what’s the difference between a handler and a dog owner?

What is a handler? Most of my clients could tell you.That is how I refer to them when they have been training with me for some time, largely out of respect for their new role, and commitment with their dog.

A handler is a coach, trainer, manager, or supervisor. If you have a dog, and choose to learn more, do more, and see ownership as a relationship in motion, you raise the bar for yourself, and in fact fulfill all of these roles.

What sets a handler apart from a person who owns a dog? It is so varied. And this is where I would like to open up this discussion. I believe if dog owners knew more, they could do more. And it really isn’t about sit, down, stay or come. It’s moving to the next level of understanding.

One of the aspects of being involved in the canine working/sporting world, is getting to observe, listen, and discuss dogs, at great lengths, with other handlers. Learning about dogs in theory, and critical thinking is important, especially in my world as a trainer. But in all honesty, if you aren’t getting the field experience, and you’re not involved in the larger dog world, it isn’t going to help much.

So I am starting a list that describes a great handler. What would set them apart from a dog owner? I would like this to be kind, educational, and hopefully inspiring to a dog owner and beyond. Please post your responses on this blog (not FB or private e-mail please) that way someone can read it in it’s entirety.

Learn as much as possible, have fun, do more! The list beings…

  1. A handler buys videos and books on various dog topics. From disc dog training to behavioral concerns. Always curious, and always wanting to learn more.
  2. Working with their dog, not against their dog. Training is teaching and it takes both the handler and dog.
  3. Handlers involve themselves in the dog world to some degree.
  4. A great handler knows they have much to learn, and every dog will teach them something new.
  5. Handlers learn about behavior, they rarely take advice from the dog park. Attending conferences, reading books, watching videos, etc. With on line conferences it has become even easier!
  6. A handler understands their responsibility with their dog. At home, on a trail, in public, at an event, etc. They know they are their dogs advocate, their voice in the human world, and the go to person with anything concerning their dog.
  7. A handler understands that there is more to life than a dog park, and a dog park may simply not be the right place for their dog anyway.
  8. A handler understands rewards, how they vary, the value, and how to use them appropriately.
  9. A handler knows they have entered a partnership, a team, and relationship. Most handlers take the good with the bad, and work together to move forward.
  10. A handler understands space, when to give space, or when to take space. Space is critical in trust, appropriate social cues, advanced training, sports, and just plain good manners. The more skilled the handler the more accurate response to space without conflict or caution.
  11. A handler has amazing timing. Marking, capturing or shaping a behavior requires skilled timing.
  12. A handler does not distract easily. When a handler is working with their dog their attention is on the task at hand. They tend not to drift, think of other things, or watch the larger environment. They understand if they want their dogs attention, they must be willing to give the same. Their dog is the focus, everything else is scenery.
  13. A handler practices skills all of the time. Always learning, always challenging themselves as their dogs handler.

please continue!

15 Comments Add yours

  1. DuncanDes says:

    If something isn’t working, a handler will find a better way to help her dog be the best he can be…even if it goes against common ideas and methods.

  2. a good handler knows what their dog likes to do more than anything else. in our case we have 3 hunting dogs that live to hunt. during the off season we take them to the lake to retrieve, shoot dummies high and far to teach them to see and mark the bird and then give them the signal to “fetch!” which is music to their ears. we also teach them to find birds that are blind to them, in other words, a bird is down but for whatever reason the dog does not know where it is and they trust us when we give them a line, say “dead bird, fetch”. during hunting season we give them as much field time as possible; this is especially important for the pup who learns something every time she is out. and it is good to encourage the dogs to work together; another benefit for the young dog and fun for all. we love to hunt birds but without dogs it can be easy to lose birds and we cannot stand that so we rely on our dogs to help us retrieve the bird and they rely on us to teach them how to do that.

  3. mtwaggin says:

    A handler is always looking to improve…themselves, their training, the life of their dogs! GREAT list Nancy and a stellar post.

  4. catbillau@gmail.com says:

    A handler never says, “my dog screwed up” because they know it’s always that persons problem in miscommunicating what is wanted to their dog!

    1. Loreen says:

      Ooh that is SO the truth!!

  5. Loreen says:

    A handler KNOWS their dogs. They know when to continue with training and when to call it quits. They know each dog is different and requires different training methods and approaches. A handler truly knows what motivates their dog. A dog owner is like my neighbors who open the door to let their dogs run freely across everyone else’s property while they go back inside and pay no attention (can you tell that STILL chaps my hide?).

  6. Jeanne says:

    A handler treats their dogs as one of the family. The dog is allowed in the house and even on the furniture and the bed. Dog owners sometimes chain their dog outside and only see them when they feed the dog and to give it water.

    1. Nancy Tanner says:

      Hi Jeanne,
      I don’t think all dog owners would fit into that category, some for sure, but not all. And when this does happen it is truly a sad situation.

      I work with a few exceptionally gifted handlers that have outdoor kennel environments, have competed internationally, and their dogs are amazing, and they share a trusting loving relationship. I think it stems from intention and relationship, not necessarily indoor/outdoor.

      1. kevin says:

        I agree exercise your dog teach him what u expect and have him adhere to them expectations praise him feed him and love him he will want nothing more or less his needs are met and you have a happy dog who loves and respects you in return

  7. Sara Erickson (and Mishra!) says:

    Does a handler have to take part in the larger community? I’m struggling with this now because we can’t take part in group activities. I don’t think this excludes me from being a handler, but it certainly makes learning and growth more challenging.

    1. Nancy Tanner says:

      I think yes and no. There are Handlers that cannot take part in group activities because of their own personal health or because of their dog, or both, but they stay super active with on-line group activities and are always on the path to learning more, and doing more, and frankly you wouldn’t know they don’t ‘participate’ in group activities because you are always ‘seeing’ them virtually.

      There are Handlers that don’t bring their dogs to events or sports, or seminars but they themselves attend to observe, learn, and interact.

      And then there are dog owners that cannot participate because of their own personal health or their dog, and they kind of give up and do nothing and remove themselves from the dog community at large.

      I think you fall into the Handler category because you are always on the path to learning more, observing, and participating on-line. Nancy

  8. Lynn says:

    A handler is committed to making sure their dogs physical and mental needs are met. Handlers wake up at 5 in the morning before busy work days to train and hike their dogs… owners sleep in and wonder why their dogs are so crazy at the end of the day.

    1. Nancy Tanner says:

      that is an awesome observation … love it.

  9. Nikki says:

    Great insights. I got stuck on #11 – getting to amazing takes awhile (and I struggle with it when doing tricks/skills not as much with hiking walking environment). So does that loop back to always working on learning, or does it stand as you are an owner until you get amazing timing?

  10. kevin says:

    I like my dogs to understand what’s expected whether walking on leash siting and staying or navigating opsticules I teach the behaviour with treats and of couse the dog thinks the job is done when you reward him to get around this once the behaviour is learned I only use the treats in a dedicated training session and use voice positive reinforcement while the dog is doing a good job and a corection when needed this comes in the form of a leash pop in heal work and simply re requesting the behaviour for opsticules sit a and stay and never move on to the next fun activity until the request is adhered to this can be frustrating but is very fair in my opinion because your not forcing the behaviour your just denying the reward of continuing your super fun activity until the job in hand is done for instance if where walking in the woods and thers a fallen tree at the side of the trail I will request he jump up on it and walk the length and jump down when requested if he refuses we keep doubling back on our selves until he gets sick to death of been asked however we do this with benches walls in and out of Bollards and streams he now loves it and is disapointed surprised when I dont want him to navigate a opsticule it’s fun to work together in completing challenges, in my opinion this is what training is helping you and your dog become one.

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