Becoming a better trainer

In March 2015, I attended the 7th annual Art and Science of Animal Training Conference in Denton, Texas. This post is part of my notes from the conference.
For the rest of my notes from the conference, please visit this page.


Most of the animal trainers I know, both professional trainers and people training their own animals for fun and for sports, desire to improve their training skills and learn more about the science and art of animal training. And of course, I think the more we learn about training, the more we realize just how much more there is to learn!

At the recent Art and Science of Animal Training conference, Bob Bailey gave advice regarding how to improve your training skills. He discussed how and where to learn more and also who to learn from. Bob Bailey, of course, is a master trainer himself, with decades of experience with hundreds of species and thousands of individual animals. So, it was pretty interesting to hear his perspective on this topic.

A wealth of information

Today’s animal trainers are eager to learn more about training. And, there is certainly no shortage of information available about animal behavior and animal training, especially with the rise of the internet. However, finding accurate, valid, and useful information can be both difficult and time consuming, especially if you don’t know what you are looking for. Bob Bailey cautioned that trainers need to be careful when looking for new information, because it is human nature to find information that we agree with and discount information that conflicts with our beliefs.

Trainers today spend countless hours reading books and online articles about training. They also go to many more conferences and workshops. They are much better educated and more informed about training methods and principles than trainers in the past. Bob says that trainers should be commended for their efforts to learn more about training.

However, while today’s trainers are eager and willing to learn more, Bob believes that many modern trainers are much better at talking about training, than about actually doing training. Trainers have a deeper understanding of how training works, but most trainers have only slightly improved in the basic mechanics of training, when compared to trainers of the past. By basic mechanics, Bob means the observational skills and mechanical skills necessary for actually training the animal, such as accurate timing, correct delivery of cues, clean reinforcer delivery, and more. These are the skills that take the longest time and effort to develop, yet they are so essential for good training.

Learning to train: Which option is best for you?

There are many ways to learn about training, from training schools and classes, to seminars, workshops, and demonstrations, to online courses, webinars, books, DVDs, and magazines. During his presentation, Bob Bailey grouped these into several main strategies that people often use for learning more about training. This includes direct experience (actually doing it), observation (watching others train), and description (learning from others by reading or listening).

Bob suggests taking some time to think hard about how you have learned to do what you already do. When have you used each of these methods and when have they been useful (or not useful) for your learning? Different methods can be helpful at different times, depending on your background and skill level and the source and quality of the instruction. You must figure out and do what is best for you.

Bob recommends hands-on learning as the best way to learn, but under certain circumstances. For this to be the most successful, you will want to have an experienced mentor. Hands-on learning requires well thought out plans and maximum hand-eye coordination from the start. When proper supervision and feedback are not present, it often results in frequent rehearsal of unwanted behavior by both the animal and the trainer.

Seminars and workshops can be helpful to sharpen your skills and improve your understanding of training. Bob believes that everyone can always improve their skills and learn new things! Finally, everyone got a good laugh when Bob advised to “Use the internet, but don’t trust it.”

Questions to ask to get the most out of seminars and workshops

There are hundreds of dog training seminars, workshops, conferences, clinics, and demonstrations offered each year. Most people will only have the time and money to attend at most a few of these events every year.

So, how do you decide which event(s) to attend? How can you maximize your learning while at one of these events? Bob Bailey gave some useful advice and answers to these questions during his presentation.

Before you go. Before going to a training event, research the speaker’s credentials, experience, and background. Do you have any friends who have gone to events with this person? What was their experience?

Determine why you want to go. Are you going to hear one special speaker? Are you going because you want to learn more about a specific training technique or procedure? Are you going because of a friend’s recommendation or because you enjoyed the event last year? Bob cautioned not to waste your time or money on a whim. Always go with a concrete reason in mind.

Also, start thinking about if and how you will use the information you get at the event. Are you really ready and prepared to change your own behavior, based on new information you learn?

When you go. Bob suggested thinking of at least three questions that you would want to ask and have answered at the event. These might be questions that you hope are answered during the presentation or very specific questions that you would want to ask the speaker during a question and answer period or during a break.

Bob advises to go after the information you want! Don’t be shy. Ask your questions, meet the speakers, talk to the other attendees, and get as much out of the event as you can. (Bob says to not be afraid – most speakers don’t bite!) You have paid to be at the event, so take full advantage of it while you are there.

Mistakes happen. One really interesting thing that Bob discussed was mistakes or errors. No trainer is perfect! When watching someone train, either in person or on a DVD, pay attention to how the person explains her training process. Does the presenter explain when she makes a mistake or has to change her training plan? Bob advised to be cautious with videos, as they can be edited or faked. An expert trainer will occasionally make mistakes and will be willing to identify and discuss these mistakes when explaining her training process.

Let’s get training: Animal training is not a spectator sport!

During his talk, Bob Bailey told the audience that to be a better trainer, sooner or later you must actually train an animal! Sitting around talking about training or watching others train won’t actually improve your training skills. You must get out there and do it and practice. Until the head and hands get together, it’s all just academic.

Good trainers should develop their mechanical skills, know what they want and formulate a plan, be able to correctly apply a few rules, observe the animal’s behavior, and be able to adjust to the circumstances. Most importantly, they should be able to make the training worthwhile for all who are involved.

Unfortunately, many trainers accept what Bob calls GE, or “Good Enough.” They aren’t expert trainers, but their skills are usually good enough to get the job done most of the time. Bob says that most trainers accept GE, but it is those trainers who don’t accept GE who are the ones who become truly excellent trainers.

Bob believes that training the animal is the easy part, changing and improving your own behavior is by far the more difficult part. Bob suggests that you seriously ask yourself whether you are prepared to work to change your own behavior as needed to train more efficiently and accurately. Developing great training skills takes time and hard work, but can be well worth the effort.

How do you learn?

Bob Bailey told quite the story toward the end of his presentation. Bob has only ever been to one animal training class as a student. In the 1960s, he went to a dog training class with one of his dogs. He took a whistle with him to use as a marker signal. The instructor informed Bob that he was using the whistle all wrong and that it should only be used to call the dog. As well, he shouldn’t be giving the dog treats.

The next week, Bob returned to class, only he brought a clicker instead of a whistle. The instructor asked him and his dog to leave and to not return to the class!

Luckily, dog training has come a long way in the past 60 years. And I’m excited to see how it continues to change and evolve, as trainers continue to learn more and to refine their skills.

How do you learn best? Do you have specific strategies you use to get the most out of your learning experiences?

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