Wednesday, October 21, 2009

Dare to be different

Ever have one of those days when there are so many ideas rattling around in your skull you have to get them out before your head explodes? I usually don't editorialize in this space but can't help myself today. Don't worry, it's not a negative rant. Just some observations about dogs, training and human nature.

The new issue of Front & Finish arrived yesterday and there’s a great column by Chapel Taylor titled “This Obedience Life: Why Method Matters.” She explores her journey through different methods of training and concludes that the training method itself isn’t nearly as important as finding a method that suits you and your dog. At the conclusion, she writes, “It could be that finding that right path is the thing that keeps someone working with their dog when they might otherwise have given up.”

After 30-plus years in the sport of dog obedience, I have decided the only safe generalization to make about training methods is that there are at least 100 different ways to train anything and no matter which one you choose, somebody will tell you why it won’t work. Then they will tell you how wonderful THEIR method is. Sometimes this is a friendly and open exchange of ideas with both sides gaining knowledge for the benefit of their dogs. Other times it becomes an ego-driven one way street of “My method is the only way to train and if you don’t do things MY way you will never get another qualifying score again” battle. Sometimes the person bashing another person’s training method has never even tried that method themselves. Or perhaps they did try it but it didn’t work for them, therefore they generalize it is a worthless method.

Too often, the bewildered trainer — who is totally overwhelmed by the avalanche of information being given by instructors, classmates, seminar presenters, DVDs, training buddies and e-mail obedience lists — uses the lemming method and just does what everyone else is doing. Through the years, I’ve watched trainers doggedly (sorry, couldn’t help myself) pursue training methods that not only didn’t yield results but seemed to find them locked in a constant battle with their dog, yet they were reluctant to try a different method. When asked why they continued to train that way, they proudly say, “That’s the way (insert Big Name Trainer here) does it.”

Experience has taught me that any given method will work ONLY if you are totally comfortable with it. In other words, you have to believe in what you’re doing and enjoy doing it. If you’re just going through the motions because last weekend’s seminar giver said that’s the way to do it, chances are you’re not going to stick with a method long enough to be happy with the results. I’ve tried forcing myself to conform to another trainer’s style and it didn’t work. I was demoralized and my dog was demotivated. Fortunately, I realized fairly quickly this was not the path for me and sought another approach.

This is where trainers who have been around the ring a few times have an advantage over newbies. Our previous dogs have not only taught us what kind of trainers we are, they have shown us what kind of trainers we are striving to be and what kind of methods we can employ correctly, humanely, with accurate timing and a minimum of clumsiness to yield a training process that is enjoyable for both dog and handler while at the same time creating the desired results. That’s never an excuse for not trying anything new but if we were paying attention, we’ve already got a pretty good road map of what works for us and what doesn’t. With every new dog, that map will become more detailed, with more roads, bridges, trails, detours and scenic overlooks being added during the journey. Treasure that map.

Trainers who are new to the scene have it much harder, since they don’t have much point of reference about what might be best for them and their partner. I cannot stress enough that if an instructor wants you to do something you are not comfortable with, let your feelings be known. Ask if there is an alternative method. Or look for an alternative instructor. Life is too short for bad dog training.

It’s been said that if the only tool you have is a hammer, every problem is going to look like a nail. Don’t fall into the rut of thinking there is only one way to train. Chances are there are dozens of approaches (really, it’s a wonder dog trainers don’t go stark raving mad with the sheer vastness of options), and it’s up to YOU to pick the one you feel most comfortable with. If you are comfortable with and believe in a training method, chances are you will transmit that to your dog as you train and you’ll get results you both enjoy vs. conflict or frustration.

Be creative. Be confident. Be happy. Train like you mean it. Believe in your dog. Listen to others’ advice. Dare to be different. Experiment to find out what works for you. Train for fun.

Hug your dog. Enjoy your training.


  1. So true. I've learned to trust my instincts over the years and they don't usually fail me.

  2. This is great advice. I have used methods that I hated or confused me. I have also told myself why something wouldn't work, only to realize that I am kidding myself. The whole thing is very confusing and it is nice to hear that I should experiment, change my mind and otherwise try to discover the method that works for me and Jazz. Thanks for the validation!

  3. Excellent post and lots of food for thought.