Posted by: jility | September 5, 2012

Teacher’s Pet

The theme for this Agility Blog Day is “What Makes a Good Coach/Instructor.”

I have plenty of opinions on this topic! Big surprise eh?

For about six months back in 2000, I took obedience lessons from a couple of different “conventional” trainers. There just seemed to be something missing for me in their methods. I had never heard of positive training, clicker training or even agility back then. I had started my Poodle, Isabella, with a pinch collar and was talked into using an electronic collar because she had no recall. To this day I hate myself for listening to that advice! However, I didn’t know there was a better way back then.

After a few sessions with a couple of different instructors, I went searching online to find a better way. I loved my dog and felt she deserved better than what I was giving her. I found a clicker trainer about an hour’s drive from us and scheduled a lesson. While she was explaining clicker training theory and the process, I spotted something shiny lying in the grass. If you ask anyone who has been around me for any length of time, they will tell you I am very good at spotting something shiny in the middle of a conversation.

Intrigued, I pointed to the objects lying on the ground and asked her what they were. A bit frustrated with me for not paying attention, she exasperatingly said that it was agility equipment and tried to continue telling me about clicker training for obedience, but my head was totally on that agility equipment. I asked her what in the world was agility? She explained as I stood mesmerized. Right then and there, I knew that obedience was OUT! Agility was IN!

Where could I take lessons for this agility stuff? She said she was going to start teaching it, and  I could sign up for her class that would be starting shortly. That was it. I never looked back. I had no idea if she was a good instructor or not, or how much she knew about training dogs or people for agility. I didn’t care. All I knew was that growing up on a horse and riding hunters and jumpers for years, I wanted in on this agility and NOW!

We started class and I loved it. I had no idea if what we were doing was right or wrong. It didn’t really matter to me. I didn’t know any better and I loved it so much I didn’t care. Isabella and I were having a blast!

When I attended my first trial to watch, I was blown away! Those dogs were blazing fast (well some of them anyway). That was what I wanted! I wanted that crazed speed around the course and through the weaves. When I finally started trialing myself, I realized that my dog had no clue what she was doing, nor did I.

I asked a lot of questions and watched a lot of people run their dogs. I searched for an instructor who could teach me what I wanted to learn. I wanted somebody who really understood training theory and could answer my endless questions knowledgeably without getting angry with me. That took some doing! I used to drive my father insane asking questions. I am not one to just do something because somebody told me to. I want to know why! I NEED to know why! Without the why, it just won’t register for me.

I went through a LOT of instructors in a very short time. Some were better than others, but I still felt like there were many puzzle pieces missing. Then my friend, the late Lisa Greene, introduced me to Stacy Winkler from Southern California. That was ten years ago and I have been with Stacy ever since!

Why did I stick with Stacy over all others? Because she was exactly what I was looking for. She was/is a great instructor/coach.

What makes a great instructor/coach? Here are some of my criteria:

  1. The instructor must be as kind to the student as they expect the student to be to their dog (for me, only positive training would be acceptable).
  2. They must be kind, empathetic and have endless patience.
  3. There would NEVER EVER be a harsh word muttered towards the student or the dog.
  4. They would NEVER EVER blame the dog for ANYTHING that goes wrong, and they would not accept that from their students either.
  5. No matter what happens on course, a great instructor teaches their students to smile as they leave the course and be kind to their dog.
  6. A great instructor teaches their students to be good losers as well as good winners.
  7. They would never roll their eyes at a student, belittle them or use sarcasm when teaching.
  8. Instructors should never ever tell tales outside of class. What happens in class stays in class. It would be unprofessional to do anything else.
  9. Great instructors gently encourage their students to be more than they think they can be. They never shame them into anything or ridicule their students.
  10. A great instructor will not over face their students. They know how to train reliable behaviors and will break things down into small pieces so the students and dogs gain confidence as they learn and never feel overwhelmed.
  11. A great instructor is not afraid to search for more answers from others who are successful.
  12. And finally, a great instructor will not only answer any and all questions the student asks, they will do so with a smile.

It has always been a mystery to me why some instructors feel the need to shame or belittle students. It is bad enough to do so in private, but when I see this happen in public I lose all respect for that instructor. In my opinion, there is no place for intimidation in teaching. It is just dog agility. It is not brain surgery.

I encourage all agility students to stand up to instructors who teach through intimidation or who bully their students. There are plenty of good instructors out there who are kind. There is no need to take crap form anyone, especially when YOU are paying them!

HAIL to the great instructors and coaches in this world! Thank you for your kindness, knowledge and patient encouragement.

Helen Grinnell King


  1. Great post! While I do think the instructor shouldn’t be afraid to call you on your mistakes they should absolutely do so in a way that is respectful. We are all human beings and equals, no matter your current level of knowledge.

  2. Well written. Stacy is no doubt a delight to work with.

  3. AMEN, dog agility is something we do to relieve stress and to enjoy, why would people actually pay money and spend their time with anyone who does not help you enjoy yourself

  4. I’d add one more critieria….a great instructor takes as much, if not more, joy in their students’ accomplishments as they do their own:)

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