Nov 30, 2009

The Skate Whisperer

My best friend's dog is excitable and overprotective, so she's working with a dog trainer to help both her and the dog learn how to function in an over-stimulating world. Last night she hosted a "training party" where we got to be props in the session, so the dog could learn how to interact and feel safe with a lot of different people. It was fascinating; I now understand the concept of the "animal whisperer"-- someone who just seems able to make an animal do what she wants it to do.

In any group figure skating class, there's a spectrum of "normal" behaviors, especially among beginning skaters, from the overly fearful to the overly adventurous. Rewarding sensible risk-taking while encouraging the fearful or reluctant, and calming down what I call the "exploding brains" is one of the huge challenges of group classes.

What I found most fascinating was that many of the things the dog behaviorist was doing with the dog, I also do with young students on the ice. The constant reinforcement of positive behavior. Modeling proper responses. Use of external signals (she used a little clicking sound maker) to "mark" correct behavior. Making the coach the focus of attention. Lots and lots of eye contact.

The only thing I don't have is the yummy smelly chicken liver "cookies" that she used as a reward. I'm going to have to come up with a skating version of doggy treats. (Suggestions welcome!)

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