In an online discussion about mixing play sessions with training, there were some strong opinions about how and why things should be kept strictly separate. One trainer wrote this defending her position that play was just pure fun and training had no place in play: “You generally don’t try to teach math on the playground, it tends to take all the fun out of kickball.”
This struck me as odd. Did the trainer mean that they equated “training” with not fun? Or as the equivalent of math? (Math teachers of the world would like to know: And exactly why is math synonymous with not fun?)
Let’s look a bit more closely at the false dichotomy of playground fun vs. math. There is an implication here if you’re not suffering in math class, you’re able to run wild, free aned unfettered. In reality, teachers supervising the kickball game do more than just stand there and watch the kids play. They make sure that the kids are actually playing kickball, not beating the heck out of each other or terrorizing the third graders, following the rules of the game so it actually is kickball and not something unstructured. Good teachers are also keeping all involved safe by monitoring arousal levels and handling disputes, and in short, providing a safe environment for play to occur. And really good teachers use that setting to really teach a lot about cooperation, focus, self control, skill building, sportsmanship, rules, fair play, etc. Important things for kids to learn, and dogs too!
The joy of a well-run activity for dogs is precisely that they learn and have fun, all at the same time, which is, to my way of thinking, the best teaching situation possible. Separating joy and play from learning is what sucks the life out of it for all involved. Pioneers like Ian Dunbar and Terry Ryan were banging on this drum for a long, long time – training can be fun, and “play” can be educational. I have it on good advice from some folks who love math that it is possible to teach math in a fun way. Wish my math teachers had known that.
To me, training is simply a conversation between me and a dog. Not that conversation is a simple thing. Like any conversation, it can be casual, fun, serious, difficult, silly, meaningful or meaningless, boring, dry, exciting, stimulating, etc. It all depends on what’s being discussed, how it’s discussed, where it’s discussed, who’s talking and who’s listening.
Conversations are information. When both are interested in receiving and imparting information, when it’s a two way street, things are great. When I get my end right, the information I provide to a dog in a conversation is interesting and enjoyable to the dog. If I can’t make it interesting and enjoyable to the dog, I’ve failed my end of the conversation.
I can also fail by not listening to the dog’s end of the conversation. I am really interested in what animals have to say, so I bring my full attention to them to the best of my ability.
When you view life with dogs as an ongoing conversation that by turns is serious or silly, intense or casual, full of intent or simply light chit chat, training becomes just another way to communicate and share. Become a great conversationalist with your dogs, whatever the topic of the moment.