Dog Sport Trainers Are Not Always Behavior Savvy
Good dog-sport trainers are often ridiculously skilled, well educated in their field, and very experienced in their sport but unfortunately that doesn’t mean they are skilled or qualified dog trainers in the broad sense of the word or that they are behavior savvy. They know how to teach the set of skills that encompass their own sport very well but they may not have a broader understanding of dog training or behavior. The same can also be said for dog-sport “people” compared to “dog-people”–they have specialized in their sport and may not have a terribly broad range of knowledge or experience to pull from. They may not understand working with fearful dogs, they may not understand a young dog’s fear period, they may struggle when the handler is having issues with day-to-day behaviors, and are often unknowingly doing more harm than good if a dog has a behavior challenge.
Now, this is absolutely not always the case. There are plenty of dog-sport trainers who were basic dog trainers before they became sport trainers or who may have started with sports but who have taken time to round out their canine learning education. There are some extremely skilled trainers who wear both the sport hat and a behavior hat and if you have one of those in your area, latch on to them and don’t let go! They are absolutely worth their weight in gold if you happen to have one in your area.
Dog sports can be absolutely amazing for building confidence, improving teamwork, and an appropriate outlet for mental and physical energy. There are some amazing sport instructors out there that can problem solve like crazy through a contacts issue, why the dog is pulling off a jump, how to teach a dog to collect before entering the poles, how to fix a wonky “front,” how to teach a vault v.s. an over, and much much more. If you are interested in getting involved with a specific dog sport, finding a skilled trainer with experience with that sport is a must if you want to be successful and not have to re-train things later. I couldn’t imagine where I would be with Rio’s agility without the guidance of a handful of fantastic agility handlers and trainers guiding me.
Many of these trainers do not, however, have a strong foundation of training outside their sport and I’ve had quite a few experiences of sport trainers giving some really bad advice to students or simply not knowing how to work with a dog that is not the typical confident go-get’m attitude. One student who has a dog who has some arousal problems was told to alpha-roll her dog to help with the dog getting snappy when he was over the top excited. Another person I know was instructed to drag her scared dog across the full-sized dog walk so the dog would “get over it” by “getting used to it.” A former student went to an experienced/skilled agility handler and asked a simple question about leash walking skills and the person’s solution was to strap a prong collar on the dog and pop it (yes pop it) ever time the dog pulled. The advice given to these people was dangerous to both the dogs and the handlers, potentially seriously detrimental to the dogs, and overal, just really bad advice. But because the advice came from an “expert”, the handlers followed their advice and found out the hard way it was not good advice.
When a trainer is really highly specialized in one area, I think they sometimes lose sight of the big world (again, not always, there are definitely high level sport trainers that are “dog trainers” in the broader sense of the word). They are so used to training and problem solving the same set of behaviors and in a specific context that the other dog training skills they may have had go unpracticed (or they are not interested in learning the new skills/ideas/practices). Their skills within the sport are practiced like crazy while their skills based strictly on learning theory may deteriorate. I’m quite the opposite, I could give you advice on how I’d fix an advanced agility issue but it would be based on learning theory, not the context of the sport. I can help coach you from behavior X (unwanted) to behavior Y (desired behavior)–I know how to change behavior–but it may not really fix your problem. While the advice wouldn’t be dangerous, it very well may set you back in your training because my solution doesn’t fit into the context of agility, it is strictly how to get from X behavior to Y behavior and I do not have the high level agility knowledge to fit my solution into the context of the sport.
The moral of my story is that while finding canine sport trainers and mentors is so very important, they are not always the best resources for basic training or behavior questions. Their advice may be ineffective, outdated, or even dangerous not because they aren’t good trainers but because they are so specialized and skilled in their sport. Now, there are definitely sport trainers and sport dog people that are skilled and knowledgeable beyond their sport but they are not always the norm. So, just be mindful when taking or seeking advice that may be outside the area of expertise for the trainer or “dog person”–the advice they give may not be terribly valid and could potentially be very bad.