There is often some confusion, especially in a dog club environment, as to who are handlers, who are the trainers and who are the Instructors?

Let us take a quick look at the meanings of these terms as they normally apply in a professional Dog Training Environment such as for example, the Police, Military or the Security Industry.

“Handlers” would normally be the guys who actually draw their dogs from the kennel at the start of a shift, and then go on duty with their dogs where they literally “handle” their animals in the performance of various duties, such as routine patrols, searching for articles or persons, making an arrest and so on. Such “handlers” will have completed a selection process to see if they are suitable for training as “handlers”. For a variety of reasons, many people just do not have a natural aptitude for the task of handling a dog in a professional capacity. To be what one refers to as a “dog lover” is not necessarily the primary attribute of a good dog handler.
This is followed by a comprehensive dog “handling” course, during which they will certainly learn all the basics of Dog Psychology, the Theory of Training appertaining to all relevant disciplines, as well as the Theory of Scent and many other subjects.  90% of “handling” a dog is knowing how to best use and then read the animal. “Handlers” will then meet their assigned dogs, usually selected from animals who have shown they have what it takes to perform their various duties, and then, as a “team”, undergo a course, at the end of which, each “team” has to qualify in all the various aspects of dog work related to their job.  Such “handlers will seldom have had much, if any, experience in training a problem dog or one which is unsuited for the job.  These animals are invariably discarded or boarded very early on in the selection process.

During a basic handler course, if they are to pass, the team will need to bond and the “handler” will need to learn certain dog basic “continuation” training skills, if not already in possession of these from previous experience. In most Dog Handler employment contracts, there is a built in requirement for the handler to spend some “off shift” time to keep the performance of the dog up to standard, if not actually improve. Thus, a lot of dog training skills are acquired practically over time. In some establishments, depending on policy and the particular circumstances of an individual, some handlers are permitted to board their dogs at home rather than in kennels.

In certain of the larger organisations, young dogs are often trained and orientated by “puppy trainers” (worth their weight in gold!) and older more mature new dogs, usually purchased or donated by the public, are “trained” by experienced “dog trainers”. They are then made ready for issue to handlers when they reach maturity.  This saves time when a handler’s dog is due for retirement and he or she reports back to the Dog Training facility for a new dog.  In this way, there is little danger of handlers being “issued” with dogs unsuited for the job at hand and more importantly the new team can be fast tracked to qualification standard and operational duties.

So, in Summary, dog “Handlers” should, over time, all things being equal, acquire enough knowledge to train their own dogs from scratch and, if given the opportunity to do so, become competent dog “Trainers” in their own right.  However, the distinction remains, that a Handler, merely handles, albeit with a basic understanding of training, but a Trainer can produce the finished article, even for other handlers, right from scratch.
In a Dog Club or non- professional environment, we have a completely new ball game. Most people are stuck with the pets that they have chosen, and would not even think of discarding “poor material”, because a strong loving bond with the family has already been formed and they are quite prepared to battle on with what they have got.  Thus, from the onset, the “handler” and the “trainer” are usually one and the same, with progress entirely dependent on that person’s knowledge, skill, effort etc.  However, it should be noted, that in Club classes and in all competitions, all references to the team are in the form of “Handler”. This, despite the fact that, at the end of the day, club members have often had to do all the hard yards in the “training” process. At all clubs or in any competition, members will be addressed….. “Handlers are you ready?” or “Handlers and dogs” forward, and so on. No mention is made of Trainers.

“Instructors” are a different kettle of fish altogether.  These are usually from the ranks of those who have done their “apprenticeship” as handlers as well as dog trainers, often not just for themselves but for others. Obviously, the more experience that an instructor has had training dogs, the more knowledge he or she should, in theory have.  The problem is, just like teachers, some may have admirable qualifications and relevant experience, yet be poor teachers and of course, that is the core quality one needs in all “instructors”.

In a professional dog training establishment, the term “instructor” almost assumes that such persons have successfully undergone lengthy and rigorous specialist “instructor” training. It is one thing to teach/train a dog, but quite another to teach people, an occupation which implies inspiring and motivating them.  It is often quoted that training a dog is relatively simple if one knows what one is doing, but training the owners/handlers is the real challenge.  Not many people have this gift to “teach/instruct” and this is why, in the professional environment, the selection bar is normally set so high and those that eventually qualify, are so valuable to any organisation.  When teaching anything, knowledge of one’s subject is critical so, in the field of dog training, instructors need to be virtual canine gurus as well as proficient in all the principles of teaching.

Perhaps it is worth mentioning the exception to the rule, albeit briefly.  So important in the art of instruction/teaching is the ability to influence, motivate and inspire those being instructed or taught, that it can sometimes outweigh any personal experience or achievement on the part of the teacher. Thus occasionally we can, in some exceptional cases, come across an ” Instructor” who has limited personal success in the subject matter being taught,  yet has that rare ability to get the message across.  Here the term “Coach” springs to mind.  Jake White and Clive Barker are good South African examples of “instructors” with that special gift, who brought out the very best in their “handlers” far exceeding anything they had personally achieved in the sport that they coached.

One of the big problems of course with dog clubs, is that such “instructors” seldom exist and instructors such as they are, are normally sourced from the ranks of those in the club who have been most successful as handlers and to a degree trainers.  A good instructor is a person who can take even a profound and complex subject, break it down into simplistic stages, and then unfold it in such a manner that even a child can understand.  In the main, instruction is imparted using the handler’s senses of hearing, sight and touch. Strangely enough, of these three senses, hearing makes the least lasting impression on the memory, both immediately and in the long term. So talking alone will not be very effective. In one ear and out the other!  For this reason, it can be a great help if the instructor can personally demonstrate what is required, either by using her/his own dog, or asking an appropriate member of the class to demonstrate.

Another problem for clubs is that they invariably have to be tactful with their criticism and over indulgent with their patience and encouragement.  Unlike most professional dog training establishments, where the class is generally a captive one, and where a degree of performance related pressure can be applied, paying members of a “club” need to be nurtured, kept happy and ultimately retained.  This makes the task of any “instructor” that much more challenging and may indeed go some way in explaining why club instructors get so frustrated and are so scarce.  However, as long as club class instructors can keep in mind, that many of the handlers are first time “fun” trainers with limited spare time on their hands who may be battling with pets with dubious potential, then there should not be too much concern.

The secret in a Club seems to be, to clearly identify, as early as possible, those members and their dogs with the potential and the enthusiasm/determination to put in the training time during the week, in order to progress and achieve their initial objectives. Then channel them asap into an appropriate class.  The strange thing is, that such handlers/trainers, given the support of the rest of the family, having reached their initial objectives, seem to become more and more ambitious with success and that itchy competition bug tends to bite!

John Cox 15 May 2016