While this is a big pet peeve of mine, I actually don't have many people ask if consults are optional or if they are free; and I consider myself lucky in that regard. Actually, it's probably the potential clients who are lucky. If presented with those questions, I try not to laugh and then (if we are all lucky) diplomatically explain that I cannot help without getting a thorough history and assessing the dog in person.
I can't stand it when I see that other trainers offer free consults. For one, it's devaluing their time and expertise, which is not the way to run a successful business. This makes me sad for them. Second, it's devaluing the time and expertise of all other trainers. If it seems acceptable for one trainer to not charge for consults, people expect all trainers to do the same. That devalues my job, which is not nice and not cool.
Aside from people not taking seriously things they do not pay for (an unfortunate truth) the consult is usually the most important hour (or two) that I spend with a client. While it may seem like I am just asking a bunch of questions, typing on my iPad and occasionally petting or tossing a treat to your dog, I'm doing a lot more. With any dog I will be working with, I need to establish a baseline of what their "normal" is before I can start any training or behavior modification program. Everything I do and say during a consult is for a reason- except when I mispronounce your cat's name- that's just me being absent-minded!
The first step in discerning this is when I meet you and your dog at the door. With the exception of aggression towards strangers in which there is a different protocol, I will allow your dog to jump a few times to greet if that's what they typically do. I allow this to see first how your dog jumps (if they greet with exuberance, if they have any awareness of their own size, if they nip, if they bring me a toy, if they jump gently and barely touch me, etc). The other reason is that I want to see how you react to this behavior. I'm not trying to encourage it, and again, with aggression it's different and there's usually at least a leash and a gate involved. I want to learn a few things:
Do you yell at your dog?
Do you laugh?
Do you apologize?
Do you grab her by the collar and push her down to the floor?
Do you ask her to "off" or "sit" about 30 times in a 1 minute time period?
Whatever your response is, it's your dog's normal and I want to see it. I also want to see how your dog responds to your response to their behavior. This tells me a bit about your relationship with your dog. Sometimes, the relationship between dog and owner is one of the problems we need to fix, and I need to know that- so do you!
Next, we sit down and go through your dog's history. Knowing a dog's past can help us determine why certain behaviors have started or persisted and what has or has not worked in the past. Knowing a dog's daily routine gives me insight into the amount of time you spend with your dog and the amount of time you will likely have to put into training. I'm not going to be very helpful to you or your dog if I can't come up with a training plan that you can actually use and follow through with. I ask you what your training goals are and what behaviors are most bothersome to you. This tells me whether or not your training goals a realistic given your time and your dog. While I am typing up notes, I want to see how your dog responds to the sudden stop in treats from me- this lets me know how your dog deals with frustration. Lots of dogs are not good at dealing with frustration well and are lacking self control. Handing out free treats for a minute and abruptly stopping is an easy way to test this in most dogs.
Just a quick note on what I am NOT doing in a consult- I'm never going to judge you during a consult or any other time. I may ask probing questions, but it's not so I can go talk to all my trainer friends about how inept you are, I promise. I ask tons of questions about time in the crate and daily walks so I can understand what you have to offer and to make sure we really can meet your goals. If it's just not feasible to meet your goals, I will tell you. I will also offer good alternative goals that are attainable. Plenty of times there are goals that seem out of reach but they just take a little longer to attain and I'll tell you that, too!
Last, we will work on one or two easy commands. I will teach your dog first, then you practice with me watching you so I can make sure you do it right and to make sure your dog is responsive to you.
That's it, that's what happens during a typical consult. More complex behavioral problems may have a slightly different protocol, but it follows the same pattern. After I leave your house, I go home and type up notes, do research, and develop your training plan. For every 1-2 hour consult with a client, I am spending an additional 2+ hours at home making sure we have a solid training plan that will work. If we need to tweak it down the road we can, but we need to start somewhere.
Without knowing your dog's normal, I can't help you. Without taking the time and finding out a thorough history and setting clear training goals, we can't resolve problems. With something so important, why would I not charge for my time and more importantly, why would you not want me to? Just as you won't take seriously a service that is free, why would I take seriously work that is costing me time and gaining me little in return? Not to sound like a money-grubbing jerk, but this is my job. The money I make training dogs is income for my family, so it is very important to me. I'm very fortunate that I get to make money doing something I love, but I still take it seriously and so should you.