Updated: Feb 28, 2019
There has always been a near constant debate in dog training over what is more important, theoretical knowledge or practical experience.
Some will stand by the idea that practical experience trumps everything else. That being hands on will always be more important than the stuff you learn in a textbook or a webinar.
Others will say that theoretical is perhaps the most important. Not understanding why or how you’re doing something could lead to disaster, it’s far better to study first, learn as much as you can and then practical experience will come into it.
I’m not here to sit and give you a definitive answer, as that is a judgement call you’ll all have to make yourselves. I’m going to discuss, however, why I think both are equally as important by discussing a recent case study.
This past week we’d just had our launch event, where we invited various pet professionals down to have a go at Agility, Tracking or a bit of both.
One such dog proved to be the most interesting tracker I’ve had so far.
I won’t dive into all the details, but she was a very nervous cocker spaniel who would constantly look to her handler for reassurance. This was a new environment for her, and she did exceptionally well.
However, once we got her Tracking, we found it quite strange.
She would engage with the first part of Tracking, wherein we could classically condition the human scent by pairing it with food absolutely fine. But routinely she would leave the scent square, her nose up, veering widely.
She was certainly anxious, but all of us together were struggling to find out what the immediate trigger for her to leave the scent square was.
My theoretical experience told me I needed to lower the criteria, and I thought back to my Tracking Instructors course and the information I had collected. Without it, I wouldn’t have any idea on Tracking. We made the scent square smaller, and laced it with higher value treats and more of them. That helped, but it didn’t solve the issue.
We all spoke together and decided to record two of the scent squares to see if we could figure it out.
Eventually, we did.
What we discovered is that she was so sensitive to the movement of the long line and her handler’s body language, that whenever the handler moved her hands or moved too quickly, she would look up for reassurance and lose the scent.
The handler was a fellow trainer, and what was fascinating for the both of us was that in order for her to track successfully, we would need to work on not handling her, and very much restricting our movement.
My practical knowledge told me how hard this can be. My dyspraxia makes it exceptionally difficult to actually handle a long-line, and the handler herself admitted that she struggled with it too. Because I knew how hard it could be, we did a few practice sessions without the dog, focusing on breaking down the long-line handling into bite-size chunks. We came up with a brief training plan, wherein we took away as many cues as possible (treat bag removed, very little eye contact with dog etc) and she went off to practice her long-line handling.
The next day when she came back, we managed to get some wonderful tracking out of her, and also began working on the practical long-line handling skills necessary to progress the Tracking further.
Without that theoretical knowledge I possessed, I wouldn’t have been able to help set the environment up for success in such a way that would’ve allowed her to succeed. Without my practical experience of understanding how difficult it is to handle a long-line, I broke down that criteria for the handler into digestible chunks, and without that we might not have solved the issue at all.
Theoretical and practical cannot exist without one or the other. Both have equal value in my eyes, and when you combine them together, that’s where your training can really shine.