Tuesday, June 1, 2010

Obedience classes: where you learn how to train your dog

A boarding client, Tara, told me a story about taking her dog to obedience school, where the teacher wanted everyone to use clickers to train their dogs:
I just couldn’t get the timing right, and I’d click when I wasn’t supposed to. The trainer was getting frustrated; I was getting frustrated. The instructor said “Here, I’ll click YOU when you do it right.” I was totally humiliated. I just wanted to quit and go home.
I understand what the instructor was trying to do. In fact, Karen Pryor’s latest book, Reaching the Animal Mind, goes into great detail about using clicker training to teach gymnasts and other athletes. The method is called TAG teaching (Teaching with Acoustical Guidance) and is an exciting discipline in the field of education. By clicking at the exact moment the performer is doing it correctly, the athlete achieves a better understanding of the movements required to perform the exercise. Instead of constant corrections, he is rewarded for his (or her) correct performance.

I’m sure this is how the obedience instructor was trying to teach Tara. But she didn’t really understand, and the effort backfired. Tara is now looking for someone new to help her train her dog.

Although clicker training is a wonderful method, it isn’t right for everyone. Using the clicker is the easy part. It takes some effort to understand the training concepts behind it and to apply them correctly. Perhaps a more complete explanation would have saved the situation.

Dog training is a learned skill
When we go to an obedience class, the instructor is teaching us train our dogs. We learn how to get new behaviors from our dogs, how to reward the dogs, and how to correct them when they made a mistake. If we just turned the dogs over to a trainer to do the work, we’d have well-trained dogs, but no skills to reinforce the training when we got home, and the dog would quickly forget.

Dog training for owners needs to be fun, or they won’t do it. People need positive reinforcement too. I’m sure many owners give up because they are frustrated, rather than because the dog can’t learn.

It’s not just about the dog. You both have to practice to be successful.

When you enroll in a college course, you expect to work hard and have lots of homework. Training classes are the same way. You and your dog are both in school, learning new skills. There is no magic pill to make a dog behave. You have a lot to learn, but a few months of committed diligence will result in a relationship you will both enjoy for a lifetime.
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© 2010 Terry Albert. All Rights Reserved.

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