I have talked about a similar subject before on this blog, though from a bit of a different view point. In this previous post I was speaking more from experience about the best teachers I’ve ever had. These were traits for someone teaching other humans, and in a lot of ways were really specific to my own preferences. But I had a thought recently about what it takes to be a good teacher of others (human or animals). I realized that to teach effectively there are really three fundamental principles that you need. The beauty of these are that they are non-technique specific. They should work no matter what you’re teaching, what discipline you’re working in, or even your specific view on reward or punishment (or balanced) training. Obviously, if you’ve been here before, you know I’d suggest you use reward based training, but still, I think these are three things that are incredibly useful to keep in mind. So, without further ado, my
Three Pillars of Good Training (As Explained With Doctor Who .GIFs)
Oh, Patience. Of the three this is the most important, seems the most difficult, and yet is the easiest to pull off. Why? Because all you have to do is just keep on keeping on. Of course, that’s exactly why it’s so hard. It seems so simple to just wait it out, but when we don’t see immediate results the temptation is to switch to something new. It’s easy to say to be patient, easier to say to someone else to be patient, but much harder to do it ourselves. It should be obvious, however, that without patience you will never get anywhere. Especially in the case of positive reinforcement training—you will quickly realize there is no such thing as a quick fix. Anything that seems that way is not real training—it’s just management. The recipient of your training will have learned nothing, except that occasionally their teacher gets frustrated with them and bullies them into the end behaviour. So if the trainee is the more patient one, you’ll do the work for them, and just give them the answers instead of allowing them to come up with the answers themselves—and that’s the best case scenario. If you repeatedly get impatient with your trainee they will stop trying all together, and may even start actively seeking ways to avoid the training. The great thing about having patience is that there isn’t much of a learning curve for you as a trainer to pick it up. All you have to do is just, you know, chill out.
This one is a bit more difficult for the new trainer to grasp. Some people are born with naturally good timing, some really, really are not. I sometimes find it frustrating watching someone who’s just learning how to train a dog or horse, and the frustration usually is routed in watching them screw up their timing. But, with patience, anyone can pick it up (see what I did there?).
It can seem silly that you have to train yourself before you can train others, but it’s a fact. Your mechanics have to be figured out before you can reasonably expect to be able to communicate to your trainee. If you don’t take the time to sort that out it will be harder to pin-point the exact moment of feedback, which if you can’t do, your trainee will never know for sure what you want of them. Any slack in timing introduces confusion, and the only way to sort it out will be to go back and re-teach, maybe even switching to a new verbal or physical cue as the original is spoiled, since, as my trainer is fond of saying, “We learn best what we learn first.” Timing is of course linked to reward placement, but that’s really just timing when and where you hand out the treat or throw the toy.
3. Situational Awareness
You have to assume your environment comes into play. For one thing, that’s how we’re designed to learn once we leave the proverbial nest (and by “we” I mean living creatures in general). Some things are based on instinct, but most are learned. Often they are learned the hard way. As such, assuming that we can ever be completely divorced from our environment is naïve. A very basic survival technique would naturally involve being aware of your environment and any slight changes that happen along the way. Your trainee can become distracted by their environment at any time. Your human student might have stage fright, or neglected to mention a preconception that running on grass will be slippery and cause them to fall (even if the ground is dry and they are wearing proper footing), and will thus not run quite as fast or accurately as possible. Your dog has much better peripheral vision than you, and is acutely responsive to motion. They can become distracted by things you will never, ever know were even there. They can also detect an errant scent, and the temptation will be fore them to stop what they’re doing and seek it out. You must train in new environments so they understand those distractions should be ignored, but also remember to lower your expectations when working anywhere where the environment can change at a moments notice (a crowded, outdoor agility competition being a prime example).
You must be aware of others who might be working near you, and of how their energy can influence you and your training partner. There is no such thing as an impregnable training bubble, but with diligent (patient!) work, you can create a pretty close approximation of one.
So, some of this stuff you have probably heard, and you might be wondering why I selected out these three things as the main principles. For one, as I said earlier, they are fairly universal. There are other training principles that I consider fundamental when training a dog that I wouldn’t worry about with a horse, or when teaching a person, et cetera. These three things apply to just about everybody and everything. However, that’s not the only reason. I find the real advantage comes when things aren’t working.
If I’m training and suddenly my dog stops doing something, or fails to perform something as usual, especially something I feel he should have a handle of at that point, it’s is immensely useful to go through this list to see if I’m going too far or too fast. First thing I check is the environment, since as far as I’m concerned that’s the most likely cause if your dog isn’t doing something that normally doesn’t pose a problem for them. Then I think hard about my timing; am I rewarding exactly what should be rewarded, and am I cuing exactly when they need me to? Am I maybe rewarding a different behaviour (for example, training a wrap over the jump and marking when the dog lands and turns towards you as opposed to when they turn while jumping). Am I lumping too many things together so that there’s no way for my dog to easily discern what I’m marking, no matter how good my timing is? If that all seems to be fine, I will then think back to how long I’ve actually been working on this particular behaviour. Did I really give it the time to become fixed in the early stages before moving on to proofing it or using it while running a course?
Throughout the process of going down this list, I almost always come upon a hole somewhere that could use addressing, and that often fixes the problem. If I go through this checklist and I can’t find that I’ve done anything wrong along the way, then it is the time to consider other approaches. Try a different technique for teaching the behaviour, do some research later, or even just change the training setting a bit. And since I have a check-list to go down, and a straight forward way forward if things aren’t immediately working out, than the missteps along the way become less frustrating. It can also remind you that mistakes aren’t anything your dog (or horse, or student, or iguana for that matter) are doing to spite you. They are just information; a report card on how the training is going. I’d love to hear what other people think. I purposefully kept the list short because you don’t want to get paralyzed on the training field trying to remember a million different things. But maybe there’s a must-have on there that I missed, or someone has a completely different list. And maybe you don’t have a response. In which case: