Errors or Learning Opportunities?

Learning Skills – Feedback

There is no ABC guide for teaching dogs, the process is not linear. It is for this reason that dog trainers appear to disagree with each other, there is never only one way to teach a dog.

When we are learning how to teach a dog, we:

  • Gather knowledge – books, blogs, vlogs, videos, classes, and lessons

  • Develop key skills

  • Increase our understanding as to how dogs learn and how we can set them up for success.

This needs to be integrated with the knowledge we already have about dogs and how they learn.

Getting used to this non-linear process can bring some frustration. If you find yourself expressing ‘just tell me what to do’, you won’t be alone! Every time a professional dog trainer hears this, they make a judgement call:

  • Say exactly what to do, relieve the pressure short term, but risk creating a dependence on asking the teacher.

  • Guide the client through a process designed to build transferrable teaching skills for life, risking further frustration and a lack of motivation to learn.

Equally, each teacher has to go through the process with the dog in front of them

  • Lead the dog to success and risk creating a dependent learner

  • Encourage the dog to make mental connections and risk a demotivated learner

Dealing with Error

I find it helpful to compare dog training to a tree. The small seed, or idea of getting a dog is planted. Our tree grows as we choose which dog, decide what to feed, shop for dog stuff and register with a Vet. Some trees grow no bigger than this, but most begin to branch off into some form of training. How big your tree grows depends on what you want to achieve, what your dog needs you to learn or whether you just become hooked by the dog training world.

Just as a fruit tree needs pruning to keep it healthy and productive, the tree of dog learning requires the same treatment. There will be times when your tree is putting on vigorous growth, a course, book or teacher stimulates your learning. You need to decide which branches to prune out completely, what to cut back and what to keep. Underpinning all of your decisions are your own personal values and ethics.

Sometimes we have the luxury of a few months to make a decision, but many times a few hours or just seconds. If you have been challenged about your understanding of dominance and dogs, the new information can lie quietly for a while, you have space to figure out if you wish to strengthen the new, or keep the old. Compare this to the training session where the dog is failing, and you need to decide what to change. Or the approach of an off lead dog to your sensitive learner, for the sake of your dog you cannot afford to hang around.

Whether we have a few weeks, minutes or seconds, we will make some errors. Errors are a part of learning. Learning how to deal with and recover from errors is a key teaching skill.

Errors are not:

  • Evidence that we are a failure. We may have failed in our intention, but we are not failures as dog teachers.

  • Evidence that a training protocol is good or bad. A protocol can only be effective or ineffective for that individual.

  • A reason to give up. Perfectionism is unhelpful.

Errors are:

  • Evidence that we need more knowledge. More practice. A better coach.

  • A cue to take a break. Reflect, re-evaluate, ask for help.

  • An opportunity to regroup, start afresh. Evaluate what was helpful and can be carried forward and what can be left behind.

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