Denise Fenzi

Philosophies and Techniques

A philosophy is an overarching belief structure that guides your choices. My philosophy of dog training is that it should be kind and enjoyable for both the dog and the handler, and I have held that philosophy for a fairly long time; maybe fifteen years or so and through two OTCH dogs and a variety of other titles.  Another might be that it should be primarily to the benefit of the handler.  I held that philosophy for about twenty years earlier and also through a variety of titles in different sports.  A third philosophy might be that is should be primarily to the benefit of the dog.  I have never held that philosophy but I am certainly aware that it exists.

Some philosophies are more goal-based and others are process driven. I am in the “process” camp and have been for most of my life, which is probably why I consider myself more of a trainer than a competitor.

From one’s philosophy will flow your choice of techniques and methods, and possibly a system of training.

In a “system”  of training, the trainer uses techniques that are strongly related and rely on a common foundation of knowledge by the dog and handler.

If a trainer does have a system, and if that person also teaches seminars or problem-solving opportunities for dogs that do not have a basis in that system, or if they work with teams that cannot do well within that system for any reason, then they will also need knowledge of different options and techniques. That works fine too; just stick to your philosophy.

I don’t have a system.  I do, however, have a variety of foundation behaviors that I find extremely useful, but I can manage well enough if a given team does not have them; we just approach the issue from a different direction.

Last week I spent some time with a friend who wanted to start training scent discrimination. First I described a shaping based method, and then I offered a lure based method. I asked her which she preferred and she selected the shaping based method. However, within a minute of starting the session, I didn’t like what I was seeing. I saw the beginnings of frantic and frustrated behavior, the opposite of what I want to see for scent work.  If we had been trying to teach a movement based behavior (like standing on an object) then a small amount of frustration is tolerable, but not in scent work.

There’s no point in pushing through when there are 100’s of ways to train a dog quickly, efficiently and kindly. Change direction!

My first choice would’ve been to change to a lure based method, but we didn’t have the proper equipment so we went with a third option, a hunt-based approach. Within a minute we were making obvious progress.  The dog and handler were happy; philosophy goal met!

In a few days, the handler will have more choices to make. Once the dog understands to use her nose,  she might choose to go back to shaping or switch to luring.  Or she can continue with the hunt-based method. Each option brings different benefits and challenges, either now or later.  No one approach is “better” than the other. Just get it done.

Most people have a philosophy of training right from the start, whether or not they have considered it, but techniques are acquired with experience. After you work with a few hundred or thousand dog-handler teams at varying stages of training and with a variety of foundations of their own, you should develop a wide repertoire of options that will work.

There is no one way to train dogs.   Select a philosophy that works for you. From there, learn as wide a range of techniques as possible (with their benefits and disadvantages), so that you can remain flexible. These are not issues of right and wrong, they are simply different ways to get to the same result.  Pick the one that looks the most interesting and switch directions if it’s not working for you.

This is why I find dog training so fascinating; the range of ways to get a dog trained is pretty much infinite. Consider the temperament of the dog; the dog’s background and tendencies. Consider the temperament of the handler; their experience level and preferences. If you put it all together, you’ll end up with a trained dog.