Dash bounds through the tall grass, nose in the air, following scent as he moves in on odor. He turns to do a visual check with me when the gust dies and he seems to have lost scent. I do nothing. I do not even twitch. Then, a new gust of wind blows his way. His head snaps around and he orients in the direction of strongest scent and he is off, running through the waist-high grass with his nose in the air and infectious enthusiasm.
Dash is my odor detection dog in training. He is a beautiful red yellow lab (which is considered a yellow) and is almost 18 months old. He has been a little slow to mature and needs discipline to bring out the best in him. My life has been chaotic for the past twelve months, a crucial time in his training at the 10-month to 24-month period. The responsibility for his lack of progress rests squarely on my shoulders.
However, over the last month I have provided him structure, discipline and joy through work (which is structured play). I’ve seen his understanding dawning around a few key concepts. He is starting to put a few things together and the hard work is paying off.
He is different from any of the other dogs I have trained. I have tried to mold him into the training method “box” that I find most comfortable. He routinely reminds me that this box is limiting our progress.
Training a dog is all about the dog – NOT about the trainer.
There are many ‘methods’ to train a dog. Some trainers, through temperament testing, choose dogs that fit their method. This is perfectly acceptable. Dash was chosen as a puppy and even with the best genetics in the world, this can be a crap shoot. Given his genetics he should be able to do the job.
I recently saw a diagram that demonstrates the agile framework that software developers use. This diagram reminded me of how a good training session runs. (Notice I said a good one.)
The requirements I have are clear in my mind; I know what the finished product must look like. I have already written down and designed an overall training plan for each behavior, developing exercises and structure to teach that behavior; I then test it in my mind. There may be a visualization portion where I practice any new steps of the dance that I may need. I may even do this without my dog. I manipulate the physical environment to increase my chances of success. Then I deploy it, which usually evolves into very quick ‘sprints’ where I have to adjust to the information Dash is providing back to me.
It might flow something like this:
Me: Here’s a new behavior I want (the way I plan on training it).
Dash: I don’t get it.
Me: Here’s another way to learn it. (I have a contingency plan in mind before starting the session.)
Dash: I don’t get it.
Me: Based on the information you provided to me over the last two sprints, here’s another way to learn it.
Dash: GOT IT. This is FANTASTIC! Let’s do it again!
Keep in mind, those three ‘sprints’ may have happened in under 20 seconds, it may happen in under five seconds.
Is this a “method?” No. I follow the principles of learning processes and behavior and systemically apply them. This requires assessment and data collection, thinking constantly about how to advance the dog’s understanding without making errors.
One trait of a good trainer is the ability to think and react quickly. As I spend more time training, I’m learning how Dash learns. This enables me to reduce the number of sprints so I can design the exercise so he learns it in the first sprint. I meet him at his level with all the tools he needs, and he is successful.
Sometimes, my design is such a complete failure – and we quit after the first sprint so I can develop a new plan.
Every time we train in a new location, he tells me whether or not I have created enough mass on a new behavior or sequences of behaviors. With some behaviors he performs like a professional in new location. This tells me he is ready to start the generalization process and I can raise my criteria appropriately. I celebrate this – it’s a big win!
With other behaviors, we flounder spectacularly. Usually in front of people who I want to impress or show off our progress since they last saw us train. And I repeat: Training is about the dog, not about your ego as a trainer.
Dog training keeps you humble. Training any animal keeps you humble.
I am training another sentient being, who speaks a completely different language, to perform a task that could save someone's life. Explosive, narcotic, arson, patrol and bed bug detection dogs, to name a few, also protect us. The handlers and trainers who work with these dogs are a crucial piece of the team. The pressure is constant, as is awareness of the immense responsibility.
The working dog industry is on the cusp of transformational change. We are looking for better dogs, better handlers and better trainers. We possess the technology to train and handle differently. Dash is teaching me how we should be using it. And yes, that technology works on people too!
Thanks for tuning in and joining me on this journey.
Robin has been training working dogs since 2001 and educating working dog handlers and trainers all over the nation since 2008. She is the CEO of the K9Sensus Foundation, a foundation that focuses on training the human end of the leash. While working in corporate america, she managed relationships and people using the same behavior principles she honed training dogs. Not only can these principles transform your ability to work at an elite level with your dog, but apply to every animal (humans too!) you work with.