Finding the opportunities.


Photo by Patrick Danforth |

Have you ever seen a person criticise a baby who is learning to walk?

Have you seen them abuse or insult the child because the steps are few, shaky and the child falls over a lot?

Have you ever seen people dissatisfied because their baby cannot instantly run a marathon?

Me neither.

We clap, cheer and encourage the baby’s efforts. We want them to try and try; to make mistakes; to fall over and get back up again. We know that’s how they will learn. We know learning takes time and mistakes. We celebrate gradual improvement. We love the child just as they are.

Somehow, somewhere this changes...

Sadly many of us live in societies where weaknesses tend to be the focus.

When we are trying to get our learners to know more and do more than they already can, we tend to look for what they aren’t doing/ can’t do. We focus on the not, the lack, the gap.

For children this shows up in test scores and social judgements - ‘Not reading at level/ can’t spell well/ not able to relate to peers/ not able to control temper/ not co-ordinated enough' etc.  In dog training this might show up as - ‘ can’t stay for a minute/ doesn’t come back when I call/ doesn’t bring her toy to me’ etc.

Using strengths based teaching sounds sensible and appealing, but knowing ‘what to do’ (use strengths) is quite different from knowing ‘how to do it’. Sometimes we don’t even know what to look for, where to look for it or whether we will even recognise it when we see it.

When teaching people, we know about learning styles, interests, skills etc, but the fine details of our learner’s strengths often elude us. For dogs, we know that border collies make better herding dogs and beagles are better trackers, but again the fine details of our learner’s strengths often elude us.

Most trainers can already identify these topics and ask these questions.
1. Breed dispositions – what was the breed designed to do? How can you use that knowledge to enrich your dog’s life and offer rewards of value? Are there any unrealistic expectations you need to let go?
2. Individual dog dispositions – what does your particular dog enjoy? Swimming? Where – river/ sea/ pool? What sort of toys? What sort of play? Are there any unrealistic expectations you need to let go?
3. What does your dog do NOW/ enjoy NOW, that you could use as a springboard for changing behavior?

The great R+ trainers see the fine details, so they see training opportunities in every problem. They are CREATIVE! The rest of us need to learn to see the opportunities, so we can work out how to use them. We need to become more creative too!

And before you succumb to doubt, have faith! Remember the tottering babies! With effort, thoughtful practice, trial and error, we all can!

Having just attended a John Rogerson seminar, I found his creativity and expertise at finding strengths really inspiring. For instance; the dog who runs away to hide under the table with a toy will soon find you joining him under the table. The strength is – the dog retrieves the toy and takes it to a certain place. You use that strength by being in that place when the dog brings the toy.

Consider this problem - your dog runs away from you when you are training in agility.

When/ where will your dog choose to stay close, keeping an eye on you? That is the strength you need to build on. If your dog won’t even stay close, keeping an eye on you in the back yard, you can’t possibly expect him to do so when in the distracting, high energy environment of agility.

Start with success and gradually make the lessons harder, but achievable. If the dog is interested in what you’re doing in the kitchen, but not the lounge, what is happening in the kitchen? Can you make it just as worthwhile for him to keep an eye on you in the lounge? Have little training sessions, play games, show affection – then send him to relax. You don’t want an energiser bunny in the lounge – just a dog who is ready to respond to your cues. Bounce around between easier and harder tasks. Give your learner frequent breaks to rest, relax, absorb the lesson and rebuild motivation.

Don’t expect constant challenge or constant failure to motivate any learner.

Does it motivate you?

Well planned and managed learning will build on what the learner can already do, keep sessions achievable and as enjoyable as possible and give breaks. Poorly planned and managed learning will constantly challenge the learner. Everything is likely to be hard. Both teachers and pupils may show signs which include inattention, frustration, off task behaviour,  anger, helplessness and even a breakdown of the relationship.

Surely you don’t want it to be like this?

Remember that strengths in one context can be weaknesses in another, and weaknesses in one context can be strengths in another (for people and dogs!)

Start looking for the opportunities. Start viewing your own weaknesses (and your learners’) in a different light. Start using your own strengths (and your learners’).

Start changing your corner of the world!

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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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