If you are interested in teaching/coaching dog sports – or interested in working many dogs yourself at once there is one key concept that will help you from the first day you teach right through to major titles and successes. Really embracing and internalizing this idea will also help you understand why you might not learn the same things, or in the same way, as someone else as well. 

The concept is differentiation. Every dog, every student, every team is different and deserves that recognition. In fact the best instructors know that learners change through time so what worked last year (or yesterday!) may not be the best approach now. Without recognizing the need for differentiation an instructor; no matter how well intentioned, no matter how capable with the type of student who thrives with their brand of instruction is, will not be able to help as wide variety of teams meet their  goals. People are unique – dogs are their own selves. Everybody deserves an approach designed for them!

Some hallmarks of effective differentiation in education are flexible groupings, ongoing assessment and feedback, and a willingness to try new ways to help ALL learners. It shouldn’t matter the breed or temperament, or play style of dog  or the talents of either the human or canine student, a great instructor or coach will keep the team moving forward.

Process, Product and/or Content can all be differentiated. Let’s look at some concrete examples of how a GREAT trainer/instsructor could do each.

Content: what the student should know, understand, and be able to do as a result of a lesson.

Do all students and all dogs need to know the exact same things? Likely not, for example: one human may be confused by terminology and do better if just allowed to “do it” ; another may not to be able to master the most basic thing without an understanding of the reason it’s being done and definitions of the terms.  Of course there is content in common to any sport – let’s look at agility  – jumping, tunnels, equipment seem the most obvious – the need to change sides is pretty common too! The way to teach it may be varied, the details of what one needs to know may vary … another example – if a student is only going to play in one venue and is quite sure that is what they are going to do  the ideal table behaviour is quite different to another venue.
Good instructors plan their content and their groupings to maximize learning. The best instructors are very aware of class dynamics and spend a lot of time sorting out who fits where.

(Sampson is not your “typical” golden in any way shape or form!)

Process: the actual doing of the thing.

A simple example – there is more than one way to teach a teeter- a huge and tiny dog would appreciate (and be able to learn) different methods. If an instructor is a rear cross junkie there is nothing wrong with explaining the hows and whys but it is critical that they understand that another team might be best served by front crosses, or even blind crosses! In scent work some people pair while others work on choosing odor from the start!  Dog training is full of process choices and being able to adapt to human and dog needs can make a world of difference for a team.

Or consider the great tugging debate. Can your instructor understand that while all dogs can learn to tug, just because your dog does tug may not mean it’s rewarding for them? Differentiation  helps you find ways to aid your dog (and you) with a reward structure that really make sure there is solid comprehension of the process.  

Product: the way a student shows, applies, or extends what he or she has come to understand and can do as a result of a lesson. So, for many instructors the product they want to see is  regular trialing and winning of placements and Qs. If a student is not training for these goals there can be great  frustration for all parties.

(Sally likes her perfect snooker prize  too much to share with Sam)

While a great coach may insist on trials  and specific classes, an instructor needs to understand that the path of learning is not the same across the board.  A student … wait for it … may not even want to compete!! 

Great instructors will have varied ways for students to appreciate what they have learned. Fun nights, matches, house leagues, an occasional game, video, trials are varied ways to test product and are appreciated by any student.

Truly embracing the differences, in each team in front of them,  takes an instructor from good to inspiring. Trainers who can do the same thing for a variety of dogs are likely to be looked up to, recognized and lauded for their work! 


I've been lucky enough to work with animal sports people (dog and horse) improving their mental game, planning and goal setting and accomplishment. I work with dogs and their people in all sports though my personal passions are agility and scent work. I live on a farm in Ontario, Canada with 5 dogs, 10 horses and various other critters.


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