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The Unsexy Hallmarks of Good Training

Posted by Jean McCord on March 6, 2017 at 3:00 PM

What makes a good trainer (and a happy dog)? In my opinion, it boils down to two vital things - mastery of the mechanics, and patience.


Fortunately, both can be developed with practice. Unfortunately, neither is ‘sexy’ so some folks who want a quick end product have a hard time accepting clicker training as a viable training option.


Most of us who are instructors are hooked on the process of learning. As trainers, we work step by small step with our charges and with ourselves - laying the vital foundation upon which a lifetime of learning will take place. We understand and accept that learning is not on a linear pathway, but has its peaks and valleys - and plateaus. We thrill at the ‘lightbulb moments.’ We get creative when our dogs get stuck. We cherish the try. We appreciate the unique path that each dog takes during its life of learning with (and from) us.


The first steps we MUST take are to develop the mental and physical skills required to communicate clearly to our dogs. We must learn what a behavior actually is, and develop the observational skills to see minute changes in our dogs. And we must understand the basics of how reinforcement and punishment work, and why one is better than the other for training.


If you’re not a behavior geek, this is just a pure slog to get. It’s complex and can be confusing. But once grasped, it opens up the entire world to us; we can see the dots that connect environment and behavior and - more importantly - the strands that combine to form the deep bonds between us and our dogs.


Then, we must practice the physical, mechanical skills of clicker training. We must develop the timing of the click and the delivery of the prize all while holding on to a leash, watching the dog and trying not to unwittingly add any extraneous cues to the process (for example, moving the hand toward the treat pouch before clicking, or performing any of a multitude of small or large body movements that will influence the dog).


Again - this all takes unsexy practice, and a mind open to critique.


Now every instructor has occasional students who just want results, and the faster the better. I sometimes think that this Occasional Student approaches dog training a little like computer programming - enter the correct data and we will receive the desired results.


But, of course, a dog isn’t a computer. A dog has emotional responses, individual priorities, a history of (often unintentional) reinforcement and genetics all colliding and influencing behavior at any given moment. We are sometimes clueless, since our sensory equipment doesn’t even allow us to perceive some of the influences.


The result? We think we’re very clear and concise in our data entry, but it comes out sideways. Every parent on the planet is aware of this phenomenon - ‘where did THAT come from?’ The trick is, to view our dogs the same way. They are perpetual small children when it comes to learning. What goes in, isn’t necessarily what comes out.


This inescapable fact can result in huge problems for the results-oriented trainer. As human beings, we can have a driving desire to step in and help our dogs DO a behavior, rather than stepping back and allowing our dogs to LEARN. Because the focus is on the end result rather than the process, we see people pushing down on their dogs’ hips to get a sit. Or repeating a cue ad nauseum. Or yelling, popping the leash, bribing...all because their dogs were never given the space to learn how to learn. Instead, they’ve learned how to hold out for help or - in a worse-case scenario - force.


And this brings us to the hallmark of all good trainers - patience. Patience to learn about one’s dog as an individual and understand what motivates and worries him. Patience with the training process - taking the time to closely observe, to learn about how reinforcement works, the best way to hold the leash, when to click, how to deliver the prize.


No living creature ever stops learning. No living creature ever stops trying, making mistakes, redirecting, sometimes losing, sometimes succeeding. As both trainer and instructor, I continue to do all of these things. 


Studies of children indicate that they tend to go for instant gratification even when they know that if they wait, they will get more of what they want. The ability to buck that trend while working with our dogs will result in a happier dog and a better relationship. Isn't that worth a bit of patience?

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