Central New Yorkers were recently treated to a real experience: a weekend with Tom Knott, one of the country’s outstanding dog personalities. The setting was a seminar sponsored by Off-Lead magazine, in conjunction with the Syracuse Obedience Training Club and the Canine Board of Education. While the Seminar provided the 150 plus attending with an opportunity to exchange ideas and talk about the various aspects of training, there was little doubt that everyone was there to meet Tom. Dogs to Tom are a vocation and an avocation and his credentials are impeccable: he is the President of the Association of Obedience Clubs and Judges, an obedience Judge, a member of the AKC Advisory Committee, a charter member of the National Association of Dog Obedience Instructors, Training Director of Dog Owners’ Training Club of Maryland, and Training Director of the Baltimore Police Department K-9 Corps. In his capacity as a trainer and instructor Tom has traveled all over the world to share his expertise and assist others with their training and is a regular instructor at the FBI Academy. Whether talking to Tom or watching him handle a dog, perhaps the most striking, if not the most important characteristic is his genuine fondness of dogs and his boundless enthusiasm for our sport. The following questions represent a composite of those asked during the seminar and concern the topics which generated the greatest amount of interest.
Q. In instructing, I find one of the most difficult jobs is motivating the handler. Is there anything in particular that you can tell us that might help?
A. There is no doubt that handler motivation is a difficult problem and often more difficult than training the dog. Aside from common sense, courtesy and civility which, of course are prerequisites, there are a number of important “don’ts”. For example, don’t over-demonstrate on a handler’s dog. Instructors tend to get very impatient with handlers who just can’t seem to get their dogs to do a particular exercise and are just itching to get their hands on the dog to show the handler that it can be done. Of course it can be done, but don’t do it. First of all, you may embarrass the handler and turn him right off. Also, you are there to instruct the handler how to train his dog and not to train his dog. Besides, what good is it if the dog does it for the instructor, but not the handler? The handler has to learn to train his dog. For this reason, every one of my instructors is told to handle as little as possible and only after they have exhausted all avenues that would have enabled the handler to do it himself. Another factor affecting handler motivation is the use of a graduation or test at the end of the course to determine which dogs pass and which fail. We do not use that system because we feel it discourages handlers. I also feel that it is unrealistic to make the pass-fail decision on the basis of a two minute test. After all, these are rank novices. We grade our teams every session and evaluate their progress on a weekly basis. The progress they have made by the end of the course determines whether they pass or fail. Some instructors also overemphasize the showing aspect. Your beginning handler is not interested in that; all he wants is some control and he could care less about all this talk of how he should do it or he will lose points. Anyway, the good ones, the ones you think should continue, most frequently don’t because it is no challenge. The ones having the hardest time are more likely to continue. You must also remember that many handlers start to have a very negative outlook which you must change into a positive outlook before you can motivate them. Also important in handler motivation is not to nag the handler. We constantly remind the handlers not to nag their dogs. By the same token, the instructor should not nag the handler. Finally, keep in mind that a tired handler is a happy handler – work them hard so that they are tired at the end of the class and have a feeling of accomplishment.
Q. Can you give us some of your ideas on how to motivate the dog?
A. A good deal of that will depend on the particular dog. A lap dog who has been carried around day in and day out in the arms of his mistress is going to be difficult to convince that heeling is fun. Being worked represents punishment and praise means little to him since he is coddled all the time to begin with. Any overindulged pet, the one who is constantly fondled and cuddled, will be somewhat more difficult to motivate, particularly when you are relying on praise. Generally, however, heeling will present the greatest problem in motivating a dog and keeping him motivated because we don’t make it exciting enough to him. In our club we have a special heeling class in which handlers are working at all levels, and those beginners who are ready for it, do about 15 minutes of fast heeling and heeling exercises designed to keep the dog interested. The instructor’s imagination will determine the success of this class. When looking for answers to the question of motivation and training in general you should also keep in mind that so far we have just touched the surface in our efforts to understand animals.
Q. In instructing, what do you find most difficult to get across to the handlers?
A. How to read and understand their dogs. If a handler can read his dog, he can anticipate what his dog will do and act accordingly. If he can understand his dog, this job of training him will be that much easier. This is what we try to teach.
Q. What equipment do you recommend to your handler?
A. The only equipment our handlers are permitted to use is a nylon collar and a web lead. In both instances I prefer very light equipment for a number of reasons. First of all you are training a dog and not training some wild animal. It also is less distractive to the dog than some heavier equipment might be. For collars we use the nylon snap-around because we can get a better fit which I consider very important. For leads we use the webbed nylon; it is light, easy to handle and is not as readily used as a weapon. Many handlers are tempted to use the lead as a weapon and hit the dog with it. We want to take that weapon away from them, because we don’t believe that hitting a dog with the lead has any place in training. The heavier leads also create lead dependence on the part of the dog, making it more difficult to get the dog off lead. There is one additional piece of equipment which our instructors carry and that is an instructor’s lead, also called a kennel lead. It is a nylon lead sewn on to one end of a nylon collar. In case we run into a dog which is difficult to control, the instructor can flip this lead over the dog’s head, sort of like a lasso, and assist in getting the dog under control. It also comes in handy should an instructor get into difficulty with a dog; another instructor can slip the instructor’s lead on the dog to help out. The dog, who is now in the middle, can be prevented from lunging at, or attacking either instructor. This, incidentally, is one reason why I don’t like to see only one instructor on the floor with a class. You should always have an experienced person backing you up in case you get into a situation where you need help.
Q. In addition to the instructor’s lead, what other techniques do you use when you feel you have to handle a difficult dog?
A. The answer to this question would depend on how difficult the dog seems to be and whether his difficulty stems from fear or aggression. One technique we have used very successfully is the transfer. The handler, with his dog on the left side and the instructor on his right side will go for a walk. Handler and instructor talk to each other in a normal tone of voice. As the dog gets used to this situation, the instructor takes hold of the lead and, after a few more steps, the handler drops back and the instructor handles the dog. This technique works particularly well with dogs who are afraid of strangers. While we are on this subject, there is one additional point that I want to make. As an instructor, I feel it is important to talk to the student – pick his brain. This is not always easy and sometimes a student may try to set you up. But if you can get the student talking and if you can get the full picture, you may find the key to his problem. Many times the student will tell you what’s wrong, if you are willing to take the time to listen. Before you take any dog, talk to the handler and listen to what he has to say.
There is one final comment: at Dog Owner’s we do community level training but we take anyone who comes to us for help because we feel that is our job. By the same token, I am very sensitive to the possibility of one of my instructors getting bitten. We are a volunteer organization and my instructors don’t get paid to be bitten. It is for this reason that I feel so strongly about a sensible approach which will avoid accidents.