Have you ever heard the expression, “The only thing two trainers can agree on is that the third trainer is wrong?” While a bit hyperbolic, the underlying message is true. I spend a lot of time lurking on email lists and blogs. I’ve read dozens of books. I go to seminars every chance I get. And if there’s anything I’ve learned, it’s that there are some strong disagreements about the best way to train a dog.
So what’s the deal? How can all of these wildly contradictory methods be right? Are some of the examples just a fluke? Are people lying? I don’t think so. Even when I’m sitting there, shaking my head, I still believe that their method works. Just not for my dog. Or, perhaps more accurately, for me.
I began thinking about this recently after I attended the Jane Killion seminar. As I said then, Jane is an incredibly talented trainer, and I have no doubt that she gets amazing results from the dogs she works with. But I just couldn’t imagine emulating her. No matter how wonderful her results, I just couldn’t see myself doing those same things with my dog. Not because she’s wrong. Because I am not her.
When I was in college, I was taught that the social worker’s greatest tool is not the theories we were learning. Nor is it the interpersonal techniques we learned. Instead, the social worker’s greatest tool is her self. We spent an almost painful amount of time exploring our past. We needed to examine how our personalities, beliefs, values, cultures, and experiences would impact our work. To become a good social worker, we were told, you must master both the clinical skills learned in school and authentically integrate your self into that process.
Although I hated those classes, I have come to appreciate the message. I cannot be anyone except who I am, and trying to put on what I perceive to be the “correct” social worker persona has been fruitless. People can spot a fake a mile away, and since my work is dependent on my ability to form relationships with my clients, I need to be genuine. My professional knowledge and skills are best implemented when done in a way that is consistent with my personality. Or to put it more simply: my best work happens when I am honestly and truly myself.
The same thing is true when it comes to dog training. It seems to me that perhaps the hardest part of teaching our dogs is not learning the theories and the skills needed, but rather, finding a way to use that knowledge and those abilities in an authentic way.
Of course, this is not to say that we shouldn’t adapt our approaches. One of the most basic principles of social work is to meet your client where they are. Regardless of the species, everyone I work with is an individual. You have to train the dog in front of you. Therefore, the challenge in dog training is finding a way to meet the dog’s needs while still remaining true to your self.
Personally, I have found that I do best- with both people and dogs- when I can praise often and laugh with abandon. It is impossible for me to separate out my sometimes quirky sense of humor from my professional self. Sometimes I need to temper it, but I would be as fake as a five dollar bill (bonus points to anyone who gets that joke!) if I couldn’t express that part of my self at all. As a result, I have found that Denise Fenzi’s highly energetic and enthusiastic style resonates deeply with me, and I am forever grateful that she showed me it’s possible to train that way.
What about you? How do you use your self in training? Have you found some styles work better with your personality than others? Let me know!
Further Reading on the Concept of Self in Social Work
The Conscious Use of Self, by Heydt and Sherman
An Introduction to Use of Self in Field Placement, by Walters
Use of Self and Ethics Risk Management, by Reamer