Jul 122016


Great animal training requires substantial knowledge and mechanical proficiency.  But perhaps even more, great training requires artistry.

Recent decades have been a golden era for the science of animal training.  Our understanding of behavior has grown and evolved, our techniques for utilizing that knowledge have advanced, and core principles have become widely understood by a great many trainers. Hallelujah!

But knowing, and mastering, techniques is only the first half of becoming a good trainer. I have known several trainers who possessed extensive book knowledge but whose training outcomes were dismal. And I have observed others who had very little knowledge but who achieved incredible results. Why?

For teaching almost any behavior, numerous techniques can be utilized; and the well-versed trainer knows many.  But selecting the right technique for an individual animal at a particular moment demands acute perception and judgement: when to push; when to ease pressure; when to encourage, to coddle, to take a break; when to reward with food or toy or praise or play; when to correct, to lure, to raise or lower criteria; when to cheerily accept effort, to add energy, to be calm; when to wait, to rest the dog for more energy or exercise them for less; when to capture or back-chain; when and how to proof; when more training is needed, or less …. .

For some trainers, this feel – this ability to read an animal and a situation and respond with just the right tool – comes easily.  For others it seems almost impossible. As with so many talents, there is an innate component, but there is one process that can maximize whatever talent a person may possess as a trainer: mindful experience.

Not to be confused with mere repetition (some people can “train” for thousands of hours without really hearing or learning), the single most powerful means to develop training artistry is to carefully, critically, thoughtfully observe and listen as one trains.  During each moment you are training, your dog is reacting, responding, showing you what is working and what is not.  You must listen. Science and technique must be so honed that they require little attention and recede into the background as you focus everything on feeling your dog. You must attune yourself to the dog’s reactions, not only the obvious changes in behavior, but the tiniest and most-subtle changes in body language – eyes, ears, tail, energy, enthusiasm, engagement.

You must constantly adjust and file away each moment as information that will help you to develop and refine your training intuition. Videotaping yourself can be useful, as can asking other trainers to observe and critique your sessions. But ultimately you must listen to your partner and refine your partnership so that you instantly and seamlessly accommodate your partner’s needs at each moment.

This is not to disparage science. By all means read and study and listen and learn everything you can.  It will all help you improve.  And absolutely spend many, many hours learning and practicing various techniques. But ultimately the training excellence you achieve depends upon how willing and able you are to listen to the animals with whom you practice.

 July 12, 2016  Posted by at 5:05 pm Tagged with: , , , ,
Jul 072015

RallyJustice317I was conversing with a friend recently who does not train her dogs beyond the minimum required. She does not want to diminish their individuality, to be their master, to break their spirits, to turn them into automatons. She does not even really want them to be obedient—she wants them to do what they want, not her bidding.

As we talked, it became clear to me that her idea of training is something very different from mine. She perceives it as diminishing—removing unwanted parts of a dog, while I perceive it as enriching—nurturing and developing additional facets of a dog.

Dog training is a broad catch-all term encompassing a huge range of techniques used to modify the intensity and frequency with which a dog offers certain behaviors. The goals, objectives, and methods are nearly infinite. Of course, in the strictest sense of the word dogs are always learning, so you are always training them whether you mean to or not, you only get to decide what they are learning. But for the purposes of this post, I am talking about structured intentional training, and I want to share why I train my dogs:

Let me start with a few ancillary benefits that I believe accrue from dog training but are not the core reasons I train:

  • Fun: virtually every animal I train values training sessions above almost all other activities. Better than food, better than walking, better than swimming—when I pick up the tools and take an August09005animal to go train they are giddy, ecstatic. They bounce and glow and vibrate. It is pure joy.
  • Proscription: teaching a dog what not to do makes them more pleasant to live with. Do not pee on the floor, pull on the leash, bark, take food off the counter, chew on the electric cords, etc.
  • Increased range of opportunities: the world is full of fun places that welcome well-behaved dogs. Friends’ homes, restaurants, busses, concerts; if you have taught your dog to have good manners you can take them on many adventures.
  • Skills: Sit, down, stay, wait, fetch, leave-it, all very useful for a dog to know.
  • Safety: a dog that comes when called, that does not take things off the counter, that holds a stay, and that can relax in a crate; is safer than a dog that cannot.
  • Trust and leadership: your dog learns to look to you when unsure, to rely on your guidance, to come to you for assistance.
  • Vocabulary: language and communication make it much easier to live with an animal. flintwithlamba7
  • Activities: training opens up doors to fun shared activities: agility, dock diving, tracking, carting, obedience, if you train, you and your dog can have so much fun doing so many things. You can do these things recreationally or competitively.
  • Tricks: many dogs really enjoy showing off, gathering a crowd, making people smile and laugh.
  • Fun: okay, I have fun too! I love the challenges, trying to figure out how to induce some new behavior, watching them think, reinforcing in just the right way at just the right moment. I usually end training sessions tired and glowing and happy and fulfilled.

While many of those are valuable, in truth I train my dogs—lots—for two fundamental reasons:


  1. To maximize their development through education. For the same reasons I would send my child to school: I want to help them actualize their potential. The act of learning, regardless of what one is learning, increases neural development and plasticity. It increases the ability to solve problems, to be thoughtful, to mindfully assess challenges and solve them. Learning begets learning. Learning literally changes and grows their brains. Each day children wonder why they need to learn algebra, what real-world application is there for solving a quadratic equation. And while there are real world applications, the ultimate answer is that what we really want from their education is something different: we want them to become free, thoughtful, kind, effective, confident, happy, engaged, etc.
    By choosing what we work on, and how, I can develop drives, increase confidence, improve problem solving skills, alter energy levels, change reactions to various stimuli, decrease contentiousness. I can help them become the best possible version of themselves, the most content, confident, happy, relaxed, enthusiastic, intelligent, well-rounded individuals they can be.
  2. To build connection, relationship, intimacy. I want the best partnership possible. I am not sure I can explain this to someone who has not experienced it, but somewhere after a few hundred hours of shared training time, a partnership develops that simply does not come without those hours. Trust, communication, anticipation—the dance becomes delicate, fluid, nuanced. Your dog knows when to look to you for leadership, knows your subtlest cues, knows how to succeed. You trust your dog, and know how to help him. You can read his every raised eyebrow or IMG_2492tightened muscle. You are a team.

Many people have lovely dogs with little training. And many people have rich and fulfilling relationships with their dogs without ever having taught them a single formal behavior. I simply know that in my experience, good training can make great dogs even better and wonderful relationships even deeper.

 July 7, 2015  Posted by at 5:48 pm Tagged with: , , , ,