Things You Don’t Know You Don’t Know. Or “What Makes a Good Agility Trainer?”

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Is it years of experience? Competitions they won? Titles earned? I think there is more to being a good trainer than that.

20 years of experience?

The fact that someone has decades of experience does not guarantee anything. Don’t get me wrong — experience is invaluable! The more dogs and people the trainer worked with the more opportunity they had to hone their skills, both training and teaching-wise. But did they? (Hone their skills?) I would rather look into what they actually achieved with their dog, and even better — what their students achieved. If the trainer did not accomplish anything meaningful in these “20 years of experience” then it is not experience, it is wasted time. If they did but none of their students were able to repeat that success, it might be a sign that this trainer’s teaching skills are not that great. In the end the trainer’s achievements are useless to you if they don’t know how to pass that knowledge.


Accomplished does not necessarily have to mean winning a competition or earning some titles. It might be that the trainer knows how to prepare a fearful dog for a trial environment or how to build a strong relationship with the dog. Come up with your own definition of what “accomplished” means. If you want to compete internationally then by all means a person that did it already will have a better chance to coach you to get there than a person that did not. At the same time a trainer that only ever worked with high drive Border Collies might not be the best fit for you if your main struggle is your dog’s lack of drive. Look for experience aligned with your own goals and the kind of dog that you have.

Things you don’t know you don’t know

There are things you do know that you don’t know. At first you might not know how to teach the dog the teeter, or how to enter an agility trial. Great! Ask someone, search on the internet, buy a book, take a seminar. It is easy to find an answer if you know the question.

I remember my driving instructor asked me once why you should always keep the car’s wheels pointed forward while waiting to turn left. I not only had no idea what the answer was but I was surprised there was this whole new aspect of driving I never considered. This is what I am after — to me a good agility instructor is the one that will teach me things that I don’t even know I don’t know. If you don’t get any “Aha!” moments then either your agility trainer is not a good fit for you or you simply have outgrown them.

More questions to ponder

  • Do I often work on things I already know?
  • Do I know how to train at home, in between the lessons?
  • Does the trainer motivate me?
  • Do I get guidance on what I can improve?
  • Am I free to train some things differently?
  • Am I free to make my own handling choices (that also means mistakes!)
  • What progress did I make as a handler in the last 3/6/12 months?
  • What new things did my dog learn in the last 3/6/12 months?
  • What new things did my trainer learn in the last 3/6/12 months?
  • Am I moving forward toward my goals at an acceptable (to me) rate?

One comment

  1. Those are indeed great questions to ponder upon! After my dog learns all the obstacles, I very often fall into the trap of practicing the same things over and over again, and I rarely ask myself if my dog or I learned anything new in the past few months (the answer is probably no). It’s a good reminder to always strive for progress, and not end up with 20 years of experience and 20 years of wasted time 😛

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