Learning disabilities are conditions that can affect individuals in a wide range of ways. They may impact a person’s ability to communicate, to understand written or verbal information, to solve math problems or to focus their attention, and they may even cause a person to have difficulty with fine or gross motor skills. While not all clients who have learning disabilities will need accommodations for dog training, some clients may have difficulty understanding instructions, remembering how to implement training techniques, organizing their schedule to do their training homework and coordinating the mechanics involved in training. Dog trainers should be prepared with different strategies in their toolbox to help clients with learning disabilities succeed.
Present the same information several different ways
When teaching clients, use a whiteboard and write down key terms, new vocabulary and a few notes. This can help clients who have difficulty processing information that is given orally. After demonstrating training techniques, take a moment to verbally describe what you did. This can help clients who may struggle to understand visual information. Giving clients an opportunity to immediately practice a new technique and providing a handout after class with the same information might feel redundant, but it can be extremely helpful for clients with learning disabilities as well as clients who have other conditions that can affect their ability to remember.
Consider all aspects of the learning environment
Clients who have difficulty paying attention may find it especially challenging to focus on your instruction if there is a lot of background noise or other activity in the training environment. You can support clients by selecting a quiet training location, if possible, and teaching students how to keep their dogs calm in class to reduce barking. When giving students the opportunity to practice in class, encouraging them to allow sufficient space between their dog and other dog-handler teams can also be important. Aspects of the learning environment like temperature and lighting can make a big difference for learners as well. Providing chairs for students can help reduce fatigue and make learning easier.
Reduce the amount of content covered in lessons
When a client presents a list of many behaviors they want to address, it is tempting to dive right in and tackle all of their needs at once. However, covering a lot of content in one session can be overwhelming for all clients, and especially difficult for a client with a learning disability. The amount of content you can cover varies depending on the individual client. For some, you may find you need to keep it to one or two new concepts per session.
Break content into smaller components
In the same way that it is easier for a dog to learn new things by breaking behaviors down into smaller steps, it is also easier for human learners. Rather than showing clients the entire process of training a behavior and then having them practice, show them just one aspect at a time. Slowly work up to putting the entire process together. For example, if you are showing clients how to train their dogs to walk on leash by their side, you might begin by showing them how to reward when the dog is by their side when they are standing still. Then demonstrate how to take one step forward and reward the dog, and have them practice that. Slowly work up to additional steps. By proceeding incrementally, you make it easier for clients to learn the mechanics. This is especially beneficial for clients with learning disabilities.
Trainers often provide handouts to support learning and help clients practice between lessons. Look over your handouts to see if there are ways you can optimize their presentation to help clients learn. Graphic depictions like diagrams and flow charts can be useful for clients with learning disabilities or other conditions that impact learning. They are easy to make using Word’s Smart Art feature. Even simply adding some color to important text in handouts can make concepts easier to remember. In some cases, clients may find it difficult to incorporate training recommendations in their daily routines, so checklists can be helpful to keep them focused on what to work on. However, a long list of “to do” items can be overwhelming. Organize checklists with meaningful headings, for instance: enrichment, house training, good manners training. This will make them easier for clients to use.
Use meaningful gestures
For some clients with learning disabilities, following instructions given verbally can be particularly difficult. Meaningful gestures can go a long way to support these clients. Dog training lends itself very readily to demonstrating skills with with visual movements. For example, when you say “Give the dog a treat,” you can do the motions of reaching for a treat and delivering it to an imaginary dog. Directional terms like “right” and “left” may add to confusion for some clients. If you are working with a client with a reactive dog and you want the client to turn right to avoid another dog, you can point in the direction as well as verbally telling the client.
Repeat and summarize information
Some clients may find it difficult to remember information the first time they receive it. All clients benefit from some repetition, but this can be especially important if the client has a disability that impacts their memory. Plan on repeating key concepts at the beginning and end of a lesson, and when transitioning from one topic to another. Providing a summary of previously taught information can also be important before you introduce a related concept. Seeing the relationship between the new information and what they already know can help clients incorporate and remember new concepts.
From improving the class environment to adjusting how you deliver instruction, accommodations that help students with learning disabilities often benefit all learners. Additionally, the process of improving your lessons and written supporting materials requires you as a trainer to examine your training concepts more deeply. This helps your clients and also helps you grow in your own skills as a professional dog trainer.