Experience versus Knowledge
A while ago a trainer asked, if you could only choose one thing in a dog trainer would you choose experience or education? It’s a really hard question and I actually don’t think I could pick. That’s why what’s so important to me, is that a trainer has both.
I’ve worked with both trainers straight out of college but never having owned their own dog and I’ve worked with people that have spent most of their lives working with dogs but never taken a course. I learnt a lot from both and here are a couple of stories I wanted to share.
When working in rescue, strangely enough my favourite place to be was in the caution kennels. It definitely wasn’t a particularly nice place to be and the likelihood of the dogs you were working with having a happy ending was pretty low. But their was a few things I really enjoyed about being there. A chance to show some of the most mistrusting dogs to trust again. The freedom to do so much more training, time was on our hands. But what I liked most was working with the guy who had been there for over 20 years. A character in his 60s who had spent every day with these dogs. But had very little interest in actual training.
At first I was actually a bit horrified, he told me he didn’t like to give them treats. Wanted them to like him for him. Said he never got attached and sometimes referenced Cesar Milan.
As I got to know him I realised he often gave the dogs treats, always got attached and when I told him we don’t like Caesar Milan, he reminded me you can learn a little something from everyone.
Now with no particular interest in training and just happy getting to know the dogs. I wouldn’t particularly feel he would benefit or even want to work with owners. But, I would happily let him look after my dog, which is a very rare thing!
What I learnt from him was the most incredible intuition. I absolutely loved working with him. If a dog was flying at the bars, teeth bared and he said lets take them out. I didn’t hesitate. If he looked unsure, I was unsure too. Sometimes it’s hard in kennels to know if we are working with barrier frustration or aggression. We might take the lead, open the door, and the dog just follows us, relived they’re out for a walk. Or we are going to open that gate and it’s a huge risk. Often we are looking purely for a slight shift in body language and good intuition.
With all this experience, this guy could look at a dog and say if it was going to do well in its assessments or not. And he was the exact person I wanted around if anything went wrong.
There’s a bit of an idea that a lack of academic knowledge means you immediately turn to aversive tools or the use of force. But I don’t necessarily think that’s the case. I do think sometimes the term punishment starts where knowledge ends is true and I believe desperation also plays a part. I also think it’s a little to do with our personalities. I didn’t have any knowledge as a child but I kept looking for softer and kinder bits to put in my horses mouth. Because harsh metal ones, designed to pinch just didn’t feel right to me.
I also know of plenty of good trainers who use tools to amp their dogs up for sport. I don’t necessary think it’s where knowledge ends but self regulation, priorities, perhaps an element of laziness. Being easily influenced by someone you look up to. And sadly I do think some people get a kick out of hurting animals.
But without a good academic background, I find that sometimes it’s hard to explain the why when training. Or make a plan to put in place that’s going to effectively create progress. But the feel you get for dogs and training from experience, is like no other and nothing you can buy.
So looking at the other end, I’ve also worked with trainers with fantastic knowledge but no experience with handling dogs. And while with experience, there’s no doubt they will make fantastic trainers. Something really lacked when thinking outside the box and being active in an emergency.
That’s not to say they can’t advise and coach owners, spread information. But the skills we gain from experience are second to none.
So if you are an owner, struggling with a difficult dog. Remember this is actually providing you with an amazing skill set, an empathy like no other and improving intuition. Even if it’s just intuition of what might be coming round the corner.
And if you are a budding trainer, get out there to compliment your courses. Volunteer in rescue, walk dogs, join borrow my doggie. Train your friends cat. Just meet as many animals as you can because they are the best teachers you’ll ever meet.