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How self-awareness will make you a better trainer

When someone asks “what will I need for my animal training lessons” the answer you’d usually expect is something like this: “You’ll need a clicker, a leash, a saddle, a treat pouch…” or some other relevant equipment. Or maybe “You’ll need your vaccination paperwork and your liability release…”

Very rarely is this the expected answer: “Just bring along your powers of observation and your self-awareness.” But these are some of the most important tools you need to guide your animal’s behavior.

The reason for this is that animals behave in response to their environment and YOU are an extremely important part of their environment. How YOU behave affects how your animal behaves…or doesn’t behave. So if you can maintain awareness of what you are doing and make conscious choices about what you do – you will teach your animal what you want to teach, rather than accidentally teaching whatever the animal learns as they respond to you.

Making conscious choices about what YOU do will allow you to get more of what you’d like from your pet – and see less of the behaviors you don’t like.

A few things to become aware of:

  • Do you notice & reward when the animal is “being good”?
  • Do you know your usual response when the animal does a specific undesirable behavior?
  • Are you able to anticipate how your animal will respond in certain situations?
  • Are you guiding your animal’s behavior pro-actively?
  • Do you have an emotional response to certain behaviors?

If a certain “good” behavior is hard to come by, chances are you don’t reward it very often (at least not with something the animal really wants).

If a “bad” behavior is maintaining or increasing, you are probably doing something to reward and encourage it (even if that’s not your intent).

Investigate yourself for a day or two:

  • How often did you praise or give a treat for resting quietly next to the couch (even for a few seconds)? How about standing nicely in the cross-ties?
  • How often do you give away loads of attention (eye-contact, talking, engaging with your hands, etc.) for barking? Jumping up on you? Pawing in the cross-ties? Avoiding the halter?

Then ask yourself:

  • What could I do instead?
  • Could I give more attention and treats for the behaviors I like?
  • Can I find a way to not respond, or to respond less to the behaviors that drive me crazy?

Give it a try. If you are consistent over time, there will be a change in the frequency of the animal’s behavior. Changes may sometimes start within a few minutes or days. In many cases, (especially long-standing habits) it can take longer – several days or weeks. If you keep notes and try different things you will have more information to base your behavior choices on.

Remember that training doesn’t just take place in group obedience classes or in the riding arena. During every interaction you have, your animal is ALWAYS learning. With every interaction, you are ALWAYS training. Are you training consciously or not? That is the question.

Megan Phillips

Megan Phillips

After training exotic animals in zoos and aquariums since the early 1990’s, Megan began consulting dog, horse and cat owners in 2006. She achieved her dog training certification in 2007 and received her Associate Certified Dog Behavior Consultant credential from the International Association of Animal Behavior Consultants in 2013.

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