Sunday, February 7, 2010

The Thinking Dog Trainer

Somewhere around 1963, the kick involved in breaststroke was changed from the frog kick to the whip kick. I am reminded of this event nearly every day. As a result of the hours and hours of practice with this new kick, I developed a trick knee that will go out of place at the drop of a hat. Because of those hours and hours of practice with this new kick, however, I came very close to going to the Olympics in breaststroke five years later.

Another result of the hours of practice was that butterfly became easier for me. I had always thought that I couldn't "fly" because I was heavier than water and would sink like a rock even when I had a lung full of air. But this new kick actually taught me how to keep my rear up, which was my major problem in butterfly. This caused me to assess all four strokes and improve them based on what I'd learned.

This was great stuff for me in the 60's – but what’s it got to do with dog training?

Dog training isn’t a rote task that you can pick up in a few days or even weeks – it’s a thinking process because no two dogs are alike, just like humans. And like classical guitar or swimming in the Olympics, it takes years to master it. Unless you are content to just teach dogs to sit, down, stay, come and heel (or lazy enough), and don't care that the dog still chews on the couch, barks at strangers and knocks the kids off the stairs in a race to go down them, the prospective dog trainer will never stop learning.

No matter what the nice sales brochure tells you, a six-week course will not magically turn you into a real dog trainer. Most of these 4 to 8 week courses advertised on the Internet also include marketing techniques, how to pay your taxes, and what to do when someone wants a refund. None of them include a years worth of apprenticeship to a real trainer, a years worth of volunteering in a shelter or the pound or a lifetime's worth of continuing education. You have to go elsewhere for that. I've also read through some of the brochures to find that in that 4 to 8 weeks, not only do you learn to have your dog sit, down, stay, coma and heel, but you also learn to teach a dog to become a guard dog, a tracking dog, a therapy or service dog and how to raise a puppy. I'm sorry, but it took me 5 years to learn all that and BE ABLE TO ACTUALLY APPLY IT in all situations and I'm still learning new techniques and new theories and having to apply it all to dogs who respond differently.

As a prospective dog trainer you should attain both "book knowledge" and hands-on experience before offering your services to the public. Read books, attend seminars, watch DVDs. Get hands-on experience by mentoring under another trainer if possible, and volunteer to work at your local shelter or with rescue groups. Shelter/rescue work is a great way to get hands-on experience with dogs of various breeds and temperaments. This process should take at least a year, more like two years. In this time you should have experience with at least 100 different breeds of dogs and nearly every behavior problem a dog can muster up. In this time you should have experience in creating lesson plans for humans to follow as well as the dogs and those lesson plans need to be tailored to the human and dog team, not a cookie cutter be all end all plan.

Dogs are thinking beings, they have emotions, needs and wants just like we do. Each dog is different in how it responds to stimuli. I've recently had experience with this difference in my weekly Group Behavior Training class. Two dogs who both lunge and bark ferociously at strange dogs; one responds to a quick touch and will then refocus on his human; the other cannot stand being touched and will bite his human but will stop mid growl for a scrumptious treat.

To keep a dog a thinking being and not a robot that does everything the trainer says but has no joy in it, become a thinking trainer !!