An important part of being a dog trainer is continuing education. For the most part, we've committed ourselves to learning from working dog trainers because we feel that they have the most complete understanding of various breeds, drives, and activities related to their areas of specialty. This helps us understand pet dogs better because it allows us to more properly frame our training based on the dog in front of us.
A "working dog" is a dog trained to perform a task or variety of tasks reliably. Generally, types of working dogs fall under one of the following categories:
- service dogs
- hunting dogs
- tracking and detection dogs
- herding dogs
- protection dogs
Learning from folks who train specific tasks using dogs specifically selected to be good at performing those tasks can show us a lot about how drives work in dogs and how certain activities can be inherently rewarding. So the next time you wonder why your terrier likes to chase other animals, or why your German Shepherd Dog is a bit defensive around people he doesn't know, or why your heeler bites at the back of your jeans... think about what they were bred to do, to be able to endure, and whether or not they live up to those qualities.
I think it's important that we all understand the history of the dogs we have in our homes, both generally and specifically. At some point in history we moved from having dogs to perform jobs, to having dogs simply as companions. But our dogs didn't seem to get that memo. So to ignore that our dogs were selectively bred for a very long time to have desire to engage in certain activities would find us missing out on a lot of information that helps us better understand them. For the terrier lovers out there... Those "activities" often included chasing, catching, and killing things. For the herding breed lovers, those activities included potentially nipping at the legs of livestock. For the hound lovers, those activities included keeping their face permanently affixed to the ground, until they find the source of that intoxicating smell, at which time it was entirely appropriate to bark as loudly as possible until someone could come extract that game animal from a tree. In fact for just about any breed of dog, we'll find that there was some tinkering with the same predatory series of events: chase, capture, kill, consume. Your dog is an apex predator, tinkered with and twisted a bit by man to serve a purpose. Just really taking that to heart can help you have a far more understanding and respectful relationship with your dog.
Another reason I like to learn from working dog trainers is that they basically teach everything we want our pet dogs to know and understand, but to levels of much higher difficulty:
We might teach our dogs to "go to place" and stay on a dog bed while we answer the door. This is effectively, a "send away". The retriever trainer takes this simple concept as the first step, and expands on it so that their dogs will take direction at a distance, move to multiple marks, stop and sit on whistle, and more.
We might be working with a dog that has issues with being aggressive towards people. For us pet dog trainers, our experiences are limited to stopping aggressive behavior. But the protection dog trainer needs to be able to create aggressive behavior, manage and control it, and have it present and stop on cue or as a discriminate or situational (what the dog sees happening is the cue) response. In this example, the dog is working on the "object guard", where they must protect an item from being taken.
A dog trained as a guide for a blind person must have a high level of obedience. Most of us are happy with a dog that does not pull on leash, can sit still when asked, and doesn't jump on guests when they walk through the door. But the seeing eye dog must behave appropriately at all times. Their handler's life literally depends on it. These dogs at times must also be intelligently disobedient, like not walking into the street when traffic is oncoming, or not moving in the handler's desired direction if there is an obstruction. Additionally, service dogs go through what is called "public access" training. This assures that dogs behave appropriately and are comfortable in public settings. Such training perhaps includes things like teaching a dog to stay in a down position under the handler's seat on an airplane for the duration of a flight, all the way down to subtle behaviors like how to carry their tail low so that they don't fling hair in your soup as they guide their handler through the restaurant.
"Find it" is a fun game to play with our pet dogs inside the house. It exercises their mind when the weather outside might make it difficult for us to exercise their bodies. But authorities often rely on dogs to make much more difficult searches for things like drugs, criminals escaping on foot, or for search and rescue. These activities take place in buildings and on terrain where the dog may be entirely unfamiliar.
The upland bird dog trainer must have dogs that are borderline obsessive about finding birds, but be able to control them enough so that they are driven to find the birds, but will remain still to wing, shot, and fall. They can probably teach us a lot about the obsessive tail chaser, or the dog that's a bit crazy over a particular toy. Many hunting dog trainers are also tasked with trying to resolve gun shyness, perhaps a useful skill for the pet dog trainer trying to help a dog who is afraid of thunder.
And lastly, the herding dog trainer must have a dog with high enough prey drive and enough "grit" to control flocks of animals, often larger in size than they are. But they must also be controlled enough in their actions so that they can appropriately direct the herd to the proper locations.
The fact of the matter is that a trainer who specializes in any of these areas will know far more about that subject than we will, and their understanding will be far more complete. Those experts also very likely do not train pet dogs because of their desire or need to work more exclusively in a particular specialization. But learning from them allows us to apply their knowledge and expertise correctly to similar circumstances that arise in your life with your pet dog. And their in depth knowledge of specific breeds and breed traits can help us better understand the innate motivations of your dog.
So a lot of pet dog trainers may find their way to seminars put on by folks like Cesar Millan, or Ian Dunbar. You're far more likely to see us following Dick Staal, Randy Hare, Rick and Ronnie Smith, or Pat Nolan even though we don't have working line GSDs or Malinois, field bred Pointers or Brittanies, or field trial Labradors in our homes. Learning from such great working dog trainers allows us to see overarching principles and concepts applied to vastly differing applications and types of dogs. And it allows us to better understand and accept the dog in front of us for who they are, by knowing more about what genetics has built in to them, and how those innate predilections can be nurtured and/or controlled.