Can you be a better dog handler or trainer?

The short answer…YES! But you probably already knew that (I hope).

So how? This is the point where some handlers and trainers get stuck. Well, can you change your behavior?

We are trying to change or alter our dog’s behavior all the time. So…how can you improve as a handler or trainer? Change your behavior!

How you handle your dog, train your dog, and interact with your dog is a series of behaviors that you perform.

Now I hope you are thinking “Well when you put it that way it sounds simple!” So then why are so many struggling with this?

In my opinion it is because it is easier and more comfortable for us to focus on trying to (and often failing) change the dog’s behavior than it is our own. That can be a tough pill to swallow.

Ask yourself this, why would your dog change if you don’t change something first?

We are often attached to the idea that our skills are fixed but guess what? They aren’t.

Yes, maybe there are ceilings with particular skills and behaviors but I think most people never reach those ceilings.

Abby Wambach, one of the greatest female soccer players of all time said this “Mastery is not for everyone. You can have it, everyone has access to it but not everyone completes it because it is hard.”

If you are a dog handler or trainer you probably have already come to the realization that much of what you do isn’t that easy and it might be much more difficult than you initially anticipated. But here you are and if you are going to stay you may as well put in the work.

Shift your perspective and recognize that improving (AKA behavior change) can be a bit uncomfortable at first and you will have to do things differently than in the past. Scary, I know…

You have to change your habits (AKA behaviors). You (likely) know how to alter your dog’s behavior so let’s take those basics and apply them to ourselves. Focus on the most beneficial, impactful and influential behaviors you do and do those more.

Then, and here comes the uncomfortable part, you need to do some critical self evaluation and identify the things you do that are not working or are not getting you progress. And do those less.

Hopefully you also have a coach or mentor that you trust that can help you with this.

We need to be more self-aware, and move away from being neutral to the things we do, and move towards consciously and intentionally identifying what behaviors to do more of and what to do less of.

What motivates or rewards you to do certain things? Can you set up your environment (antecedent arrangement) to help you be more likely to do the things that you want to do more of and avoid the things you want to do less of?

Sounds like dog training, uh?

Become more intentional about your learning journey. Yes, you are constantly learning and this is a journey. If you are a K9 handler you likely were not forced to be in this position, so you are vested in (or should) be to continual improvement for the sake of your dog (at minimum).

Be more intentional about identifying the skills you would like to improve on, what new things you want to learn and what habits to get rid of that are not serving you and your dog.

You have to be able to recognize where you are currently, and where you want to get to.

Here are a couple of tips…

Video record yourself training or working your dog on a regular basis and make sure you are in the video (not just the dog)…and then WATCH THE VIDEOS!

Watch the videos 4 times (yes 4!). The first time through just watch it normally with regular volume and at regular speed. Take note of the obvious things and write down what you observe.

Second time through, watch it without the sound. You are focusing on your body language and movements. What things are you doing that you were not even aware of? Where are you looking, where are your feet and shoulders pointed? Are you cueing your dog or giving away the answer that they are supposed to be trying to solve?

Third time through just listening to the audio. You are focusing on how verbal information is being delivered and how other sounds are influencing your dog. Are you saying cues more than once? How is your tone? Are you using cues consistently? Are you saying things that are not necessary (talking too much)? Are you not giving your dog enough verbal input (this will be dog dependent)?

Then the fourth time through, focus on the dog’s specific responses to you (your body language and your words). Is your dog responding how you think they should, what things are they responding to that you didn’t intend for them to respond to? How can you clean up your body language and use of words to become a better handler or trainer?

This process will help you more effectively identify what is going well but more importantly where there are gaps.

After each training session or operation with your dog ask yourself these 3 things: What went well? What didn’t go well? What do I need to address in training or do differently next time? Write down the specific things you have identified that you want to improve on. Yes, actually write them down, science shows it makes a difference.

Have your trusted coach or mentor do the same and give you critical (and yes sometimes uncomfortable) feedback.

Hopefully by now you can see that in order to become a better handler or trainer you need to focus on altering your behavior. Just like any other craft that is made up of a series of skills that need to be developed. Once you recognize and identify those skills and start to change or adopt new behaviors YOU CAN GET BETTER.

Hopefully you are not feeling overwhelmed at this point. Often just changing or learning a few new skills (or behaviors) can make a significant difference for the better! And sometimes it just needs to be 1 thing.

Don’t leave your success or lack of success as a handler or trainer to chance. You owe it to your dog, your teammates and the community that you serve to reach your fullest potential and to do that you have to be willing to change your behavior.

In short, don’t be so attached to what kind of handler or trainer you currently are that you miss out on giving the better future version of yourself a chance.

If you are looking for help at evaluating how you can improve or just want to talk through some challenges and get a fresh perspective from someone not so close to the problem, contact me and I will be happy to discuss the ways I am able to help you improve!

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