Learning Styles

Each of my dogs has a unique approach to new things. I’m currently training both Seelie and Gryphon in agility; despite the fact that they’re both Shetland Sheepdogs (or perhaps a Sheltie mix in Seelie’s case), they are very different in their approaches to the sport.

If you say ‘jump,’ Seelie will not simply ask how high – he’ll do several jumps at breakneck speed, throw in a see saw for good measure (even though it’s up against the wall and has various objects sitting on top of it), and then bark impatiently to do more. He’s been known to fling himself off the top of an A-frame… more than once. He’s sure he knows what to do before I do; several months ago he would very happily design his own courses to run. He works much better with me now, reading my body language so well that I have to be very careful about my timing or I risk pulling him off the course.

There’s a game we played when I first started working with him in agility; it involves an empty cardboard box. The idea is to look at the box, and when the dog does the same, drop a treat in it. Then raise the bar… wait for the dog to offer a behavior, such as pawing the box, or touching it with his nose. Reward, repeat, raise the bar some more. The dog gains confidence and starts trying to think of different things to do with the box to get a treat; the dog is engaged in his own learning.

Seelie picked up on this very quickly. By the end of the first session with the box, he was stepping in it, flipping it, kicking it… even though we haven’t played the game in months, he will still try to punch a box out of my hands as I carry it through the house.

Seelie in 2013... photo courtesy of Pawtown (my dog walker), used with permission, as with all Pawtown photos in this blog.

Seelie in 2013… photo courtesy of Pawtown (my dog walker), used with permission, as with all Pawtown photos in this blog.

Gryphon is an entirely different sort of dog. He’s a thinker. He’s the dog who will sit back, observe the situation, worry that he won’t get it right, and walk out of the room. I didn’t know how to work with him, and had been told he likely wouldn’t be a good competition dog. He became my hiking dog instead. When I started working with my current trainer, I decided to see what she thought of him. We started with the box game in a private lesson. Gryphon looked at me, looked at the box, looked at me again, and turned to leave. The most I could get him to do was touch the box with his nose once by the end of the session.

My trainer was the one who could see Gryphon was afraid of making a mistake. Understanding that he needed confidence building helped tremendously. When we started agility training, he wouldn’t jump two jumps in a row. If there were three jumps set up, he’d jump the first, go around the second, then jump the third. I’m still not sure why he thought he couldn’t do it, but once he understood that he could, he stopped skipping jumps. He still checks in with me as we run a sequence, making sure he’s doing the right thing. If he’s not sure, he slows down, or leaves to visit someone else.

Gryphon

Gryphon

I’ve trained six of my dogs in agility, and every one of them has been a unique experience, every one needing something different from me in order to succeed. Even though I’ve lived with dogs since 1989, I’m consistently learning new things about them.

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10 thoughts on “Learning Styles

  1. Differentiated dog training! I didn’t know much about agility training before I read this, but it certainly sounds like a lot of scaffolding work. What an interesting pursuit; thanks for sharing!

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  2. Differentiation is definitely the name of the game! Each dog has different motivations and approaches. I hadn’t thought about it before, but you’re right – lots of scaffolding! Certain skills go rusty easily, so tons of reinforcement too. Glad you enjoyed this post!

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  3. I have 2 basset hound. In spite of their reputation, bassets are very smart. They are just independent thinkers. Lucy is the most trainable and compliant. Fiona, at 14, is just content with herself and the world as she knows it.

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  4. I have Seelies and Gryphons in my classroom – your post reminds me about the power of knowing how all living things come with their own distinctive ways of being and learning. Beautiful dogs!

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    • LOL at your Seelies and Gryphons! Amazing that we’re able to be effective in the classroom with such diverse needs. Thank you – I do think they’re beautiful, but I’m not impartial. 😉

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  5. I appreciate the point you make about how all of our “students” have different learning styles and need different input from us to help them be successful. It’s always interesting to me to observe really effective coaches and trainers who seem to magically know how to respond to each individual in a way that will be most motivating. Gorgeous dogs!

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  6. Thank you! It bothers me that I didn’t see what was going on with Gryphon… I’d have recognized it in one of my students. I forget sometimes that the dogs aren’t always as easy to read as I think.

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  7. Isn’t it interesting how different each dog is, they are truly individuals. I’ve only had four dogs, and I would say that mine are all different and I think I love them more because they each have their own personalities. Love your pics!

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