What makes a truly GREAT trainer?

I’ve had occasion to think about this question recently.  I think I know the answer.  Ask yourself, what the critical qualities are of the great trainers you’ve met, and I think the list of qualities may be shorter than you think.  What do these trainers have in common?  

Think back to the days of Ron Guant, arguably one of the most influential figures in today’s sport of nosework.  People would say that he was “part dog”.  Here, a man who made his way in the professional detection world, yet was so plugged into ALL dogs, established a sport that has become so essential to so many of us.  What made him special?  I don’t profess to have known him well.  I only worked with him on a very limited basis and I had the pleasure to be judged by him a few times.  He was quiet and said little.  I think I know why.  He wasn’t talking, he was LISTENING.

I want to talk about LISTENING today.  Great trainers LISTEN to dogs.  They listen and then adapt.  Great trainers recognize that dogs are individuals. They change their approach based on the needs of the dog, regardless of sport or working purpose. They are flexible.

Listening is something that our dogs do innately. It takes an excellent trainer to listen back.

Teamwork and Partnership

As a part of what I call my “Win By A Nose” framework, I teach the concept of TEAMWORK. Teamwork is founded on listening and is a PARTNERSHIP. Often I will watch a team and the teams that are truly in sync have handler and dog moving fluidly together. They act like they are one being, searching together. When I see this, I know the handler has let go. The handler has stepped away from the desire to control and has allowed the dog to be a PARTNER. Being a partner is about listening.

Listening isn’t restricted to handling. Listening is also a key ingredient in training. Are you aware of your dog’s emotions? Do you know if your dog is feeling confident and secure, or is your dog worried and not sure of his own capabilities? We ask so much of our dogs and so often, we don’t stop to think about their perspective or to bother with their insight.

In Nosework, our dogs speak to us constantly. Every move, every sniff, every bend of the body, our dogs are speaking to us. Do you know what your dog is saying?

Taking the First Step

Taking the first step in truly listening starts with being quiet. Realize that your dog is an emotional being with his own misgivings, fears and concerns. This isn’t about you. Realizing that this sport is about the dog is so fundamental to understanding what nosework really is. Nosework is about transcending human limits and stepping into a world of scent. The only way we can traverse in this world is by being a partner with our dogs. Through this partnership, our dogs take us on a journey. It’s an education that is humbling and exciting all rolled into one.

The first step involves simply letting go. The first step involves trust. It also involves observation and empathy.

Dogs are Emotional Creatures

I’m not anthropomorphizing. Dogs have emotions. They have fears. They have concerns. Being a true partner requires us to accept this and to work within what our dogs need from us.

Trainers who refuse to adapt and change tactics have lost their empathy.

From Mirriam-Webster

Empathy in dog training requires the trainer to be sensitive to the dog’s feelings and experiences. Being sensitive means being responsive. Being responsive requires the trainer to first listen.

Are YOU a Listener?

Ask yourself these questions:

  • Do you adapt your training based on the dog’s emotions?
  • Do you ensure that your dog is ready to be trained or to search before you ask him to do so?
  • Do you have empathy for your dog’s feelings in the moment?
  • Do you ask and not tell? Does the dog have a CHOICE?
  • Do you modify your approach based on your dog’s ability to perform?
  • Do you listen to what your dog is telling you in the moment? Do you learn from it?

Being a Partner with our dogs requires Teamwork. If you are struggling with your Teamwork, start first with Listening and with Empathy.

So I ask you, are you a LISTENER?