Have you ever felt that all your learning has brought you to an unexpected place? Perhaps you feel more knowledgeable, more confident? Or perhaps you feel overwhelmed? So much so that inertia seems like your best option? I’ve been there and I know other trainers who have also found themselves in this unexpected position.
How does it happen?
How did we get there? The problem came after a period of intensive learning. I’d been attending many conferences. And reading every book on dog behaviour and training I could get my hands on. I had also been traveling around the UK sitting in on consults with the handful of folks who were treating behavioural issues then. Yes, there really was a time when there were only about a dozen, maybe less, professional, full time behaviourists.
I was learning about puppy training, physical, behavioural and mental development. Juvenile and senior issues and challenges as well as every age and stage in between. Brain development, nutrition. Health and pain. Training methods and strategies for teaching the perfect recall, engagement, understanding. How to work with clients individually and in groups. I wanted to know it all. And I wanted that knowledge right now (well, in the 1990’s when all this was happening.)
Around this time I welcomed my wonderful English Springer Spaniel, Jackson, into the family. I was so excited to put my learning into action with my own dog. I’d only lived with one dog previous to him and I was a child working from instinct and learning from dodgy books and even dodgier TV shows. Now was my chance to be perfect. To train perfectly. To have the perfect dog. To be the perfect partner.
But when I brought him home, I was suddenly and unexpectedly hit by fear. Fear of failure. Of getting it wrong. Now that I knew the consequences of getting it all wrong, I was frightened to try anything. I could screw this perfect puppy up. What if I tried teaching him to sit but got my timing wrong. He might misunderstand me. I might inadvertently mislead him. And then his confidence would crumble. He wouldn’t be able to trust me. I’d have scarred him for life! The consequences of making any mistake were too awful. Best to do nothing.
Luckily, this hideous state of inertia only lasted a couple of days. I knew that I had to make decisions, choose a path and start travelling along it. Having had a good long internal discussion, I came to this conclusion. While I understood that bad experiences could have consequences, all my learning would allow me to fix any problems I inadvertently created. This realisation is what freed me. I knew that I wasn’t going to use punitive or abusive techniques. My training was reward based, co-operative. Therefore, the ‘damage’ I might do by giving a treat at the ‘wrong’ time, or not delivering a toy at the appropriate moment would be minimal.
What I didn’t know enough about was temperament, sociability and resilience. My personal choice is always for super sociable dogs. I don’t want to be working on difficult behavioural issues during my free time. For my lifestyle, I need dogs who love meeting new people and spending time with old friends. Dogs who love children, not just tolerate them, are the most welcome. Can you tell that I like minimal stress, maximum enjoyment during my down time?
I have had dogs with issues. Every dog has their own challenges. But one dog in particular brought it home to me just how important my core canine needs were. Archie was a Jack Russell Terrier who found his way to me when I was working in rescue. His method for dealing with discomfort, fear, stress, was aggression. He was a bundle of aggression with people and other dogs. I loved him to bits, he was a wonderful chap. But his behaviour was difficult to help and to manage. Especially when it wasn’t just him and me.
I learned so much from him. And he helped me pass on a wealth of knowledge to other trainers and clients. Looking back, giving him a home was a blessing for me. But I wouldn’t want to go through it again. Once was enough. Having said that, I learned about resilience from him. Both his resilience and my own. This trait is so vital in life, for dogs and people. Having the courage and the will to bounce back, to try again. It can become depleted. But it can also be boosted. Building strong resilience will get you through almost anything.
So what has that got to do with training inertia? Fear of getting it wrong stops you from getting it right. It’s why I teach scentwork in a very specific way. My method essentially teaches the dog the fundamentals and then I teach the handler. While both are always working together, the dog is ahead of the game from the get go. And it’s this that gives the handler the freedom to get it wrong. Because we know that the learner handler will get it wrong. By building in skill and confidence with the dog, her resilience in the face of her handler not supporting or moving or responding as required is super strong. It gives the handler wiggle room. It allows them to try things out free of the fear of messing up. Of making it difficult for their dog. Or spoiling it, or ruining it.
Learning a new skill while simultaneously teaching said skill to another species is a difficult challenge. Hence, anticipating issues and putting a system in place to mitigate handler error makes for a wonderful learning experience for the dog. And for the handler who knows that if they get it wrong, it doesn’t matter. This is powerful information. Empowering in fact. Only once the dog is confident in the core task of identifying and locating the target scent do I start to drill down the handler skills. This method has never let me down in 10 years of teaching scentwork. And in teaching others to teach Talking Dogs Scentwork. Powerful indeed.
Another tactic to battle inertia is to remove pressure of time. I wanted to know everything immediately. I crammed information. But if I’d been able to have access to the information knowing that I could absorb it in my own time, that would have been a joy. I was going to so many workshops and conferences and teaching so many classes and seeing so many clients, that I didn’t even give myself the luxury of taking my time with the many books I read. Had I been able to plan ahead, to give myself a realistic schedule, I think I’d have been in a better place.
If I’d had access to online courses like those that I have written and filmed, I’d have been in dog training heaven! By making courses self-paced with lifetime access, you can start and finish without the pressure of time. Being able to enrol on a course when funds allowed, perhaps due to a birthday, or to take advantage of discounts, but then be under no pressure to immediately jump in to start learning would have been a dream for me.
And to be able to revise learnings again and again until I’m sure I’ve gleaned all I can would have been so novel. In my day, if we were very lucky, the workshop organiser might record the event. Then we had to wait for it to be copied on to video (yes, actual video cassettes) and then be sent out to us. At an additional cost of course. Not like now when digital lessons are available to watch anytime, anywhere on multiple devices.
I’m glad I lived in a time when access to information was limited. It seemed precious and special. Not as disposable as some view it these days. Mind you, I can’t tell you the last time I actually watched any of the videos of those conferences. I’d have to dust off my old VCR first. And then worry that the video tape would break or get mangled. Being able to learn online is one of the best innovations of recent years. Especially when it comes to dog behaviour and training. High quality content delivered by knowledgeable and skilled practitioners available just when you need it, what an asset. You can’t lose it or harm it. And it’s easy to find the piece of information you need without fast forwarding or rewinding a cassette.
If you are in a hurry, make a realistic schedule. Don’t rush through courses, take your time. I love having a pile of books or a list courses teed up and ready to go. Then I can go to them whenever I have the time, inclination and desire. No pressure. No rush. Now that’s how I love to learn.