With the advent of simple video cameras and free Youtube, video review has become a common and popular way to learn more about training dogs. Rather than relying on words we can show exactly what is happening via short video clips. Videos make misunderstanding less common and allows the reviewer a much more thorough understanding of the issue under consideration.
Where I see an ongoing challenge is in the abilities of those providing the review to communicate in a way that is palatable, supportive, and attainable by the subject. Some people seem to come by this ability naturally and others have to learn it.
I do a fair amount of video review; on average I’ll critique about two hundred videos every month, and like most skills which we practice, I’m getting better at it. I put together some guidelines to help my students who also wish to do video review, and I’m sharing them here for anyone else who might find these ideas useful. While I will refer specifically to video review, the same principles apply to most any teacher-student coaching relationship.
I usually watch the entire video first to get an overall impression of what is happening, and then I take a moment to make friends with the person. If you liked the way they hugged their dog at the end then tell them! It helps the “critiquee” feel like a human being rather than a subject. Never assume that a person will be happy to hear what you have to say, just because they asked for your advice. In all honesty most of us are quite sensitive about our abilities, so if the teacher’s goal is to create change rather than to demonstrate superior knowledge, then take care with the other person. Small things can make a big difference in a student’s willingness to listen to you. I have yet to watch a video where I couldn’t find something positive to say about a team. You do not have to do this in every video with the same person, but I’d suggest it as a starting point when you are first developing a relationship. Once the student knows that you have their best interest at heart then it’s less important.
While watching the video, find the “moments of brilliance” to create your starting point and then identify the deviations from those moments of brilliance. What would the trainer have to do to “pull” those deviations up to the same standard of excellence? For example, for two seconds in a 60 second video, a dog heeled perfectly because the handler walked with authority and kept their hand in exactly the right position, whereas the rest of the time they induced a lag by looking back over their shoulder. Talk with the handler about what they did in that brilliant two seconds and how they can replicate that. The message the person should hold is “when my shoulders face forward and I move with authority my dog looks lovely!” rather than “don’t look back over your shoulder because you’re causing a lag”. Concentrate your efforts on pulling the student towards the behaviors you want rather than away from the ones that you don’t want. By focusing on the moments of success, the person will become aware that they really can do it because they already have! Mention what is wrong, but spend your energy on what is right.
Limit your areas for improvement to, at most, three skills that need attention, and ignore the rest. Going on for pages about all of a person’s errors may demonstrate your extensive knowledge but it won’t help the person you are critiquing to improve. When you provide a laundry list of “areas for improvement,” students often become demoralized and want to give up. And the reverse is also true, if you liked what you saw from start to finish, then say so. There is no point in digging if you really don’t see anything; instead, let your student “win” and you can celebrate together!
The point of a critique is to help your student improve so focus on that. You can demonstrate your more sophisticated skills when a student shows up with a near perfect performance; that’s your chance to identify the most minute details.
Be realistic. It’s obvious to most of us that if a person is on crutches, it’s not helpful to tell them that they need to run more. What is less obvious is that it is equally unrealistic to tell a withdrawn person to get excited and run around with their dog. Yes, it might help and it might be exactly what you would do, but this person is not you. Sometimes, the hardest thing for an instructor to do is to come up with clever problem solving approaches that are doable by the student, even if they are not your first choice. “Try harder” is not a solution. Maybe you can break the pieces down even smaller so that they will want to try. For example, “At 53 seconds, I saw your dog wag his tail when you smiled at him. What happens if you clap; does he like that?” That is concrete advice that a person can try, whereas “be more exciting!” is not. And sometimes, the best thing is simply to tell the student that you’re stumped. Instructors are human; it’s ok if you don’t have all of the answers.
I love teaching with video as the primary mode of communication. I find it challenging, rewarding, and occasionally frustrating but also truly gratifying when a student improves their skills and their self confidence at the same time. Keep in mind that success is often sweeter when the road has been hard, so don’t give up too easily!