In the early 1990s, Simon Prins was a young lower rank Dutch Police dog trainer who used very traditional, that is, punishment based, training methods. Unlike most of his colleagues, Simon was curious and persistently searching for better ways to train the dogs in his charge. Deep inside, his feeling was that there must a better way than the harsh procedures he had been taught by his military and police dog training instructors. He had seen “reward-training,” but saw that the reliability of the “reward-trained” dogs was not high enough to meet his needs. He continued his search.
The story of our earliest contact is for another time and place. Suffice it to say that Simon contacted my wife, Marian, and me in 1998. We were impressed by Simon’s knowledge of dog’s, and of dog training, despite his young age and general lack of training experience. But, most of all, we were taken by his persistence and enthusiasm to learn from us. We were reluctant to take the time to work with someone so young and untested. It was at this time we learned of Simon’s resourcefulness, persuasiveness, and persistence. He met each demand we made, convincing his superiors and colleagues of the importance of the training technology we taught. He and co-workers came to Hot Springs, Arkansas, USA for several weeks, and experienced their first chicken training workshop.
From the first, Simon demonstrated a value for data, especially objective data that pointed to faster, more effective ways to train. From his first days of working with chickens on a table top, to years later, training dogs to accomplish long distance guidance exercises in downtown streets, Simon kept data, analyzed data, and used data to improve the quality of the behavior of the animal, and his own behavior as a trainer. Marian and I believed very early that Simon could develop into very high-level trainer, a behavior technologist. Marian, sadly, would never know what happened; she died in 2001.
In 2002, Simon and I began working together in The Netherlands. Simon learned quickly, and constantly tested what he was learning. Many novice trainers blindly follow their chosen mentor, or teacher; Simon questioned, and tested. Many novice trainers blindly follow training “fads,” or commercially popularized training procedures. I was impressed that Simon was a student who questioned. We often had lively discussions, and, time to time, he had to find out for himself – not a bad idea sometimes. All I really had to do was to point Simon in the right direction, and he was on his own road to self-discovery, as well as the technical mastery of the principles of operant conditioning. Simon learned well the simple lesson that training is simple, but not easy.
It was Simon’s ability to change his behavior, to learn from self-discovery, and his acceptance of a technology of behavior change, that opened the door to the next stage of his development – as a teacher of operant conditioning, or behavior analysis. Simon’s growth as a trainer, transitioning from a traditional, compulsion-based trainer, to a trainer who understood the value of making it worthwhile for the dog to do desired behaviors, gave Simon an insight into the thoughts and feelings of trainers trying to learn a new way. Simon’s often Socratic teaching provides guidance, while allowing for self-discovery, and the questioning of everything, including the teacher. In my experience, few teachers can stand by and watch a student fail without either admonishing the student for failure, or, telling the student how they should have done it; in both cases losing the value of the failure, that is, think about what you did wrong, change your behavior and do it again. Do it again, and again, until you succeed. Simon can sense those times where a student might need a little guidance, and those times where a student is best left alone.
Simon and I have worked together for over 20 years. Few will ever know the nature and scope of Simon’s military and police work, something we called “Systems 101.” But, over the years, from time to time, Simon has moved outside that ultra-demanding world where dog and handler error can be life-threatening. He has developed skills of instructing civilians, pet dog owners, and others, to train their dogs. Years ago, Simon often worked with his very young son in their backyard, teaching their dogs obedience, or guidance commands, just for the fun of it. It takes a very good, and patient, teacher to instruct a seven-year-old child to wait for just the right behavior before blowing a whistle, and to precisely deliver the food. The child either wants to reward the dog a lot for doing little, or nothing, and the dog learns little, or not reward very often, and the dog loses interest. The child either just likes to give the dog a treat, it is fun, after all, or the child is afraid of doing something wrong, so the child doesn’t reward anything. Simon knows this problem, and guides the child, and the dog to success. Simon is a good teacher of dogs, and of students.
Simon is serious about his work, but he has great humor and can laugh at himself. Simon is still curious, and he is still looking for a better way to train. He is not an ideologue, teaching “do this to get that!”. He does not claim to have the only way of doing things. He does not claim to teach “The Truth.” He can admit error, a trait not common with many teachers or advanced practitioners. We all make mistakes. He can be a demanding teacher with very high expectations, but, that is what a student should want – a teacher who expects a student to learn, to master the subject. Simon and I have shared a stage many times, teaching students to train dogs or chickens. I hope to teach with Simon again.