Tuesday, July 19, 2011

The Problem With Dog Training


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.

10 comments:

Kathy July 19, 2011 at 12:13 PM  

I find the same thing and it is getting easier to accept that sometimes it is just not the place to go into the whole HUGE background that is necessary so the owner would understand what might be needed, but it is hard to hear some other instructors talk about the average pet parents who just dont know, they are not stupid and a lot of times they are hungry for knowledge a lot of times i think they just do not know where to find it and there is so much to tell to just bring them up to speed. Most of the info that is readily available is info that gives magic instant cures which are usually things that make your hair curl. I feel bad for caring owners that just do not know.

Raegan July 19, 2011 at 12:36 PM  

My comment got a little out of hand: http://greenlight-gatsby.blogspot.com/2011/07/problem-of-dog-training-theory-and.html

An English Shepherd July 19, 2011 at 2:32 PM  

Sounds like you are doing your best, it sounds very difficult!

andrea July 19, 2011 at 2:41 PM  

you've nailed one of the biggest problems I see ...people need more attention to understand the key concepts at first - and until they get it there isn't much point in firing a whole lot of info at them ... the teacher pet thing makes me crazy ...

it's a tough position (yours) I;m sure when you are running your own facility things will be better for you! Thanks for all you do trying to help the dogs:)

Sara July 19, 2011 at 3:30 PM  

Perhaps you could send them home with a good article to read? I know that happens all the time in my classes.

houndstooth July 19, 2011 at 9:31 PM  

I feel your pain! In the current class that we're working with, we have one girl who just doesn't get it at all! Her dog is extremely smart, but she blames all her shortcomings on the dog. You tell her something and three seconds later, she's back to doing what she was doing before. I'm so glad class is done next week! I haven't found an effective way for dealing with the situation yet, but I sympathize.

KB July 20, 2011 at 9:04 AM  

Our teacher does a combination of group and individual classes, which I think is a good model. That way, people with more complicated issues to deal with can have one-on-one time to learn more.

I've seen the kind of situations that you're describing in classes that I've taken, and I can see the bind that the teacher is in so I understand your frustration!

Roxanne @ Champion of My Heart July 20, 2011 at 9:17 AM  

Before we found Gigi for our bigger picture needs, several trainers (in agility mostly) essentially booted me and Lilly from class (aka kindly told me that perhaps Lilly would be better just staying at home). I suspect for these same reasons. Goodness knows I was trying, but our challenges were much bigger than most.

AC July 26, 2011 at 11:15 AM  

When I first got Kona, I only knew traditional dog training. I didn't know what I didn't know. I think it's trickiest to get people past this point on the learning curve. Providing enough info and experience that they realize they have a lot to learn.

I'm more on the side that many disruptive dogs shouldn't be in group classes. My thought is that either a)the human needs one-on-one time to get down the basics, or b)the dog is too reactive/overstimulated/whatever in the class environment and needs help with the basics. In either case, the group environment is just too much and doesn't set either the dog or owner up for success.

I don't think it's cool for a trainer to only say "stay home." But I think it's equally not cool for the dog/handler team to be unsuccessful while disturbing the rest of class. Solution...? Maybe pull the dog out of class in exchange for an equal value of private lessons?

KellyK January 26, 2012 at 12:53 PM  

I like AC's idea of an equal value of private classes if you have to pull a disruptive dog.

I've been "that person" with the dog who starts barking during class and won't stop, and I'm really glad the teacher's answer was not "stay home" but to show me some methods of distraction.

I think that class size can be an issue because the more people you have, the harder it is to meet individual needs, the more distractions there are, and the more crowded the space gets. I took one dog to a basic obedience class that was us and one other dog, and it went *fabulously.* Though I'm sure it sucked for the trainer to get only 2 class fees instead of six or eight.

Having more expensive small classes that are still cheaper than one-on-one sessions might be a good option, particuarly if it's a Shy Dog or Reactive Dog class.

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