This post is part of the Dog Agility Blog network. To read other people’s post, click on this link after you read my post.
I think there’s a difference between a good coach and a good instructor. I think there’s a difference between a great coach and a good coach. I think there’s a huge difference between a great teacher and a good instructor. I am fortunate that I have a great teacher and a great coach in the trainer I work with, Debbie Berkley. I’m doubly fortunate that she is also an excellent dog trainer.
Taking these considerations one at a time, when I hire a coach and instructor for agility:
I want an excellent dog trainer so that I can learn more about dog training. Dog training is both a skill and an art. It takes time and experience to learn.
I want a great coach, because a great coach is inspiring. A great coach does not allow coasting or mediocrity–and lets you know when you are slacking off. A great coach will say “you can do better than that!”–and the great teacher then tells you the first step (and the second and third) of the path you need to follow to do better.
A great teacher? A great teacher says things that resonate in your head days and months and years later. The things she says (or he says, to be fair) float into your mind when you’re trying to solve a problem, sometimes even when the problem at first seems unrelated*. A great teacher teaches you how to solve problems and doesn’t solve them for you. A great teacher gives you multi-purpose tools that you can use in many different ways. A great teacher looks at your limits, acknowledges them, and immediately sets about changing them.
And the best teachers? The best teachers and coaches do all this with generosity and kindness. You leave–at the end of the day or hour or minute–with a plan and a determination to apply what you learned. If that plan doesn’t work, the best teachers help you make another plan. Sometimes years later you find yourself using methods they gave you. Methods they gave away with a smile. You learn how to think about problems that face you, whether it’s dog training or science or math or how to write a good sentence**.
How do you find the right coach/teacher/dog trainer for you? It takes time and luck and persistence, I think. And paying attention. You have to pay attention to what the instructor is teaching, whether the coaching is working for you, and whether the training is working for your dog.
At trials, I watch the instructors. I watch how they treat their dogs and the people around them. I watch their students to see how they’re doing at applying the lessons they’ve learned in class. I talk to people and ask “Who are you training with? Why? What are her strengths? What weaknesses does she have? Do you enjoy class?”
I also go to seminars. Seminars allow you to pick up techniques and ideas to bring back to your training and your trainer. They shake things up a bit–and I think shaking things up can be excellent, too.
*I wrote recently about how Debbie told me “if it’s annoying you, fix it now”. I find myself thinking about it with things utterly unrelated to dog training. Like when I find ants in the kitchen. If I have time to be annoyed, usually I have time to fix it.
**I don’t normally footnote this much. But I’d be remiss if I didn’t thank Mrs. Ely, who taught me algebra and geometry (in the old days when proofs were part of geometry) and Mrs. Leavitt, who was a grammar maven and a stickler for careful, economical use of language. They taught me to recognize great teachers. They also taught me that you don’t have to like someone to learn from them.