On the way to school this morning, my younger son commented that he knows a lot about driving. He’s got the strategy down. Presumably, this is because my husband normally drives him places and my husband is all about strategic driving.  Making the “best” decisions. The decisions that get him to where he wants to go fastest and with the least amount of headache. What lane to be in, when to change lanes what shortcuts are fastest, etc.

And then my son expressed frustration over the fact that knowing all of these things didn’t seem to be helping him learn to drive a car.  When he actually got behind the wheel, the gas and pedal didn’t operate the way he thought they would – they felt different than he expected.  He would brake too hard and jerk to a stop. Turning the steering wheel didn’t have exactly the effect he expected – and wanted.  The gas pedal was temperamental – too much and he would shoot forwards. Too little and nothing happened at all.

Welcome to the real world. Knowing something in your head, for example, how to drive a car, is a completely different animal than actually doing it.  So my son has knowledge in his head about the rules of the road and how it’s “supposed” to work but no real ability to actually drive.

Now, who is most qualified to teach him to drive the car?

Mario Andretti, the famous race car driver? Obviously Mario knows how to drive a car so that the brakes, gas and steering wheel perform exactly as expected – with excellence! Does that level of excellence make him the most qualified to teach another person how to drive around town?  No.  First we need to know something about his ability to teach!

Is my husband most qualified to teach him?   There’s no doubt that he is competent to get from here to there in the car and he certainly drives more than I do. But his experience is not really relevant here; his capacity to explain to someone else how to drive a car is!

Should I teach my son to drive a car?  When I drive the car, I manage not to hit things most days, and  I am a professional communicator (a teacher!) by profession.   But I don’t teach driving a car; I teach dog training.

How about a professional driving instructor?

Now we’re talking.

A professional driving instructor should have a clear idea of the goal in mind; to communicate to a young person how to drive a car.  A competent professional driving instructor knows the rules of the road and is able to apply those to whatever car he is actually sitting in! He should be able to verbally explain to the young driver how to improve his technique and to help the student feel motivated and confident about his ability to succeed. Maybe he has analogies and quick tips; ways to help the driver figure out how to apply what’s in his head, the basics of the brakes, the gas and the steering wheel, to the experience of driving – to make it automatic for the student to do the right things at the right time.  And a professional driver knows exactly what the goal is –  to help the student develop the skills necessary to obtain a driver’s license – proof (hopefully!) that the individual can drive safely and without supervision.

The one thing the professional driver has over all of us is experience coaching others to drive a car.  Even better, he has a feedback loop. Because a professional driver works with the child several times over weeks or months, he has direct feedback about whether his instructions are progressing the student’s skills.

And if it comes to pass that an individual gets the driver’s license, develops a great passion for driving, and decides they want to become a professional race car driver?   Then they might want to look up Mario Andretti –  hopefully in addition to being a great driver himself he is also a good instructor and motivational communicator –  three different things.

And dog training?

The best professional dog trainer is the one who is able to understand the goals of the student in front of them, and help that student achieve those goals.

I may well be an excellent trainer for a student looking for extremely precise and refined work. That is because not only do I know how to do it, I know how to explain it to other people, and I hang around to make sure that I have been successful.   My ability to effectively communicate to others in a way that allows them to be equally successful is the measure of my excellence.

Am I the best trainer for someone looking for a good house pet? No.  Not because I couldn’t learn. Not because my own dogs aren’t pet dogs. Not because I cannot communicate.  I am not the right trainer because I lack experience with dogs and families and working towards THEIR goals so that all players get their needs met.  And short of actually going into the business of training pet dogs and then observing what does or does not work, I am not likely to get there.   I am not an excellent pet dog trainer.  And that’s fine – I haven’t said otherwise.

If you want to be excellent at teaching, you have to 1) have sufficient skills.  Mario Andretti skills not required – good enough for the audience in question, 2) Listen and understand what is being asked of you. Your clients needs are what matters, not a series of pre-concieved notions that you might have.  3) Communicate! Can you teach someone else in a way that makes sense and allows sufficient progress that they stay vested in the activity?  When beneficial, can you help the student reframe their interests or expectations to allow them to reach a happy end result?  4) Get feedback during and after the training. If your instruction didn’t work because you were not clear in your communication or what you asked was simply too difficult to be attained by the client, then you were not successful with that client. Do you have ideas for changing that?

I have no trouble recognizing great dog trainers who are not teachers and great teachers who are not very good dog trainers.   Where I would like to see growth in our field is a little more recognition (from all sides) of all of the pieces that come together to positively influence our profession. It’s not just applied dog training, or communicating, or listening or learning about research, or refining our most esoteric skills.   It’s okay that we come to the table with different strengths and weaknesses. I’d love to see us more openly appreciate how all of these pieces come together, and to recognize how people with different skill sets can be a critical part of the overall picture.