Making Mistakes: Dog Training or Simply Showing Off? | The Collared Scholar
It was a sweltering summer day in North Texas. We knew it would be hot, so we started the day early, hoping to beat the summer sun before it became too much to bear.
As the mercury rose, we strategically positioned ourselves under a large oak tree, throughout which we had fastened an outdoor misting system that attached to the garden hose. Sitting under the tree offered relief, but as soon as we’d emerge, the water would evaporate in mere moments, and we’d find ourselves drenched not with water from the hose, but with sweat as our bodies tried feverishly to cool themselves.
There were only a few dogs to go, and then we could wrap for the day.
My dog lounged lazily in a kiddie pool next to the oak tree, resting after a short but vigorous work session, surveying the other handlers as they trained their dogs.
A new handler joined us that day. I had worked with him in the past but hadn’t spent time with him while he worked obedience. I had only seen him train the bite.
He walked his dog onto the field, wiping sweat from his brow as he did. Keep in mind, these were Texas born and raised dogs, well conditioned to high temperatures, so they barely faltered in the blistering summer sun. The handlers on the other hand, having grown accustomed to their air conditioned homes and climate controlled cars, didn’t fare hardly as well.
The handler began his obedience routine.
He thought hard about the exercises he was about to perform, his steps rigid and his movement awkward as his mind became entrenched in his planning. Shortly, everything seemed to click. He picked up his pace, heeling his dog perfectly, executing several flawless left and right hand turns, and then backing his dog up – a flashy move that looks impressive when conducted correctly.
After a few moments of unblemished heeling across the perfectly manicured lawn, he stopped, praised his dog quietly, and announced that he was finished.
“What DOESN’T your dog know how to do?” I called out to him.
He looked at me, puzzled by my question.
“What do you work on at home?” I asked.
He stuttered a few moments, then answered, “I’ve just been starting to work long distance stays…,” he trailed off, “…but he isn’t very good.”
“Good!” was my response. “Go ahead and put him in a stay.”
He stood frozen for a moment.
I pressed, “Put your dog in a stay and walk away.”
He broke his stupor slowly and complied with my wishes, dropping his dog into a down and commanding him to stay.
The dog immediately broke the position.
The handler grabbed the dog’s leash and quickly guided him back into the down stay where he had originally left him. He took a few steps away, and the dog broke again.
The handler’s face flushed as he returned to the dog for a second time, his irritability mounting, the heat exacerbating his frustration.
Again, he commanded the stay….and again the dog broke.
He was at the verge of quitting. He was frustrated with the dog’s lack of compliance, and his tone became threatening, his movements more aggressive. He was embarrassed.
The dog was making him look like a fool in front of his peers, and he didn’t like it. It was much better when the dog pranced down the field in a perfect heel, displaying flawless obedience and making his handler look good.
The handler let his frustration get the better of him, and he decided to call it a day. He would go home and work the stay and only show it off when it was faultless.
“I obviously have some work to do,” he called over to me, “so we won’t take anymore of your time with this nonsense.”
Again, I stood.
“Change your attitude, praise your dog when he’s good, and do it again.”
The handler began to protest but I quieted him quickly.
“Be nice to your dog, and reward him when he’s successful… Try it again,” I persisted.
The handler did as I asked.
For 15 minutes he worked his dog through the long stay. His shirt became soaked with sweat, and droplets fell from his face as he moved, but he pressed on.
Regularly, the dog broke his stay. And regularly, I coached and gave guidance. Little by little, the man began to change his response, and the dog at the end of his leash followed suit. In no time, he went from a frustrated and insecure handler to a problem solver… a trainer.
By the end of the session, the dog performed a long stay with his handler out of sight. It wasn’t easy to get him there, but it was a party when he finally figured it out!
All too often, when in a new environment, and especially with an audience present, handlers make the mistake of working their dogs on those behaviors they already have down pat. They practice what they know – not what they NEED to know.
Call it insecurity or a lack of preparation, but most handlers don’t attempt to step outside of their comfort zone in group training.
Here are my philosophies:
- If you aren’t sweating, you aren’t doing it right – I don’t care if you are teaching your pet dog to sit, lay down, and stay put, or if you are a professional handler training high level obedience – your training sessions should be work. You should be expending a significant amount of energy, not only in teaching new behaviors, but also in keeping your dog engaged. Real training (or at least GOOD training) doesn’t result from standing in your living room and giving your dog a treat or zapping them with a shock collar from the comfort of your couch. You need to engage AND PLAY with your dog in order to achieve results. If you aren’t fatigued (at least a little), you’re doing something wrong.
- Mistakes are Evolution – Whether you are practicing at home, or you are in a group setting, your dog won’t learn anything by always staying within the confines of the skills he already knows. In fact, the only way your dog can learn the difference between right and wrong is by making mistakes. In my training, I WANT my dogs to make mistakes. I embrace them. I push for them. I want my dogs to be able to learn that, for instance, the reward doesn’t come when they break their down – but the only way they can learn that is by….well…. breaking their down! For evolution and progress to occur, good training should be a balance between mistakes and successes.
- Training and showing off are two very different things – I learned this one early on in my career. As a naive and new dog trainer, I consistently went to training and worked on those things I had down pat. I never pushed the envelope. I’d often argue that “my dog wasn’t ready” to work the really hard behaviors in a new environment. My mentors consistently challenged me, meeting my excuses with statements like, “Now is the time to work her through it!”. I was nervous, embarrassed, and insecure – and my training suffered for it. Instead of problem solving, I defaulted to showing off, hoping to earn praise and credibility within the group. The group remained unimpressed. Real training is working through the behaviors you are having trouble with. If you are in a group setting, instead of feeling insecure and thus opting to “show off” behaviors your dog already knows, take advantage of the wonderful opportunity in front of you. Work through those things you are struggling most with. Not only will you make more progress in your training, but you’ll also have the benefit of doing so in front of peers who may see the training in a different way, and might be able to offer some insight to better the process. You aren’t perfect, so don’t pretend to be. You aren’t fooling anyone.
- Be prepared and practice often – While it’s critical that you troubleshoot your training, if you fail to practice at home, and you use your group sessions to work the same behaviors time and time again, people will begin to get frustrated. Use your group sessions wisely, and remember, everyone’s time is valuable. Practice often and in different contexts, and use your peers to help you work through the areas where you have trouble. Commit to your training. Your dog and the group will thank you.
At the end of the day, the progress you will make by working through those behaviors you struggle with will be far more significant than the progress you might make running through behaviors your dog already knows. Don’t get frustrated. Instead, own and embrace the mistakes as learning opportunities. Remember, if your dog looks perfect, you aren’t really training, you’re simply showing off.