Gardener or Carpenter?

When I first encountered psychology & philosophy professor Alison Gopnik’s work, it made me think a lot about how as handlers we interact with our dogs.

Gopnik proposes that there are two ways to be a parent: as a carpenter or as a gardener.

Are you a carpenter?

Gopnik notes: The carpenter thinks that his or her child can be molded. “The idea is that if you just do the right things, get the right skills, read the right books, you’re going to be able to shape your child into a particular kind of adult,” she says.

Or are you a gardener?
Gopnik says: The gardener, on the other hand, is less concerned about controlling who the child will become and instead provides a protected space to explore. The style is all about “creating a rich, nurturant but also variable, diverse, dynamic ecosystem.”

I have always been a gardener. It could be that experience with many animals of various species taught me early on that each has its own personality, quirks, needs, preferences, talents, limits. Being a breeder for most of my life, seeing how strongly individualized puppies are at birth also shaped my understanding that my role is to help the individual develop.

Of course, as a young trainer I tried the carpenter approach using this training method or that, following Trainers X, Y and Z. There is great appeal in thinking that if you just have the right method, the right tools, the right techniques, even the right treats! you can follow a recipe to get the results you want. But it always felt inauthentic. Or if it did work for several dogs or horses in a row, very quickly I’d meet the next animal who informed me, “THAT does not work for me!”

In the end, I always came back to the relationship and the need to respect the individual. And beyond that, doing my best to provide an environment that helps bring out the best in each individual.

How about you? Gardener or carpenter?

Additional Learning

The Elemental Questions – a classic webinar where Suzanne explains the Six Elemental Questions she asks every dog. Whatever your training goals or sport, the Elemental Questions help you truly “see the dog” and provide the detailed information about each animal as he is. This is where truly humane training is grounded: in detailed knowledge about the individual dog.

See the Dog: Full Seminar – This seminar focuses on how to ask the Elemental Questions, and — most importantly — how to listen to the answers. For each dog, the answers to these questions provide a wealth of information to those interested in helping that dog be all that he can be.