One day I heard a man tell our Training Director that he would be glad to help in advanced training, then he added, “But spare me from beginners. I know too much.” My reaction was, “Wow, what a swellhead!” Now, I understand his problem. It is probably a problem many instructors have. I have trained and shown my own dogs for years, and I would certainly not be much of a handler if I didn’t admit that I have a headfull of helps and short cuts that grew out of my own experiences. But these are based on my ability and my knowledge. I want to share them, but how can you throw all these things at a novice who hasn’t learned to handle a lead adroitly?
I am the utility instructor for our club and work with these very advanced people month after month. Every two years I ask for a beginners novice class, to keep my hand in, and frankly, to refresh my spirit. That’s where the problem rears up. I have to refrain from being too helpful, and it is a struggle. How can you tell a person with a six-month old Old English Sheepdog that has never been on lead, that “the fingers teach, the wrist corrects.” It takes two hands and arms to hold the dog. It takes dog-attention to teach an animal, but a novice has to be able to first get dog-attention, which is like a snake biting its tail. We do try the dog-attention caper by insisting that our students practice on an inanimate object at home the first week, and the second week we permit them to make the attention correction twice. A week’s practice leaves much to be desired in proficiency, but it’s better than nothing.
I am well aware that a puppy that plays at retrieving a toy dumbbell and metal jar rings all his young life will not find the open retrieve a stumbling block. I would love to pass this information along to my beginners, but they have enough trouble without starting to play games. We tell them that dogs should not sniff on the Figure 8 so the novice starts saying “No sniff” indiscriminately. I could scream, “Cut that out! – He’ll think it’s wrong to use his nose when you begin scent discrimination.” I know that a handler should always use clear, precise signals, even in novice, and that standing a dog without posing him is the best help you can give yourself in preparing for future utility work. But there isn’t time in a twelve week course to explain all this to people whose comment would be “What’s utility?”
In the past, I made the mistake of trying to pass along everything twenty years training has taught me. All I did was completely muddle the poor class. Now, I take a good grip on my well-intentioned instincts and stick strictly to novice training on the novice level. Green people just can’t handle too much information at one time. I cannot give them a sense of timing, of authority and confidence. I have to wait until that develops. I have to be patient until they can walk in a straight line and manage six feet of lead without getting tangled before I can even expect the dogs to know what they are supposed to do. I believe it is very important for an instructor to realize that what you know and can do personally will not always be useful to beginning novices. To be of service to these people you have to meet them on a novice level and wait until they understand and can handle the basics before your specialized knowledge will help.
There is another danger. It is easy to take too much for granted. Things that are second nature to utility students are pure Greek to novices. You have to be extremely careful that you don’t overlook details that need explaining. I have always found that a beginners novice class is the most satisfying to teach. But, it isn’t easy to keep quiet and let each one build his own pyramid of experience. It is difficult not to give too much. For the novice’s sake – DON’T!
©1975 R. Menchen