Experience is the teacher of all things – Julius Caesar
August has been one of the busiest months so far this year at our place. There has been so much going on if it were not for my cell phone telling me what day it was I might forget. As I was sitting down to write this blog it struck me that most everything that has been happening this month all relates back to experience at every level of meaning.
These past few weeks I have been working with many new service dog owners, trainers learning the methodology for medical detection work, and several new young dogs; all these groups had issues and challenges to overcome and all related to experience. It seems impatient and demanding people often overlook experience as a possible cause of the problem they are working on. This is true when talking about the experience of either the people or the dogs.
For example, the other day while training dogs, one of the trainers commented on the behavior of a dog, suggesting the behavior was related to not having enough of this or that drive or was not motivated or was lazy or just pick any of a dozen common “reasons” a dog is not doing what is asked. When I was asked my opinion I simply replied, the dog just doesn’t have enough experience to know what to do. What I have observed often is a lack of understanding on the trainer’s part (both amateur and professional alike) that experience plays in how a dog reacts and works. Let me give some examples to make this statement more clear.
Very young puppies are sponges when it comes to soaking up experiences. As a breeder, I spend a huge amount of time and effort to expose them to as much as possible when they are puppies for two reasons. One, I want to build confidence but I also want to build their “Experience Library”. If the pups have already walked on twenty different surfaces and that information is stored in the surface portion of their experience library, there will be twenty less things the pup will have as a distractions when they move on to new and different lessons in their future training as service dogs. This is true for noises and smells and many other things. At some point the dog just won’t pay attention to those things and will focus on the handler instead. My goal is to keep that dog’s focus so they can learn their lessons and preform their job well.
Think about the difference between the seasoned traveling adult dog verses the puppy going for the first few car rides. I have well worn earplugs that prove experience is what makes for a quiet stress free ride. The young dogs must learn from the repetition of an exercise, in many different places, to understand that when something is asked from them it doesn’t matter where, they need to do as asked. This is a major point that many people training their own service dogs fail to fully implement. What I hear from the owner trainers (of a diabetes alert dog for example) is, “my dog will alert at home really well but when we were out on a picnic last weekend the dog missed a low”.
My first question to them is, “Have you ever practiced your scent work outside in a park?” The answer is usually no. In most cases there is little practice outside the house in different places. I don’t mean to imply that you have to try and train in every location that you think you will ever visit, the point here is to give the dog some experience in new locations with different sights, sounds and smells. Maybe you can’t get to a picnic area to practice but you can perhaps, practice at the dog park.
Another commonly overlooked aspect of experience I see a lot, is when people are training a puppy under 6 months and enjoy a tiny bit of success on teaching a new behavior, then suddenly expect the puppy to continue to perform perfectly; with no further training. Often, too much pressure is put on a puppy with little or no experience to perform, which can lead to confusion on the part of the dog causing him to shut down. Worse yet, a confused dog can start to offer other behaviors that are not desirable. The end result is a dog whose behavior is worse than in the beginning. In this situation, an experienced trainer should know when to move on to higher levels of performance from a dog, avoiding boredom while progressing with the training objectives.
Another experience question came up last week, this one concerning the experience of the trainer. It really does make a difference how much experience you have, how many dogs you have trained and how much training you have had yourself. However, there are many talented and dedicated people just starting in dog training or in the case of question asked me, just starting in medical alert training. These are knowledgeable dog people who may not have the experience with the medical alert dogs but if they have a good work ethic, keen eye, and are mentoring under someone more experienced and willing to help them, I can see no reason why those people should not be considered also. I remember the first diabetes alert dog conference I went to at Wildrose Kennels; I learned that was indeed the case with Rachael Thorton.
Rachael was not a dog trainer when she undertook training her first dog for her Type 1 daughter. She did have the good fortune to be able to work with the experience trainers at Wildrose however and the rest is history. I have lost track of the number of DADs she has trained since her first dog, but she continues to be one of the most ethical people in the DAD training arena I know. My point is that everyone has their first dog, so in this case judging a person by their experience should not be the only thing you look at when considering someone to help train your dog. The network of trainers in this field is growing, and there is no reason anyone just starting out training alert dogs cannot find someone to help them. I have found everyone for the most part, to be very open, honest, and helpful, as it should be.
My final thought on experience is that it should be shared. When I watch my dogs interact I am always struck by the fact that the older dogs will share from their experience with the young pups the best way to do something, to negotiate an obstacle, to open a gate, or get my attention. Dogs don’t keep their experience to themselves and I don’t think people should either. If you have had an eye opening experience, or found out a better way to do something you should share it too. Even old dog trainers like me learn new things every day.