The Teacher Trap

Whenever I tell anyone that I’m a professional puppy trainer, I tend to get the same response.

“Awwwww… that’s the best job ever!! You get to spend your whole life with cute little puppies!!!!”

And they’re right in a way – it is an amazing job and I consider myself so lucky to do something I love so much. There is one thing that isn’t immediately obvious to people though, which is that 99% of the time, I’m not teaching puppies anything. I’m here to teach their owners.

Once I’ve left the families and they are alone with their puppies, my hope is that they’ve gained the connection and the understanding to go on shaping and guiding their puppy’s behaviour, using the methods and tools that I’ve given them.

And I can’t deny, that’s been a long learning process for me. I’ve been training puppies for 16 years now and I’ve learned a lot about puppies in that time. But in the 5 years that I’ve been running Puppy Perfect I’ve had to learn a whole load about people too. And about teaching.

I recently became aware of something called “the teacher trap”. I’ve heard it applied to tennis coaches, school teachers – I think it’s valid for anyone teaching any kind of skill. When you’re good at something, it’s hard to see why it’s hard for someone else. So, it’s easy to fall into the trap of simply saying “do this, then do that, and always remember X” without seeing why X is way harder than you realise, because it depends on an understanding everything from a whole load of other little ideas first. It’s also easy to underestimate the value of experience – which while I can show a person how to gain it, I can’t give to anyone.

So, to combat that, I’ve always held myself to a few promises:

Firstly, to never get frustrated with someone who finds this hard. It is hard. It’s a learning curve. Learning to train a puppy requires self-control, learning how an animal learns and thinks, and establishing a whole new set of habits in yourself, that will in turn allow you to create great behaviours in your dog.

Secondly, if it gets unclear, take it back a step. I tell owners to do this with their puppies all the time, so it’s only right that I should apply it too. If something isn’t sinking it’s, it’s not because it’s too hard. It’s because the lesson or idea that it builds hasn’t quite hit home yet. So, when teaching a puppy to lie down and wait, if the owner is struggling to control the puppy, it might be time to take the owner back to the previous exercise and talk about how treats guide the puppy, and how the timing of rewards can teach the puppy control.

Lastly, it’s not about MY standards. I have always had high standards and big expectations for my puppies, but what matters is that the owner gets the dog they want. Puppy training is not about building a robotic, programmed dog. It’s about laying the right groundwork to create a happy dog, that has a happy relationship with its new family and that has the right limits and behaviours to suit them all. That means something different to every person I train and that’s fine. Good enough is good enough – and so long as I’ve given a family what they want from their puppy, then I can go home feeling very happy.