Dog training can sound almost like a chore that needs to be done. But dog trainer Eric Brad finds it an almost musical experience. Working with your dog in training can be a wonderfully creative experience.
Before all the dogs, I had music. I still have music. Over the years I’ve learned to play a few instruments, learned recording technology, even produced a CD or two of some great musicians. I still play and I still listen. And music has been very useful in providing appropriate metaphors when teaching dog agility handling and dog training.
I’m a fan of jazz. I’m not skilled enough on any instrument to play jazz well but I listen to it a lot and I have friends who are great jazz musicians. Although rock music has a fair amount of improvisation in it for the musicians, there is nothing like jazz for improvisation. Really gifted jazz musicians play off of each other and seem to invent music out of thin air. I think training my dogs is like jazz in a way, too. As much as I am trying to teach them, I also have to be tuned in enough to learn just how much they are understanding and when they might need more help. That immediate “give and take” reminds me of jazz.
A Little More, A Little Less
When I talk to my students about dog training, I use the “Goldilocks” analogy from the fairy tale. We have to know what’s “too much” and what’s “too little” in order to find what’s “just right” when working with our dogs. When I start training a new behaviour with my dog, I generally use a few things to help her get the idea of what I want. It could be a gesture or a food lure or even a special piece of equipment like a touch-plate. In order to get the behaviour I’m looking for, I may have to help more or less based on my dogs current understanding. And that changes from training session to training session. Sometimes it even changes within the same session if something suddenly works.
It’s a balancing act of sorts. It’s based on some science – the mechanics of the Mark and Reward process, the steps I use to teach the behaviour, and obviously the principles of behavioural science. But there seems to be an art to it as well – when to help and when to let my dog work it out, knowing the difference between “boredom” and “confusion”, recognizing the subtle signs of fatigue or frustration in my dog. All of these are difficult to quantify. They are different for each dog and they can even be different for different behaviours or on different days with the same dog. A jazz musician might call that distinction of “science and art” something more like “technique” and “feel.” The best jazz players and dog trainers would be hard pressed to separate their technique from their feel. It’s just something that just happens as they work.
This synergy of art and science crosses into other performance arts as well. Magician and entertainer Don Alan performed for over 40 years professionally. His legendary magic performances always seemed to be happening for the very first time with his audience of the moment. In his later years, Alan confided that only through hours of repetition and practice did he develop the skill necessary to make his act look spontaneous. It was a powerful blend of learned skills and a wisdom of how and when to apply those skills to best effect.
It seems to be an evolution from applying basic techniques to a more subtle and effective application of skills at the right time and in the right measure. Knowing how to do something may be enough to get results but knowing when and how much to apply can get you great results.
Jazz Dog Training
So this blending of science and art, whether it be in music, performance, or even sport, seems to require three basic elements – learning, practicing, and experimenting to achieve some additional insights. Dog training, however, is not a solitary exercise. We have a partner with ideas and preferences of their own. How do we account for them while we develop our skills as dog trainers?
This is one of the areas where training based on positive reinforcement (like Mark and Reward training) can offer a tremendous advantage. My dog has a vested interest in helping me be a better trainer because there are frequent rewards built into the process. Even if I am less than brilliant in my technique, I can still get results that are worthy of rewarding my dog. As I improve my communication and training skills, I may be able to teach her new things in less time but the rewards are always there.
But what about failures? Yes, there will be mistakes. But not too many. One of the basics of Mark and Reward training is that if your dog isn’t “getting it”, it’s the trainer’s problem to solve and not the dog. As long as rewards are coming 70-80% of the time, most dogs will happily play along until you find a way to show them what you’re looking for.
That built in tolerance for occasional errors gives the positive reinforcement trainer another distinct advantage – the ability to experiment! One of the most fun parts of Mark and Reward training is playing “what if” games with different training techniques. Using different ways to prompt for a behaviour might bring different results. Differences in timing, waiting for the dog to offer behaviour, might also bring surprising results. Creative application of different techniques can sometimes lead to breakthroughs for your dog in learning something new.
There are a lot of elements that go into training a dog – techniques and planning, fun and rewarding training sessions (for both humans and dogs), and learning and understanding what you are trying to do. All of these things play their part. When I use all of these elements in a good balance I get a kind of “training stew” where all of the various elements combine to make for a great experience even if I can’t distinguish which elements created which results.
When I began teaching my dog with Mark and Reward training, I didn’t have the skill to work with the ease and spontaneity of magician Don Alan. Far from it! But over the years of learning and practicing and experimenting with training techniques, I have developed my own style of working with my dog. And just as Don Alan suggested, the easy rapport and seemingly spontaneous ability I have to teach dogs comes from having taken the time to learn about behaviour, practice the mechanics of training, and experiment with what I’ve learned.
Even the greatest jazz musicians began somewhere simple. But it was a passion for the music that drove a Louis Armstrong or Pat Metheny to become not just brilliant performers but creative contributors to their art as well. Our passion for our dogs might not produce a brilliant timeless jazz tune but we could create a brilliant dog. We have the ability to enrich the life of another animal just by our working with them.
It’s not about control or pack leadership or dominance. It’s about teaching our dogs – and all that jazz!
Until next time have fun (jamming with) your dogs!
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