What's up with that?
The cashier overheard a conversation I was having with the person behind me and gleaned that I was a dog trainer. She motioned me closer and said, under her smoky breath and with a snicker and a slight air of superiority, “My two rescue dogs didn’t need training. They came fully trained.” What could I say, but “um, that’s very nice. You are lucky.”
This column is titled “Training Tips,” but what, exactly, does “training” mean? It seems to me that there are as many interpretations of the term as there are people to offer answers. Herein lies the problem: we rarely come from the same place when we talk about “training” a dog. The cashier certainly wasn’t on the same planet as I was regarding this subject. Perhaps to her it meant that her dogs could sit, lie down, come on cue and nothing more. To me, training is a path with no end; there is always more knowledge around the next bend for both of us.
I propose a radical change! I suggest that we use the word “educating” instead of “training” as it better represents the breadth of possibilities and the endless opportunities that exist for our dogs to gain knowledge and skills. It would be preposterous to say that one is “fully educated,” whether human or dog, for nobody can possibly know everything, right? We could then perhaps eliminate “fully trained” from the lexicon of dog-related expressions; it means nothing, or at least it means nothing meaningful. In addition, the concept that a dog can be “fully-trained” takes the onus off the dog’s owner for making any effort whatsoever to help the dog learn something new. “Fully trained” carries with it a level of expectations as well, unclear as they may be.
Learning new things is one of the great joys of living, isn’t it? Our dogs are continually learning, sometimes despite us, and have the capacity to learn a great deal more than we typically give them credit for. When it’s intentional learning and the process is shared across species, it’s an incredible way to deepen the bond we so enjoy. "Training" isn't just for bad dogs, but this myth tends to persist.
A client recently told me that her vet had sternly admonished her during a visit with her previous dog, saying, “you need to train that dog!” because he was being particularly unruly during the exam. (“Unruly” is yet another adjective that needs better defining). She had agreed, in theory, but as she was recounting this story to me, she realized that she had absolutely no idea what “training” meant. “I knew he should have been better behaved, and I knew it was my fault, but I had no idea what ‘training’ looked like or how I could accomplish it. It remained an ambiguous term until now.” My client took a class with me with her new dog and experienced one epiphany after another as the curriculum introduced her to clear concepts and methods by which she could interact with her dog and finally make progress.
As educators of whatever topic, for whatever species, we ourselves need to have a good grasp of the subject at hand and know how to teach our students in a way that makes sense to them. Communication is key; it’s particularly challenging when there’s a language barrier on top of everything else, as there is with our dog friends. Clicker training is an awesome way to break down that language barrier and help create a format for learning.
Humor me and ask your friends to define “training” as it relates to dogs. I’m willing to bet you’ll end up with a sundry mix of ideas and probably a few perplexed looks to boot.
Now, let’s move forward and continue educating ourselves and our never-fully-trained dogs!
Photo by Sarah Lescault: Keeper the German Shepherd Dog proudly graduates from PupStart puppy dayschool in North Yarmouth, Maine. 8/19. She is continuing her education at Telling Tails Training Center in Fryeburg and is receiving private dance lessons at home as she has dreams of being a canine musical freestyle dog in the future.