The Makings of a Good Trainer

I’m a bit late to the party, but it’s time again for another Dog Agility Blog Event and this time we’re talking about something that is very important, and something that is equally difficult to figure out before you’ve invested a lot of time: what makes a good trainer?

I’ve had a lot of teachers and trainers and instructors in my life. School and college teachers, university professors, riding instructors and coaches (yes there’s a difference), and dog trainers just to name a few, and the one thing I can say is that I’ve had great ones and bad ones in each category, and they’ve all been pretty different personality-wise. However, there are some universals which are things I look for in a trainer I intend to stick with for a while.

  1.  Knowledge: You would think that’s a no-brainer but it’s actually something you need to investigate quite carefully. The absolute worst riding instructor I ever had to deal with was easily the one with the least amount of experience. She (let’s call her “L”) took a ridiculous short-cut when learning to teach (an abbreviated BHSI course designed for people who already had the requisite experience, just not the certification) and came away with some truly troubling, and ultimately dangerous gapes in her knowledge. I think I had one lesson with L, during which I stopped listening to her halfway through since she was utterly oblivious on the differences in jumping a hotblooded horse as opposed to a warmblood (these are important differences, believe me). Her students fell off all the time, horses ran loose, and if you didn’t agree with her she would scream at you or follow you around the barn until she found something she could tattle about to the owner. The only reason L was kept on staff was that she was entertaining to the kids, and let them do all the fun stuff early on, so most people didn’t seem to mind that their child was eating dirt week after week. Long story short=Certified does not mean the same thing as qualified. Look for people who have actual time spent doing what they do, and aren’t fresh out of some course. Preferably people who have interned and mentored with more experienced trainers, hopefully more than one. I honestly can’t think of a single training course for horse or dog trainers that would make me want to jump in with a trainer without question. Watch them teach, see how much they are actually teaching (I once watched L go a half an hour making jokes about how drunk her students seemed to be riding before she gave them any actual advice) and talk to their students, talk to their peers if you can (with a grain of salt, there’s no lack of jealousy and backstabbing in any activity that involves competition). It’s the only way to have any real idea of how good they are.
  2. Willingness to force you to build a proper foundation: We all want to skip to the fun stuff. I’d’ve loved to have cantered and jumping right away on my horse. I’d’ve loved to have taken my dog in a competition by now. And sometimes, sometimes, it’s ok to push your boundaries a little to see what you can do. But that tactic only works if you have a rock solid foundation to jump off of. My first riding instructor waited months to let me do more than walk or trot, but by then my balance was so good that I got to canter and jump in the same lesson. It’s something that still benefits me to this day as I stick on a horse better than most of the people I know. L was teaching her students jumping position before they knew how to start and stop the horse! This is a major problem since a proper jumping position (or two-point) involves leaning forward, which only works if you’ve developed excellent upper-body control, which you learn over time. Hell, some people struggle with that for their whole riding career; one of the most common riding faults is rounding your shoulders and leaning forward, especially when things get dicy, when what you really need to do is sit up. When her students fell off (which was at least once a day with her), they always fell off by rolling over the horse’s shoulder because all of their weight was balanced too far forward. Instead of taking a step back and correcting the problem (and maybe noticing that all of her students somehow fell off the exact same way), she blamed the horse, or the student, and assumed it would get worked out later (with no mind to the possibly serious injuries you risk with even the most mild of spills). People want to skip to the sexy stuff, parents want to see their children excelling as quickly as possible, but if your trainer is willing to skip the (often admittedly boring) foundation stuff just to hold your attention, then they clearly don’t have your best interests in mind. Find someone who actually cares about your longterm career. Thank me later.
  3. Be open to new ideas: For the record I absolutely love my current dog trainer. She pretty much nails all the points on this list. This particular point is one that is really important to me. When I showed her the video for Silvia Trkman’s cik-cap turns after I’d been working on it for a while, instead of getting annoyed at me for trying to train stuff without her as many teachers would, she watched it, liked it almost as much as I did, and then modified it to fit into her own training program, but never really cared that I kept doing it the original way since it was working for me.  Her main point is to adjust what you do to yourself and your dog, and if it works that’s great. Now, any new training method should be examined carefully and worked into your philosophy—grabbing techniques willy-nilly with no thought to how they might connect to anything else you do is a recipe for disaster. But truly great trainers are not afraid to work with you in a way that works for you. The last man I worked for as a horse groom was great about thinking outside the box. My job was to maintain the health and appearance of the horses, not to train them, but a good horse trainer knows that the insight of their groom (we spent on average ten or more hours a day with our horses) was invaluable. A horse I looked after was having difficulty moving up to larger classes—not because of a lack of ability, but because he got so strong that he became extremely difficult to control. Conventional thinking says to stay at the same level until he gets comfortable then move up, but I was sure that would never work; the horse (Rolls Royce), was far too stubborn for that. I suggested, and the trainer listened, that we entered him in his first Open Welcome class (grande prix level jumper course, 1.5 metres) and let him finish the week at a level 6 or 7 (1.3-1.4 metres). The result? The jumps were large enough in the Open Welcome that Rolls actually backed off of the jumps on his own and thought about what he was doing, and then later in the week had enough of his energy burned off that he could work over the smaller jumps more rationally. It wound up being a huge breakthrough for the horse which changed a lot of how we dealt with him. However, there is a flip side to this idea, which leads me to…
  4. Look how many nosebands that horse has on. Yet, perversely, he was really soft mouthed. One of the hardest horses I’ve ever ridden.

    Not afraid to tell you when you’re full of sh*t: I’m a bit of a know-it-all sometimes. And I also looooove giving people advice—partly to help, partly to confirm my own knowledge. But sometimes I don’t know what I’m doing. Sometimes I should keep my yap shut or not try something I’m absolutely not ready for. While something can be said for letting people learn from their mistakes, sometimes those mistakes have too high of a consequence (especially when dealing with physical activities, and more-so when you’re animal companion is trusting you to do right by them). Sometimes you’re really convinced you’re right and compound a mistake, and that can take a ton of time to fix. Now, like anyone, I can get defensive when someone tells me I’m wrong. It’s habitual, a reflex on my part. Best remedy for that? In my book, a good strong boot to the arse. One the best horse couches I had was super snarky, to the point where a lot of people avoided training with her. I loved it. If I didn’t take it personal and realized she was telling me off because she genuinely wanted me to be a better rider, and adjusted myself quickly enough to match her, I accomplished a whole lot in a very short period of time. They say a bit of stress is good for learning and I am totally on board with that idea. The same horse trainer who rode Rolls Royce was like that; also if he stopped yelling at you that meant he’d given up (which I only ever saw him do when someone repeatedly talked back at him), so it was better to let him just have at you. Not to mention how easy it is to get high on yourself when you’ve had some success—better to have your teacher tell you off then find out the hard way (read: the way that ends in injuries, public humiliation, and tears). But there’s a flip side to this idea as well, which leads to…

  5. Know when to back off: Especially when it comes to learning anything that you’ll one day want to compete in. For some people it’s all about the ribbons, and that’s a terrible way to learn. No competition is completely fair, and there will always be the chance that other competitors will have some advantage, so to judge your progress that way is nothing but an exercise in frustration. If your trainer’s goal is to have you win all the time, they are probably in it for the wrong reasons. There’s a wonderful quote from Paul Rand (who’s quoting Ludwig Mies van der Rohe) that I try to live by as a designer especially, but also in all other areas of my life when I can,
    “‘Don’t try to be original. Just try to be good.’ That sounds sort of naive but it’s true.”
    If you try to be original, or the best there is at all times, you will actually go insane. And if your trainer catches you trying to be that way, they need to say so. They are there to help you succeed, not feed their own or your own egos, and success is not necessarily measured in ribbons. The teacher that knows when it’s best to let you regroup is the one who’s going to allow you the time to reflect, pull yourself together, calm down, and come back able to get the job done. If they’re on you constantly, you will always be in fear of what they’ll say. I don’t allow myself to teach my dog that way, I’d certainly appreciate it if my human trainers did the same.
  6. Passion: a true, genuine passion for what they do. Sometimes we try to teach something that we originally loved as a hobby and we lose our passion, and if that’s the case you should quit right there. It’s totally unreasonable to expect your students to follow your lead when you’re not particularly enthused about it yourself. My absolute favourite professor in university, the woman who I can honestly say has had the biggest influence on my writing, understanding of literature and story telling, and even my world view, was also probably the most passionate teacher I ever had. She read from books in class and was either jumping up and down over how awesome they were or was crying with authentic emotion. She taught what she loved, not what someone told her to put on a syllabus (she used Buffy, X-Files and Blackadder to teach critical theory, she had courses on cyber punk and magic realism, she let me write an essay on a Marist interpretation of the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles! I’m excited remembering this stuff, imagine what it was like to actually do it). Happiness is contagious, it excites the pleasure centres of your brain, so you associate learning with pleasure, not a feeling of boredom or obligation.  That can’t not be a good thing.

In conclusion, the really great trainers have loved what they did, but understood their craft from top to bottom and had a sense of balance between learning and success.

I think that’s it for now, though I may add to this later. I’d love to hear your thoughts. I also know that this list is totally tailored to my personality; there are some people where a good boot to the arse will put them off that particular activity for the rest of their lives (more than once I’ve been teaching someone myself and had to choke on a “Suck it up, buttercup” comment or two). However, I know these are the qualities in trainers that have made the biggest difference in my life, and I think the people who can accept trainers who behave as I’ve indicated are the sort of people who tend to get the most out of their teachers. What are your thoughts?

5 Replies to “The Makings of a Good Trainer”

  1. Everyone learns differently and reading all of these posts has really shown just how much our learning styles can vary. There is no one trainer/coach for every single student. I think I wrote my post in some haste as there are a lot of things I left out! It's kind of sad, though, that I can't remember any specific teachers from my past that inspired me the same way yours did. I loved school yet I don't recall ever being strongly influenced by any one individual. I feel like I missed out now.

    1. Hm, that's unfortunate. Though I think you mentioned in your post that a lot of profs aren't actually good teachers, which is the honest to goodness truth. Once you have your Doctorate there really isn't much else you can do aside from either research, writing (booth jobs with unsteady paycheques) or teach, but nowhere in your doctorate program are you actually taught how to teach. You're just supposed to figure it out as you TA. Not the most effective method to be sure.

  2. Excellent post. We obviously agree on the "ass kicking" part, but I also love that you included knowing when to back off. That is huge, and it is also something of an art. One more thing to add on that front which came to mind in light of this post and my agility weekend–knowing when to help your students back off of their dogs (or horses), whether it be physically or mentally. So many people push, push, push their animals, and the dogs in particular will keep giving even when it may hurt them physically. I saw more than a few dogs this weekend that are in severe need of a break, but am not in a position to comment as they are "colleagues" not students. It was hard to watch, so, my own dogs will be getting a bit extra down time over the next few weeks, sympathy rest I guess you could say. Sorry, I am rambling off-topic! Great thoughts on the subject.

    1. Yes, it can be hard to back-off sometimes, especially when you know under the right circumstances your pup should be able to do the things we ask. I'm always mindful with my dog and with any horse I deal with that they will push through a considerable amount of pain and discomfort to please us. The horse I mention in my post—in about a two week period—first showed for days with a shoe that wasn't fitted correctly without showing any obvious signs until we had to trot him in front of a judge (who noticed an extremely slight problem that went away the moment we pulled his shoe off) and then a few days later gave himself a cut about two inches long and maybe a 1/4" inch deep in his belly that no one noticed until I was hosing him off later. This was in the middle of five straight weeks of showing. When we got home, the following morning Rolls wasn't in the first turnout group. When I went in his stall to change his water and he realized he wasn't coming out with me he actually bit me in the back (which was extremely uncharacteristic of him). Needless to say he got a lot of off time after that.
      Also, I find one of the hardest things about going to competitions is keeping my yap shut. Sometimes you can mention your feelings to someone who's either that person's trainer or friend, who will hopefully see your point and it might be easier for that person if the suggestion comes from someone they trust. Sometimes I just speak up anyway because I know I'll feel awful later if the dog (or horse) goes through undue stress that I might have alleviated slightly. Even if that person ignores you at the time, when they have to deal with the consequences later they might reconsider.

  3. Thank you for this extraordinary, inspiring post, and that gorgeous photo of horse jumping blue bars. You've made a lot of excellent points.

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