Wednesday, October 24, 2012

An Open Letter to Beginner Trainers

There is quite a lot of material and information out there on training dogs.  Some of it is good, some of it is not.  There are many, many trainers out there.  Some are effective and humane, some are not.  Some will be able to recognize the needs of your dog, and some will not.  Some will work well with you, some will not.  And there are endless training methods to choose from, and even the trainers themselves debate which among them are most effective, most humane, and most appropriate.

If you feel intimidated, overwhelmed, or confused by all of it, or you simply do not know where to start, you are not alone.  On the other hand, be assured that dog training is not rocket science, and it is possible for just about anyone to find information, trainers, and methods that will be a great fit.

Today I will reflect a bit on some things that I have learned as I have grown and gained experience as a trainer that I wish I had known when I was just starting out.

1.  Don't be afraid to make mistakes.  You can learn a great deal from them, and you will be able to get great training results.  You will not ruin your dog because you didn't know how to train perfectly your first time around.

When I first started training my first dog in Beginner Obedience, we were constantly admonished to "do it right the first time" because it is easier to do it right from the start than it is to fix it later.  While that is technically true, it is also the case that it is better to try and risk getting it all wrong than it would be not to try in order to avoid the possibility of mistakes!  The attitude of "you must get it right the first time" was intimidating to me as a beginner, and I eventually just had to make up my mind to try it and risk making mistakes.  I made mistakes, but those mistakes set me on the path to doing better.

Developing good training skills takes time and practice.  As a beginner, you won't have perfect timing, and that's OK.  As a beginners you won't always know what the finished picture is supposed to look like, nor how, exactly to get there, and that's fine.  You will never move beyond being a beginner, if you do not try, make mistakes, learn from them, and learn through that experience to work with greater skill.

I would say to a beginner - don't even try to train perfectly with your first dog.  Nor even with your second.  Try your best, be willing to learn from your mistakes, and know that you and your dog will learn far more from coming to know how to make it right in spite of those mistakes than you ever will from worrying about getting it wrong.

2.  Trust yourself.  You know your dog best and you know what is right for your dog.  If someone tells you that something must be done to your dog that you would not do yourself, walk away.

The single biggest mistake I have ever made in training had nothing to do with timing, nor with my personal skill level, nor with my level of training experience.  The most serious training mistake I ever made was allowing a trainer to do something to my dog that I was not willing to do for myself.  I don't mean that I handed my dog over so a trainer could show me how to do something that I wanted to learn for myself, but that I allowed another person to do something that I would never be willing to do to that dog.

The dog experienced more negative fallout from that one experience than he ever has from any mistake that I made for myself.  And if there were one training choice I could go back and un-do, it would be that one.  It was flat out wrong for me to allow someone to do something that I knew was wrong for my dog.

A good trainer will listen to your concerns, discuss training options with you, and be willing to help you train and handle your dog in a way that is in both of your best interests.

 3.  Educate yourself.  If you see someone who trains in a way that you would like to emulate, ask that person for book or DVD recommendations.  There is quite a lot of great, and beginner-friendly, material out there.  A referral from someone whose techniques you trust will help you to avoid materials that are not compatible with what you are looking to do.

While it is true that working with a good instructor in person is the best way to get started, the more you know about training, the more proficient you will become, and you will be well on your way to devising and implementing your own training plans.

I particularly recommend doing a bit of reading that will provide some basic understanding of how dogs learn (and how they do not!) and what actually causes the most common behavior problems.  Patricia McConnell's "For the Love of a Dog" is an excellent introduction to these topics, and, while quite a full read, is certainly beginner-friendly.

Reading quality training books and watching good DVD's will prepare you to work in conjunction with your trainer.  It is not 100% necessary, but I do recommend it, especially if your dog struggles with any problem such as fear, reactivity to humans or other dogs, over-excitement, separation anxiety, etc.

4.  Listen to your dog.

Leslie McDevitt, of "Control Unleashed", often says that training should be a conversation with your dog.  A conversation is not one sided - the dog has a voice, too.  Training should not be something that we do to our dogs, it is something that we should do with our dogs.  While training goals and the rule structures that we intend to teach are ours, training actually works best when the dog's feedback, responses, preferences, and input are taken into account.
Just like basic training skill, listening effectively to our dogs takes some learning.  Mistakes will be made along the way, but those are opportunities to learn how to listen better.  If a particular technique or approach causes a dog stress, loss of confidence, or if it causes the dog to avoid learning instead of enthusiasm for it, the time has come to find another approach.  Don't hesitate to ask your instructor to suggest another approach, or to ask around to find someone who is open to a different approach if your current instructor is not.

As an instructor, I like it when I hear the words, "I tried "xyz" and it didn't work.  Do you know any other way?"  Those are my best students!  Ask those questions!  Your dog will not be the only one to benefit - you will, too!

If you keep these four things in mind - Don't be afraid to make mistakes, trust yourself, educate yourself, and listen to your dog - you will be well on your way to fantastic working partnership with your dog!

1 comment:

  1. This is really something you should try to publish. It is something that NEEDS to be said to the world of handlers and trainers. It's a great post that is much needed. You should add it to your website if you have room!