Thursday, June 20, 2013

The best training method

As I’ve watched training methods evolve through the years, one thing has become crystal clear: it’s often not a question of “CAN you train your dog using X method?” It’s “Can YOU train your dog using X method?”

I’ve seen people become devotees of whichever training guru is hot on the scene at the time, yet simple mimicking of their methods does not replicate the guru's results and they continue to struggle. Other people, however, easily assimilate and implement those new methods and as a result, they soar with their dogs.

It’s normal to go to a seminar and come home bursting with ideas that you are sure will make your dog the next NOC. Been there, done that! I’ve gone to a LOT of seminars over the years and while some were decidedly better than others, I’ve brought home one or two new ideas for my toolbox from every single one.

The bottom line is there is no magic training method that creates brilliance in all dogs and the most popular trainer’s method will do you and your dog little good if you cannot master the basic principles.

All trainers are not created equal. Age, physical ability, level of experience, resources (including but not limited to time and money), goals/desires and innate talent are what make each trainer just a little different from the next trainer. All dogs are not created equal either, but that’s a post in itself.

As an instructor, I’ve worked with a lot of different people. Young people. Not so young people. People with physical limitations. People with differing reaction times. People who always argued. People who always agreed. People who needed to be spoon-fed every single step of the way and people whose thought processes were so dizzyingly ahead of mine I felt like I should be paying them for the lesson. People who made their dog’s training a priority. People who viewed the journey with eagerness and humor and others who viewed it with impatience and great expectations.

All had differing abilities to listen, interpret and implement my instructions. None of my training methods are unique. They’re a hodgepodge of ideas that have been collected over many years and from many different dogs and instructors. Bottom line - they’re what works for me. I’m comfortable with them. I can physically implement them. I know why I'm doing what I'm doing. When Phoenix crashed into my life, I had no idea he was going to challenge so many of them or that he was going to force me out of my comfort zone and make me re-think The Rules and Learn New Stuff.

During that process I learned just because a method seems shiny and sparkling and perfect does not mean it is the right approach for me. Over the last several years I’ve bought into a couple of methodologies that simply did not fit - it was like trying to jam my size 8 feet into an adorable pair of boots that were only available in size 6. I wanted so badly for a couple of methods to “fit” but they just did not.

As I’ve worked to tailor our training to build the “want to” while firmly requiring the “have to,” I’ve discovered my dog responds wonderfully when my head is clear and I’m using methods I’m comfortable with (old or new) and can use with good timing and understanding. Team Phoenix spent some time wandering around in the mists of “I’m trying to make this method work but don’t really understand what I’m doing” and it only created confusion and stress for both of us. If there was uncertainty on my part, it reflected in my dog. This worked at counter-purposes. How was I supposed to make this method create brilliance when I could not skillfully use it?

So how do you decide what’s right for you and your dog?

Listen to different ideas. Keep an open mind. Ask questions. Try to understand not only the finished product but all the subtle nuances that are part of achieving that final product. Play the devil's advocate. Challenge. Is your instructor addressing you and your dog as individuals or just parroting back popular buzz words that sound impressive on the surface but do little to address your training concerns?

Think for  yourself.

Try out ideas that really appeal to you. See how they work. See how they feel. Give them a legitimate chance. Make sure your execution is correct before you declare “This isn’t working!” If something feels wrong, don’t do it. Don’t fall in love with theory that doesn’t work for you just because everyone else is doing it.

Ask for help when you need it but never lose sight of whose dog you’re training - YOURS! Experiment. Be patient. Think long term.

This is training in its purest form - communicating with another species and getting the result you desire without being frantic or desperate, while inspiring trust, confidence and enthusiasm in your dog. There is no single method that will work for every dog and handler. One is not better than another. The best method is the one that works for your team.


  1. Melinda - you inspire me! So beautifully said. Thank you.

  2. I had a similar conversation last weekend, and I mentioned a popular training method that I just chose not to do, because I didn't like it. The trainer that I was talking to said that to train using a certain method, first "I have to sell the handler on the idea. And if the handler isn't sold, it will never work, so we look for a different method" Here (finally) was a trainer that realized that you have to fit the method, not only to the dog, but to the handler as well.
    There are a few things that are universal (I think everyone needs to work on their timing to ensure that the dog "connects" the feedback to the behavior). Aside from those few things, all other methods have to fit you both!
    Good post.