One of the best things about our sport is watching great trainers and great dogs in action, and learning about new tools to put into our own training box of tricks. It’s inspirational and rejuvenating, eye-opening, and challenging. But…
When we watch other great teams demonstrate cool stuff there are some things we need to be careful about, and some questions we should all ask before taking up new (to us) ideas. In other words, we must be critical thinkers, and discriminate between useful effective decisions for our particular dogs, compared to attractive novelty for OUR sakes rather than the dogs.
As a person who presents seminars and workshops, I always remind people that if something isn’t broken currently, don’t rush to fix it with something new. Keep an open mind, collect information, but only make changes in your current training if there is a helpful reason to change, and if you know the result for which you are looking. Different is different; it isn’t always better for YOUR dog.
Does something you are contemplating clarify a concept, fill in an information gap or help you with better timing of information? Great, explore it and give it a try. But if it’s only different, think carefully before starting that experiment. Meanwhile, look more closely at what you’re seeing from the trainer you admire.
Look at the dynamics of the trainer and the dog. Is the thing you admire something that is being done to create a mindset in the dog? If so, how similar to your own dog is that dog’s personality? This is important. If you have a stable, calm, or even serious dog by nature, anything you do to try to create the appearance of edgy excitement will likely give you, at best, a thin veneer. Is the demo dog naturally energetic? If so, the things you see may enhance or maintain that energy level, but may not yield exactly the same results for your calmer dog. If your dog is already energetic, do you really need MORE energy, or is what you’re seeing an approach that will simply help you maintain what you have and refine your ability to direct it? That’s not to say that new games and different ways of using motivators won’t make training more interesting for your dog and you (more on that later) and add some spice to your training; but as yet there is no magic wand that makes a dog’s basic nature change. Some of the unhappiest trainers I’ve met have been those trying to make their dogs into something they aren’t, rather than embracing what they are and making the most of that.
Consider this too: Most dogs I’ve met whose owners think are bored turn out to be confused. Confusion leads to caution, or to choosing to just doing something else attractive to dogs. When dogs know what the game of the exercise is, most of them are pretty hard to bore. But when the learning process is repeatedly short-circuited by games unrelated to the skills, but designed to bring out the happy wagging again, the confusion is perpetuated. A great trainer will fix the confusion, and let confidence naturally improve the dog’s attitude.
Next, look at the mindset of the trainer. Observe the confidence level. Watch the body language exchanges between the trainer and dog. There is a great deal of useful information there to emulate that may not get talked about so much, but it’s there for you to see if you’re looking. It could be posture, the direction of leaning that makes a difference between inhibition and invitation. Look at facial expressions, and listen to voice tone. Watch the quality of motion and the emotion and intention behind it. Some people are gifted with playful natures that their dogs mirror. Some are innately powerful in a quiet way, exuding confidence and conveying clarity to their dogs so that their dogs are never in doubt about what to expect from their trainers or what their trainers expect from the dogs. Where do you fit? Where would you like to fit? Which leadership type does your particular dog need? (Sometimes what your dog actually needs is not what you actually want to do; but you are the grown up, so make the right decision!)
Look carefully at how food and toys are used. Note when they are being used to condition motion patterns, like the get it/ come food toss game that lays the ground work for retrieves, or can be used to work front or finish drills in a dynamic way. Be aware of the rules that must be in place for effective training use, such as the need for the dog to both grab and release a toy instantly on cue without argument. Look at how much the dog’s awareness is balanced between the motivators themselves and the trainer as the key to access. Pay attention to how much the trainer uses visual or verbal cues associated with games with motivators, so that the trainer has verbal tools to use to lift a dog’s spirits BEFORE motivators appear.
Think critically before embracing any sort of “never say no to your dog” litany in the name of promoting or protecting “drive”. First of all, if there is real drive there, appropriate corrections for poor social behavior will not diminish it. Secondly, my personal opinion is that an underrated yet critical component of a good training dynamic is respect. It’s something you earn by being fair, clear, and consistent. Clear…as in telling a dog when it’s wrong and then showing it what to do instead. How you get that message across will depend on the context and the particular dog’s personality, but you have to step up and do what’s needed. Fair…as in gauging a correction to meet the intensity and seriousness of the error and the intent behind it. Consistent…as in being prepared once you know when and how errors are likely to happen both for domestic issue and technical ones. For example, these days I don’t do collar popping in formal competition training for things like minor heeling errors that can be adjusted with very minor collar guidance or pointed use of my hand target. But my dog thinks it would be fun to chase down an 18 wheeler truck. She weighs 14 lbs. When we travel and know we’ll be stopping at rest areas where trucks will be, she wears her very own tiny pinch collar, because she has proven to be unimpressed by verbal corrections or the comparatively minor discomfort of a regular martingale collar. But the pinch collar annoys her enough to motivate her to rethink the barking and lunging option. So that’s what I use, and it doesn’t give me a moment’s worry about any diminishing of her energy in formal training. It minimizes conflict and confrontation between us, which is good for our overall relationship.
Don’t find yourself dazzled by the idea of magic. Great trainers are great observers. They read dogs well because they actually observe dogs carefully, and because they remember what some actions and postures predict. This is a matter of experience, which can only be gained by training and dealing with problems and errors enough to recognize common learning-curve issues to expect or to see obvious signs of confusion. Experienced trainers have figured out ways to break things down well enough to head off some points of confusion most of the time, and that sort of information and predictive ability can look and feel like magic if you have struggled through certain things for months in a reactive manner. Great trainers are also able to put themselves into their dogs’ heads a bit, and see themselves and what they are teaching as the dogs do. Such trainers know what they want in the end, but they start with what they have, and find ways to progressively guide their dogs to the end product they want.
Great trainers note confusion, and look for ways to simplify and clarify. Great trainers don’t fear signs of minor learning stress because they know that on the other side of mastery of skills is confidence and joy. Great trainers establish and condition their communication system early on so that they can be timely and accurate in their guidance as the training gets more complicated. For example, those of us who use collar pressure as corrections and guidance actually teach our dogs to yield to it while still using blatant lures. The dogs learn that the pressure is directional information, but they only consider it mildly annoying by comparison to no pressure, and they learn to look for information and cues when they experience it in the future, rather than go into mental and physical resistance. You can’t skip those little steps in favor of just shopping for bigger and better treats or toys. So make sure that you look past the dazzle and find the substance. It’s easy to make a list of how to do things, but for success you will need to understand why to do things, how a method works, and even the circumstances in which a method might not work. Be a discriminating trainer. Learn observation and analytical skills. Experiment with the intention of clear communication, which includes noting and responding to what your dog tells you about your efforts. Ultimately, your dog is your most accurate instructor!
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