Dr. Deborah Jones — better known around FDSA as Deb Jones — is a psychologist who specializes in learning theory and social behavior. An early innovator in the use of clicker training, she has owned and worked with a variety of breeds and has earned top-level titles in agility, rally, and obedience over the last 25 years.
At FDSA, Deb offers a wide range of popular classes, including a number of excellent foundations classes. Her focus is on developing training methods that are enjoyable and effective for both the dog and the trainer.
To be released 7/27/2018, featuring Sue Ailsby, talking about Rally.
Melissa Breau: This is Melissa Breau and you're listening to the Fenzi Dog Sports Podcast brought to you by the Fenzi Dog Sports Academy, an online school dedicated to providing high-quality instruction for competitive dog sports using only the most current and progressive training methods.
Today we’ll be talking to Dr. Deborah Jones -- better known around FDSA as Deb Jones.
Deb is a psychologist who specializes in learning theory and social behavior. An early innovator in the use of clicker training, she has owned and worked with a variety of breeds and has earned top-level titles in agility, rally, and obedience over the last 25 years.
In 2004, Deb worked with agility trainer and World Team member Judy Keller to develop the FOCUS training system. FOCUS stands for Fun, Obedience & Consistency lead to Unbelievable Success. Deb has also worked with Denise Fenzi, co-authoring the “Dog Sports Skills” book series, and authored several other books, with more in the works!
At FDSA, Deb offers a wide range of popular classes, including a number of excellent foundations classes. Her focus is on developing training methods that are enjoyable and effective for both the dog and the trainer.
Hi Deb! Welcome back to the podcast.
Deb Jones: Hi Melissa. Thanks for having me back again. It is always fun to be here and get a chance to chat with you.
Melissa Breau: To start us out, can you just reacquaint listeners with the furry friends you currently share your household with?
Deb Jones: Of course. I never pass up an opportunity to talk about my pets. First of all, there’s Zen. Zen is my nearly 11-year-old Border Collie, and it’s impossible that he could be nearly 11. I tell him every night that he needs to stop getting old right now, because I’m not going to allow it. Zen is perfect in practically every way. He’s fun, he’s smart, he has done a lot in his life, and he still enjoys a lot of things, like hiking with me.
The second dog I have is Star. She’s a 7-year-old black-and-white Border Collie. Star has done quite a bit of demo work in classes, as well as we are starting out on working nosework, doing nosework with her as well. She’s also another hiking buddy of mine.
Tigger is the 2-year-old tiny little Sheltie. He really belongs to Judy Keller, but I get to share him. Tigger is fun and he’s funny. He’s very fierce for someone who weighs 7-and-a-half pounds, and he tells you all the time that he’s the biggest dog in the house.
And finally, we also have Trick, the kitty. Tricky is now about 8 years old, I think. Trick has been in a lot of videos. He loves to train just as much as the dogs do, and he’s actually a whole lot of fun to train and a challenge. It’s different. It’s not quite the same as training dogs. But every time you get ready to tape a video, Tricky is here, so he usually gets involved in some way or the other.
So that’s our household right now.
Melissa Breau: I asked you on today to talk about something we haven’t talked about before on the podcast: teaching people. Professional dog trainers are typically training people to train dogs, not actually training the dogs themselves, and even those who aren’t professional trainers often find themselves asked for advice, or maybe they just want to be a positive ripple in their area.
Based on your background, you seem like the perfect person to ask, plus I know you have a class coming up on the topic. I think most of our listeners probably realize you teach for FDSA, but some of them may not realize you also taught psychology at Kent State University for 20 years. Did you always want to be a teacher? What got you started on that path?
Deb Jones: I’m actually pretty surprised that this topic of teaching has not come up until now. It seems to me it’s pretty central to everything we’re doing here at FDSA, so I’m really excited about starting a program for teachers.
Let me go back a little bit and talk about my background in teaching, and give you first of all a personal confession is that I never wanted to be a teacher. That was so far away from anything I ever thought I would do with my life. It was never any kind of consideration for me.
There were some, I think, pretty clear reasons why that was the case. I grew up fairly isolated. I was an only child, I lived way out in the country, we didn’t have a lot of people around, but we did have a lot of animals. Especially across the street from us there was a large farm. They always had chickens, pigs, and lot of horses. So I spent lots of time over there with the animals, and I interacted with the animals very easily. With people not so much. So that started out my idea of spending time animal training, because I was simply much more used to them and more comfortable being around them.
Also something that I know about myself and I’ve come to learn over the years is I’m a pretty strong natural introvert. I’m relaxed and comfortable alone or with a small number of people around. When you start to get a large group of people, that takes a lot of energy from me in terms of interaction. It’s just not quite so natural for me to interact with large groups, which is pretty funny considering that I teach very large classes sometimes.
That was not at all what I would ever have guessed I would have done. It’s something that I learned how to do over the years. It became a role that I could play. But it’s not who I am. There’s a big difference between the role of what we’re doing and our personality, and it’s very clear to me that I’m not a natural teacher, but I could learn how to teach very effectively, and I think it’s something that anybody can learn how to do, if that’s what you want.
I never chose to teach when I went college. I didn’t go back to college until I was about 30 years old. I went back as an adult and I had no idea what I was going to do. My plan was to take one college class and see what it’s like, and that one class happened to be Intro Psychology. So I took my psychology class and that was it — I was hooked. That was the thing I was most interested in. All through undergrad I never really thought about what I would do with this degree, except I realized a bachelor’s in psychology doesn’t get you anywhere. You really have to go on to graduate school, and you really need to get a Ph.D. And so I thought, OK, I could do that. I liked a lot of things about research, so I figured I’d be a researcher, and I saw myself working alone in a lab somewhere, spending a lot of time doing my own individual work and then socializing with people every once in a while. I didn’t really see myself interacting with large numbers of people on a daily basis.
Since I was older when I went back to college, I got to know my professors a little better maybe than some students of a traditional age might have, and they were really, really influential in my decision on what to do and how to go about approaching my career. There are two in particular, Marion Cohn and Anne Crimmings, who were the psychology professors that I worked with as an undergrad, and they both encouraged me strongly to go on to graduate school. In particular, Marion was a really strong influence on me. She was a behaviorist. She trained under somebody named Ivar Lovaas. Anybody in the ABA world probably recognizes the name Lovaas, who pioneered doing behavioral work with people with autism. So she was very much influential in the fact that I knew I wanted to go into something that had to do with behavior and that everything I found there made a lot of sense to me.
So I headed off to graduate school. I had no plans to teach. Again, I thought I would be doing research. But once I got to graduate school, they have an expectation of your work for them. You will work for them 20 hours a week in addition to your class load, and you’re going to be assigned to be either a research or teaching assistant. What I discovered was that research assistantships were harder to get, and usually that happened for the upper-level students. I was pretty much told, “You’re going to be a teaching assistant,” and it was not a happy day for me. That was not what I wanted to hear.
It got even worse, though, because I was going to be a teaching assistant for a statistics class, and I don’t like statistics. There is nothing about it that I cared about in any way. I squeaked through it as an undergrad, but I never felt confident in it or felt like I understood it. I just managed to get an A somehow, and it seemed to me like it was luck as much as anything else.
Since stats didn’t make sense to me, I didn’t want to do it. I’m going to have to teach something I don’t understand, and the final straw there was that it was going to be an 8 o’clock lab, an 8 a.m. lab, and I’m like, I hate everything about this. There was nothing that sounded like a good plan. I seriously considered dropping out of graduate school. I’m glad I didn’t, but at the time it did not seem like this was going to lead me anywhere down a career path that I wanted to go. Just the opposite. It seemed like it was taking me away from what I wanted to do.
But in the end of it, what happened was I learned a really, really important lesson, and that was that in order to teach something, if I had to stand up in front of a group of people and be the expert on something, I really needed to understand it completely. In order for me to understand statistics, of all things, I needed to break it down into tiny little parts and basically split it, is how we talk about it in training now. I needed to split it down, and it needed to make sense to me first before I could use it to make sense to anybody else.
I spent a lot of time that first year learning statistics myself. I would take the lesson I learned the night before and present it to my class the next morning. What happened was my students liked it and they did well. They liked the way things were broken down. They liked that things were very clear and understandable to them. As we know, many times you get a professor who really understands the topic, but they can’t make it understandable to the student. With my own struggles I was able to do that right off the bat. I was able to find ways to make it understandable to others.
We keep it sort of a secret among teachers that many times we’re barely ahead of our students in the material. We may have been reading that textbook right before we went in the classroom to teach it. So you become, again, play your role. You become good at projecting confidence, even when you may not totally have it. But that’s part of the teaching role that we take on.
I finally did get away from teaching statistics in grad school. I got to teach a lot of other classes as well, though my career in teaching altogether I taught statistics every single semester for 20 years. It kept me employed because nobody else wanted to do it. It became very easy for me to do over time, and they were very popular classes, so I always had full classes, which was good. But I taught a lot of other classes in grad school.
Once I got my master’s, I taught at a few different area colleges and I started to feel like I was getting control of this, or understanding how to develop material and how to teach it. Of course, when I decided to get a job, then I found out that any job I got was going to be mainly teaching. If there was any research involved, it was going to be minimal.
Academic jobs at the time I was looking were very competitive and hard to get, so I was lucky that I had a good friend, Lee [Fox], who is going to be teaching this teaching class with me at FDSA, and I’ll talk about her more in a bit. I was lucky that she had gotten a job at Kent State a few years before me and come up here. So she knew about the opening, she connected me to an opening here, I got the job at Kent State, I decided I’d probably stay for a year or two. Twenty years later, here I am, just retiring from Kent State. So things kind of take on a life of their own.
But I’ve been really happy here. I moved from the big Kent campus down to a regional campus called the Stark campus, which is in Canton, Ohio, where my classes were small, I knew most of my students, I had good colleagues, so it’s been a really good career and a really good experience. But I was ready to get away from it. Probably for about the last four or five years I’ve been really done with college teaching. It takes a lot of energy and it does burn you out over time.
At the same time I was also starting to teach more and more for FDSA and I saw a couple of things. One of those is that, gee, this thing is going to continue growing. It’s not going to be something that lasts for a year or two. It just keeps expanding, and FDSA has a lot to offer the dog training world. I knew I wanted to get more and more involved here, but I still had a full-time job there, so finally I was in a position, luckily, that I could make the decision to focus my teaching efforts more at FDSA and go ahead and retire from Kent State.
That was a long-winded way of telling you where I came from.
Melissa Breau: I think that’s all good. You mentioned a bunch of things in there, though. One of the things you talked about were some of the skills that go into being a good teacher, and obviously there’s a difference between being given a job as a teacher and really learning how to teach. Can you identify what some of those skills were? What skills do teachers need that someone might not think about until they are actually in that role?
Deb Jones: There’s a lot of on-the-job learning typically involved in teaching, and that’s not always a good thing. In fact, we’d be much better off to have more preparation, but we don’t get that often. We get knowledge of the material. So you come in to teach something, you’re teaching it because you know it, because you understand it, or you do well at it.
If we switch from college teaching to talk about dog trainers a little bit — we understand how to train an animal. Once you get that, people are going to encourage you to teach others, which is a good thing. We should share that knowledge. We shouldn’t keep it all to ourselves. But if you’re only good with animals and you don’t know how to teach people, it’s not going to go well for you.
People skills, being able to communicate very clearly and effectively with the person, because animals come with people attached. Whether we like it or not, we need to work with the person to change the animal’s situation or to change their behavior. So learning how to communicate with another human, as opposed to communicating with an animal of any species, is much more difficult. People are more complicated, much more complicated.
I’ve also come to see that our job is not just to present information. We really are there to motivate and support students, much more than just give them info. That is probably one of the biggest things I’ve learned over my career is that I need to be, and I am now more than I was, a motivator and somebody who’s there for support when the person needs it.
As a teacher, being able to take theoretical information, and an understanding of that information, and make it into something that the student can use and apply right away. Some of us are good at book learning. That’s why I’m an academic, because I like that kind of stuff. But if I give all that to my students, I’m going to overwhelm them very, very quickly. So I need to be able to take what I know from theories and pull out the important pieces of information and use those appropriately. I don’t want to overwhelm students. We don’t want to flood students with new information, and that easily happens sometimes, especially with new teachers. You tell them everything, and everything is too much.
In college teaching we’re still in the model of lecture. I lecture to you, you listen to me, and then I test you on what you remember from the lecture. That’s the whole mode. It’s not really the best model for learning, probably, but it’s a very strong tradition of that in academics, so that’s not going to go away anytime soon.
But in dog training it’s different, because if I lecture my students for very long, they’re bored and they’re finished. I need to be working with them. I need to take information and make it into something that you actually physically do. That can be hard, because I do things without thinking about every little detail and every little step, and when I have to think through that, all of a sudden something that I thought was very simple to teach takes ten times longer because I have forgotten all those details that go in along the way.
I think we’re really good at FDSA with this is we approach students differently. It’s not “the instructor has all the power, the student has none” relationship and all the information flows from me to you. It’s much more interactive, it’s much more about the information flow coming from the student as well. I learn as much as I ever teach a lot of people. And it’s much more about how to support our students and help them, as opposed to just give them information. I think those are very different things that we’re doing here with dog training than I do in college teaching.
Melissa Breau: How did you learn some of those skills? Where did those abilities come from?
Deb Jones: We learn on the job, which is not the best way. Trial and error. When I first started teaching at Kent State, when I got hired at Kent State, one of my first classes was 500 people. It was 500 people, Introductory Psychology class. That’s daunting, and nobody tells you what to do or how to do it. You are basically left on your own: “Here you go, here’s your class, teach Intro Psychology.” And I’m like, OK, I know Intro Psychology, but I’m standing on a stage in an auditorium, which is like my worst nightmare ever, trying to figure out how do I keep these people interested, how do I give them what they need to know, and how do I control this group? Because now I’ve got this large group of people I have to somehow control. So it’s very much sink or swim, trial and error, and I don’t think that’s a good way to do it at all.
And so what happens? Some people do well. Some people learn how to teach, they figure it out, they thrive, they have a career out of it. But other people don’t. They hate it, they do poorly, either they quit or they find a way to avoid teaching as much as possible, which is actually true of many college professors. They teach as little as they possibly can.
If you have somebody to support you and mentor you, that can be helpful, but that’s not something always that occurs. It’s not a big deal in most colleges. They’re more interested in research than in teaching. Teaching is seen as something we have to do, but that’s not their focus for a lot of people in college. You’d think it would be, because that’s what a university is all about, but oftentimes it’s much more about doing research. So there’s not much effort put into supporting teachers, or showing people how to teach, or giving instruction.
So we tend to model, I think, mostly after how we were taught. You probably had a professor that you really liked, and a professor that you felt like you got a lot from their class or classes. And that’s what we tend to do — we model after them. That’s good if you had a great professor, and if that happens to work for your personality and for your topic, but it doesn’t always work out quite that way.
That’s one of the reasons, I think this is the main reason, we thought about first offering a class on how to teach. Because it can be a very painful, difficult experience if you don’t know what you’re doing, and hopefully we can save people from some of that. You can learn from our pain. You don’t have to have your own. We can show you and help you along the way, and that’s why we’re doing this.
Melissa Breau: I think a lot of dog trainers, when they decide to become professionals, like you’re saying, they jump right into it, so it leads to a bit of flying by the seat of their pants, for lack of a better term. I’d love to hear a little bit about how much of teaching can be, or has to be, that ad hoc, that fly by the seat of your pants, and how much it really requires careful planning and should require that careful planning. What’s the balance like there?
Deb Jones: That’s an excellent question, because I think everything requires planning. I’m not a big believer in spontaneity. Part of that is my personality, but part of it is also my experience of teaching for about 25 years now. Very few people … now there are some who can be spontaneous and it goes really well, but they’re not a lot. For most people, when you’re spontaneous, things start to go off the rails pretty quickly. It’s also frightening, it’s pretty scary, to not have a plan, so I’m a total big believer in planning.
You may be very good at what you do with animals, but you may need much more work on how do I take that and make it into something that is going to be understandable to humans. Lots of times, students never see the preparation stage of teaching. They have no idea it exists, because it’s invisible. They don’t know how much work we put in behind the scenes before we even get to interacting with them.
I know you’ve taught a class or so, and you’re going to be teaching classes, and you know now a little bit about how much work goes on before you ever get there. There’s a lot that needs to be done. We don’t just jump into class on the first day and go, “Ah, I wonder what I’m going to do today.” I know what I’m going to do for the entire session. I have it all planned out, and even if my plan falls apart somewhere along the way, at least I had a plan to start with. I often in my college classes make up a schedule, I always make up a schedule, for every day of the semester for the four months that we would be there. I knew exactly what I was going to do before the class ever started.
Whether or not I stuck to that plan is something else. That’s where the spontaneity might come in, where I have to change things because I moved faster or slower than I thought I would, or I needed some more time to talk about a particular topic. So I can change things as I go along, but I need the plan first. That, to me, is just vitally important, and for all the good teachers I know, that is the case. They know what they’re doing. They always know every single day. It’s not, “Huh, I wonder what I feel like teaching this morning.” It’s very much “This is where we go now in the lesson plan.”
It helps a lesson plan to be sensible and to be logical and to build one thing on the next. If you’re just jumping around from one topic to another, that feels disjointed and people don’t like that so much. So more planning never hurts. This is what I always say: Plan everything. You can never over-plan. It’s fine. Do as much as you think you need to do. Then, once you have the plan, now you can be flexible. Now you can be a little more spontaneous, if you see the need arise. But don’t just go into it cold, because that’s unlikely for most people to end well.
Melissa Breau: That leads directly into what I was going to ask you next, which obviously, no matter how much planning you do, there are going to be times when you have to think on your feet and you have to respond when something unexpected happens, especially if you’re dealing with a dog training class in person, where you have students and you have their dogs and you never know exactly what crazy things could enter somebody’s head, or a dog’s head, in a given moment. How did you learn to handle that aspect of the job — handling the unexpected — and any advice you have, of course.
Deb Jones: What do they say, “Expected the unexpected.” Things are going to happen that you could never have planned for or predicted. That’s always very, very true. Things that in your wildest dreams you would not have imagined they’d occur, happen, and I think with new teachers we’re terrified of those possibilities. We’re very worried that something is going to happen, out of my control, I’m not going to know what to do about it. And it will. There’s no question it will.
So what do you do? You can panic. You can kind of lose your ability to think and process information. I’ve had that happen now and again. I’m thinking about instructors in early teaching of anything. You’re often worried that you’re going to get questions that you can’t answer. That’s an interesting fear to have, because it is reasonable. There will be questions that I don’t know the answer to because I don’t know everything in the world. I have no idea what the answer might be to certain questions. But I usually can figure out where to find that information. It might not be something I can answer right away, but just that fear that people are going to ask me something I don’t know — I don’t worry about that so much because usually my answer to that is something like, “Well, that a really interesting question and I haven’t really thought about that. So let me think about it a little bit and we can talk about it later, or let me go do some research on it and next time we’ll discuss it.”
So you don’t have to answer everything right now. You don’t have to know everything in the world, even about the topic you’re teaching. You can only know your part of it. There’s nothing wrong with that when it happens, and it will happen.
The other thing that sometimes happens that’s unexpected is you made your plan for class, you know what you’re going to do, you’ve got it all figured out, and when you get there, that plan is just not right for that group. It may be that my material is too simple, and my group is beyond where I thought they would be. The more likely the problem is my material is too complex, and the group is not ready for this level of material that I was planning to give them and talk about and work on that day. You have to be able to figure out when do I need to go back and go to an easier level, or when do I need to add some challenge that I wasn’t necessarily expecting I was going to have to do here.
So my lesson plan is sort of a suggested outline for what is going to happen in a class. That can always be changed. If I have that dog that does something I didn’t expect, either good or bad — either they do much better than I thought they would, or they’re nowhere near ready to do what I had planned for them that day — that’s when I do have to be flexible and be spontaneous. We develop, as we go along with training, ways to deal with that: What am I going to do when I get into that situation?
Let’s say you have the dog and the owner that show up to your advanced class and they’re not advanced. They’re barely beginners, and somehow they ended up in your advanced class. This happens all the time. So what you planned for them to do is absolutely not possible for them. Now the question is what do you do at that moment? We want to very quickly drop back down to the level where they can be successful and start them there. That’s all you can do in the moment is to give them something to work on that they can succeed with. Trying to hold them to the same level as everybody else in the class is just never going to work. It’s going to be frustrating for all of you.
After the fact, it might be they don’t really belong in that class, but that’s not something to address immediately. You can address that privately at the end of class. Maybe that the class is not right for them, they don’t have the background or the skills that they need, but we can’t derail the whole lesson and say, “OK, because Joe and Fido are having this problem with reactivity and it’s an agility class, we’re all going to stop and I’m going to work with him on this problem.” We can’t do that either.
We have to think constantly about the group. What is the group here to be taught? What did I say I was going to teach? I have to do that. Like I say, I can try to alter things as much as I can for somebody who’s not quite fitting, but in the end they may or may not be right for that particular class. We can’t be all things to all people all the time, and we can deal with that after the fact.
The other issue, the opposite issue of that, is you get somebody in class who is well advanced of what you’re teaching. This can be disconcerting, especially if you’re a new instructor, because now all of a sudden the student knows more than you do, and you don’t know what you have to offer them. In these cases, with experience, you start to learn to add challenges for those students who are ready for them as part of what you’re doing in the class.
Judy used to complain when she had her first agility dog, Morgan, who was Mr. Perfect. Morgan did everything right all the time. Morgan would do an agility sequence perfectly, and they’d be, “That was great, OK, next.” And then the next dog comes up and they’re having trouble, so they get three or four tries at the agility sequence and much more of the instructor’s time. When you get something like this, you’re not real happy if you’re the person who has the perfect dog, because you haven’t been challenged in any way, and you really haven’t gotten the time from the instructor that you should have.
So knowing I have to give the same amount to each of my students and I have to meet them or start where they are. Even though I have this general idea of where they ought to be, I’m working with them from where they are right now, which is exactly the same thing we do with dogs. We work from where they are right now. It’s the same with people.
Melissa Breau: As somebody who has taught in both a traditional classroom setting and who has taught people to train their dogs, what similarities or differences pop out at you?
Deb Jones: This is a really interesting distinction to make between teaching my college classes and teaching my dog training classes because I’ve done both for over 25 years. In terms of preparation, I think they’re pretty much the same. I prepare the same way no matter what the topic is that I’m teaching, whether it’s dog training classes or college classes.
Some of the issues you’re going to see that are similar include just dealing with people — interpersonal issues, group dynamics that you have going on. How do I deal with this large group of people effectively? Most of us don’t know naturally how to do that, so that’s something we learn. In dog training, though, it’s interesting because you would think you’re training the dog. That’s what it’s called. It’s called dog training, so our focus is on training the dog. But we all know, who have taught for any time at all, what you’re actually doing is teaching the person to train the dog. So I, as the instructor here, have a double job. I’m teaching a person, also making sure the dog gets trained at the same time.
Many dog trainers would say, “The animal is easy, the person is hard,” and that’s probably true. I feel like I could train the dog very quickly, but that’s not the job. The job is to teach the person to train the dog, and that’s not going to be as quick and easy.
If you’ve ever learned how to ride a horse — I spent a lot of time when I was younger with horses and riding horses and at stables — oftentimes when you take lessons, what happens, you get a new person who’s never ridden a horse before, and we give them what’s called a school horse. The school horse is usually the one that’s going to be very easy. That horse is experienced. It knows what’s going on. The person knows nothing, but at least the horse knows. And so the horse is pretty easy going, it’s used to beginners, it’s not going to hurt anybody, everything will go along OK. As you get better as a rider, you get the horses that are less trained or more difficult to work with.
We don’t do that with dogs. We don’t have school dogs. I think that would be a really good idea, if you had these well-trained dogs that people could practice on before they work with their own. I think that would make things simpler. But we don’t have that. We’re teaching a person and an animal brand new things at the same time, which makes it difficult.
We’re also teaching … in dog training, the difference is that’s a physical skill, and it involves a lot of motor skill, and it involves timing, observational skills. These are things I don’t teach in college classes. I teach information. I teach material. I talk about academic stuff out of books, theories and ideas. That’s very different than teaching somebody how to click at the proper moment. That’s a whole different set of skills. Or how to manage a clicker and your treats and your dog and your leash and all those things at one time. This is a lot of mechanical stuff that we work with when we’re teaching animals different behaviors. And again, things I don’t think about. I just do them. So when I have to start to think about how to explain it to somebody, then I have to break it down into tiny little parts.
I remember when I first started thinking about teaching FOCUS. I didn’t know how I taught FOCUS. I just did. I just somehow had it with my dogs. There were a lot of things I was doing, but it took me a while to think through all those and to actually be able to verbalize them to other people, because I felt like it’s just what you do, it’s just how you are with your dog, it’s how you live with your puppy. But clearly it’s not, because everybody wasn’t doing those things. Once I started to verbalize it, it just kept growing and growing. It’s like, I do a lot of things I never said or I never even recognized.
That’s a lot of what happens in dog training. We have to go, we do this and it works, but how do I tell you to do the same thing? We get students … because we’re working with physical skills, we all end up with students who have difficulty with those skills, who have trouble following direction, or who have some sort of issue with something that I might think is simple. I might say, “Turn to your right,” and to me that would be a simple cue that I would give a person, but that might be very complicated for them. They might struggle with the difference between left and right. So I have to break it down and make it easy enough for that one particular person in my class, and then I have, say, ten of those people, and I have to do that for every single person that I’m working with.
Those are challenges, those kinds of things that I didn’t see in college teaching. I just had a group of people sitting in chairs, looking at me. I got to talk to them, which was fine, which was easy, but you didn’t get that intense one-on-one that you do with dog training.
Melissa Breau: To kind of flip the switch there, you talked about “The animal is easy, the person is hard.” What are some of the similarities or even the differences, I guess, between teaching your actual dog and teaching those human students? Are there things that stand out?
Deb Jones: I think there are a lot of similarities. I mean, the general rules of learning still apply to everybody. I always say they apply to all species, and I don’t say “except humans.” They apply to all species. We all learn in the same way, and we all also need to consider motivation, emotional responses, and reactions to things. I need to consider those in my human students as well as in my animals, and sometimes as teachers we forget about that stuff. We think about it with the animals, but we figure the people must be motivated or they wouldn’t be there, so they must be able to figure it out and they want to do it. But not always. We can have a big effect on their emotional responses and on how much they try and how hard they work.
Lots of times, something I see that is challenging with people in animal training, and especially for those of us who are positive-reinforcement-based trainers, is that what I’m teaching you pretty much contradicts your previous learning. It does not agree with what you think you know or what you know about dog training, and what I’m telling you is completely different. So we’re getting into space here where we have to be very, very careful. Even if I’m just implying everything you’ve done up to now is wrong, just listen to me and I’ll tell you what’s right, people don’t like that. They become defensive. They go, “No, wait a minute. I know what I was doing. I wasn’t doing anything wrong,” or “The fact that you’re implying I was doing something wrong is bothersome.”
So we have to be very delicate in how we present information that we know is going to disagree with the way that they have always done things. The last thing we want our human students to do is become resistant to learning our ideas. We want them to be open to it, so we need to be very, very careful that I’m not implying to you that everything you’ve done up to now is wrong, thank goodness you found me, because otherwise you’re just messing up left and right. That’s not going to go over well.
When you first learn about positive reinforcement training and you’re so excited about it, it’s easy to let that creep in, that this is the right way, everything you’ve been doing is the wrong way. We need to be careful about that as teachers, or we’re not going to convince anybody if we take that approach.
Also with humans what I’ve come to see is it’s not my job to convert anybody to believe what I believe about animal training. I feel very strongly about the way I train and teach, and I feel like it’s the right way to go about it. But my job is not to convert the world. My job is to do what I do to the best of my ability. When somebody’s ready to hear what I have to say, they’ll be there. They’ll find me, and then they’ll be ready to make the changes that are necessary. But I’m not going out, pulling people in, trying to make them see how right I am. I think that is something that just turns people away from us, so we need to be careful about that.
Melissa Breau: You mentioned that students sometimes are at different places in their learning, and I’m curious how, when professional trainers are dealing with a new class, I think they often struggle with this idea of how you break things down into tiny pieces so the dog can be successful without frustrating their human learners. Do you have any advice or suggestions around that?
Deb Jones: Oh, of course I do. I definitely do. This is something I think about a lot. As animal trainers, we’re always talking about the importance of splitting things down into small pieces and making it easy for our animals to learn. We know that lumping things together is going to lead to confusion and frustration. It doesn’t help in the bigger picture. We apply that to animals pretty well, but oftentimes as instructors we have difficulty applying that to our human learners.
One of the problems I see here is that our human students come in with unrealistic expectations about how much progress they’re going to make in a class or over the course of a session that you have. They expect a lot more than is realistically possible. I think one of our jobs as instructors is to help them set those expectations more realistically. They want to see some big change right away, and we know that it’s not about big change. It’s about a whole lot of little tiny bits of incremental change that eventually lead to the bigger change. So one of our first jobs, I think, is to convey this information to them, that what you’re seeing here, this is progress. This is what we’re looking at, how do we know it when we see it, and then they can start to look for it a little more as well.
The other thing that often happens in classes, and it’s often with new instructors, is that you just feel like you have to give your students everything you know. Give them so much information that it becomes overwhelming to them, and they tend to shut down and stop hearing you pretty quickly. You can only process so much information at a time. We want to tell them everything, we want to give them everything they need to know, but we need to edit that. We need to keep that to a point where it’s enough for now and I can give them more later, so enough to be successful, and then we can build on that in the future. But when we flood people with large amounts of information, it’s not useful to them in any way, and it does make them feel overwhelmed and frustrated, so that’s not helpful as a learner.
If you have students in class, as I sort of mentioned this already, lots of different places, some are more advanced than others, finding the level of material and difficulty to give them can indeed be difficult. You’ve got the new pet person in a class along with the experienced dog sport trainer. How am I going to make them both happy? That’s a big challenge, and you’ll probably never feel like you do it perfectly.
Perfect and teaching do not go together. Those are not two words that happen. We do our best. We do our best every single time we teach. Later on, you’ll think, Oh, I wish I’d said this, or Oh, I wish I’d done that instead. Next time. Now you know. Next time you can do it that way. But we learn more, we do better. We don’t expect ourselves to be perfect all the time and hit it exactly right for every single class. You’ll have absolutely great classes and then you’ll have absolutely awful ones, and it may or may not have much to do with the material at all.
Back to this idea one more time, because I’ll say it again because I think it’s important: More material is not better. It’s flooding. New instructors go into too much theory, too much detail. Narrow things down for your audience. What do they need to know right now? I think that’s the best way to find a balance here. If you have somebody who you really feel like is interested in more and wants to learn more, or is ready to learn more, then you pull out the extra stuff you have for them and give them a little extra instruction in that and give them a little extra challenge.
Melissa Breau: I think that so often new instructors are a little bit … I don’t want to say unconfident, but to a certain extent it’s, OK, I’m going to prove you can trust me by telling you all the science that I know to prove that I know the science, so that we can do this thing and it’s going to work. But obviously that’s not, like you said, more information is not better.
Deb Jones: Right, and the science is something we can talk about with our colleagues. We’re behavior geeks, a lot of us. That’s why we do this. We love to talk about the science of things. But we have to know our audience. Is my audience one that wants to talk about all this science or not? So save that for the right situation.
Melissa Breau: For those who are listening who maybe don’t actually plan to become a teacher, but inevitably, as positive trainers, they find themselves questioned about their training and their techniques, do you have any advice for ways that Joe Schmo or the average positive trainer can maybe bridge that gap and help educate others around them?
Deb Jones: Yeah, this is going to come up for you. If you train with positive reinforcement, people are going to be curious, especially if they’ve had more traditional training techniques. That’s all they know, so they’re going to want to know what you do.
I’d say a few things that I think can be helpful here. First of all, your first job is to be a good example of positive reinforcement training. Nobody expects you or your dog to be perfect. I know I and my dog are far from perfect in our training. Many positive reinforcement trainers actually have very challenging dogs and that’s why they made this switch to more positive reinforcement, because they found it worked better for them. So you don’t have to be perfect, but do your best to actually train your dog so that they’re a good example of what you can do.
If you can get a lot of hands-on experience with more dogs, that’s all the better. There are a lot of people who are very good at the theory and the science, and they understand it cognitively, but they can’t apply it to their own animals or to anybody else’s. I’ve seen that more than once, where somebody talks a very good talk, but when you see them try to train an animal, they haven’t bridged that gap yet. They’re not capable of taking from one to the other.
When I first started teaching at Kent State, there was another professor who’s very well known in the world of learning theory. He’s written textbooks on learning, and he came to one of my dog training classes. He was my worst student. He was terrible. He understood the theory better than anybody in the room. That didn’t help him when it came to the hands-on stuff. So I think just because we like the theory and we think all that part of it is interesting, we also need to have a lot of hands-on training of a lot of different animals.
So train your own dogs. Train any dog you can get your hands on — your family’s, your friends’, the neighborhood dogs. Train. If you can find a good positive reinforcement trainer to apprentice under, do that. The more animals you can work with, the better. Volunteer at a shelter, do rescue work, lots of dogs. The more dogs, the more you will learn, there’s no doubt about it.
You can’t really teach other people until you’ve had a wide variety of experiences. Working with one type of dog does not always translate into helping people with other problems and issues. So getting that variety in.
I think one of the best things that ever happened to me was training so many different types of dogs so early in my dog training career. I got a little bit of everything, and I got to see the differences as well as the similarities.
Then, once you’ve got that as a positive reinforcement trainer, when people ask you for advice and information, this is kind of a dangerous moment because we want to help so much. When somebody asks me for help, I want to help them. I want them to take my advice, I want my advice to work, I want everybody to be better, I want everybody to be happy.
But that’s not always how it ends up working out. People often ask you for advice, and do they take it? No, they do not. Or they apply it very poorly. Or they mix it with something somebody else told them to do and it doesn’t work out. Especially if it’s family, then almost always they’re not doing what you tell them to do, because you’re family, what do you know? So my general rule for other people asking for help and advice and information is I don’t put more effort into solving their problem than they are putting into it.
Oftentimes we put so much into it to try to get them fixed. That’s not my job. My job is to give advice. If I choose to — I don’t have to, but if I choose to — my role is to give advice. I’m not responsible for their issues. I like to give enough advice that they can find more help, they can find more hands-on help. And maybe they will, maybe they won’t, but again, I have to let them be responsible for that. I can’t take responsibility for everybody who has a problem and comes and asks for help with it.
So don’t get too invested in any one single person. Have an idea of how much time am I willing to spend working with somebody, especially if they’re not paying you. How much time are you willing to spend, because if they’re not paying you, often they think it’s not very valuable, and then they don’t take you very seriously.
Melissa Breau: I mentioned earlier, and it’s come up a couple of times, that you have a class coming up on all this, so I wanted to talk about that briefly. What led you to create the class, and maybe if you can share a little on what it will cover, that kind of thing.
Deb Jones: Sure, yes, I’m very excited to talk about this. This class, and actually we have a series of two set right now and maybe a third one, enough material for a third one sitting in the works somewhere. About two years ago, my friend Lee and I went to Florida for a vacation. You wouldn’t think we’d be talking about teaching when we’re on vacation, but we are.
My friend Lee is also a social psychologist. She’s the person who got me the job here at Kent State. We were roommates when we were in graduate school. We’ve known each other for a long, long time. I’ve probably known her longer than I’ve known any other friend, as far as I can remember, except from high school.
Lee and I went on vacation together, and we were talking about the fact that I was looking forward to retirement at some point, hopefully in the not too distant future. Luckily, that worked out really well for me and I was able to retire, but what would I do? She actually asked the same thing. She did not choose to retire, and part of the reason is she doesn’t know what she would do. I said, “There has to be something we can do together that would be interesting to us and that would use our skills.” What do we know how to do? We know how to teach. That’s what we do. Between the two of us we’ve been teaching for something close to 55 or 60 years, if you add it all together. That’s a lot of teaching.
We started talking about this, and I had also been talking about the classes at FDSA and how much I enjoy online teaching, and I see that as the big wave of the future. In fact, most colleges now have a lot of online classes as well. Lee and I have both taught online classes at Kent State too. But we saw that, again, nobody tells you how to do it. There’s no sort of teacher training happening. So here’s an area where there’s a need that’s not addressed, and this is something we thought we could do.
We started talking about it, and we had, like, an 18-hour drive home from Florida. We started taking notes, whoever wasn’t driving was taking notes, and talking about it helped us pass the time, anyway. But by the time we got back, we had an outline for a class pretty easily. From there, we started to get more specific and spent some time together last summer working on pulling together actual lesson plans and getting much more thoughtful about, OK, we took this vague idea, now what are we really going to do with it?
Melissa Breau: Do you want to just share a little bit on what type of material you’ll be covering in the class and who should be a really good fit, if they’re interested?
Deb Jones: Yes. As I said, we have two classes planned right now. The first one’s completely done. We’re just finishing up some of the videos on that. The second one’s written. We’ll still have to do the videos that we’re going to do for that one. Possibly a third going on here.
Our focus is on how to teach, not on what you teach. Not on the content, but on the process. This could apply to any area of training, whether you’re interested in teaching classes in agility or obedience or nosework or rally. Whatever the dog sport or activity, pet classes as well, whatever the dog sport or activity, it’s going to be how do you approach and teach something. Not exactly what to do — that’s your part of it to bring to the table is the information itself.
As always, of course, we’re splitting it down into little parts, as we would do in beginning stages for anybody, teaching being not a natural thing for most people.
Now there are a few people who are very extroverted who enjoy talking in front of groups, but most of us do not. Most of us find it somewhat aversive and difficult. But if you’re going to do it, you need some practice at it, and you need to be able to have a safe place to practice and get some supportive feedback. That is what we are planning to offer. Breaking it down into some little pieces, having you work on small assignments that take a minute or so to present and to show, and then letting us give you some feedback on the clarity of it, what might be changed, just as we do with all FDSA classes, how can we make this better, what can you do to improve this thing.
Of course, there’s no formula for teaching. Everybody can approach it in different ways and be successful at it. But we are going to give you some structure and some guidelines for what has worked well for us over time.
Let’s see … what can I say? Most people … I talked about being stressed, so how can we deal with that? We deal with stress by being prepared. So preparation. The class will give you, hopefully, confidence. If you take this class, you go through the materials, you work through the exercises, we have both written and video exercises to do. Once you work through those you’ll come to get more comfortable teaching something, presenting something. We put you under a little bit of time limitation in terms of how long you have to present certain information, which forces you to narrow it down and to not get too big, and that’s a really important thing.
So we’re going to work on those kinds of exercises, thinking about what you’re going to teach, how are you going to convey to your students it’s important, how are you going to start at the level that the student is at. We go through talking about these kinds of questions and how we start our interactions with students, how we basically start to get them to buy into what we want them to do.
Practice … something that, as dog trainers, those of us who train and teach have done a lot is I have a demo dog, and I’m demonstrating with my dog while I’m explaining to the class what’s going on. That can be really, really hard to do. That in itself you’re asking somebody to do two things. I’m asking you to pay attention to your dog and use the proper mechanics to get them to do this thing, and at the same time pay attention to an audience who’s watching you do this and tell them exactly what you’re doing as you go through it.
Something that sounds easy like that, it’s not so simple in the beginning. If they’re both difficult for you, you’re going to become flustered. If you’re good at one, and typically we’re pretty good at the dog part, then we can concentrate on the other. But putting those kinds of things together in terms of having a demo dog and how useful they can be for certain things, and how to do and talk about what you’re doing at the same time.
Something that we’ve added in here that I don’t think a lot of dog trainers think about at all, but I believe it’s really important — we think about it all the time in academics — is where do you get your resource material and where are you getting your information from? In college, of course we have textbooks or journal articles, and so that’s where we get the information that we teach, and then we supplement with many other things.
But in dog training, where is our information coming from that’s going to be our class? Lots of stuff in dog training is common knowledge, public knowledge, and you can’t always figure out where this idea or this technique came from. But when we can, when we can know something, when I know where I learned something, or I know somebody who is working with this and has done a certain application of it, we want to give them acknowledgement and say, “OK, I learned this from …” and “Here’s another way you can use it that I saw in a video by …” whoever is doing that. So we talk about giving credit, we talk about finding valid and accurate sources, we talk about avoiding plagiarism, things that we think about much more in academics than the dog training world, but I think it has a place.
The other thing that, at least in this first set of classes, we’re going to address is how to take on that role. I mentioned teaching being a role, so how to take on that role of teacher so that it’s still authentic to you, that you’re not being fake about it. It takes part of your personality and also then takes on the necessary demands of the role of being a teacher. How do you combine those things together? Because I say all the time I’m not a natural teacher, but I do it well. How do I do it well? I figured out how to mix these two together. So that’s something we’re going to talk about and have people work on as we go through the course as well.
Of course, we’re trying not to overload people in the first course, so in the second one we get more into things like how do you develop a syllabus and lesson plans for a six-week class, how do you deal with challenging students — I won’t say difficult — challenging students to manage, and group dynamics, classroom setups, things like that.
Of course I’m going to say, who should take this class, I think everybody. But particularly if you’re instructing anybody, even if you’re instructing one other person, knowing how to do that well, I think, is a really important skill, and if you are ever intending to teach a group, I think it will be really, really helpful. You’re adding the teaching skills set to your training skills set and that can be a very valuable thing to have.
Melissa Breau: Absolutely, and it sounds like it’s a very full, chock-full class of lots of different bits and pieces. I’ve got one last question for you here, and it’s my new “last interview question” for everyone who comes on. What’s a lesson you’ve learned or been reminded of recently when it comes to dog training?
Deb Jones: Oh, there are so many lessons. The thing I would probably say here right now, the thing that I’ve learned, is that we’re never done learning. There’s absolutely no end to how much we can learn as dog trainers. No matter how much you think you know, there’s always something more out there. These days I define somebody as an expert, and I think somebody who’s an expert in what they do, they’re still learning. They’re a lifelong learner. So if you’re an expert, you should still be learning as much as a beginner does.
Melissa Breau: I like that, and it’s very on theme for us today.
Deb Jones: Yes, it is, actually. Excellent.
Melissa Breau: Awesome. Thank you so much for coming back on the podcast Deb!
Deb Jones: Thank you Melissa. I always enjoy it.
Melissa Breau: And thanks to our listeners for tuning in!
We’ll be back next week, this time with Sue Ailsby to talk about training for Rally.
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Today’s show is brought to you by the Fenzi Dog Sports Academy. Special thanks to Denise Fenzi for supporting this podcast. Music provided royalty-free by BenSound.com; the track featured here is called “Buddy.” Audio editing provided by Chris Lang and transcription written by CLK Transcription Services.
Thanks again for tuning in -- and happy training!