Lessons From Dog School

I recently returned from my third tour of Southeastern Guide Dogs with my new guide Billy, refreshed on some major lessons I first learned at dog school 20 years ago. While navigating a 26 day course living and training on the school campus, at first you think you are going to learn how to work with a guide dog, and you do this. However, some unexpected lessons also alter your habitual brain.

Quick to Criticize, Slow to Praise

Perhaps the biggest lesson learned at school is that we humans are quick to criticize and slow to praise. As a manager of an electronics retail store for several years, I ran a tight ship, swift to point out to my sales team the dirt on the floor or a customer not being greeted properly or shelves that were not well merchandised. When things were running smoothly, compliments to my team were rare. The way my salespeople knew they were doing a good job was when they were not being criticized by me.

You soon learn day one at dog school that obedience is critical to your safety. If your dog disobeys a command or runs you off a curb, you're toast. When your dog gets it wrong, you must quickly “correct” them with a strong verbal NO! and a hefty zing to their collar. They need to know they blew it. You also learn on day one that you need to praise your dog when they get it right. Praise is their paycheck. No surprise here that my school chums and I were natural zingers, but had to be constantly reminded by the trainers to “praise your dog.” For the first 3 or 4 days the hardest part of training was catching your dog doing things right. After a week or so, I was bellowing “Good boyeeee!”, almost songlike.

Here’s the ratio: for every 1 correction you make, you need to deliver 3 praises. You soon find out that if you constantly correct your dog without praising enough, your dog begins to shut down on you. Their mistakes increase and they may stop working altogether. When this occurs, job one is to build up your dog – go back to maneuvers they do well, praise and love them up. It doesn’t take long for them to start working effectively again. Bottom line, the dog wants to please you and needs to know that he is doing just that.

After about 2 weeks, I became a formidable praise-giver. The zings continued but so did the admiration. Over time, the corrections decreased and the praises increased and the overall performance became first rate. Praise built confidence, confidence improved performance. Major “duh” factor at play here.

Consistency was part of this lesson. If your dog blows it, you gotta correct them every time. Otherwise they learn that sometimes it’s o-k to blow it. Consistent praise, no brainer. Mixed signals don’t work well with pups and people.

Yep. I realized after returning home, I was long on criticism and short on praise with my kids too. My kids screwed up and I honed in on their faults like a tractor beam from a distant galaxy. They had to pick up their stuff, chew with their mouth closed and straighten their room. But the moment they started to do it unprompted, I didn’t notice. The “thanks for picking up your chicken bones and video games” didn’t sing from my lips. I thought, “Oh, they got it.” But I didn’t get it. Got to let them know! Playing armchair psychologist, I can’t help but think about all the adults I know who still feel that they could never please their parents. How could they? Their parents never let them know they were pleased.

Now I don’t assume a server at a restaurant is just doing their job when I get good service. Sure I tip 20% (up from my customary 15%) but I also give them the “at-a-boys!”

Down Time

A business friend once told me that “the day after I die, my inbox will still be full.” After working a route with Billy, I give him a chance to chill with a slurp from his water bowl or play with his ball or just take a nap. There are endless places to go and time to crunch. Gotta remember to rest. If the dog gets tired, he doesn’t perform well. Now I just have to also remember to give myself some downtime. I’m often too busy cutting the grass to sharpen the blades. I can get real dull real fast.


Whenever I’m on strange turf I have a tendency to tighten up and anticipate obstacles. Billy can sense that I don’t trust him and doesn’t perform well. Lack of trust kills performance. (Another duh factor.) As soon as I remember to trust him, he navigates beautifully. My job is to stop trying to control what I can’t control and read my dog. I have to remember that he can do things that I can’t do – like see.


When a trainer muses how “relaxed” your dog looks, you know your hitting your stride. Relaxing while working brings out the best in athletes and actors and dogs. The result of praise, trust and some well deserved downtime brings good things to your pup. Seems to bring good things to people as well.

Lessons are good wherever we learn them.