I have lots of opinions about how dogs “should” be trained. I prioritize toys and play over food, speed over accuracy, short sessions over long ones, etc. At the same time, I also have a range of students in both private lessons and in seminars with their own opinions, goals and most important, competencies. As the trainer, I am responsible for reconciling these differences in a manner that respects all interested parties.
As trainers, we want others to share our vision of what a well-trained competition dog will look like. We encourage our students to adopt our style, with varying amounts of expectation and pressure, and that can lead to some real conflict. Sometimes, trainers forget that our favorite methods of training were honed over YEARS of practice. We were not born knowing our skills; we learned them. We apply our techniques with tremendous expertise and enthusiasm, and sometimes we expect others to be able to duplicate our abilities after a few days rather than after several years.
Sometimes we completely lose sight of the end goal – a dog and handler team working together with enjoyment – at whatever level of competence is possible for that team, at that time.
To be successful working together, a trainer and student must be close enough in their interests, methods, and goals that they can enjoy their relationship – asking a correction oriented trainer to become a positive trainer to please the interests of a student is not reasonable and the reverse is also true; a positive trainer should not be asked to compromise their principles to please a student.
On the other hand, sometimes the interest isn’t a philosophical difference at all; it’s simply a matter of helping a student learn to correctly apply mechanical skills or to change their emotional interactions with their dogs. Failure on the part of the student isn’t “willfulness” – it’s ability. Telling the student to try harder, or once again going over the value of the technique isn’t going to make them better. Like our dogs, people do the best they can with whatever skills and competencies they have.
I’m going to use playing tug as an example.
Here’s what happens. The student reads a book or attends a seminar where playing tug is offered as a Very Important Training Technique. It looks simple enough to apply so the student goes ahead and gives it a try. Remember, the trainer emphasized that playing tug was Super Important – sometimes a trainer won’t even work with your dog until it has this foundation skill. And….by the time I see them, all that is left is a stressed-out team and a dog that actively avoids toys.
The problem may or may not be in the method – it is possible that the trainer gave them all of the right information. The problem may be in the student’s ability to apply it. it’s not that the student doesn’t want to do better, but maybe the student hasn’t had the opportunity to study hundreds of dogs. Maybe the student has a regular full-time job and works with their dog as a hobby on the side, and at this point in time, their ability to both process the information correctly and then turns it out as a correct mechanical skill isn’t quite there. Easier said than done.
Do trainers have an obligation to offer techniques that can be used effectively by students? Is it a moral breach to encourage someone to use a technique when you know that there is a very good chance that they cannot apply it effectively? Not sure of the answer to this, but it’s at least good food for thought.
This particular example is near and dear to my heart because I teach tug. Love tug. Use it extensively. Praise it. etc.
And in a seminar of 10 working spots, at least five will play tug poorly and one will have created a dog so anxious and shut down at the sight of a tug that it has had exactly the opposite effect that I had in mind. That’s truly unfortunate.
What can I do as a trainer who wants to share my love of tug, without accidentally damaging the team?
I can constantly emphasize the dog’s reactions to what you are doing. If the dog is not engaged, then STOP. Tug is not the point, the dog’s increased energy and enthusiasm are. If the owner cannot teach it and the dog does not respond, then what is the logic in pushing and insisting that the dog figure it out? Isn’t it more logical to give the student alternatives, without judging them over what they cannot yet do? As a trainer, I need to accept that handlers have their own limitations. Maybe they are brand new to the sport, and they struggle just to get their dog to pay attention for a short period of time. Maybe they are not coordinated physically, and moving quickly with a toy is difficult for them.
If a trainer can accept the student and their current skill set and limitations, it improves the quality of life for the team. And that is the point; that should be the overarching goal of any hobby; to enjoy your time spent honing your skills.
I have seen way too many dogs that turn off at the sight of a tug toy. In most cases, the owner has worked on it obsessively and…therein lies the problem. They want it so much that they have lost sight of the goal – to have fun with their dog and to bring more energy to training. In the end, they’ve had exactly the opposite experience than what was intended; now both they and their dog are anxious about playing together. Furthermore, many of these folks chose a nontraditional breed, and often these breeds challenge even the most experienced trainers to get really excellent toy play.
The second issue is the emphasis on HOW the dog should play. Who cares? Telling people “what it should look like” adds more pressure on top of an already charged situation. If the dog is having fun with a toy, what difference does it matter if the dog grabs hold and pulls back vs. pushing forwards and in? Or if the dog really loves to fetch a ball and that provides the energy, rather than engaging with a tug? Are there benefits to a tug over a ball? Sure. But there are also benefits of a ball over a tug – encourage your students to develop both sides. But to say that the one is not an “acceptable” way to build energy and drive is not logical. Tug is better for some skills and balls for others. If a dog loves to chase a toy flying around on the floor, what difference does it make if he ever grabs on at all? For my dogs, chasing a toy without grabbing hold and fighting would be extremely frustrating and stressful and their work would show a frantic edge – it would not be a good choice for me. But I have a student dog where chasing the toy (and never touching it with their teeth) works beautifully; the dog is happy to be engaged and the end goal of increased energy for the work is satisfied. Who am I to criticize them and say they have a “lesser” game, or that it is somehow a reflection of their relationship that they do not play that particular game?
If you are a trainer, consider giving your students permission to set different end goals than you set for yourself. If toy play is important to you, express to your students why it is important, and give them as many technical skills as possible for achieving that goal with their own dogs. At the same time, give them encouragement for what they CAN do; if they use a piece of food in an engaging manner which brings out energy, focus on that skill. Train with it, and show them how to do so most effectively. And…encourage them to work on their toy skills on the side.
Help your students to identify the end goals; to have fun, to engage as a team, to enjoy each other. Give them tools but allow them to make them work for their situation, based on their current limitations.
We all started at the beginning. Honoring your student’s efforts by meeting them where they are will go far to encourage enthusiastic and confident participation in the dog sports. And in the end, isn’t that the goal? To help people find ways to relate to their dogs that honor their goals and their relationship?
Your goals do not need to be your student’s goals, unless your fundamental beliefs are being compromised. For example, I will not use compulsion in training, and if someone wants to train in this manner then they are much better off finding a different trainer because that compromises my underlying beliefs. But if someone is not comfortable using a toy, then I see that as a teaching opportunity over time; the use or non-use of a toy has no ethical basis for my consideration.
There is a student responsibility here too. Students need to understand that trainers have passions, and we have a preference for working with students who share our passions. If my passion is motivation and yours is high scores regardless of the picture, maybe it would be better if you found another trainer. While I might be capable of helping you with your interests, it’s likely that it’s not a whole lot of fun for me. On the other hand, maybe you train with someone who is all about high scores and you are asking them for help getting more animation or a better picture. If they are interested in that challenge then excellent; but if you are causing them discomfort and stress because this is not their passion, then consider finding another trainer who shares your passion. No surprise, but training is a whole lot more fun for all three of you (trainer, handler and dog) if you share your passions, or at least your vision for where you want to be at the end of the process.
I’ve often said that training is a journey. Within that spirit, there needs to be a compromise on all sides to make that journey as pleasant as possible.
Worst case scenario, it’s totally reasonable for a trainer to suggest to a student that they are simply a poor match – their interests and passions are too far apart. But be clear about that upfront; it’s a difference of interests that leads to the poor match, not that the student is “wrong” and needs to do it your way because you are “right”. You might be right for your dogs, your interests, and your passions, and they may be right for their dogs, their interests, and their passions. I choose not to work with pet dogs in obedience because it is not my passion and I most enjoy working with others who want to do what I do. I see no problem with trainers telling others that tug is very important, and without it they will not work with a person. But tell them up front and don’t make it a moral issue – it’s not one.
It’s equally reasonable for a student to tell a trainer that they’re not comfortable with the methods that are being taught – either because they don’t feel they have the mechanical skills to apply the methods or because they are not comfortable applying them.
Now the dogs….they are the only ones who have no choice in the matter, so one hopes that both the student and the trainer are always considering how the dog is responding to the training.
NOTE ADDED August 5, 2018: I published this blog by accident. It was actually written several years ago, and in the process of cleaning up my blog I pushed it out. I apologize for this rambling and somewhat incoherent series of thoughts; I cleaned it up a bit and left it here!