General Training

Teaching Agility Classes

Many people teach agility classes as well as train their dogs to do agility. It's not uncommon that instructors who are horrified at the thought of training a dog without positive reinforcement never have a word of praise for their human students.

Taking classes really helps one gain perspective on what things are like from the student's point of view, and is highly recommended for all instructors. If you have a co-instructor, have him or her teach the class, while you attend as the student. You may learn more about teaching during that class than you had learned in all the past time you had spent teaching! And you thought you were doing well!

You may notice a disturbing trend. How many times have you heard (or said) the following statements in class: "That was your fault, don't blame the dog!" or "Well, if you would only teach him to do ...[fill in the blank]... then he could do this!" If this kind of statement sounds familiar, think whether you would say this to your dog? Most dogs would just quit on you. And yet, we expect our human students to respond to it. Why?

Teaching is a difficult thing to learn to do well. It does not come naturally, but many aspects of teaching can be learned. Teaching people is remarkably similar to teaching dogs. People respond or fail to respond to the same types of things as dogs do. People are all different, and what works for one student may not work for another. And, remarkably, people, like dogs, respond better to positive reinforcement than they do to coercion (or said another way, "you can catch more flies with honey than you can with vinegar").

There are several reasons why we often fail to apply the same training methods to humans that we use for dogs:

  1. First, we don't really think about it. Unfortunately, most of us learned by coercion. We spend much of our time forcing ourselves or being compelled to do things that we don't want to do, and we simply assume that that is the way people work.
  2. Second, we have less invested in our human students than we do in our dogs. It's much harder to make a connection between our human students' successes and our own efforts, than it is to take credit for our dogs' successes. So we work harder to train our dogs than we do to train our human students because we feel more successful when the dogs do well.
  3. Third, we assume that since people can speak our language they can learn faster. Actually, nothing could be further from the truth. Did you ever get into an argument with someone about color? Have you ever been absolutely convinced, for example, that something is orange, when someone whose judgement you usually trust swears up and down that it's pink! There's no solving this argument: the word that you use for that color is orange. She's using pink. You are speaking the same "language", but meaning entirely different things. This is a trivial example, of course, but it holds true for a lot of things. Just because you know what you mean doesn't mean that your students do. And on an even more fundamental level, just because someone intellectually understands something, doesn't mean they can do it. Dog training requires physical coordination, timing, and lots of other things that simply take time to learn. So sometimes language is a hindrance, rather than a help, where training is concerned.
  4. Finally, we assume that since the human part of the team is the instigator of the training, and thus probably the more motivated, that the human doesn't really need any positive reinforcement. Clearly, that is also untrue.

So here are some suggestions for training people. If you've read many dog training books, you may recognize them.

  1. Praise, praise, praise!

    If someone does well, go crazy. Say " Yes, yes, yes, that was it! You did it!!! What a great job! You are really doing well with that dog." After all, if your dog does well, you don't just give him a little "good dog" and go on. You praise him. The same is true for your human students. A method that is very helpful is to point out to the class what the student did right. Say "did you see how she turned her shoulders left after that jump and the dog followed? That's an excellent example of appropriate body language." People really remember that. It represents high praise from the teacher. You must be careful, though, and not play favorites. This method works best with people who have been having trouble and who get something right. It makes them feel good, and tells the rest of the class, "if she did it, I can do it, too". Don't praise unless praise is warranted, but do work very hard to find something to praise. One of the two most important things to remember is, "always find something good to say about the dog". That may seem difficult at times, but it's really not that hard. Sometimes take aside a student who's having trouble and say, "You know, you are doing a really good job with this dog. He is a hard dog to train, and he's really made progress." Or, point out the good things about the dog. "He's slow now, but he's very careful and he never makes a mistake. Keep working and he will get faster as he gains confidence."

    The second important thing to remember is "Always demonstrate with a student's dog, not with your own dog". We almost never do this in agility, and it's surprising. Remember, your dog already knows how to do the exercise. When you use her to demonstrate, all you are really doing is showing how smart your dog is. At best, your students won't get much from it, and at worst, they will come away feeling that their dog will never measure up. If you need to demonstrate a training technique, either don't use a dog, or ask for a volunteer demo dog. This will achieve several things. First, you will be demonstrating the technique as used with a relatively untrained dog, which is most similar to what your students need to know. Second, you will be demonstrating that every trainer, even you, starts with a green dog and works up to the desired performance. Finally, (especially if you have trouble with the demo dog) you will be demonstrating that even you are not perfect, and thus giving your students a more achievable goal. Most students love it when you can't get their dog to cooperate - and they (the people) try much harder afterwards!

  2. Pay attention

    When you teach your dog to heel or to stay, you watch him all the time, right? When he moves a muscle out of place you correct him, right? You only reward correct performances, right? Well, you owe your human students the same attention. Watch each performance carefully. Try your best to figure out what went wrong. If necessary, ask to see it again, or try the exercise yourself with the student's dog. Make sure that when you give suggestions they are appropriate to the problem. Remember, no two dogs are alike and no two handlers are alike. Add to that the large number of different training methods that people use, and you have a virtually infinite number of ways things could go wrong. Think before you speak. If a student has a problem, always have a suggestion. If you don't know the solution, say so, and make it your business to find out (ask other instructors, write in to cleanrun, read books, etc). If you have something that you think will work, but are not sure, say so: "It looks to me as if he's not sure where the correct take off point is. Let's try this exercise and see if it helps...."

    Respect the student's training ability. They know their dog best. If the dog has trouble with the exercise, don't assume that either a) the student has not worked hard enough to teach the exercise or b) the dog does not know the exercise. Dogs learn at different rates and what is easy for one dog may be difficult for another. Rate of learning does not necessarily correlate with intensity of effort. Also, dogs disobey commands for lots of reasons. For example, most dogs understand the command "sit". It's usually the first command they learn, they do it all their lives, and they will do it in any number of different situations. However, neither do they sit *every time* you tell them to. Why not? They understand the command! Well, there are a lot of reasons they might not sit when told. They may not have heard the command. They may not have understood what you said (perhaps you were mumbling or had a cold). The grass may be wet and she doesn't want to put her butt down. She may be distracted or frightened. There may be a squirrel in the next yard that she *knows* she can get this time if just given half a chance. Or, maybe she didn't sit because she's a dog and dogs, like any other sentient being, do inexplicable things sometimes. Whatever the reasons, the same thing can be said for "jump", "tunnel", "come", "get out", or any other command: just because they don't do it, doesn't mean they don't understand the exercise.

    If a dog does not respond to a command, it is your responsibility as instructor to determine if the dog understands the command or not. Set up several different situations to see if the dog ever responds. Watch closely to see if the dog appears to try to respond or seems confused. If the dog really doesn't understand the exercise, ask the handler how they've tried to train it, don't just assume that they haven't. Offer suggestions.

    Talk to your students. It's often the only way to find out if you and they are seeing the same things in the dog's performance.

  3. Remember that, like dogs, all people are different. Some people may respond well to more coercive training methods, others need more encouragement. This has nothing to do with how well they train dogs, it's just a different personality. If an individual student is not responding to a certain training style, try something else.

    Remember, positive reinforcement for the trainer has lots of collateral effects. First of all, your students will learn faster and be more successful. Second of all, their dogs will learn faster. If the handler is uncertain, discouraged, depressed or intimidated it will most certainly reflect on their relationship with their dog. Dogs respond much better to a handler who is happy, confident, secure and enthusiastic. Finally, if you are nice to your students, they will love you. Remember that unlike dogs, we humans are starved for a kind word. Think about it. When was the last time you heard a word of praise from your boss? Your client? Your spouse? Your mother? Your kids???!!!! Can't remember??? Hmm.... maybe there's a pattern here.

    We are highly motivated to train our dogs. That makes it a little easier on us as instructors: we don't have to motivate. BUT it doesn't relieve us from the responsibility of using humane teaching methods, and it doesn't negate the fact that if we are positive, our students will be much more likely to succeed.

(Kate Eaton)


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