what they were doing – but they knew how to do these things. They never actually screwed it up. It’s one thing to get confused about picomoles vs nanomoles (10,000 pmol is the same as 10 nmol, but given the price of the fluorescently labelled primers and how rarely I use units with “pico” and “nano” in front of them, I do double-check), when tired after a couple of twelve hour work days. It’s another thing to panic and decide that you can’t deal with it, when demonstrably you can.

Since the branch of genetics that I work in is heavier on analysis than it is on lab work, we would spend some time over coffee musing over analytical options and approaches. There was often a chorus of, “I have no idea about some of that stuff,” and for the first year or so I was just as guilty as everyone else. And yet, a few sips into the first cappucino, we’d be tossing alternative approaches and limitations back and forth like pros. Which we were. Pros. And then I got some confidence. I looked around me, and realised that I actually seemed to know what I was talking about a good portion of the time, and I stopped apologising. I was willing to be corrected on analytical questions, but I stopped apologising for not knowing everything, and I stopped acting as though I knew less than I did.

I bought a textbook at a conference a few years ago: Wakeley’s Coalescent Theory. I understand the basics of coalescence, but I wanted to really get my head around the nuances of it. I got through about a chapter and a half and gave up, since one summary integration formula followed by pages of “As you can see from this summary formula” made me feel stupid and miserable.

It wasn’t until last year that an expert in this field mentioned the book, and said that, as an introduction for biologists, it wasn’t one, and really it was something to read through after you’d gone through this other book. I just didn’t have the background skills to get through Wakeley, and since the blurb raved about what a wonderful introduction it was to the subject, I decided I must be stupid.

Why is that the first option? Why isn’t the first option that perhaps you lack the background knowledge – or even that you have the background knowledge, and you actually know what you’re doing, but that society has told you for so long that women don’t do maths and chemistry, and the moment you hit a wall, your determination falters for a moment, because what if you really are trying to fit the round peg in a square hole, what if you really shouldn’t be doing this?

And even if you know better – you know that there’s really no gender in how this is done, and honestly, you get furious at feeling this way, because you know what you know, but the minute there’s someone in the room who might stereotype you, you start to falter and panic – because you’ve heard how some men talk about the women they work with, and you know how easy it is for you to end up in a box for one slip-up, one mistake, one faulty assertion – and you panic, and now you’re more likely to make those mistakes.

It’s called stereotype threat.

I am demonstrably not stupid. I actually have a pile of evidence, on hand, that I can supply to prove my lack of stupidity. I have no idea how intelligent other people will be, and I can’t make any assumptions as to where I fit relatively speaking when I meet someone (and it’s best not to do that sort of thing anyway), but having that evidence there reminds me that I am actually not stupid.

None of the women that I worked with were stupid. Most of them, at some point, said that they were. I ranted about the issue one time over coffee with one friend. She went quiet and thoughtful. The next time I saw her, she said, “I’ve been paying attention. I do that all the time.”

Do what?

Apologise. Tell yourself you’re stupid. Tell yourself you don’t understand those things anyway. Because it’s perhaps easier to lower all expectations – within a conversation, or within yourself – than to try, and have some trouble, and then feel like everyone who told you that you couldn’t do science because you were a girl was right.

And it’s not just the scientists that I’ve worked with in the lab. It’s the older women, family and friends of the family, that I know, who back away and say, “You’re so smart. I could never understand all that stuff.”

Yes. Yes, you could. Stop selling yourself short. You are more than this.

But how do you fight a message that someone’s been getting their whole lives? You can’t. You just have to wait, and watch until they challenge themselves. Watch that delight as they realise, in some shock, that they are actually not stupid. Sure, it would have been nice to realise that forty years ago, but better late than never.

 

 

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Hypermobility, Episode 2: The flesh machine

At this point there is disagreement over whether hypermobility syndrome – HMS – is simply a subclass of Ehlers-Danlos syndrome or a separate disorder. What is known, is that the problem of generalised hypermobility (where it affects all joints, and is not just an issue of shallow sockets) is a problem of collagen. While it is constantly invoked in skincare ads of doubtful veracity (this amazing serum will stimulate the production of collagen! Sure it will. Sure), it is actually a fairly important protein (edit: collagens are actually a whole class of diverse proteins, but for simplicity’s sake, I’m referring to it as the one item). Collagen is a major component of your connective tissues: skin, ligaments, tendons, and so on. It needs to be reasonably strong in order to keep bones and muscles attached where they should be, but it also needs to be reasonably flexible, in order to allow them to move.

In the case of hypermobility, there is a genetic flaw in the production of collagen (thanks, Mum). It is too flexible. For example:

I thought it was normal to be able to pull out stretchy skin (note: hyperelasticity is not a feature of hypermobility- generally it’s associated with other forms of EDS. However, people with EDS/hypermobility class or HMS will generally show more elasticity in the skin than most people).

I thought it was normal to be able to bend your wrist back past ninety degrees, or your knees and elbows back past zero (hyperextension).

I even thought it was awesome that I could bend over and put my hands flat on the floor. I thought it meant I had flexible hamstrings. Sadly, it just means I have a very flexible lower back, and that this stretch is just going to do me damage in the long run unless I consciously “hinge” from my hips (at which point I actually am stretching my hammies, and not my back).

…although I suspected that my very bendy feet had something to do with the mysterious plague of sprained ankles that has haunted me throughout my life.

I’m not that severe, to be honest. My joints shift and subluxate (partially dislocate) but don’t fully dislocate (with the exception of my kneecaps, which have wandered off far too many times for my comfort), and unlike some people with HMS, I’m not in constant, severe, chronic pain.

It’s still bad enough to cause me injuries. Hypermobile people tend to sprain things. They tend to experience overuse injuries. More importantly, it’s quite common for some very useful muscles to simply not activate the way they should, because they are not properly supported.

Knock-on effects due to leverage

It all comes down to angles.

If, as a small child figuring out how to walk, your joints are lax, then your legs are going to move at a different angle than they are “supposed” to. Instead of staying straight, your knees might fold inwards and forwards due to loose hips. This can in turn send your ankles outwards. What this means, O bendy small child, is that you aren’t actually using the same muscles that everyone else uses, even when you’re trying to do the same thing. Muscles activate in response to a particular angle of pressure.

An easy example is the upper arm. When you want to curl your arm up towards yourself, you activate your bicep. When you want to extend it, you activate your tricep. That’s a really obvious one, but when it comes to hips and back and shoulders, there are a whole bunch of medium sized muscles that kick in due to different angles of movement.

This means that the muscles that bendy child is supposed to be using don’t develop properly, or at least not to the same extent that they do in non-hypermobile people. We end up with sway backs, weak core muscles, and butt muscles that just don’t do what they’re meant to. I can activate some of these muscles, but it has required physiotherapy, clinical pilates, and sheer bloodymindedness to get them working, and I’m still not very good at it.

These are called “bad motor habits”, and they have long-term consequences.

Why does that matter, as long as you get from A to B?

Well, setting aside that one gets a certain amount of heckling when one spends one’s childhood and adolescence “walking funny”, it turns out that you end up putting pressure in places that weren’t meant to experience it. This leads to sore backs, shoulders, and joints in general; a tendency for joints to buckle unexpectedly; and an overwhelming tendency to fatigue.

I am not good at holding a position. Anyone who has sat next to me at a conference (or in a lecture, or on a plane…) is probably aware of this. I get comfortable. Then I shift. I cross my legs. I straighten them. I lean forward. I sit back. I turn to the side. And generally, I take a seat at the end of the row so I don’t bug people (ever since I realised that not everyone does this). Why is this to do with HMS, though? Couldn’t I just be fidgety?

When most people maintain a seated position, they have their ligaments holding their joints in place with very little effort (if any) on their part.

My stretchy ligaments aren’t going to hold jack shit in place, so I end up activating a whole bunch of small (underdeveloped) postural muscles to hold a seated position. These muscles get very tired, very quickly. It is very, very tiring for me to hold a position, so I am constantly shifting to work different muscle groups.

This is a special kind of hell on long-haul flights. Everyone else seems to be able to sit upright with their feet on the ground whereas I desperately want to lock my feet up against the back of the seat in front (something of a faux pas I understand if one is older than six years of age) because otherwise sitting up requires me to use core muscles that, in my case, suck and it is miserable and painful and exhausting. It is far more comfortable for me to just fall into my joints.

Not only that, but when you have HMS, you are always, always thinking about what your body is doing and how it is doing it (case in point: while typing that sentence, I just hooked my right ankle around my left shin to lock it in place). If you don’t think about it, even just in the back of your mind, that’s when ankles roll and muscles tear and you trip over your own goddamn feet (again). And that’s pretty tiring and distracting too.

I get tired when studying from having to shift positions over a textbook. I get tired when writing in a notebook from having to constantly change the angle of the book against my arm.

Why yes, HMS is linked to chronic fatigue syndrome. When sitting can make you ludicrously tired, fatigue is just a given. I actually find that a good gym workout is, in many ways, less fatiguing than sitting up on the couch. It’s still tiring – obviously I’m deliberately working to develop certain muscle groups – but the machines support all the flaily, falling-over bits of me while I work the target group.

I repeat: up until recently I thought all this shit was normal. It’s thought that between 5 and 10% of the population are generally hypermobile but don’t necessarily experience all these symptoms: you can be generally hypermobile without experiencing HMS.

There are other symptoms that are even less fun than being somewhat bendy and spraining the odd ankle (edit: I have a sprained ankle at the moment. The synergy, it burns).

Collagen, unfortunately, is all through your body. This means that HMS and/or Ehlers-Danlo are systemic conditions – having excessively elastic connective tissues leads to problems in your gut (weak intestines which in my case result in the occasional genuinely agonising gut cramp), problems with airways (tendency to asthma), problems with blood vessels (low blood pressure, orthostatic issues as in a tendency to pass out), problems with vision (yes, there’s collagen in your eyes; HMS is linked to myopia a.k.a. shortsightedness) and problems with various components of your autonomic nervous system – that is, the bits of your nervous system that are supposed to do things without having to be told. Some people can have seizures. Some people have temperature anomalies (hot head, cold feet, etc.).

What is common to most people with some form of this condition is chronic pain. I’m not sure how I got lucky on that one. I don’t have chronic pain (or if I do, it’s so mild that I’m obviously disregarding it).

At the moment, I have a sore left ankle bone on the inside, a weird stabbing pain in my right toe for no reason I can think of, shoulder pain and back pain. None of these pains are serious enough to even need ibuprofen, let alone anything stronger. For many who have HMS, however, the pain appears to have no cause and is a function of an over-sensitised nervous system.

So what does this all mean?

The problems that I have because of this condition are problems that I’ve had all my life. Although I’ve been tired enough to miss out on things from time to time, I don’t have chronic fatigue, and although I tend to be a bit achey and sore, I don’t have chronic pain. The only reason this is an epiphany is because it explains so many weird and odd things about my body in a rather elegant way.

But… HMS has implications for pregnancy and childbirth. The collagen problems are exacerbated by exposure to progesterone, leading to pelvic girdle pain, even looser joints than normal, and all sorts of problems in childbirth. You have a much higher chance of experiencing permanent damage throughout the process. Husband and I have been considering adding to the population some time over the next year or so, and in that light, suddenly a caesarean is starting to sound pretty good (because who wants their pubic symphisis to permanently separate? Freaking no-one, that’s who).

Also, the agonising gut pains… they’re pretty bad. To give you an idea of the pain, I was checked out for gallstones, kidney stones and appendicitis (none of which I appear to have). My vision goes grey. I’ve actually passed out from it. It’s like being stabbed (I imagine). It doesn’t happen often, but when it does, Jesus fucking Christ, it hurts.

Can any of this be fixed?

Well… not really. It’s genetic. It can get better, though, through rigorous exercise designed to strengthen the muscles supporting the loose joints and to stabilise and activate those neglected core muscles (at least one of which, apparently, everyone else activates automatically without even thinking about it, whereas I was staring at an ultrasound, randomly flexing, trying to figure out where the damn thing was). Apparently strengthening those deep core muscles will actually help with the gut pain. That’s promising.

One thing to remember is that, if you are hypermobile and show a bunch of these systems, exercise is not entirely optional (if you want to stay mobile and active and free of back pain and so on for an extended period).

When I went to the physio as a precursor to undertaking clinical pilates, I filled out a new customer form asking me what goals I hoped to achieve.

I kind of stared at it for a while. I knew I needed to do pilates if I was going to fix the problems with my core muscles, but that was part of a general desire for health and fitness.

In the end I wrote: “1. Stabilise core muscles. 2. Reduce pain and injury risk. 3. Improve proprioception.”

In the actual appointment, of course, the physiotherapist administered the Beighton test. When asked to bend forward and put my hands as close to the floor as they could go, I asked, “Really? As far as I can go?” because hey, it’s nice to be good at something, even if the thing you’re good at it is ultimately pretty bad for you.

About eight months on, and the core work has actually, genuinely helped. I can hold a ninety second plank. I can stand and walk for longer without getting lower back pain. My form with free weights is improved. I still can’t sit still in one position for very long, but I don’t think that’s ever really going to change – my joints are what they are.

Unfortunately, nothing can really be done about the gut pain that strikes like a vindictive ninja a few times a year. One takes a couple of very strong painkillers and tries to pass out until the pain goes away.

So, while HMS/EDS has an extremely varied presentation, this is what it means for me.

DOG QUEST: Dog training and small dogs

We try to take Amos and Abby to training every week. The training mob we go to runs several classes a week, all in different locations, and the nearest one is on Saturday mornings. It’s about a 30-40 minute drive, depending on traffic, but finding good trainers can be difficult, and we’ve found these guys and are not letting them go.

A Saturday morning timeslot means that we miss the occasional session due to having adventures on Friday night, or prior social engagements, but, since we got Abby, I’d say we have a pretty good batting average.

There are a lot of myths about dog training.

One of the most pervasive myths is that dog training is just for “puppy school”. Don’t get me wrong; I think it’s wonderful that we have a culture where people think it’s appropriate to take a new dog to training for a while so they can get a handle on one another. This is a great step forward. It used to be that people would just try to train their dogs themselves, and that can be a very bad idea.

But, in all honesty, training can be – should be – continuous. It’s not just about “sit”, “drop”, and “come”. Training is fun, for both you and your dog.

The disclaimer I want to provide there is that there have been times when training was not fun, when either Husband or myself were enormously stressed for other reasons, and Amos was in his adolescent MAD PUPPY phase, it was exhausting. The problem was us, of course, not Amos, and now I think that we are much better prepared to handle Abby’s MAD PUPPY phase (she’s a lot easier to handle for other reasons, though, mostly the fact that she is desperately food driven so it’s much easier to keep her engaged. I’ve mostly worked out the tricks to keeping Amos engaged, but it was challenging to get to this point). The worst period was when I was trying to rewrite and resubmit my thesis – I was miserable, stressed and exhausted all the time, and Amos picked up on this through my body language, and it made everything so much harder. None of that was his fault – it was mine, and my attitude – and we got through it together! Husband carried a lot of training responsibility at this time.

But with good trainers, and (most importantly) a good attitude, training is fun and uplifting – especially if you have a smart dog. Dogs love to learn new things, and there’s nothing quite like the connection you get when your dog cocks your head at you as you’re both learning something new. “What is it you’re after?” the dog is wondering. “Is it this?” You can see them thinking it through. Then the dog tries a few things, and eventually gets it right, and then there are treats and praise and playing. The feeling of being on the same page as your dog is difficult to describe. It’s just delightful.

Training sit, drop and recall is just the beginning. The skills you learn through continued dog training go much deeper. Engagement is key: teaching your dog to be focused on you, so that it’s easier to get their attention, and deliberately getting them riled up and giving them a command, to teach them that no matter how excited they are about something, they should still listen. Then there’s neutral socialisation – at our dog school, dogs are not allowed to interact. They learn that being around other dogs (when away from home at least) isn’t a reason to get super excited and start jumping or barking or growling or pulling on the lead (Abby is still working on this, but there is much improvement). Being around other dogs is just something that happens. For some dogs this takes a long time to learn, but as training progresses they can be taken closer and closer to other dogs without acting up.

Training is about mental stimulation for dogs. Incidentally, so is walking: when you take a dog for a walk, you’re not really taking them for exercise (unless your dog is small and has titchy little legs, or is really unfit). If you take a kelpie, say, out for a half an hour walk, you’ve barely scratched the surface of kelpie energy levels (those guys are half Energizer Bunny, I’m sure); they’re not going to get the endorphin rush that I get from a gym session. Walking is about stimulation – seeing things, sniffing things, hearing things, pissing on things (ah, boy dogs…), meeting people, meeting other dogs. It’s about going out, much in the same way that you don’t always want to be stuck at home all day.

Training is the same. I could walk Amos for an hour (and sometimes I do), and we have a good time, but afterwards, he is not particularly tired. He is content, but not tired.

When I take him to training, quite often he is done for the rest of the day. He flops down and is pretty much exhausted, because his brain was working very hard on concepts that are very complex for a dog.

Training is also wonderful for your bond with your dog. The more Amos and I have been working together at training, the closer we are and the better we get along and understand one another. Training is really practicing communication, and communication is at the heart of every relationship. When you get something right, you both get to be pleased with yourselves and with each other.

So, as a general rule, dogs that are going to regular training (presuming the dog school is run well, and ours is) are going to be happier than dogs that are not. It’s not so much about whether it’s necessary for good behaviour – it’s more a quality of life issue. Having said that, it’s easy to get complacent that your dog knows the basics, and get into bad habits, inconsistent signals, and all that sort of thing (we have been guilty of this). It’s never a bad idea to go in for a brush-up session if you don’t train regularly.

So why is this post titled the way it is?

It’s titled that way because our class is mostly composed of large dogs and working dogs and bull breed mixes (mentioned separately because they can often be quite small but are acknowledged to be both powerful and clever). Rottweilers, German Shepherds, various cattle dogs, border collies, labradors, the noble bitsas of larger size, Staffordshires of various mix and provenance, and so on.

Large dogs and working dogs come with strings attached; when you sign up for a dog that can drag a fully-grown man down the road, or work out how to open doors, or leap the majority of fences without effort, you have a dog that can get into serious trouble and do damage to property and people (should they take the notion into their fuzzy canine heads). So, unless you’re seriously irresponsible, you’ve also signed up to train that dog.

But training is not just about safety for people and dogs, although that is crucial – as we’ve seen, it’s about mental stimulation, happy dogs, and connection between dogs and people.

All those things apply to small dogs too.

We rarely see small dogs at training, but when we do, we are all delighted. It’s true that I myself would never have a small dog, but I love dogs in general, and if you leave me with a friendly, well-socialised Pomeranian for a day we will have a great time together. A dog is a dog is a dog.

(I should also mention that safety is important for small dogs. It’s harder for them to do damage, but yes, small dogs have killed infants. They should never be underestimated. Tiny and cute and fluffy they may be, but they are still dogs, with dog instincts and dog needs. There’s not a lot of broad psychological difference between Amos and your average Jack Russell)

While some small dogs feel a bit threatened at training (due to the presence of the aforementioned larger breeds), they do acclimatise to the environment, and then they are delighted. I’ve seen a three-month old pug doing a fantastic recall, tripping over her own feet (because, hey, still a puppy, and also pugs are not necessarily put together for grace on the ground), then get up and dash to her owner with her little curly tail wagging furiously. She was so happy. She and her owner had a marvellous time. Among the small dog breeds, I’ve seen Maltese, Pom-crosses, bat-eared Pekingese and especially the ubiquitous Jack Russell Terrier – and they all do really well at training (Jack Russells are particularly quick on the uptake. Very clever little fellows).

I have friends with smaller dogs, and they say things like, “Well, they finished puppy school… sometimes their behaviour is not great… but… you know…” and because they know I am such a proponent of dog training, there is some awkward floundering and I tend to say the following and rescue them:

“Honestly, if you don’t keep training [name of adorable little dog], it’s not a disaster. There’s not so much trouble they can get into [comparatively speaking]. It’s just not optional for us – Amos and Abby are big dogs.”

I always feel conflicted. I don’t want to make my friends feel bad – and all my friends who have dogs are responsible dog owners, regardless of dog size. Those dogs are loved, and cared for, and generally trained to at least the comfortable basics, and any problematic behaviour is taken into consideration. I feel so strongly about these things that I just want to give everybody gold stars for taking care of their dogs, because it’s not uncommon to see people with dogs that are serious trouble (regardless of size), and those people just laughing it off as “dogs will be dogs.” (yes, they will be. Well-spotted. This does not help solve the problem)

When it comes down to it, and it comes down to personal safety, continuing dog training for smaller dogs is optional – but for something that could so greatly improve their quality of life, I feel that “optional” is, for the most part, a technicality.

To be fair:

  • not everyone has the time. Taking into account the lesson time (one hour), the drive time (total one hour or more), prep time (getting two excited dogs into the car and harnessed, cutting training treats in sufficient quantities, swapping flat collars for training collars and, in Abby’s case, a halter – long story), it’s about two and a half to three hours on a Saturday morning for us. I can see how someone with small children, or a very demanding job, might simply not have those hours free – or, if they are free, might be absolutely desperate to keep those hours free. That’s a decision a person has to make for themselves. Having said that, if you’ve made time to walk your dog every day, it makes sense to swap out that walk for a training session once a week.
  • Not everyone has a decent trainer within reasonable driving distance. We train with the K9 Company , who service the northern suburbs of Melbourne, Australia (we live in the south-eastern suburbs, hence the drive). There’s a whole post on “what to look for in a dog trainer” (and if I were to provide tips I’d actually be consulting my trainers for confirmation), but as a basic start: make sure they are accredited. If an accreditation is available, they should have it. In Australia, that often means being accredited by the National Dog Training Federation (NDTF). Do not accept “Oh, I’ve always trained dogs” as a qualification. Dog training is a science. It is animal behaviour. We have experiments and long-term studies and evidence. We have data. Dog training and behavioural understanding evolves and improves – something that was an accepted method twenty years ago is probably considered inappropriate and potentially dangerous today (i.e., you might get results, but those results could be accompanied by worrying behaviour, or those results could be greatly improved if you alter your methods). Approach dog training as a science, and you will get much better results. If there is no-one accredited in your area, finding a good trainer is going to be that much more difficult.
  • I am not sure about the usual spread of training costs – for us, it’s $15 (AUD) per dog per class (update: it’s going up to $20 in September, but to be fair they’ve kept that at $15 for the last three years at least), and we pay when we turn up. There’s no subscription arrangement, which means that we don’t have to have a lump sum of cash every three months (or whenever it starts). This works a lot better for us, but not every training company is big enough to absorb the fluctuation in attendance rates on a pay-by-attendance schedule (I have noticed our winter classes are significantly smaller than the summer and autumn classes). Having $30 on hand is something we can manage, but for some people that’s a big deal. Having $200 on hand for a quarter’s worth of sessions can also be an issue. Of course, I strongly urge anyone who has a dog to make training a financial priority, but everyone has a different set of priorities and if your dog is safe and happy at the moment, it will go further down the list.

So I do understand that there are reasons a person might not train once the basics are understood, and I have to respect that choice – I mostly post this because I think that many dog owners are not actually aware of the benefits of long-term training, and maybe understanding those benefits will change the weighting of priorities.

And at my last training session, there was a very small poodle puppy, and he did a fantastic job and was a leaping little ball of black fluff having a marvellous time, and that’s the image I take with me when I think about small dogs and training.