Are you teaching or testing?

Photo Courtesy Patrick Danforth Photography

They aren't the same thing.

Testing MEASURES what the learner knows/ can do.

Test: measure; check the quality, performance, or reliability of something; reveal ... capabilities by putting them under strain; evaluate the abilities, aptitudes, skills, or performance of an individual or group. 

A test asks your dog the question; what can/ will you do right now in this situation?

When we test, the dog is free to make choices without our interference or support. Testing gives results, but these only become useful information if they are used in a worthwhile way (to inform our training!)

Teaching/ training ADDS to what the learner knows/ can do.

Train: teach (a person or animal) a particular skill or type of behavior through sustained practice and instruction.

Teach: impart knowledge to or instruct (someone) as to how to do something; cause (someone) to learn or understand something by example or experience.

Training your dog to behave the way you want, requires a planned process with a goal. The teacher (that's you) uncovers the current level of skill of their student (that's your dog).

Skills can be physical (e.g. balance, strength, endurance); cognitive (e.g. problem solving skills, perception strengths such as vision or scent);  emotional (e.g. arousal levels, anxiety, confidence ); social (e.g. ability to interact well with other dogs) etc.

The teaching process starts at this existing skill level and builds on to it until the goal is reached (or you get as close as you can.) Effective teachers CONSTANTLY assess and reassess the current skills and needs of their learner, and reflect upon teaching and learning mistakes. They use this information to make adjustments to the process, so the learner keeps learning and the goal can be approached, achieved or altered!

You're testing... any time you put your dog into a situation where you don't know what will happen.

You're teaching...any time you have a clear goal, are managing the situation and providing quick, clear feedback which brings about or maintains the behavior you want from your dogIf there is no learning, or wrong learning, your teaching isn't effective and it needs to be adjusted.  Some testing is critical, but only to inform your teaching and help you plan the next steps in the process.

Be careful. The environment teaches too!  If your dog is having a great time at the dog park and doesn't come when called, it's not learning what you want, but it sure is learning something!  If you give your dog the freedom to make choices which you have no control over, and you don't like those choices, you don't need to ask the question; what can/ will you do in this situation? You already know the answer!  You aren't testing. You are letting the environment teach your dog!  

The reality is that most behavior issues begin with dogs getting far more freedom or exposure to stressors than they have the skills to cope with. They then make typical dog choices (hey, they're dogs) which become problems. It is far, far easier to avoid those problems in the first place than try to fix them later. You must take the time to TEACH important skills, and practice regularly to maintain them. Just be aware that your goals should be fair to your dog. Don't expect a shy, timid dog to become an outgoing social butterfly. That rarely happens.

Happy teaching (and strategic testing!)

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Positively Expert: Diana Bird

Diana lives in NZ. She is intensely interested in behaviour, teaching, learning, and self development. She strives to generalise positive reinforcement ideas to her life and relationships with other people.


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