In addition to being a dog trainer and lover of all things dog, I am a musician. I confess that I’m not particularly talented as either a songwriter or as a performer but I enjoy writing and playing on my own and with friends. I also record music in my home studio. Lots of people do these days, it’s a fun hobby. Many years ago I read an interesting article in a magazine aimed at the home recording musician.
In the article the author talked about the unique problems of being a home musician with a recording studio. He described for different roles that we play when sitting down to create music in the studio – The Composer who writes the music, The Performer who plays the instruments, The Engineer who makes sure that all the technology is capturing the sounds, and The Producer who manages the whole project to make sure that it all sounds good and is getting done properly. The danger, he cautioned, was trying to wear too many hats at once. If the Performer is struggling and he changes hats to the Composer, both the song and the performance can suffer. If the Engineer suddenly appears while the Composer is writing, inspiration can be lost by fiddling with wires and turning dials. The point was to recognize all of these different aspects of the process and to focus on one at a time to do the best job at each one of them. Try not to do everything at once.
Now, years later, as I work with dog owners and their dogs, I recognized this “many hats” problem here in the dog world. Very often we think of “training our dog” as a single purpose task in the same way that I used to think of “making music” as a single task. In reality, it is really broken up into what I consider three different aspects to the process. Let’s call them the “Three Dog Trainers” we each have in ourselves.
The Three Dog Trainers
Working with students, particularly in training dog agility, I find that there are three distinct things that have to happen during the training process. We are teaching our dog something, we are learning something ourselves, and we are managing our relationship with our dog all at the same time. Or at least we are trying to!
I like to think of these three different roles each as a different “dog trainer.” There is the Teacher, the Learner, and the Partner. Each “trainer” has their own priorities. Each has their own focus. Each has their own method of working with the dog. It can be hard to recognize each of them because we often try to be all of them at the same time.
The most obvious role we play is the teacher. I need to teach my dog to stay, to come, and lots of other important (and not so important) behaviours to make living together easier for both of us. I will have all of the tools I will use to do that – the prompts, the rewards, the markers, etc. And I will have a plan for teaching and testing so that I know when my dog understands and responds correctly.
A big part of being the teacher is watching my dog. When I prompt her, does she respond as I expect? As I start to remove the prompt, does she still understand and do the correct behaviour? Going into training, a good teacher knows what the final result is supposed to look like and it is our job to get the point across to our trainee. Most of that is watching to see if the student is getting it right and adjusting to help them learn.
When I am training my dog, I find that there is always something I can learn. Is my training method as clear and effective as I thought? Does my dog become more frustrated when I used one method over another? Am I using a given prompt or technique to best advantage? Sometimes it just comes down to learning something new before I can use it in working with my dog.
In dog agility, there is a lot to learn. Manoeuvring with my dog while we are both running and navigating an obstacle course requires skills that I didn’t have when I started. I had to learn to manage myself as well as my dog while running on course. I’m sure this is true in many other dog sports and activities. There is much for us humans to learn about our role while we are training our dogs.
Call it a parent, call it a leader, call it what you like, I have a responsibility to take care of my dog’s basic needs. That includes their emotional well being. I consider myself to be my dog’s partner. As the more intelligent and self-aware partner, I have a responsibility to monitor my dog to make sure she isn’t unnecessarily stressed or frustrated when we train together.
As we train together, my dog might not be understanding what I’m trying to teach. That can lead to frustration, boredom, or her just checking out and wandering off. I could demand more focus from my dog but it would be much more productive if I could be observant enough to know why she’s checking out or not as focused on the task as I would like. As a good partner, I should be able to see my dog’s moods and make the effort to adjust my training. It might be that I am expecting too much, not rewarding her frequently enough, or even just not giving her enough feedback to know whether she is right or wrong. Addressing my dog’s emotional needs can make my training go much more smoothly.
All together now
I think that it’s important to recognize that we all have these three trainers inside of us always. They are always there and they sometimes struggle for space inside my head depending on the situation. Sometimes, when my dog seems to almost have the behaviour down, the Teacher in me wants to push just a little harder for a few more repetitions to make sure that she has it. Other times the Learner notices something unexpected and wants to observe it further and I don’t pay as much attention to my dog. And then there are those times when I worry if my dog is fatigued or confused and perhaps the training is too much for her.
It would be great if I could just choose one role for the moment and go with that. The article I referenced at the beginning works in a musical context because I can choose a role and no one other than me is affected. It’s not so simple when working with my dog. She is going to respond to me how she chooses no matter what role I intend to play. If I don’t pay attention to her reactions and adjust accordingly, I could be making the training harder and less fun for both of us.
The balancing act
It’s not easy being three trainers at the same time but it seems to come with the experience of being a dog owner and dog trainer. We all have things we want to teach, things we need to learn, and a relationship to maintain with our dog. And all of these things are happening mostly at the same time. Or perhaps more accurately, the different roles have a sneaky way of interrupting each other at the most inconvenient moments.
I think that one of the most important things in dog training is trust. By that I mean the trust my dog has in me as her trainer and in the learning process we create together. Keeping these three trainers in balance goes a long way for me in creating and maintaining that trust with my dog. A good balance means that the Teacher steps aside when the Partner notices the dog getting frustrated. While the Partner gives my dog a break for some play, the Learner ponders in the background what I can learn from what just happened while the Teacher patiently waits for his role to return in a few moments.
When I am training, my inner Teacher is concerned with results. “Has the dog learned the behaviour yet?” My inner Learner is concerned with getting the teaching part right. “Am I doing this properly?” While my inner Partner is watching to make sure my dog is having a good time. Is my dog having fun? “Is she confused? Is she bored?” And while all three of them may be madly flickering in and out of the lead role, only one of them has the right to always take priority.
My Partner trainer should always be there to step in on behalf of my dog to remind me that my dog’s emotions and her relationship with me are the most important things. If I lose that all important trust from my dog, it won’t matter that I know good techniques as a Teacher. It won’t matter that my Learner wants to know more about my dog and her responses to my training. The Partner is there to make sure that we’re all ok. That everything is fine and good and fun.
We are all three trainers. Be a Teacher and get results. Be a Learner and find out all you can about your dog, your training technique, and the best methods to use. But most importantly be a Partner and stay focused on a healthy and productive relationship with your dog. One that is built on trust. I have learned to balance these three trainers in my head and I’ve decided that there is always more time to teach and more time to learn but there might not be another chance to get the relationship right. So I give my Partner first priority.
Until next time, have fun with your dogs.
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