My education, my dogs’ education

This post is part of the Dog Agility Bloggers Network action day on Continuing Education. If you click on that link, you’ll be taken to a page that provides links to other bloggers’ posts.

I have paragraphs of details below about why and when and how for continuing education. BUT… frankly, that got really boring and kind of rambling. You can read it after this announcement:

In any field of human endeavor, there’s always something new to learn. Ask WHY? when you’re told to do something. Use research and other people’s knowledge to figure out a NEW way or a BETTER way or a DIFFERENT way to teach something. Read books and magazines, watch video, look at photographs. Sit back and THINK.

I think the hard part of deciding to work on your own knowledge base is deciding what you need to learn. Here’s my advice on that: ask people you trust to tell you where your skills and understanding are weakest. Start with those areas. If you find yourself saying “I don’t like doing front crosses” (as just one example of something I’ve said lately) or “I’m just not comfortable doing blinds,” you know that’s a weakness. Start there.

A few days ago, I was watching the brand-new, first-trial-ever dogs at a CPE trial. A very pretty golden retriever didn’t quite understand what the handler wanted, and kept going around a jump instead of over it. A woman standing next to me said, “what would you do about that?” Without even pausing to think, I said, “I’d go back and shape jumping from the beginning.”

“I’ve never done that,” came the immediate reply. Neither had I, before Debbie showed me how to shape the tire jump with Rush (and the broad jump, and the single-bar jump, and more). With Elly and Dancer, I’d used luring. Honestly, shaping worked much better; Rush seeks out jumps and jumps with enthusiasm. Further, I now know two different ways of teaching jumping. I’d bet there are more I just haven’t learned yet.

In agility, there are a lot of tried-and-true ways to train dogs obstacles and handling skills. There are new ways. There are old ways that have become new again. There are new ways and old ways to handle courses. There’s lots of room to learn and train new things.

I think many humans neglect their half of the agility team in favor of the dog. These are the areas where I commonly see human weaknesses:

Nutrition for stamina at a trial and for overall health
Running the course: training for sprint speed, speed off the line, sustained running, turning
Front cross mechanics
Proprioception (the ability to know where your body is in space and how you are moving)
Course memorization skills

These are all subjects where there is research. You can go out and find it. You can look for a trainer to help you. You can read books. You can develop your own plan to help with your own weaknesses.

Here’s the boring part of the post. I thought for weeks about what continuing education means to me, both in the agility world, and in the rest of my world. I have a biochemistry degree (ScB) from MIT and I learned a whole lot of science while I was getting that degree–but I graduated almost forty years ago. Many of the questions that were raised in my biology textbooks as “more research is needed in this area” have been resolved, and new questions have been raised as a result. We know an enormous amount about human genetics that was utterly inaccessible in the 1970s. We understand some of the biochemistry of cancers and new drugs are being developed that block pathways to cellular cancers.

I have a degree in Curriculum and Instruction (MEd) from the University of Massachusetts at Lowell as well; that degree is only twenty years old, but I’ve already seen changes in how educators approach students. Not enough changes, in my opinion, but changes nonetheless. Educators are beginning to understand that the keys to dog training–“what gets rewarded gets repeated” and the corollary “what’s rewarding is determined by the subject”–applies to humans as well as dogs. (It also applies to hermit crabs and orcas. In fact, I’d bet it applies to single-celled organisms but I have no idea how to prove that.) (Actually, as soon as I started thinking about single-celled organisms, I figured out how to reward an amoeba. I bet you could train an amoeba to go to one side of a container if you just always rewarded motion in that direction with food in that location. Developing a reward-delivery system at the microscopic level would be a challenge too. Observation would be a challenge, too. For now it will remain a thought experiment.)

So my first thought on “continuing education” is that it’s essential. Cliches spring immediately to mind: “you snooze, you lose” and “if you think education is expensive, try being ignorant.” (I do believe those go beyond cliche and all the way to bumper-sticker, but such is life.)

I enjoy formal educational structures. I like online courses; I think Coursera is one of the great public services; I am pleased that Daisy Peel and Denise Fenzi have created online learning environments for dog trainers. I am especially pleased that those schools are relatively affordable and offer enrollment options. I also like ClickerExpo, precisely because it’s not online and thus gives me no opportunity to procrastinate or lose focus. It’s also a pleasure to join those who share my love of talking about dog training. Finally, there are a number of online discussion groups on dog training, including two favorites of mine: AgilityPoodle and ClickerSolutions.

One thought on “My education, my dogs’ education

  1. Mufaasa's Mum

    Great post! Yes, you should always keep learning, and reading, and exploring. When you stop you tend to get stuck in your ways and when a problem arrises it can become paralyzing. I’ve seen a number of handlers fall into that trap and it always makes me sad. I mean, not to sound all “after school special” or anything but as an adult i have come to truly appreciate that LEARNING IS FUN. I WANT TO DO MORE OF IT.

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