Dog training is a great example of a marketing misnomer; it’s actually people training. But, since we want people to come to us for help, we have to advertise it as dog training. People understand what service we offer when they see “dog training classes” advertised. For me, teaching is a more appropriate term than training, but again, we have to use terminology that people understand. Whatever words are used, we are teaching people how to communicate with their dog(s). Often, the biggest obstacle we face is not speaking the same language as our clients. Terms like classical conditioning, cues, reinforcers, mean little to the owner or handler, but if we use words like commands, treats, praise, they understand. The second obstacle is getting humans to stop talking so much and embrace the world of non-verbal communication.
We are teachers and to be good teachers, we must have certain skills. As I was thinking and researching this article, I came up with four levels in my “teaching pyramid.” I wasn’t interested in how to teach as I was in what skills are needed. The base level, the foundation, is knowledge about the subject; you can’t teach what you don’t know or what you don’t understand. We know about positive and negative reinforcement and positive and negative punishment, but do we have a firm understanding about them? Can we flawlessly say that punishment means diminishing a behavior while reinforcing means increasing the behavior? I usually don’t use these terms in class, except for an advanced class, but if someone asks me the difference, I better know how to explain it. This skill is essential in converting someone from the old world ways of training to the world of positive reinforcement.
The next level is being able to talk with people. Small talk is what it is all about, but it’s becoming a lost skill or art. We are in a world of non-verbal communication; email and texting are the mainstream way of communicating. (Luckily, not for everyone though.) If you can’t talk with your client regardless of whatever business you are in, you aren’t going to be very successful. If small talk doesn’t come naturally, it can be learned with a lot of practice. This is a skill I need to practice and keep fresh. I often get caught up in teaching without paying attention to who my students/clients are. In order to make a connection with a new client we have to talk about something that matters to them and for dog teachers, it’s all about the dog.
The third is talking to people. There are two parts of this: talking in front of people and talking to a client privately. It’s been a long time since I was in school, but the skills I learned in forensics, debate, and speech class have been invaluable, even though I didn’t think so at the time. For me, talking in front of a group of people is as easy as talking on the telephone, but for a lot of people, it doesn’t. Making eye contact, talking loud enough (or quietly), and speaking clearly are difficult, but are skills that can be learned. As a mentor for the Animal Behavior College, I’ve had a few students who were not able to talk in front of a group. I knew they had the knowledge, but if they couldn’t get past the “stage fright,” they weren’t going to get far. I suggest they volunteer at a shelter or work at a kennel to help them get past the fear of talking to people.
Telling a client something they probably don’t want to know requires thinking, sometimes quick thinking, before speaking. The choice of words can mean the difference between an angry client and a client who understands there is a problem. I praise in public, criticize in private. If I see aggression, leash reactivity, harsh handling techniques, etc. I talk with the client as quickly as I can. I separate the client from the rest of the class, hopefully without them knowing it, and firmly and respectfully tell them there is a problem and I ask them to stay after class for a few minutes. The entire class is still there, but has no inclination of what transpired – hopefully. I need to get my point across, but I don’t want to make the client uncomfortable. Asking them to wait after class gives me time to think about what I’m going to say and how I’m going to say it.
At the top, is being able to teach the knowledge you have. If you have dyslexia or some other learning difficulty, you understand what I mean. (If you give me more than three numbers in a sequence, I might get the first two – maybe.) Teachers often have a wealth of knowledge, but if they can’t put it into terms students can understand no learning takes place. I don’t mean “dumbing down” what is being taught, I mean adjusting what is said and how it is said. You can’t teach someone physics without teaching basic math first. In dog teaching this means you can’t teach recall unless you can get the dog’s attention.
To make things more difficult for us, dog teaching has two pyramids: one for teaching humans and one for teaching dogs. In order to be successful dog teacher and/or behaviorist, you must understand both. For some, obtaining the knowledge is the easy part while communicating that knowledge to others is the hard part. For others, the reverse is true. As members of Force free Trainers of Wisconsin, we have an invaluable source of teachers, mentors, and experienced force-free trainers and that’s something to talk about.