My favorite doggy cartoon is the one by Gary Larson about “Ginger.” The first panel shows a guy scolding Ginger because she’s gotten into the trash, and he’s saying her name and telling her how bad she is, as she listens attentively. Then in the second panel, we learn what Ginger is really hearing, and it goes something like, “blah, blah, blah, Ginger, blah, blah, blah, Ginger!” Larson had a way of pointing out, humorously of course, that we don’t always understand all that we think we do when it comes to communicating with dogs, and dogs for sure don’t always hear what we think they do.
Dogs are a different species from us, so we expect to have our words misunderstood. Unfortunately, we also can communicate poorly with our fellow humans, and when they are our students, it can make all of our teaching ineffective. For example, last week we began teaching the dogs polite leash walking in one of my beginner classes. Now, I don’t teach leash walking until the third week, as I like to spend time on the stationary exercises first. So the students had been practicing lots of sits and downs. One of my students called me to say that “Rocket” had been having trouble walking on the lead. He would balk and sit; sometimes even lie down and just wouldn’t go forward with her. But, as she had been taught, she praised him every time he sat or downed! I found myself staring at a big communication error, and it was all mine!
Another time I remember instructing the class to “leave your dog and walk to the end of your lead.” One lady did just that, and she dropped the lead, too, as I sure didn’t tell her to hold the end of it. Once more, a lack of clarity in my instructions was all that was needed to make a mistake by someone very literally minded. A common thing I still say sometimes, and I should know better, is to tell students to “step back to your dog.” Almost always someone will go back to his or her dog, but then when I look at him or her they are facing “away” from the dog. Their back is to their dog, all right! In almost every class there will be a student who, when instructed to call their dog, will simply stand there and say the dog’s name, but never tell him “what” to do. Why? Because my directions were not clear when I taught the exercise!
As class instructors we have to understand that we are at a distinct disadvantage when it comes to teaching beginner students and green dogs. Not only do the dogs not know what we want, the people don’t know how to teach the dogs. Both have no experience, and are two different species to boot! Add a roomful of other handlers and their dogs with all the distractions that can bring and many handlers won’t even hear half of what you say.
We can, however, bring the odds of successfully instructing a group of newbies into our favor. Many of the solutions to this problem should be planned and practiced before you ever get in front of a class. Good, clearly written and logically structured class handouts are essential. If you think writing directions so that someone who is a complete novice can understand what you need for them to do is easy, think again! You should write out the directions for every exercise in such a way that your instructions are easy to follow and your student won’t have to guess at what you mean. Test your instructions out on someone who has never trained a dog before, and has an unschooled dog as well. You will quickly discover any steps you may have missed, or directions that were not crystal clear. Then go back and rewrite accordingly.
Always remember that people, like dogs, learn best in different ways. Some will be able to read your good directions and follow through and do well. Some will need a demonstration with a dog, and almost everyone benefits from clear and simple verbal directions. Many students just won’t get it until they can mechanically do the exercise themselves. Get in the habit of assuming that many in your class cannot hear you, or don’t hear all the time. Most of the rooms we use for classes aren’t known for good acoustics, and if you are outdoors, well, you get the picture! Make a point to face everyone at least part of the time if you can’t group your class in front of you, and pay particular attention to those who may have hearing problems, or not speak English well.
As good obedience class instructors, we want to leave our class knowing that we have been able to give them all the information they need to be successful. If you aren’t sure all your information is getting to your students, remember Ginger, and go back and find and fill those communication “holes” we tend to fall into. Keep your instructions and your handouts simple, clear, and easy to follow. We don’t want a roomful of human “Gingers,” after all!