There is always some discussion going on amongst dog trainers as to how and why people train the way they do. Recently I have been involved in several of those conversations and it is really interesting to see different camps emerge. And even though people often agree that the most important thing is to enjoy our dogs and have fun while training, there can be some profound differences in people’s approaches to training. What is also quite interesting is that more often than not people on both sides of an argument seem to be setting a different focus, leaving everyone confused and provoking rude comments – which ultimately prevents any constructive discussion. This blog is not about which camp is right, and which camp holds the ultimate truth for how we should train our dogs (I don’t believe that there is an ultimate truth) – instead I want to look at what it is that makes people choose to train the way they do. And I will also explain why – in my opinion – it is not just our methods that define our training, but that the methods are merely one part of our understanding of dog training.
When I take part in discussions like that, I can’t help but think back to my time at Uni. I often see a lot of parallels between different opinions and thought processes within the dog training world and the world of education. Back at Uni I was taught a model of how to analyse an educational theory by distinguishing between three different levels. (1) Our understanding of human nature, (2) the educational theories based on that understanding and (3) the educational settings that we create. This model helped me a lot in developing my own understanding of education. But why exactly am I talking about educational theories in a dog training blog? Because I think that if we really want to understand the way we train and become better trainers, we ought to analyse all layers of our training and how they inter-relate.
One thing I have noticed in the dog world is that there often a very strong focus on the method – and very often trainers will label themselves and their training based on the methods they use – positive, force-free, R+ only, balanced, hands on – but I think they are missing a trick. But dog training cannot solely be described by the methods we use. The methods are merely one layer of a much greater entity that is dog training. Based on the model that I mentioned above, I believe there are three different levels that we need to look at when we talk about dog training:
- Our understanding of the dog-human relationship.
The foundation for all things dog training surely is laid by our understanding of the relationships we form with our dogs. How we feel about dog-human relationships affects every single interaction that we have with them. For example if I see a dog as a tool that I rely on for my livelihood, I will interact with it completely differently, than if I see my dog purely as a companion. The relationships that two handlers with these ideals form with their dogs are completely different and will require different training. But the differences can be much more subtle: Even two handlers who both require a working relationship with their dog can have a completely different understanding of that relationship. While one trainer might see themselves as the responsible part of the relationship where the dog has to obey their handler at all times, somebody else might see their working relationship as a more balanced and cooperative one (read about our understanding of Cooperative Training). In any case, this is where we can find the foundations to how we train our dogs. This is the “why”.
- Goals and aims of dog training
Now, based on our understanding of the dog-human relationship are the goals that we pursue within our training. Let’s stick to our example of the two handlers with working dogs. Their training goals will differ – maybe not too much in the actions they want their dogs to carry out, but clearly in how they are going to get their dogs to carry out these actions. Handler A will be controlling the dog and the training situation at all times. His ultimate goal will be for the dog to obey in any situation, no questions asked (“Make him do it”, “Don’t let him get away with that”). Handler B on the other hand will put more responsibility on the dog’s side and let their dog have a bigger say during training (“Let him work it out”, “Don’t nag him”). Again, this blog is not about judging which of these routes is the ‘better’ or ‘more desirable’ one – it is purely about understanding the different layers of training. And with regards to these layers I would conclude that the goals of our training will always be closely linked to our understanding of the dog-human relationship.
- Training Methods
The final level of training consists of the methods we use – and the methods we use will be based on the goals that we pursue. Our two imaginary handlers will probably both use a multitude of training methods. Some of the methods might be similar, or even the same. But the overall configuration of training methods will ultimately be based on their training goals. Our methods will always be in line with our understanding of the first two layers. So, whilst our methods are the most obvious and apparent level within dog training they don’t actually define our training - they are an expression of our understanding of the dog-human relationship and our training goals that are linked to this understanding.
Looking at dog training through this model can be very helpful in assessing the way we train. It can help us to gain a deeper understanding of our training and aid us in becoming better trainers. But it also has implications for dog training instructors. If instructors want to truly educate dog owners, they need to make sure to address all three levels of dog training. They need to assess their clients understanding of the dog-human relationship, help them develop their dog training goals and then provide them with a set of training methods that will complement them. Alternatively, if instructors don’t agree with the owner they are working with, they have the option to challenge their understanding and re-educate them. In any case, simply teaching a certain set of training methods is not sufficient if we aim to empower dog owners to take control of their training.
At the beginning of this blog I talked about dog training discussions. I think that when people talk about training, it is all too easy to get these different levels mixed up - which will then lead to confusion and misunderstandings. When we talk about training, we need to be clear if we are talking about the relationship, the training goals, or the methods. All three are crucial part to our overall understanding and execution of training and they all deserve our attention when we discuss our training with other handlers. We just need to make sure that we are actually talking about the same thing – otherwise we might get caught up in unnecessary arguments that leave us all a bit grumpier, but in no way wiser.