I have now been in a very active role as an assistant instructor for my dog club's non-competitive agility class for over one year. Along the way, I've met dogs and handlers who really had me scratching my head - not because their situation was particularly complicated, just that the time to explain and execute plans to help deal with their situation was too much for me to really spend without neglecting the other students in class. Most times, I've been able to give them suggestions and/or the tools to help deal with their problems, and I frequently did see improvement. But I still haven't had that feeling that I've really fully helped a problem. I don't think my problem lies in a lack of ability to convey information or even demonstrate how to deal with an issue, but instead seems to lie in the fact that a huge gap between what I know and what they know needs to be filled, and there just simply isn't the time to fill it.
A current situation that I'm dealing with along these very lines is making me feel a bit frustrated. Attempting to explain the emotional side of behavior problems to one handler while also attempting to override any previous and ill-suited suggestions to deal with it is a daunting task in a class with four or five other dogs present. One could argue that the situation shouldn't be dealt with at all in this environment. But what is an instructor to do in the sixth week of class, when money has already been paid, and a dog's behavior is embarrassing and disruptive for both the handler and the other students in class?
In that respect, I'm stressed out on several levels - trying to carefully correct misinformation that has been put out there without stepping too hard on any one else's toes, while explaining a more complicated but solid solution to the problem and ultimately balancing one student against an entire class seeking personalized attention. It's a situation I've been in before, but it doesn't seem to get easier with repetition.
Sometimes I really wonder: does the ability to understand classical conditioning methods require a genuine and whole interest in dog training and behavior, or even learning and behavior as a whole? I don't say that disparagingly. The fact is that we live in a society where it's largely accepted as OK to deal with dog misbehavior with a pop, a snap, and perhaps a verbal hiss. Can people who just want a nice house pet wrap their mind around the idea of not JUST rewarding or punishing behaviors, but shaping emotions and associations? Sometimes, the effort really feels futile to me. It'd be so much easier to just say "show her who's boss!" or "she thinks she's in charge"... but I know better. I know the dog's behavior is rooted in anxiety and overexcitement and needs to be dealt with accordingly. How can I stitch up that big gap between what I know and what the handler knows in the most effective way possible?
I hear a lot of dog training people write off pet class handlers with misbehaved dogs as "not trying hard enough" or "letting the dog do whatever it wants." But the fact of the matter is that dealing with behavior problems is not like teaching sit, down, stay, and come. It's really hard to convey the right information and sometimes even harder to get a handler to stop resisting what seems like an unconventional training plan. After all, it only takes a couple of episodes of a couple of dog training shows to see that using food or other high-value items while the dog is barking their head off or growling with its hackles raised is analogous to selling your soul to the devil.
I can only hope I'm making just a little bit of a difference right now. I think I am. In the future, if I ever get the opportunity, I want to teach smaller, more personalized classes that work on specific issues. Fiesty Fido or Shy Dog classes sound great in theory, and that's because they are. But they're not offered nearly enough. Subsequently, those teams who need a little bit of extra help are thrown in with the teacher's pets and valedictorians.. and the result isn't pretty.