As a professional dog trainer, and sports dog coach, I teach a lot of people, with a LOT of dogs…. and I have been fortunate enough to compete, and teach people in most sports currently in existence.
Its really interesting, ‘sport hopping’ from one to another, and as a observer of behaviour, watching the ‘behavioural patterns’, beliefs and traditions that exist within each discipline.
For example, if we take a sport like obedience. There is a lot of superstitious behaviour… and thats on the part of the humans! For example, there are so many ‘old wives tails’ associated with an exercise like scent discrimination, what you must and must not do. The rigorous containers that clothes are kept in, which require a retina scan and finger-print ID just to access them… then a series of intricate handshakes and secret signs, to extract them from the said container, not to mention to endless list of criteria that people subscribe to when placing it on the ground! Whilst in a sport like Working trials, where a High level track can be 3hrs old, in gale force wind looking for a match stick… or in agility, where the cultural approach to training is to create maximise drive and speed, where everything is fast and furious, and the by product is a mass of hysterical Border collies, that need a stringent management system, straight jacket and padded cell to have them ringside…. or the traditional approach to bitework is to allow the dog to parade and ‘possess’ the sleeve, with a type of dog that is genetically possessive, and the trade off is an issue with ‘outs’ or control….
So what are the pros and cons, of having this cultural ‘approaches’ to training?
Well Albert Einstein once said, ‘the definition of insanity is doing the same Thing over and over again, and expecting results’. But one could argue, ‘if it isn’t broken, don’t try and fix it’.
Often we fall into the trap of approaching training in a way that is familiar or ‘traditional’ because of the culture of a sport, and the approach is ‘tried and tested’.
Like all sports, those that are successful often dictate the culture and methodology to training. This is applicable to the type of dog and person.
The most successful breed of dog across the vast majority of dog sports would arguably be the border collie. A breed selected and designed to ‘want to please’, have an intense desire to do a task, repeatedly, over and over again. They have a desire to run and chase, both attributes which can be utilised to train for dog sports.
Its a catch 22, the majority of successful handlers, select dogs with an innate desire to perform and work, and therefore the methods they use are influenced by the type of dog they train. However, is this ‘the best information’ for our dogs? Is the communication as efficient and effective as we can make it? Is the by product of training with superstition, that dogs that don’t ‘conform’ labelled as ‘weird’, ‘stupid’ or ‘stubborn’? Or is the by-product of a ‘behavioural’ issue like over arousal?
The question to ask is, is what we are doing ‘actually’ working? And is this how I want to train MY dogs?
There is no, correct or incorrect answer to this question.
It really is an opportunity to reflect and decide for yourself.
Many years ago, I decided to change the approach I took to training dogs. I did so for several reasons. It wasn’t because the ‘methods’ didnt work, far from it. I had been very successful with that approach. It wasn’t even that there was a moral or ethical ‘concern’. I hadn’t done anything to my dog that I would be ashamed about, any ‘mistakes’ I made were due to lack of knowledge rather then malicious intent. And whilst I wouldn’t make some of those training decisions now, I know that it was all part of my own personal dog training journey.
I choose a different path because I wanted a different result. I explain my approach to training then and now, as watching TV in black and white, and now watching a colour HD, surround sound flatscreen! I like that my dogs have a choice, I like they can say ‘not today’ or ‘please’ and ‘thank you’. I LOVE that we can have a conversation and a direct line of communication between us, that takes into account the dogs perspective.
I love that I am conscious, aware and enlightened about my dogs learning. I have data, I have video, I have prepconceptual teaching, I have clear reinforcement placement, I have shaping, I have clarity when aroused….
I have these by looking at my own training objectively and through a new lens. I allowed myself to detach the emotional attachment, superstition and tradition…. Not throwing out the baby with the bathwater, is also wise.
And trust me, it was daunting and scary… But the gains far outweigh the discomfort of growth and change.
Moving forward doesn’t mean forgetting or discarded the past, it means learning from it. This is so relevant in todays climate, and being woke to appropriate and relevantchange is crucial! If you’re happy with what you’re doing, stand by it but also be smart enough to be objective.