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Finding a Trainer

Getting started in a dog sport.

By Bridgette Tuerler

I believe there are two areas that one should focus on when getting started:

  1. finding a skilled trainer that fits your personal philosophy and is a good coach,
  2. studying examples of the final product to better understand what you are working towards.

Finding a skilled trainer has become increasingly easier in the past several years, in addition to local trainers, many non-local trainers have now become accessible with the development of video equipment and Internet classes. Additionally many trainers will also provide feedback for a fee outside a structured class, both in person and through the Internet. Examples of skilled dogs competing can be found at dog trials and on the Internet (e.g. YouTube).

So what is your personal philosophy?  Lets start with a very short overview of how dogs learn.  When training we are mainly focusing on two types of learning (classical conditioning and operant conditioning).  Classical conditioning is when a dog pairs a signal or action and then anticipates the consequences of this signal.  Such as when you pick up the car keys and your dog gets excited as they have paired this action with the possibilities of great adventures. Operant conditioning is when a behavior is strengthened or weakened depending on its consequences.  Both reward and punishment work to modify behavior, but only the addition of reward  (positive reinforcement: +R) works to build the classical conditioning that strengthens our dog’s enjoyment of training.  There has been an increasing trend among trainers to work in as much of the +R part of operant conditioning as possible and eliminating all physical punishment and shouting. If you plan on competing, I recommend striving for a confident, energetic, and happy dog.

So the aligning of training with your personal philosophy is related to how much joy you want to involve in your training program, vs. frustration, nervousness, discomfort, pain, etc. Trainers classified as Positive trainers will focus mainly on training skills that use rewards to strengthen cued behaviors.  Balanced reward-based trainers will also primary use rewards until the dog has a good understanding of the requested behavior, but then will use corrections to further improve the behavior. I recommend avoiding trainers that start with punishment/aversive methods.

Have fun and enjoy the journey.