Here are the things I saw in the movie that I think translate pretty well from the world of horse training to the world of dog training:
1) The human has to have control of his or her emotions, all the time. This is of utmost importance when working with animals. Animals of all species can be frustrating at times, when you are doing everything you know how to do and still not getting the results you want. In that situation, you have to understand that either the animal does not understand what you want because you haven't communicated it in a way the animal can understand, or else the animal understands what you want but doesn't see any reason to do it, or is blocked from doing it by some kind of fear. Getting frustrated and letting the animal know it is a huge block in your relationship with the animal. Human frustration can cause animals to shut down. I've said this to many people over the years: "Frustration is the kiss of death in the person-dog relationship." One episode of blowing up at the animal or scaring it because you're angry can set you back a loooooooong way. I used to get frustrated when training, but now if I do it is only with myself. I think the thing that enabled me to stop getting frustrated with the dogs was finally understanding that they are JUST DOGS. Dogs are pretty amazing animals, but they aren't people and they don't understand things the way people do. It sounds simple, but it's easy to forget because dogs are generally so accommodating and so willing to do what people want.
2) You have to understand the animal's nature if you want to be able to teach it anything. Horses are prey animals and dogs are predators. Okay, you can totally make an argument that dogs are actually omnivores or scavengers or whatever, but they all evolved from wolves, and that explains a lot about the way they think. Even my Cavalier King Charles Spaniel, a breed that is the ultimate lap dog, still goes on alert when he sees birds fly by, and chases squirrels whenever he gets a chance. A dog's default behavior when it sees food is to grab it. All dogs have instincts, and those instincts often get in the way of guide work. If we want animals to behave in the way we want them to, in a way that conflicts with their basic instants, we have to give them good reasons to. You can never forget that a dog is just a dog, in spite of all the amazing things we can get them to do for us.
3) The animal can't fear you, but it absolutely has to respect you. In the movie, Buck worked with a lot of young horses who did not have any respect for people. He taught them in a gentle but firm way that he was the one who would be in control of the relationship, and that he was a fair leader who could be trusted. Respect is essential in the dog-human relationship if you want to have a safe, responsible working dog. I will go ahead and say that I believe the shift toward positive training in the dog world, despite the many ways it is superior to the old compulsion-based training, has also made people feel like there is something wrong with letting the dog know that they -- the people -- are the ones in charge in the relationship. You have to be fair to the dog, but considering how many natural dog behaviors are unacceptable to humans, you also have to let the dog know what is acceptable and what is not. I have no problem with letting the dog know in no uncertain terms that it is absolutely, 100% unacceptable for the dog to lunge at a cat or a squirrel or food on the ground. (I have a lot more to say about this subject, but I'm going to save it for a later post.) A working animal needs to understand consequences so that it can make intelligent choices, at least if the people depending on the animal are able to trust it.
4) Mastering anything takes lifelong practice, and you have to make a lot of mistakes on the way to mastery. I don't think Buck Brannaman thinks of himself as being better than anyone. There was a time when he believed in traditional methods of horse training. He made changes because he was not satisfied with the results he was getting using the traditional methods. He took it upon himself to research and study and learn a different way. He practiced on hundreds or probably thousands of horses to get where he is today. I'm sure if you asked him he would say he is still learning all the time. There is no one book or class or video that will make you an expert, and you can learn a lot of technical skills and be competent at performing them without having a big-picture understanding of what you're doing. The way you achieve mastery is by a never-ending pursuit of study combined with practice. The two -- study and practice -- work together. The biggest reason why I hope I can stay an instructor forever, rather than "advancing" into a management role, is that being an instructor gives me endless opportunities to try new things and refine my skills and put all of the practice together into theory. I can train a good guide dog. But I am always working on putting it all together into a big picture view, and the longer time I have to keep bringing new dogs through the training cycle and training people how to use them, the better the big picture view gets. You can't do that if you're stuck doing management-type things -- you have to be boots-on-the-ground, doing nothing but working with dogs and working with people.
5) An understanding of animals is almost useless without an equally good understanding of people. There are so many people whose love of animals causes them to take a jaded view of people. It is true that the way people treat animals oftentimes results in a poor outcome for the animals, but the thing animal people often forget is that most people don't do these things on purpose. Often people are well-meaning but not well-informed. And often people come with emotional baggage acquired through the process of living life, and that baggage can limit their ability to understand and interact appropriately with animals. If people are having a problem with an animal, the trainer called in to fix that problem is not going to get anywhere if he or she can't be empathetic towards the people and understand that they may be doing the best they can. Yes, they might need to change things if they want to work things out with the animal, but they are not going to be able to work with and trust the trainer unless they know the trainer understands where they're coming from. I have often said that no one wakes up and says, "Today, I am going to do the best I can to ruin my guide dog and make sure it's not going to work correctly." No one does that! If people are doing things wrong, it is usually because they don't understand the way to do it right, which is an instructional failing on the trainer's part. Yes, I know there are guide dog users who don't listen, think they know it all, don't want to put the work in, et cetera, but I prefer to start with the mindset that the person would do it right if they knew how, and teaching them how is my job. That mindset has served me and my clients well over the years, so I think I will keep it.
If you're a trainer of any kind, or just interested in the relationship between people and working animals, go watch the movie Buck. I guarantee you'll get something out of it.