I’m a why-er. Why did you do that? Why choose A over B? Why does this work? Why doesn’t this work? And I love when students and clients ask why too. It’s my favourite question. And I’ll tell you why.
Why is classed as an interrogative verb that asks about purpose or cause. This gives huge scope for examination of actions, choices, thinking and understanding. Let’s look at why from two perspectives – that of the teacher and of the student.
When I am asked why it prompts me to look at the advice I’m giving. For example, a common question I get asked at scent workshops is ‘Why do the crossover pattern in the search plan?’ When I was first asked this, my immediate thought was ‘that’s what I’ve always done’. Be honest, I bet you’ve thought that when you’ve been teaching something you’ve done for years. Things become automatic. Routine. But being asked why gave me an opportunity to evaluate the pattern and then explain it’s relevance to my students. Funnily enough, thinking back to when I was taught scentwork, there were no explanations given. You just did what you were told. Why wasn’t encouraged! [BTW, if you’re interested in the answer, it’s because the crossover is a bridge between the free and the directed search. If you’d like to know more about this, head over to the Essential Scentwork Skills course for a more detailed answer.]
When any type of teacher is asked why, it can help them clarify in their own mind the reasons behind whatever they are teaching. It’s one of the best parts about teaching. The more you teach the more you learn. If you’re never challenged about your choices or your techniques, you’re less likely to examine them. And if you’ve never explained your decisions you may be less aware of the alternatives, the consequences – good and bad, and of the nuts and bolts of what you are actually teaching.
A common example of this is when trainers are asked why they use certain training methods. The engaged, thoughtful trainer will be able to give a full and detailed answer. They will be able to highlight why their method works in this situation with this dog and why they chose it over an alternative technique. The trainer who answers that they do it because of tradition or because they’ve always done it this way or that it always works is not demonstrating deep knowledge or understanding of their methods.
Why won’t the pup lie down?
One lovely moment of clarity I had was when asked by a client why their pup would lie down when I moved the treat to the ground but when they did it their pup stood up. I asked them to show me what they were doing (I’m a visual learner) Then I showed them what I was doing. Instantly I could see that I moved my hand towards the dog as I moved it to the ground. But they moved their hand away from the dog thus inadvertently prompting the dog to move forward in order to get to the treat.
I was lucky as this why came up very early in my career and so I was able to look closely at all my hand movements early on enabling me give all future clients precise, effective advice right from the start. Less frustration for the dog, better results for the client.
Whether you’re a professional trainer or not, asking yourself why helps make your training more intentional. You know why you’re moving in a certain direction, making deliberate choices rather than winging it. It prompts you to examine your choices and be confident in them.
Why to ask your potential new trainer why
Why is one of the (many) questions I encourage clients to ask when selecting a new trainer, coach or teacher. Why do they teach sit like that? Why don’t they let all the dogs off lead together? Why do they use a clicker? Why do they advocate check chains? Why insist on passive indications? Why teach a retrieve? If the trainer cannot give a fulsome answer, walk away. Even worse is the trainer who gets angry when asked why. It might be that they know their lack of knowledge will be exposed. Or that they don’t believe their authority should be questioned. In both cases my advice is the same, walk away.
This isn’t to say that if occasionally you don’t know the answer that you should lie or bluff or ignore the question. If you genuinely don’t know the answer, say so. And let the questioner know that you will research and think and come back to them with your answer. None of us know all the answers. And that’s OK.
(Canine) Student’s perspective
As a dog trainer, canine coach, inter-species facilitator, whatever you prefer to call me, I have two students: a human and a canine. So let’s first look at why from the canine’s perspective.
When teaching your dog anything, from scentwork to sit, think about why your dog would want to do what you are asking. Is it fun, rewarding? Is there an external reward that she’d like, such as a treat or a toy? Or maybe the activity is intrinsically rewarding, like running or swimming?
Also ask why would she not want to do it. Could it be scary, e.g. putting her head into a box to search for a scented article? Painful, e.g. asking her to give a paw when she has joint pain? Confusing, she just has no idea what you’d like her to do?
Both why’s are just as important. Both provide the information that will help the dog be successful in the task. While the dog might not be able to verbalise her why, you can always ask the question yourself as you consider the right path to take.
The definitive answer
Often there isn’t a definitive answer to training questions. Unless you are looking at ethical or moral aspects, the specific method chosen will always depend on the dog in front of you. Previous experience, health, physiology, age, environment, temperament, equipment and teacher are just some of the many factors to consider when teaching any species anything. If you can’t figure out why the student isn’t responding as expected or hoped, stop the session. Ask for input from another trainer or colleague. Learn more about what you are wanting to teach and about the dog. Try again another day. There’s no shame in asking for help or advice from colleagues. In fact it’s one of the best ways to learn and to make valuable contacts for you and your clients.
The more experience you gain the more options you’ll have. When I started training I didn’t have much idea about how to quickly select the right method for the right dog. Trial and error were how I learned. Through experience I learned why each method or technique worked better with one personality than another. The important factor that pushed me forward was asking the question why.
(Human) Student’s perspective
I’ve found that if students understand the why’s, it is easier for them to learn the when’s, how’s and what’s. Q. Why is the dog not coming when recalled in the park? A. The environment is too busy, there are too many competing options for the dog, e.g. rolling in the mud, chasing the ducks, playing with other dogs. Now the student can think about how to set the dog up for success. By asking why, they can understand the issues.
Understanding is at the root of all learning. I was once on a training course where the task was to separate two interlocking metal circles. But not only did we have to separate them, we had to be able to explain to another student how we did it. Therefore disentangling them by chance wasn’t good enough. We had to interlock and separate them several times until we understood exactly how the puzzle worked.
Not just the how, but the why
In a way, this is how I learned dog training. As a child going to training classes I was taught the techniques. Same when I became a detector dog handler. It was only later that I was able to study and learn why the techniques worked. It’s why when I train students now, I explain why what they are doing is working. This gives a deeper understanding of the exercise. It’s like learning a list of facts by rote versus learning how they relate to each other. Both have their place, but without the why the facts quickly become redundant.
I actively encourage students to ask questions. I can be daunting, intimidating to ask a question. ‘What if the trainer thinks it’s a stupid question?’ ‘What if everyone else here knows the answer except me?’ What if I fumble my words and can’t explain what I need to know?’ This last one is my personal fear. I practise the question in my head many times before daring to ask it out loud. By giving permission to ask questions and to respond positively and supportively to every question, you will encourage your students to feel comfortable enough to ask why. Every question is valid.
Why, why, why?
I daren’t ask my mum if I was the child who was constantly asking why. I suspect I was. And as annoying as it may be, it shows that the child is engaged, curious, wants to interact with the parent, and wants to learn. So as much as it might sometimes be tempting to reply ‘Just because!’ to yet another why, resist, take a breath and remember that in the long run, asking why helps the questioner and the responder.