To successfully train a dog, one needs a dog and goals which define the results one expects to accomplish. A good trainer can ‘read’ a dog and will utilize the best of one or more training methods, for that particular dog, to achieve reliable, and usually fast, results.
However, the ability to train a dog (or several dogs) to a certain level of proficiency in obedience exercises does not necessarily give a person the ability to teach others to achieve the same results. What makes a trainer an obedience instructor?
The most important qualification for an instructor is the ability to communicate effectively with people. The instructor’s job is not to train dogs, but to teach people, an often much more demanding and difficult task.
Communication is the lynchpin of good instruction. Not all communication is verbal. People learn in different ways and at varying rates. Some people are visual learners and learn fastest when presented with demonstrations they can watch. Some people are verbal learners, they benefit most from spoken instruction or written materials; others, tactile learners, learn better by using ‘hands-on’ methods.
There is an old truism that says, “If I tell you, you will remember 25%. If I tell and show you, you will remember 50%. And if I tell, show and help you do it, you will remember 75%.” The most effective teaching methods incorporate verbal instruction, visual demonstrations and hands on practice.
Regardless of how training methods are explained or demonstrated, the communication needs to be clear and understandable. Methods and techniques need to be either said or written in terms that are part of the student’s daily vocabulary. Often it is easy to forget that actions which are second nature to the instructor have to be learned by the students. Actual demonstrations should be accompanied with verbal descriptions of what is being done; i.e., what the student does with their right hand, left hand, etc.
An often forgotten part of communication is listening. A good instructor has learned to listen to what the student says. Many times the true meaning of what the student is asking is hidden behind the words used, and the instructor needs to not only listen but also to observe the student’s body language in an effort to understand what is being communicated by the student.
Knowledge of the subject being taught is essential. An instructor who does not understand the reasons why a method works or doesn’t work may be unable to effectively explain the proper application of a training method. Good trainers are often intuitive about what works and what doesn’t. Instructing requires an ability to communicate the hows and whys instead of just saying ‘it works.’ Knowledge of the subject includes having the ability to use different approaches to solve a problem and being able to recognize the strengths and weaknesses of each solution as applied to a particular dog.
To be a good instructor, an individual must like what he or she does. This means not only enjoying working with dogs, but also enjoying working with people. An instructor who does not like teaching as well as training will find it next to impossible to motivate students into liking training.
Not only does an instructor need the skills to ‘read’ and work with different types of dogs, an instructor also needs the skills to be able to effectively handle a variety of people. Patience and a sense of humor are often invaluable in defusing tense or difficult situations.
Most trainers have learned how to effectively utilize positive training methods when training dogs; instructors need to be able to use positive methods to teach students. Many of the same skills which make leaders effective make instructors effective. Good leaders and good teachers both possess the ability to use positive approaches to motivate subordinates and students to perform. Another hallmark of good leaders and good instructors is their responsiveness to questions and concerns.
The ability to adapt a class structure to the students is essential. Classes which move too slow for most students bore both people and dogs, while classes which try to cover more in an hour than is optimal for learning will be frustrating and will impede the progress students make. Each class will be comprised of different individuals with different needs and varying goals. A good instructor sets a pace which suits the majority of students and will arrange for an assistant to help a slower student, or will be available before or after class for those students.
An instructor needs to be aware that every student has a different reason for attending an obedience class and the goals each student strives to achieve may not be the same goals the instructor has. The measure of success is determined by the student’s perception of how he or she met his or her personal goals and not by whether the student and dog has met the instructor’s goals.
Finally, a good instructor continually self-evaluates his or her performance. Good teachers, regardless of the subject being taught, are aware there is always room for improvement and strive to develop better skills and increased knowledge, both in their subject matter and instructional techniques.