Dog training is more then just following a protocol

When training a dog, there is much more to it than just following a protocol or a spreadsheet. Training a dog properly takes more than scientific research and data – it takes a mix of science, heart, and mind. The science of dog training is an ever-evolving field. New research is constantly emerging on training a dog, and staying current on the latest methods is essential. But it’s important to remember that science isn’t the only factor regarding training. One must also consider the individual needs of their dog, as well as their intuition and experience. Training a dog requires a holistic approach that considers scientific research and your own experience and intuition. Every dog is different, and what works for one may not work for another. This is why it’s important to be open to various approaches and willing to adjust your methods as needed. It’s also important to remember that there are no definitive answers when training a dog – it’s a process of trial and error that requires patience and understanding. By following a holistic approach to training your dog, you’ll be able to get the most out of your relationship with your dog. Not only will you be better informed about the latest discoveries, methods, and techniques, but you’ll also be able to make decisions that are best for your individual dog. You’ll also be able to create a bond of trust and respect between you and your dog, which will lead to a more successful and enjoyable training process. So don’t be afraid to follow your heart and mind when training your dog. As long as you’re open to different approaches and willing to adjust your methods as needed, you’ll be able to get the most out of your relationship with your dog.  

When I started my career as a dog handler in the police force many years ago, I was stunned by the fact that there was no protocol, no education, and no research papers to prepare me for my new job. It was a stochastic process where every handler tried to do his best within the boundaries of the trainer. This trainer used a master-apprentice principle full of paradigms and beliefs. In a master-apprentice method, the relationship can be described that a more experienced or knowledgeable person (the master) teaching a less experienced or knowledgeable person (the apprentice) a specific skill or trade. The relationship typically involves direct instruction, guidance, and mentorship from the master to the apprentice. And very soon, during my training, I felt that the ‘master’ was not telling everything to his apprentice. There can be many reasons why the master may be withholding certain information or techniques. When the relationship is unhealthy and built on ego, it is maybe to protect his trade secrets and ensure he would be the smartest person in the group. When it is a healthy, respectful relationship, the master will ensure the apprentice develops their own methods of mastering the trade.

Pushing people to follow just that one approach or specific protocol or method can also fuel the master-apprentice relationship in which handlers are not challenged to find their own way in training animals. Yes, of course, there is a red line in training. There are lawful limitations, and there is science, and there is experience, and data. But in between all of this, handlers must be able to develop their own techniques. As I heard a fighter pilot in training describing that the air battle tactics he needs to learn and follow come from real operations, the best practice. But every pilot is allowed to come up with their own techniques. 

It is interesting if we look at the way we train our detection dogs. There are some standard elements we built into our training. I mean the simple ones, like not reacting to distractions and teaching to alert the target odor(s). For example, we train the alert like a sit, down, or freeze. But we see different tactics when we turn them loose to find the target odor in a big building. Some detection dogs go fast, and others go slow. Some of them go left, others go right. Some dogs will start searching in the back of the building, while others begin in the front. Some use a high nose, while others stay close to the ground. Dogs have their own tactics for finding the target odors, and we handlers & trainers try to influence this, but we also know that we have to give them this ‘freedom’ to get the best out of our dogs.

Over the years, I have learned and experienced that when the master is training his apprentice in a way that the apprentice is allowed and challenged to develop their own training technique, then there is a win-win-win for all three. A win for the apprentice because he will become a creative trainer with ownership. A win for the master because he developed another master who would come back with new insights to challenge and help the ‘old’ master. And a win for the dog who start to feel invincible when it’s getting training from a creative mind. 

You may have noticed that I use the words handler and trainer in the same settings. I don’t see a big difference between them because both are busy with changing behavior and eventually, that is animal training! In many places, a handler is typically responsible for a dog’s day-to-day care and management. At the same time, a trainer is responsible for teaching the dog specific behaviors and commands. The handler is typically responsible for providing the dog with food, exercise, socialization, and basic obedience training. At the same time, the trainer focuses on teaching the dog more specialized behaviors, such as agility, scent work, and advanced obedience. But inside, this as a co-effort where everybody is responsible for training the dog towards the best possible level to give the best performance needed for its task. While the handler and trainer both are busy with changing behavior, I may expect a trainer to be more creative in solving problems, have faster decision-making skills, and always find ways to motivate the dog and the handler when necessary. 

So when trainers only follow their protocol, if they only select dogs that can follow it, and when handlers are not allowed to change something in the protocol, we must question ourselves if we are on the right track. Because in my vision we need to empower people to become the best versions of themselves. With respect for different levels, tasks, expectations, and dogs. I have worked many years in the highest demanding covert operations where animals and handlers were not allowed to make a mistake during their high-risk operations. And I also love to work with those dogs and trainers just at the beginning of their careers or dream of becoming successful in what they do. I feel the pain of the older woman I met during a workshop some months ago. Other trainers were present, and groups of handlers were rotating between them to get the maximum learning curve. After her training session with me, I suddenly saw her again in one of my new groups. And curious, I asked her why she was not rotating between the other trainers. She told me the other trainer sent her away because he didn’t want to work with her and her dog because, in his opinion, ‘they were not good enough’. 

Training animals and humans are all about empowerment. The good trainers & coaches out there can find a way to suit the animal and handler in front of them. They are curious, good observers, can listen, are patient, can ask the right questions, are empathic, and know how to reach with that combination the next level. And for that reason, I don’t believe in fixed protocols that are carved in stone. And yes I use protocols in my training, I have learned this from the best in the animal training world, my masters Marian and Bob Bailey. And learned crystal clear lessons from them:

  • Keep changing your behavior as a trainer.
  • Always try to make your protocols better.
  • Keep altering them if the data shows you to take action.

Spreadsheets have no colom for empathy and listening. While listening to what somebody wants to explain to you, you need to be actively engaging with the speaker. Please pay close attention to what they are ‘not’ saying and attempt to understand their perspective. This involves actively asking questions, paraphrasing what you hear, and listening without bias or judgment. It means remaining open to the other person’s point of view and allowing them to express their thoughts and feelings. Listening to someone this way allows for greater understanding and connection between the two parties.

So for all handlers, trainers, and coaches, it’s very good to follow a protocol but learn how to make your own protocol and create your own training style. In this way, you can help others and other dogs. And if necessary, this is how you can entangle yourself if you are in a bad master-apprentice relationship because masters must build masters! Enjoy training! 

ACT! Is operating worldwide. You can find more information on my website about the ACT! innovative training products and workshops about detection, odor recognition testing, tracking, scent wheel training, laser training and radio-directional dogs. If you are interested the ACT, Masterclass, please contact me so I can provide you with the specific Masterclass you need for your organization! 

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