The Power of a Self-Critique in Training (NEW)

by Bill Lewis II

Over the past 44 years, I’ve observed and provided a lot of hands-on training to K9 handlers, SWAT operators, and patrol officers.  I’ve experienced firsthand both as a participant and instructor the importance of a good critique following a training exercise or scenario.  I’ve also observed different styles and methods of critiques performed by various instructors.  And, I’ve learned that a good self-critique by a training participant can be a powerful tool in the evaluation process, retention of the lessons learned, and improving future performance.

For many years, and even today, most training critiques start with an instructor, trainer, monitor, or supervisor providing details or a summary of what they observed and perhaps offering suggestions for improving performance well before giving an opportunity to the participant to provide their input on what they observed and experienced both physically and mentally.  

Even if the participant has done well during an exercise, this traditional method of an instructor-first critique occurs frequently.  Comments like “You did this well” or “You did that wrong” with more specificity following an exercise will be shared initially with the participant along with “You should have done this” or “You need to work on that” as part of their critique.  It’s a classic example of the instructor serving as the Monday morning quarterback – and it’s not the most effective way to improve performance of the individual and retain the lessons learned.

Have you ever received or been present during a critique initiated by an instructor or trainer that ended with “What do you think [about my critique]?” followed with a participant response of “You’re right” or “I agree” and not much further?  It happens.

Most handlers do not want to admit wrongdoing or mistakes nor challenge a critique of obvious or questionable performance by an experienced and well-respected instructor or trainer, and they will often simply accept the critique as presented to avoid conflict and not draw attention to their mistakes if made, particularly if there is an audience (of other handlers) present.  However, will the respective handler sufficiently retain this constructive criticism and learn how to improve future performance based on this type of critique process or simply dismiss it?  

Constructive criticism in training is not a one-way street nor should it be a lecture-type format delivered by one individual as the training monitor.  When you give the participant the opportunity to share their thoughts about their training experience first and critique their own performance, you have empowered them and you are enabling a muscle-memory process that should ideally transition from a training environment into the real world.  

Additionally, a participant tends to accept more responsibility for their actions and hold themselves more accountable when they are directly involved in their performance critique and participate in their own improvement process.  Handlers will more openly admit and acknowledge their mistakes if the proper learning environment exists because they realize the benefit.

This process is not achieved overnight nor during one training session.  Much like the repetition required with core competencies to be proficient, it takes good training and good trainers to introduce and initiate this self-critique process to make it successful. 

Initially, most handlers are more focused on what they are doing in the moment during a scenario and not visualizing the big picture.  And, a more powerful critique will be retained and more effective when a handler acknowledges “I did this and should have done that” instead of a monitor saying “You did this and you should have done that.”

As an evaluator of the performance being conducted during a training scenario, I want to hear everything from the handler first before they hear from others afterward as it provides some insight into their thought process and observations made as they progressed through a scenario and now reflect upon that experience.  Often, a handler will tend to focus only on their dog and the route it takes as it searches for a bad guy while experiencing tunnel-vision with respect to their overall environment along with the actions and positioning of support personnel.

We’ve learned that when handlers are more involved in accessing their own performance afterward, they begin to process future situations better as they proceed through a scenario and their situational awareness tends to increase.  Will they miss things initially with their critiques?  They will – and a monitor call fill in the blanks later – but the handler will (or should) improve their performance and powers of observation as they become more comfortable with this process. 

We have seen obvious changes in tactics and decisions for the better being made during a scenario as handlers become more comfortable and confident as they begin to “critique their performance while performing.”

When you first start this process with your participants beginning with “What happened?” instead of the traditional instructor observations, you might encounter reluctance to share information or surprise because it’s something new and not a conditioned response.  Many of our “students” are waiting for the traditional critique because that’s how things have always been done and they have not been introduced previously to this method of evaluation and providing feedback.

I can share that this process is not only difficult in the beginning for handlers, but it is also challenging for most instructors and evaluators to make this change to allow handlers to critique first if they are locked into the traditional old-school methods and have been taught and conditioned for them to evaluate and critique first.  

Some instructors want to speak first with attention on them and egotistically demonstrate their knowledge and powers of observation before others are allowed to contribute – and the instructor can speak eventually – after the handler has offered their critique.  If you are doing your job well as a trainer or instructor, and as this process develops further, you will have little to offer at the end of a handler’s critique if the handler has learned to self-critique thoroughly and effectively.  

If you are not participating with this process, I encourage you to give it a try as a trainer, monitor or evaluator at your next training session with your handlers.  Upon conclusion of a scenario, make your first question to the handler be, “Can you tell me what just happened?”  And, typically, after a recap is provided by the handler, your next question will probably be, “What else happened?”  And, I recommend you continue giving the handler more prompts like “What else?” so that they can learn to critique their entire performance, not simply recall and provide the highlights.

Before you offer your observations and thoughts after the scenario, other questions to the handler may include;  “What could you have done differently?,” “What could you have done better”, “What did you learn?,”  and “How can you improve your (or your dog’s) performance?”  And, lastly, when it is all said and done, you as the monitor can then provide your insights and perhaps fill in any blanks that the handler omitted.

I’ve learned over the years the most powerful critique of a handler’s performance usually occurs when the handler is an active participant of the evaluation process and learns to effectively self-critique their performance – and that self-critique can lead to improved performance, better decision making, and a better handler.

Bill Lewis II © November 2022

This article was published in the United States Police Canine Association’s “Canine Courier” (Fall/Winter 2022) and posted online at on May 3, 2024..