A philosophy is a high level guide that sets your course, a goal is what you hope to accomplish, and a technique is a specific way to reach your goals.  In an excellent training program, one’s philosophy, goals and techniques must be in alignment.

As a dog trainer, I have a philosophy and goals that set my course, and then I have a range of techniques that allow me to work towards my goals. These techniques are the tools that I use to communicate with my dog.

I often hear talk of a “toolbox”.  The common thinking is that the more tools (techniques) you have, the better off you’ll be.  I disagree.  I only need tools that are aligned with my philosophy and goals; anything else undermines my direction.

In the dog training world there are many foundation philosophies such as “I believe that I must convince my dog that cooperation with training is not optional” or “I believe that I have a responsibility to make training pleasant for my dog.” Once you identify your philosophy, your techniques should fall in alignment with that philosophy.  If one person holds to the first philosophy and another to the second, then they will require different training techniques, even if they share the same goals.  Some examples of goals might include, ”I train so that I can enjoy the pleasure of a well trained pet,” “I train so that I can compete in dog shows,”  or “I train so that I can better understand how a dog’s mind works”.  In some cases techniques will overlap across trainers because they are consistent with a variety of philosophies and in other cases they will diverge, but at root, you’ll be going different routes to reflect your beliefs.  Why waste your limited time, emotional energy, money and effort on tools that won’t work for you?

My philosophy of training is: “I believe in training with affection and respect for both members of the team,” and my goals are “prepare for competition”, and “better understand how to train different temperaments of dogs” so my techniques and interests flow from there.  I do not wish to reach my goals at the expense of my dreams.

When I select a technique for a particular dog, I consider how the dog and I are going to feel about that particular option within my philosophy.  Will the dog perceive my choice as an outgrowth of my affection for them?  Am I respecting what they want or need from training with consideration for their unique temperament?  Am I respecting my interests too?  

I also consider my goals. If I can choose between two methods that both satisfy a performance interest, one that I know well and one that is new to me, I’ll choose the novel one. That helps me reach my goal of better understanding a variety of temperaments of dogs.

It is a waste of my resources to learn techniques that assume compulsion, physical manipulation, or deprivation, regardless of effectiveness, because these methods don’t fit my philosophy of training and make me uncomfortable, and therefore they are not relevant to me.  Because my philosophy accounts for respecting the human half of the team, I also cannot support individual trainers or methods that are not kind to the well being of the person learning how to train the dog. People require kindness and consideration too. If I have concerns, my resources are better spent elsewhere. 

I often hear the argument that all methods can be “adapted” but I have not found that to be the case.  Incremental change on top of traditional philosophy rarely produces anything unique.  While modern adaptations of traditional thinking may strive for excellence, they are unlikely to reach spectacular. I want to see something new; something I would not have seen fifteen years ago!

Whatever philosophy you choose your dog will internalize over time, and there is comfort is consistency, even if that consistency is, “every time you look away I will pop your collar.” Now if 1/4 the time you pop the collar and 1/4 the time you lure the dog’s head back with a cookie and 1/4 the time you wait the dog out and reward when he looks back and 1/4 the time you insist that he play with you regardless of his opinion then that causes unsureness and confusion.  Some dogs adapt – they forgive the inconsistency and progress in spite of their trainer, but other dogs do very poorly with these shades of grey.  Rather than a random patchwork of ideas, consider your philosophy and your goals.  What makes sense from there?

When you work from a philosophy then training and problem solving become much easier  because you have a framework to guide your choices.  It makes preparation for competition easier since this too flows from philosophy; if you believe that dogs have no choice about cooperating with training then you will approach proofing quite differently from someone who believes their dog can opt out at anytime.  There are 1000’s of techniques – some are currently known and others have yet to be created.  Check your philosophy, check your goals and get to work! The options for inventiveness are amazing if you stop relying on tradition for your inspiration.

I have changed my philosophy over time, and my techniques have changed along with them.  Initially I simply accepted the philosophy of those who trained around me; I didn’t choose at all.  Now I hold a philosophy of training that supports my greater philosophy of life as well as my beliefs about how dogs and humans learn best. For all I know I’ll change again but for now, there’s no point in going where I’ve already been, especially when I still have so much to figure out.

If you’d like to play along, leave a comment below. Start with the words, “I believe” and then finish the sentence with your philosophy.


The new term at Fenzi Dog Sports Academy (FDSA) starts February 1st, 2015 and registration is currently in full swing.  We are offering 29 classes this term; if you’d like to engage in some on-line learning, check out our schedule for your options!  http://www.fenzidogsportsacademy.com/index.php/schedule-and-syllabus