Teacher’s Pet

As a professional Dog Sports Coach, and International Seminar instructor, a huge part of my role is to get information across to people in a manner in which they understand. I have spent years refining and learning how to do this effectively, and I have grown in this role from my early years. Being a coach and teacher requires more then just the ability to communicate effectively, it also requires the ability to read people, adjust to them and taper your teaching accordingly.

I learnt a valuable lesson from a student years ago, and it still stays with me to this day.

This particularly student had a German Shepherd, which had the potential to be not just good but great…. She came to me when the dog was an adult, but still relatively early in its career. When she first came training with me, I quickly realised that there were some crack in her training that needed addressing. We set about doing this, and the dog just thrived on the new lessons and games we introduced.

This went on for several months over the winter and the dog just flourished. When the competitive season started the following year, the owner was chomping at the bit to start to see if the lessons had any impact. I stressed the need to generalise the training to the show environment, and the importance of reinforcing the behaviours we had worked on in training, especially as the dog had a history to the inappropriate response in the ring.

However, contrary to my advice… the owner decided to compete. And she won. The fruits of her labour had paid off and she was ‘reinforced’ by winning! Great right? Well no…..not really….

The phrase, ‘Don’t sacrifice what you want for what you want right now’, is so apt in this instance. At the following group session, we celebrated the success and the owner was absolutely elated. And rightly so. This dog hadn’t had any success in the ring for the whole previous season, because of the dog going in the ring and switching off and displacing, so for her to enter the ring, engaged and focused was an achievement in itself, however to do one better and win as a huge boost.

At this group session, we also discussed the importance and need to reinforce in the ring. She agreed that this was valid and understood the importance of doing so, so committed to doing so the following weekend.

The subsequent session, the owner attended with a rosette for a place in one of her classes. She explained that she ‘would’ve won but….’ and asked if we could work on her right turns.

I asked, does she have a right turn issue? She stated, ‘No not normally’…. I asked why she felt the need to work on them, if they weren’t usually an issue? She stated that this is what cost her from winning.

This line of conversation went on for several months, and this advice I gave was largely ignored in preference of competing. Slowly but surely, the quality of the dogs work began to deteriorate and I have to confess I was growing increasingly frustrated.

Each session, the handler would ask for a ‘solution’ to a error that occurred in the ring. She was being reactive training, rather the proactive. She had failed to adhered to the golden rule of reinforcement based training, you have to be prepared to reinforce behaviour in the environment where it matters the most.

This pattern continued for some time, and I would avidly repeat the need to do some training in the show environment. She stated that she would do this, but it was always when the dog had failed and made a mistake first. So the dog was failing, not being reinforced for the correct response and its condition emotional response and shows was plummeting. The old demons were coming back to haunt this team. I have to say, she was never cross or angry with her dog, or horrible to it in any way, certainly not consciously. She may have miscommunicated with the dog and it may have been a bit jaded, but she never punished the dog or chastise it, in anyway.

I have to admit, I was growing more and more frustrated and also not enjoying the lessons we had. I would be short with the handler, and for a trainer that promotes the use of positive reinforcement, I wasn’t following my own advise!

It all came to a head, when the handler came back with her rosette from a special class for German shepherds, after being advised not to enter, and if she did, not compete. I have to confess, I was far from understanding. After that session, I sent a very diplomatic email saying that I felt that I could no longer teach her, I stated that I didnt feel our goals aligned. I explained briefly why I felt this and that I wished her all the best for the future. The handler responded with shock, stating that she loved the sessions but understood by sentiment and that she thanked me for all my efforts. I have to confess, I stand by the sentiment of the email, as although this is my ‘job’, it has to be more then just a financial motivation for me. At the time, I was also a Police Officer, so this was not my main source of income, so I was in a position to be able to ‘not train’ people, if I didnt want to.

The handlers year progress as anticipated, and she picked up more rosettes, including a few firsts. Each time thanking me for my input, however the dog largely reverted back to showing a mixed bag of responses.

Some months later, I attended two shows held on the same weekend at the same venue. It was October, and the weather was far from friendly. I remember driving into the venue at some un-godly hour of the morning and being greeted by the handler welcoming people and parking them.

On each day, I completed stays and there was the same face in the stay ring helping out with stewarding duties.

On morning of the second day, there she was on the gate again. Smiling, friendly and polite. At the end of the second day, after an awful weekend of rain, mud and cold… as I pulled out of the venue, there was the same person helping clear the venue of rubbish, vehicles and ring equipment.

In that moment it dawned on me that, for her… it was more then just ‘competing’. It was her life. It was her joy, it was her social circle. She had partaken in this sport for 40yrs, and still loved it as much as she ever did. Her dogs going in the ring, and getting a rosette was her reinforcement for standing out in the cold, wet and horrid weather parking cars an keeping the wheels of the sport turning.

It dawned on me, that I was right to say that our goals didnt align, but in this instance it wasnt ‘my’ goals that mattered.

I could see her dog being a prolific, show stopping Obedience dog, whereas she saw her companion, that enjoyed spending time with at weekends, socialising and meeting up with friends she had known for 40yrs and partaking in a hobby that she still loved, and you know what… what’s wrong with that!

I learnt a valuable lesson that I still think of to this day. As a coach, my role is to help my students reach their goals, whatever they may be. My goals are secondary to theres, if at all.

I realised that in order to get the best from an individual, I have to ‘tune’ myself into them. I also accept that I can’t help everyone, and I may not be the right person for them. It may be that we view training dogs differently, or that I can’t ‘click’ with them or them me. The relationship between student and coach is personal and both of us have to feel it is right. The lesson I have gleaned from this one, has taught me how to be a better teacher and therefore help others.

Sometimes, this takes a minute for a teacher/pupil relationship to develop. However, we can help each other in this process.

1. Be prepared – This means, that as teacher I am prepared and understand the needs and requirements of my students, and that as a student, you are prepared and ready to learn. When first meeting your prospect teacher/student, be open. People are nervous and apprehensive, when they attend seminars or lessons. Its the nature of student/teacher relationships to be a bit daunting at first, so being prepared will remove some of that tension. This may be by having the equipment you need, or ample treats. It keeps the session flowing if you are ‘ready’.

2. Be specific – be specific in your instruction and your needs. Communication is key. Be clear about what you want. Dont give a generic answer when asked what you want to work on, be specific Not only is this better training, it is better teaching.

3. Take ownership – a teacher/coaches role is to communicate information, support and assist… the students role is to do the work, listen and be proactive. There is nothing more disheartening then, when one part of the team isn’t fulfilling their responsibility. However, apportioning blame on the other party is a choice. You don’t have to stay there! Take ownership of your dogs journey and take ownership of your shortcomings.

4. Do the work – It is soul destroying when you are giving your all and the other party isn’t pulling their weight. Its like your pulling a cart up a steep hill, and there are boulders and rocks in your path. But one person wants to jump in the cart and let you do the work…. thats not fair for anyone. This can be either the teacher or student.

5. Have fun – for those in Dog sports, lets be clear… it’s only a game!!! Now the notoriety success brings may help create seminars, classes, pupils or the Competition may result in titles and accolades, but when you break it down to the most simple conversation… its a game and meant to be F.U.N! If you’re aren’t enjoying it, even the struggles and challenges, don’t do it! Its not mandatory!

6. Speak up – stand for something or fall at anything! Be your dogs advocate! No one can ‘make’ you do anything. Honesty is the best policy, relationships are about trust. Don’t be afraid to speak up… if they don’t want to hear it, chances are the relationship isn’t right.

7. You’re only human – sometimes we all make mistakes, and we all are entitled to a second chance. Dog training is often a escape for many, and there is so many emotions involved. Compassion and understanding go a long way, what’s happening away from the lesson may be a contributing factor. Sometimes the best lessons is just a shoulder to lean on.

8. Be present. The dog deserves the ‘A Game’ from everyone. This means that everyone has to be committed of this isn’t going to work. Its ok for things not to click, but you have the right to say so, but if you’re in it, give your all. The dog deserves that.

9. To make it last, the motivation has to be genuine. For me, its not about money and accolades, its about the relationship and getting the best out of the team. This can’t be created if you have your eyes on the pound signs. Its a journey with too many trials and tribulations to do it for anything else.

10. Reinforcement isn’t just something we do with our dogs, we all need reinforcement to build our behaviour. Gratitude, thanks and appreciation goes a long way. It cost nothing to acknowledge someone’s efforts.

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