Updated: May 5, 2020
'A Learner is never unteachable'.
It prompted me to think about the circumstances that started off my journey into learning about dogs; learning about how they think, behave and how to help them.
Eighteen years ago I was attending a local training class. Positive training classes were rare but I had struck lucky and found a terrific positive trainer right on my door step. I had completed some blocks of classes with my own dog but now I had asked to attend with a foster dog. We were welcomed in but unfortunately things didn't go to plan and we were asked to leave, in the middle of the first class, the dog labelled unteachable.
With hindsight it was uncomfortable but the kick start to a learning journey that allows me to write to you today.
Was the dog really unteachable? I don't think so but I do know that:
The environment was unsuitable - part of setting up our learners for success is knowing how to arrange the environment beforehand and how to continue monitoring the environment during training. As we become more skilled we can assess and predict the environment from our dogs point of view. This week the Discover the Confident Canine Class were practising this skill by using all their senses to assess the space their dog would be working in. Like most of us they were strongest at seeing the space but had to concentrate on what could be heard. Trying to identify smells was really difficult and we would have only smelt a tiny fraction of the amount our dogs will pick up.
The safety equipment was inadequate - most of our classes begin with dogs on leads. Leads are a safety tool that used thoughtfully can help enhance the training experience for dogs and owners. A 2m training lead is our lead of choice, long enough to give the dogs space to move but short enough to keep everyone safe.
The reinforcement was inappropriate - another key to a successful training session is matching the reinforcer to the learner, the environment and the behaviour. Food is usually a good choice for classroom based learning, easy to carry and quick to deliver. Sensitive and environmentally reactive dogs often require space and distance before the food will act as a reinforcer.
The training content was uniform - every dog in the class was expected to do the same behaviour, at the same time. This approach to running a training class makes life easier for us the class teacher but it doesn't always meet the needs of every dog and every trainer who has come along. Small classes allow for flexibility and it isn't unusual for each dog in our classes to be working on a different exercise tailored to their needs.
The trainer lacked the skills to help us - many of us work as solo trainers, whilst it can take courage to ask for a help, building a support network allows us to ask for help, refer a client up or across to another professional and prevents our clients being left feeling there is no solution. The Clare Teaching Dogs mentoring group has been set up for this very purpose.
Over the years I've fostered and lived with many of the 'unteachables' they have all learnt but also they have been teachers in their own right, thank you for each precious learning experience we have shared.