Those Who Can Can’t Always Teach

The question for today’s dog agility blog event is one that has given me pause. It’s not just about navel-gazing this round. Instead, agility bloggers are meditating on what makes a good coach or instructor.

I’ve written before on the things I look for in a dog trainer but the criteria changes a little when I think about what coaching style suits me best. Having been an unathletic child enrolled in numerous team sports against her will, I have a lot of experience with the kind of coach I don’t like: loud, easily frustrated, and hell-bent on winning every single game. Unfortunately, I don’t have a lot of experience with from whom I could actually learn.

Let me just say right out, my current dog trainer/agility instructor is awesome. She is a good friend now after three years of working together and I am so grateful I happened on her website that desperate day in September 2009. She not only helped immensely with Shiva’s many, many, many behavioral issues but she also is probably why I am still in this crazy dog sport despite many, many, many setbacks. 

We were ridiculously lucky to have found her.

Since I can count on one finger the amount of good coaches I’ve known, my opinion may not be as well-informed as some others. Nonetheless I think there are some very clear reasons as to why our agility instructor has been so great for us. Here are the qualities I would look for in the future, and not just when it comes to dog agility:

1. Passion – A good instructor loves the subject she teaches. It sounds like a no-brainer yet I’ve had soccer coaches who didn’t seem to care what we were playing as long as we were beating the other team.

2. Enjoys sharing said passion with others – I think everyone has had a teacher who may be very knowledgable but doesn’t seem to like interacting with students. Several former university professors come to mind. It’s not enough to love the sport of dog agility. To be a good coach, I think you have to love helping others attain their goals as well. In fact, this may be even more important than the former.

3. Believes in positive reinforcement – Obviously a good agility coach would only use positive methods when it comes to training their dogs in the sport. In my opinion, this should apply people training as well. There are many agility coaches who would never raise their voice to a dog but see nothing wrong with hollering at their human students when they make a mistake. Some people may learn this way and power to them. Maybe I am just sensitive but If I am yelled at – and not in a fun, joking manner – I will probably shut down.

4. Seeks new information – A good coach or instructor spends as much time learning as he does teaching. If not attending seminars or workshops, they should at least be aware of the latest trends. Dog agility is a fairly new sport. There are constantly new ideas being experimented with. The rules change constantly. Good coaches acknowledge the fact they don’t know it all and are open to new things. In any area, I want an instructor who is constantly looking to improve her methods as new theories emerge.

5. Realizes that most people have no intention of going to World’s – As in any sport, there are a lot of people who are pretty competitive when it comes to dog agility. Some people take their practice very seriously and dream of international events. However, most are probably like me and got involved for the fun of it. Most just like having an organized activity they can enjoy with their canine family members.  A good coach thinks winning is great but having a good time and achieving specific training goals are far more important.

I am sure there are many more things I could come up with if I thought about it harder. These five points are just the ones that stand out the most. After years of being berated in gym class, there are millions of bad coaching examples I could share! Rather than dwelling on the negative, I’d like hear what you have to say.

Whether agility-related or not, what do you think makes a good coach or instructor?  

11 thoughts on “Those Who Can Can’t Always Teach

  1. I have to agree with your list here. Especially the positive reinforcement thing – I totally shut down too when someone starts yelling or even if they are being mean in a quiet voice. Blueberry is the same way – so it makes it easy for me to train her and seek out training for her that is only going to be fun and positive for her.

    Very happy to hear you have a great instructor – they are a rare breed indeed!


  2. Good list!
    I’ve never done agility, but we did take conformation classes with Moses back in his (limited) show dog days, and the one thing I really dislike from any instructor is a lack of feedback. “Good job” isn’t good enough. What was good? What could be better? Only small details need to be fixed? – Then tell me about them!
    If I’m going to do anything, I’m going to give it my best effort to do it right (and yes, I also have a competitive side), so I can handle – and want to hear – the feedback.


  3. I like your number 4, and haven’t really said so out loud before. Some one seeking new information is open, and willing to adapt, change and be flexible. All so important .
    Thanks for getting me thinking!!


  4. I love your list! I think those are all awesome qualities in a trainer. I also think another quality is knowing when to tell someone that a sport maybe isn’t right for them or their dog. For example, I heard of someone taking a blind dog to agility and the dog seemed afraid all the time, always walking in to things. Even though this was a positive only trainer, and could probably have found some way to eventually overcome this problem and make the dog feel more comfortable, she suggested the owner take the dog to a different sport – Nose Work – to be exact, and it was a much better fit for the dog and it’s disabilities. I think, sometimes, even if you mean well, you might not see what your dog is trying to tell you, and a good trainer will see it and will speak up and be an advocate for that dog.


  5. I think honesty is important too, like Donna said. If the sport isn’t right for my dog, then please let me know. I want to be doing something that my dog loves, that motivates and stimulates her.

    Also constructive criticism, I have no problem being redirected on something, but please be kind and considerate when doing so. 🙂

    It’s a great list to have for someone who is looking for a trainer. I didn’t know what I wanted or didn’t want when we first went to a trainer almost eight years ago, I found out quick enough though!

    The owner of the facility we went to didn’t get along with me. She is a very strong personality (as am I) and we clashed. Sara had the nice way of approaching me, letting me discover and ask for advice at my own pace. Sara is a very smart trainer. 🙂


  6. Kristine, you have no idea how timely this post is for me . .not dog related, but definitely life related 🙂 I like all of the qualities that you talk about and I agree with Jodi, KINDNESS is a definite requirement!


  7. Dogs may be luckier than children in finding a good teacher. I’ve seen so many people who kind of drift into teaching without having a passion for it and they just stay year after year repeating their first year of teaching over and over.

    I’ve never met a dog trainer who didn’t have the passion and patience that is necessary. I think the poor ones just don’t attract a following. Unfortunately children and parents don’t have the choice of teachers.


  8. I like your list (being a list person myself). I especially hate seeing trainers who swear they believe only in positive reinforcement of the dog (“the dog learns nothing if you yell at him!”) train people by yelling and embarrassing the humans.


  9. I think you pretty much hit all the points I did (except that I like a coach who will occasionally kick my butt). I suppose a good coach knows which people can take that and which it’s better to take a different route. However, you can always reprimand people in a way that’s respectful, and a lot of so called coaches don’t know (or care about) the difference.


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