The Dog Trainer

I need to take a break from work (and getting hammered in teacup forums) to share with you a thought that’s been at the back of my brain. One of my most important missions as an agility teacher and coach is not so much to teach dogs how to do agility, but teach people how to be dog trainers.

Back in the day, when I started we all came over from the obedience world. And, while we didn’t really know how to train agility, at least we understood how to train dogs. Think about it like this… our agility trials were big areas of grass that were marked off by a light flutter of plastic ribbon; so the ring “barriers” weren’t barriers at all. These days if the entire ring isn’t carefully surrounded by 4′ tall snow fencing people will have a conniption fit about their dogs escaping.

Wouldn’t it be fun to bring dog training back to agility?

How do you teach a dog to do a thing?

I’m not going to bog down the conversation about really mental stuff like “free-shaping” or even obvious stuff like having a training relationship with your dog. Ultimately I want my students to understand both of those things; but more to the point…

The dog trainer is armed with three important things: 1) A vision of the behavior or performance to teach the dog; 2) A good positive marker; and 3) A reward for the dog.

Let’s say I want to teach a dog to do a jump. What’s the mission? The obvious answer is over the bar and between the standards. Right? As a handler I give the jump focus (look at it, face it, point to it); and I tell the dog to jump. He goes over the bar and between the standards. I give him immediate praise; and I give him a good reward as he comes back to me.

What I often see my students doing is dragging their dogs through the performance. That means the handler pushes forward of the dog using a lead to focus the dog through the jump. And mostly the dog just does the jump because it’s in the way; though I can’t deny that dogs may have a relatively high reward association with doing the jump.

My objective when training the dog is to teach him to do the jump, over the bar and through the standard, but not require me to run forward of him, or even with him, to do the job. It’s his job to do.

So in this drawing I’m showing a handler sending his dog a modest 15′ or so to do a jump. And to tell you the truth if the dog won’t do this job, then the dog trainer hasn’t done his job at all.

As I said before… the dog trainer is armed with three important things: 1) A vision of the behavior or performance to teach the dog; 2) A good positive marker; and 3) A reward for the dog. What we have to do here is amend our expectations of #1, the vision of the behavior or performance we desire to teach the dog. Be very clear… you want the dog to seek out the job and get it done.

The end result is typically dictated by initial statement of objective.

The Next Generation

I have this young girl in my classes, name of Sidney. I think she must be 11 years old. I’ve been having a real blast teaching her to be a dog trainer. It occurs to me you can no more take complete responsibility for having a great student than you can for having a great dog. The training you put on either of them is cool and telling; but in the end you had to have a student with the “right stuff”.

So Sidney has had some setbacks that would have sent another kid crying home, probably not to come back again. That’s the nature of dog training, don’t you know; two steps forward and one step back; and sometimes the opposite of that logic. But she takes it all well and is very serious in her work. And she does her homework. And anybody who actually does their homework will grow and improve and advance and earn all the things we like to think we are working towards.


Questions comments & impassioned speeches to Bud Houston The Country Dream web store is up and running. You know… I have five volumes (over 100 pp each) of The Joker’s Notebook available on my web-store at an embarrassingly inexpensive price. These are lesson plans suitable for individual or group classes for teaching dog to work at a distance.

3 Responses to “The Dog Trainer”

  1. Michelle Says:

    Boy, I agree with you about the fencing. When I started with Mollie we often had just surveyor’s tape at the top of flimsy stakes designating the ring. Now peole call me before entering a trial to see if it will be “completely fenced”. Scary.

    Nice reminder about the training; I am just starting Vincent and want him to do things independant of me, not having to be lured or led. So far ( on the simplist of things) he has the moxie to go ahead and try it.

  2. Jean Magee Says:

    Here in the UK we still have plastic ribbon surrounding the ring and it does happen occasionally that dogs go on run about.
    I started doing obedience 40 years ago and yes I did learn how to train a dog. I did this by listening, reading and watching I was very keen. I gave it all up 31 years ago when I had my daughter. Six years ago when my daughter had fled the nest I came back into ‘dogs’ but this time doing agility with a Standard Poodle. I taught her the conventional way by running alongside her and as I can’t run I have to get someone else to run her now.
    I am amazed when I see new people coming into the sport. Most of them can’t do a recall, retrieve, stay or send. They do exactly as you describe, yanking their dog round on a lead until the dog gets the message. The trainer then shows them techniques, front cross, rear cross, contact training etc. Reward is never mentioned. After a few months they take themselves off to a show with the dog still not able to do a recall or a stay.
    At that point a lot of new handlers disappear. Some tenacious ones persevere until they have got a dog capable of following direction, others get a new dog. But even experienced handlers aren’t big on reward.
    I’m very big on reward my newest little girl has to do it all on her own, while I stand in the middle either shouting or waving directions. She’s 3 now and we are just starting to put it all together we have great hopes for 2012.
    I love your blog I have learnt so much since I started reading it this year and I recently downloaded one of your ‘Jokers notebooks’ when I have worked through it I intend to download them all one at a

    PS I don’t expect my dog to come back to me for her reward. In the beginning I lay it on the other side of the jump and when she gets the message, I throw it for her. This has brought on problems because she seems to be able to count and when she gets near to the end of a course at a show she has started twirling expecting her ball to be thrown. I have now got a friend to help me and she drops the ball at the end of the course.

Comments are closed.

%d bloggers like this: