Instructing is serious business. How it’s delivered can be fun for you and your students. Here’s a potpourri I have accumulated over the years.
THE SLOT MACHINE aka Explaining Reinforcement to Your Students
You will become the ultimate slot machine. When your dog does something right, you will light up (smile), make cool noises (praise), and maybe drop a tidbit into your dog’s mouth. Remember that slot machines always light up, make cool noises, but don’t always drop any coins, so it’s MAYBE a tidbit.
Now to get your dog hooked on this game, you’re going to be the nickel machine close to the casino door. It pays out more often but only in nickels and then only enough to stay even with, or slightly less than, the input. So, in the beginning of teaching any behavior, you’ll pay out nickels (teeny portions) more often. Usually it’s only one nickel (teeny portion) at a time, but every once in awhile; give out three or four in a row for an especially good job.
Now it’s time to move on to the bigger money machines. Doggy has to start working harder and longer to get a payout. Set a goal. You will still smile and praise and give the occasional small tidbit to keep the interest up, but save the best praise and tidbits for that new goal.
What if your dog decides not to play? Have you ever given up on a slot machine only to have the next person hit the jackpot? You really kick yourself. So, when Doggy says “I’m not interested,” pullout the best reward you can think of – maybe a favorite toy or a handful of cookies, wave it at your dog, and walk off because it is all yours now.
HOW TO SAVE MONEY AT THE VET’S aka Introducing Your Class to the Value of teaching a Dog to Allow Being Restrained
Veterinarians love a dog that doesn’t fight being restrained and knows how to stand without a fuss. They can do a thorough exam of the feet, ears, tummy, and other body parts. Your dog is less stressed knowing how to behave. When your dog cooperates, it can save you big bucks. Let’s say Doggy has a cheat grass firmly worked under the skin between the toes. You go to the vet; tech can restrain dog; vet reaches in with special forceps and voila! You only pay for an office call and the staff loves your dog for being so good. If Doggy protests and fights, then out comes the sedative, which equals more money and a stressed dog and office staff. Or, you already know that Doggy will be horrible at the vet, so you wait. Before you know it, the area is badly infected and then you pay big bucks plus you are thoroughly embarrassed.
Hopefully, by the end of this story, your class can’t wait to teach their dog to love being restrained.
PEOPLE ARE IDIOTS aka An Intro to Teaching Your Dog to Enjoy the Sit for Greeting
People don’t know how to say hello to dogs. Most of them loom over the dog, put their big paws on top of Doggy’s head, and rough up the hair. If I did that to you, well, let’s just say “AWKWARD”!
Your dog will meet a lot of these people, so let’s teach your dog how to accept being loomed over, pawed on top of the head and have their hair roughed up. We’ll let Doggy know how proud we are that Doggy tolerated the rude social greeting. After awhile, Doggy might even like it – especially if the slot machine goes Ding! Ding! Ding! while he’s being molested.
I ALWAYS CHECK TO SEE WHY MY DOG IS BARKING
How to stop a dog from barking is a topic that usually comes up during a class. My response is that first you need to know why your dog is barking. That honestly doesn’t make an impression until I tell this story.
I once had a dog named Bill. Early one summer morning on my quiet country acreage, he started barking out in the backyard. I’m not a happy person when my slumber is interrupted. I went to the open window and yelled, “Bill, I’ve had it with you! Just knock it off!” And he complied.
Later that day, my neighbor from down the hill came by. He was a bit perturbed and asked, “Who’s Bill?” It seems as though my neighbor had company staying at his house and his guests had taken an early morning walk. They had come back wide-eyed and proclaimed, “Your neighbor lady and Bill are having a big fight!”
So, I’ve never forgotten to check on why my dogs are barking before I try to stop them.
THE MILK IS AT THE BACK OF THE STORE
There’s a reason why certain high use products are not by the front entrance. Stores use people management skills so customers move in and out in a predictable pattern.
How do you keep dogs and owners from piling up at the doorway? We all know that if there is a reactive dog in the group, that owner will hang out near the doorway. We have to use our people management skills to get owners and dogs quickly and easily situated in our classroom.
How do you get people in, seated and feeling at least a little in control? First, keep your greeting area visible and yet far enough from the entrance so it moves people into the training area. Make sure there is space for them to spread out as they enter. Greet them, show them where to be with their dog and have something for them to do immediately.
My favorite is how I put out the chairs. I know how many will be in the class so I put chairs out in groups of two (one for person, one for stuff), about 3-5 feet between each group, and the whole arrangement is in a U-shape facing where I have my registration material. Each group has a packet laying on one of the chairs – except for the group of chairs on each end of the U-shape. Because those chairs don’t have packets, people choose the chairs further from the ends. Then when the latecomers show up, I can put them on the ends rather than have them run a gauntlet to the furthest chairs.
Do you have paperwork for the owners to fill out when they arrive? Maybe the dogs can stay in the car while that gets done and the owner will already know where to sit when the dog comes in. Dog can’t be in car because it’s too hot? Make doubly sure your registration area is far enough from the entrance so that there is plenty of space. If it gets hectic, direct them to chairs so you can check records and pick up any paperwork from them while they are sitting.
Outside training areas can use similar management arrangements. I use hula-hoops for crowd control. I put them on the ground using the same u-shape arrangement as the chairs indoors. I can then reap the benefits of being able to keep plenty of space between dogs, thus helping people feeling more comfortable. There’s also a ton of cool training tricks using hula-hoops, so it’s a useful tool.
I’M NOT JUST FIDO’S MOM
I knew an instructor with a reputation as a great trainer, but was generally considered as ‘cold’ in her demeanor. I once asked her about a student. She frostily replied that she didn’t know everyone’s name and only needed to know the dog’s name. If the ground had been any closer, my jaw would have been black and blue. The student had been taking lessons for nearly a year.
It’s work to remember all the names in a class. Heck, I barely kept my kids’ names straight. The dog names are easy since you hear them again and again. But the people? I really have to work at it by reviewing the registration forms and making sure I say the student’s name many times during the class.
But I have another trick now. Both the STAR puppy and the Canine Good Citizen have a greeting component. The first skill set is for a student’s dog not to barge up to someone or jump up on people. I explain that each person will help the other dogs in class learn social greeting skills. First, I demonstrate walking up to each student, introducing myself to each person, shaking hands, asking about the dog, and then moving to the next student. The student will stand on Doggy’s leash to prevent jumping or work on sit stay and then will reward good behavior. After making the rounds I, as the instructor, will hold a student’s dog while that person goes to each handler and repeats what I did. I then move to another student’s dog, and that owner repeats the procedure. For large classes, assistants greet owners and then hold dogs. This is repeated several times in the each class session until the dogs are sitting quietly for approach and petting.
Guess what? You’re team building. Each handler has an investment in seeing the rest of the class succeed. They have made social contact. They are no longer just “Fido’s Mom.”
I WANT MY DOG TO LOOK AT ME
I tell this story to my classes to help them understand the importance of when and how to use vocal praise, e.g. timing your praise.
I tell them that I had a student that just wanted his dog to look at him. I watched and, sure enough, Fido was sitting with his back to the owner and had his eyes focused somewhere on the horizon. The owner kept repeating “Fido, Fido!” (At this point, I’m re-enacting the owner’s various tones of encouragement and command before continuing the story) Finally, Fido looked at his owner.
(My voice shuts off, and I pantomime Fido sighing and looking away again.)
“See,” said the owner. “He always looks away!”
The class catches on. The dog was being “praised” for looking away and got nothing for looking at the owner.
YA GOTTA BE AN ENTERTAINER
A good instructor is like an enjoyable entertainer. It looks natural, but it comes from hard work, study, sacrifice, luck, knowing people, and learning the lines. The timing is impeccable. An entertainer knows when to listen and when to ask questions. The hours are long. It’s frustrating. Lots of people think they can do it but only a few make a living at it. There are flops and loss of favor.
Just like the entertainer, people adore you, abhor you, besmirch you, and insufficient fund you. You either survive or move on to another profession.
We get up on our stage and work for the crowd. We critique our performance and tweak the delivery. We continue our education in all the venues available and tuck away knowledge to improve our craft.
Our failures change us forever. Our successes bring a deep satisfaction and joy to dog and owner.
©2015 Marti P. Kincaid