Sunday, April 15, 2007

Training Your Dog

Sometimes I am asked if I can train a dog, but do it in fewer lessons, to save the customer money. I understand where these types of calls originate, because we all have bills to pay, and you want to know that you are getting value for your money.

Unfortunately, to do the training properly, there can't be any short cuts. There are skills that need to be taught in order for the dog to not only understand what is required, but for the dog handler to know what they are doing.

Let's say you only have the money, or the time, to do half of the lessons. Then, what things do you want cut out of the training program? Now, we are assuming that the training won't involve brute force, not making the dog do things that it is ill prepared to do. That causes dogs to panic or fight back in the training process.

To me, I liken good training to a martial arts class. I trained in Gracie-style Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu for about 3 years. It was terrifically fun, and maybe in the next year, I'd like to start up again. My instructor, Marcello Alonso, is an amazing martial artist and teacher. I learned a great deal from him. I can't thank him enough, and I still am learning from the things he taught me. One thing I learned is that you weren't going to get a higher belt until you had mastered the belt you had. They only hand out belts on merit in Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu.

At the beginning, I didn't know anything. That was a real eye-opener; any one of the more experienced students, blue belt or higher, male or female, could have beaten me in a real fight. In fact, I didn't even spar until I had attended classes for about a month or so. We did basic drills, calisthenics, and watched the more experienced students spar. One reason for not allowing us to spar was that we could be injured. The other was that we didn't know what we were doing. Lastly, because we were so out of shape; Brazillian jiu-jitsu is the most physically taxing thing I think you can do.

Once you were past this stage, then you started sparring, and the more experienced guys went easy on you. They not only let you put holds on them, they also showed you how they could slip out of the moves you tried. It took me nearly 2 years before I went from a white belt to a blue belt. At first, I was training the recommended 2 times a week. That was all I could handle. By the end of the second year, I was training 3 to 4 times a week, 9 to 12 hours a week.

I remember once coming in the dojo feeling great. I was rested, my head was clear, and I felt strong. However, once we started training, I just didn't have it. After class, I asked Marcello about it. He had a couple of good pieces of advice that I have never forgotten. First, he told me that sometimes you are the bug and sometimes you are the windshield. In other words, that is a normal thing in martial arts. You won't always be the winner. In fact, if you look at the fighting records of the mixed martial artists, you will rarely see someone that has an unbeaten record, if they have been fighting for a long time. You will have days when you are great, and days when you are not so great. Second, he said you have to look at your progress in 4 month intervals, minimum. I was often training 4 times a week, 12 hours a week, and still my progress was slow. Martial arts is a physical skill, and it takes time to master any physical skill. I remember when I used to play music, I would practice 4 hours a day, and even then, you had to look at your progress over a year's period, not over a period of weeks or months.

Dog training, if done properly, is just like this.

Dogs and handlers need to time to master the concepts, to really get it right. I have people in my group classes that have been at it diligently for the past year, and they still have much more to learn. Yes, their dogs look great, but still, the work isn't yet finished.

Now, you might hear some folks say that they went and trained with some guy, and he did miracles in a handful of lessons. Great. Good. But, that kind of quick fix stuff doesn't maximize your dog's potential, and it won't get you the kind of handling skills that you want in the long term. I am looking for precision, speed, willingness, teamwork, and off leash skills, for the dog and the handler. This is why many dog obedience sports don't allow dogs to compete under 2 years of age. Yes, you can force a young dog to go through the routines, but experienced trainers and handlers know that a proper performance takes time to accomplish. That is why you don't see guide dogs, police dogs, field trial dogs, or other professionals pushing their dogs until they are over 2 years old. Guide dogs, for example, are raised with a volunteer family for the first 18 months. The dogs and handlers practice a set of manners and obedience commands during that time. Then, the dogs are handed over to professional trainers who then spend 6 months finishing up the dog's skills. Six months, not a handful of lessons. Similarly, police dogs are typically worked as puppies in terms of obedience, tracking, scent detection and bite work for the first 2 years. For most breeds, between 2 and 3 years of age, the final attack work is completed. None of that is done overnight. And the same kind of thing happens with field trial dogs, that is, professionally trained hunting dogs.

It just takes time to teach all of those skills, and to do it right. It also takes handlers a long time to master the skills. Even after a year of diligent training, you will still be making handling errors with your dog. And besides, if it was so easy, then everyone would have a dog that performed at world class level... which we all know they don't.

Now, I'm pretty darned proud of my students. They all work hard, and we have a great time training together. The dogs also look great, and do some amazing things over time. For many, it has become a fun hobby. They enjoy it and so do the dogs.

So, when you've seen things from my level, my perspective, when you get an inquiry about doing the training, using short cuts, you know you are dealing with a novice. You know that they are usually concerned about their budget, but also love their dogs. You also know that you can't in good conscience sell them a slipshod program, just to take their money. You know what it is going to take to get them a well mannered, obedient, fun dog. For the budget conscious, I recommend the group classes. It spreads the cost out over time, and in the end, the dogs get well trained. On the other hand, if I am able to persuade the customer, they decide that they will not only do the group classes, but they will also do private lessons at the same time. They come to realize that nothing good is going to come easy and cheap, and that they love their dogs enough to make an investment in their future.

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