What are the characteristics that make a good dog trainer? There are many, but here are a few key traits of successful trainers.
Guess what? Naturally, none of these characteristics apply to me.
By my nature, I am incredibly impatient. I am easily frustrated, especially when I fall into the “he should know this!” or “she knows better” trap. I am impulsive. I am a typical Taurus, stubborn and bull-headed. I want immediate results. I have a short fuse and a red hot temper that could burn down a city. I fly by the seat of my pants so often there are actual wing print impressions on the rear pockets of my favorite jeans. I can be a nit-picky perfectionist. I can often be scatter-brained, find it difficult to focus on tasks, and am easily distracted. My short term memory is awful. When I am frustrated, I want to throw things, smash things, and scream. I am a chronic procrastinator. High strung and type A are two phrases which describe me very accurately. My friend and colleague Steve White says I’m the human equivalent of a Jack Russell Terrier. That may well be the most accurate description of me ever.
Despite myself, I think I’ve turned out to be a fairly decent trainer of animals. None of the characteristics of great trainers have come naturally to me. Training myself has been far more challenging than training any of the hundreds of dogs I’ve had the pleasure of working with, professionally and personally. So much of what I do as a trainer is not instinctual to or natural for me.
It’s not easy for me to ignore undesirable behavior, like when Cuba whines or barks for attention. My heart says, “if you just go snuggle him, he’ll be quiet!” My head says, “snuggling him right now can create a monster.” When we are out for a walk when there are 15 below wind chills and the leashes are tight, I want to keep going so we can “get this walk over with, get out of the cold.” I don’t want to stand there and wait for the dogs to take tension off the leash, but I do. In fact, I don’t even want to be out in the fifteen below wind chill, but I do because I know my dogs need fresh air, new smells, stimulation.
Keeping a meticulous kitchen is certainly not my nature either. Yes, occasionally you may find one or more dirty dishes on my counter awaiting their next voyage into the dishwasher. I choose to manage my own bad behavior and set my dogs up for success by using a baby gate if the counters aren’t cleaned.
It’s not easy to ignore your dog upon coming home to find your favorite pair of shoes chewed or step into a puddle as soon as you take off your heels after work. It’s not easy to manage the environment to prevent rehearsal of unwanted behavior. Not for me, anyway.
When I think of a new trick to train, I don’t want to sit down and flesh out a training plan. I want to start training right now! Yet experience has taught me that having such a plan, keeping records, and analyzing our progress will certainly expedite the rate of acquisition for new behaviors and that often, you cannot train really complex behaviors without this data and planning.
Learning to apply Premack appropriately wasn’t natural for me. Introducing and thinning out reinforcement schedules was not natural for me. Differentiating between a 1/8″ paw lift and a 1/4″ paw lift when defining criteria for a shaping session did not come naturally to me. I used to blame the dog for mistakes, now I have to realize that more often than not, what is called “stubbornness” is usually confusion. What does that mean? That my training program is faulty. It needs to be analyzed, deconstructed, holes need to be plugged, modifications need to be made.
Being a careful observer of dog body language has also been a learned skill. Because I tend to have a hard time focusing, it has taken me a long time to build this eye for detail. Recognizing signs of stress or displacement has taken me years and I still have so much to learn. (There is always room for improvement!)
I guess the moral of the story is, not all good trainers are born that way. Some people do seem to have a natural predilection for the characteristics which make a good trainer.
Clients say, “you make it look so easy!” But it’s not easy. For those of us who weren’t born patient, analytical, clumsy, or keen observers, it is a learned skill. It’s hard work. It takes time. While you are learning, you will make a lot of mistakes; which may be frustrating for you (it often was for me). Throughout school, I didn’t feel like I had to work very hard to pull in good grades. I saw quick success in most of my endeavors. Not so in dog training. I had to work hard to change my behavior and it didn’t happen overnight.
Every day I challenge myself to bring critical training concepts into my every day life. I try, sometimes more successfully than others, to apply the same principles I use in training dogs to my interactions with people that frustrate me. I find I am a lot less likely to beep on the horn incessantly when stuck at a green light behind Slowy McSlowy Pants who is too busy texting, sipping StarBucks, and applying mascara simultaneously to realize that the light turned green forty seconds ago. I try to keep my composure when I’m in a shop and someone runs into me with their cart because they’re not paying attention. I’m less likely to blow my lid with the person at the bar who, upon hearing I’m a dog trainer, decides to tell me how awful his dog is and that he has been hitting his puppy with a horsewhip each time he chews on the wife’s shoes.
I still make mistakes, and lots of them. Poorly timed clicks, late reinforcers, inadvertent body cues, etc. When I do, I try to notice these things and figure out how to improve them. When I get frustrated with my own mistakes, I try to think of the things that I do well, much better than I’ve ever done before.
I practice my observation skills and clicker timing even when I’m not training. Blink when the camera angle changes on a television show. Flick on my blinker (turn signal) at the exact same moment my front bumper passes the sign signaling my exit. I play the paddidle game all the time, seeing if I can get the fastest response time.
In short, I’ll always be learning to be a better trainer. Like with dogs, learning is a lifelong process. Behaviors that are not worked on conscientiously will fall apart, whether these are your dog’s obedience behaviors or your own training skills. There is always room for improvement – I can improve my timing, observational skills, data tracking skills, etc. Your dog’s sit can always be neater, cleaner, faster, at a longer distance, around more distractions, for longer duration, etc.
There are no shortcuts to fantastic dogs – more often than not they are a product of good training, persistence, and continued striving for excellence. Experience has taught me that developing good trainers involves the same processes. Learning all these skills won’t just make you a better dog trainer, they will make you a better person.