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Empathy for Human Learners

Pet professionals would do well to keep in mind that human clients might also be struggling with learning new skills. Graphic © Can Stock Photo
Pet professionals would do well to keep in mind that human clients might also be struggling with learning new skills. Graphic © Can Stock Photo

As I develop as a teacher I’ve been revisiting some of my experiences as learner, empathically engaging with my human clients who might be struggling with new skills.

Being a good learner is something I last thought about seriously when I was a student (a long time ago!). I trained as a podiatrist in the UK, something that requires a lot of practical skills as well as theory. I was pretty comfortable learning all the theory, what I found very difficult (and uncomfortable) was learning the practical skills. I was completely intimidated by being scrutinised by both the client and my supervisors while I struggled to master some of the manual dexterity and other skills required of my job.

During the summer recess of the first year I stumbled across the work of Australian educational psychologist Dr. Stephanie Burns. Her book ‘The Great Lies We Live By’ not only opened my eyes to the problems I was having as a learner.

I’m not going to summarise the entire book but, the crux of the story, is many of us have grown up with some very negative ‘great lies we live by’ which affect our learning. These include, from Burns’ (2000) list:

  • I need talent (in order to do this)
  • Learning just happens
  • Concentrating on mistakes is how you learn
  • We all learn the same way

(Burns, 2000)

As Risë VanFleet (2013) explains, we need provide a number of components to our training of the humans in our class including; providing an explanation including rationale; demonstrate the skill; ask the client to practice the skill while you observe; provide individualized feedback to the client.

It is the ‘have the client practice in front of you’ that I find presents some problems. As Stephanie Burns identifies, a lot of people tend to want to go off to a quiet corner and not be watched when trying to figure out a new skill. This is precisely what I was doing back in my student days. My level of awkwardness at being watched was actually damaging my ability to learn (although I didn’t realise that immediately).

I regularly come across this problem especially in one to one sessions when I’m teaching someone completely new to the clicker. I find they often either want me to demonstrate the entire session; become flustered and embarrassed when I ask them practice in front of me or simply say they’ll practice and show me next week. I have one client who I’ve now realised was using distraction techniques that would have made a politician proud every time we reached a point where I gave her the clicker.

The problem is, if you push and force this situation you are likely to push the client right outside their comfort zone and potentially lose them which achieves nothing. Similarly asking a class to introduce themselves to each other is something a large number of people dislike intensely (Whitehead). In a work situation I find this uncomfortable and unwelcome and in a training class I thoroughly resented being asked to introduce myself and my dog, being a very private person. I know some people will read this and think this is wrong/impolite etc. but the point is we need to be empathic towards our clients, we want them to feel comfortable and we want them and their pets to enjoy our class and return each week.

When I returned to the second year of my clinical training, I vividly remember one of my supervisors asking ‘what an earth has happened to you over the summer?’ She was astonished that I seemed to be this completely alternate person. Interestingly, she perceived it as me becoming more enthusiastic and interested but I’d always been both of those things – what I’d lost was the fear! Nothing had really changed other than the fact that I now realised what I was doing to block my own learning – armed with that knowledge I started getting out of my own way.

Instead of practicing avoidance techniques I had become empowered to recognise my fear and say ‘I’m not feeling very confident about x could you please give me some support with that with my next patient’ rather than trying to evade the things that worried me. I stopped thinking of my teachers as potential sources of embarrassing me and started thinking of them as there to facilitate my learning.

With my new clicker clients I’ve found actually having this conversation with them really helps. The Karen Pryor Academy teaches introductory dog free sessions where we can work through these practical skills with our new clicker clients using various games they can play with one another practising the manual skills required before they try it on their dogs. Terry Ryan (2005) refers to this as ‘orientation’ class explaining; “I believe owners need a bit of knowledge before they train their dogs. I use the analogy of the horse and rider. If a horse isn’t trained and a rider doesn’t know how to ride, the rider will probably get into trouble”, she goes on, “orientation can help owners avoid sometimes irreversible mistakes”.

In addition to Ryan’s very useful orientation sessions topics I like to start by explaining about ‘being a learner’ ourselves. Let’s face it, it’s not just the dog who’s going to be learning; this is about training humans and in order to do that we’ve got to be empathically aware of what it’s like to be a learner.

I’ve found the best way to break through the ice is to begin the session by thinking about fear in learning – both for us and our dogs. Utilising the Stephanie Burns ‘great lies we live by’ I share my story of being a poor learner. Not only does this help people feel more comfortable with me it also usually starts off a lot of nodding as others empathise with me and recognise the same in themselves. I explain how ‘going to hide’ is not going to help our learning, most people go ‘oh yeah’ and laugh and joke about their own experiences of feeling silly; awkward or embarrassed. Once we’ve broken through that ice we can get on with the real learning!

Of course all this is really relevant to the learning theory we recognise as behaviourists and trainers. As Overall (2013) identifies fear, caused by punishment, blocks learning. For human students (of an age who are more likely to have experienced was fundamentally punishment based learning at school) it’s well worth empathically engaging with how their previous experience of learning at school, irrespective of how ago that might have been, is now affecting their feelings as a learner in your class or private sessions.


Burns, S. (2000). Great Lies We Live By. Australia, Navybridge Pty Ltd.

Overall K. (2013) The Manual of Clinical Behavioural Medicine for Dogs & Cats. USA, Elsevier Inc.

Ryan, T. (2005). Coaching People To Train Their Dogs. USA, Legacy Canine Behaviour & Training.

VanFleet, R. (2013) The Human Half of Dog Training. Collaborating With Clients to Get Results. Dogwise Publishing.

Whitehead, S. Best Practice Puppy Classes.




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