Knowledge vs. Knowhow 

 August 16, 2021

By  Daisy

We live in an age where access to information is pretty easy, and the amount of information we can easily get our hands on is massive. When it comes to dog training, it seems like these days, everybody has a lot of knowledge, and many speak authoritatively on topics that they’re knowledgeable about. Scroll for even a few minutes on social media, and you’ll see that there are people positioning themselves as experts on a wide range of topics. But, is knowledge the same as expertise? If somebody speaks knowledgeably, and with authority, does that make them an expert? When somebody positions themselves as an expert on a given topic, how do we know they’re actually an expert on that topic? And what is the difference between knowledge and knowhow, or expertise?


It’s pretty easy these days to become knowledgeable on a subject. You can read about, watch videos about, take online classes about just about anything you want to gain knowledge about. For example, I could, if I so chose, read up on all things plumbing. I could take some online courses on plumbing. I could become quite knowledgeable about plumbing and perhaps even speak authoritatively regarding plumbing methods and practices, if I so chose. But, does that make me an expert plumber? Does my knowledge translate to knowHOW? Not automatically, no.

Know HOW

KnowHOW, on the other hand, is what we also call expertise. Expertise implies a specific and encompassing knowledge on a subject, as well as skill in the application of that knowledge. An expert knows what they are talking about through experience. They’ve put in the 10,000+ hours to hone their skill, whether it’s skill at dog agility, plumbing, or underwater basket weaving. They’re not just speaking with authority on subjects they’ve amassed knowledge about – they have a rich history of experiences to draw upon when speaking knowledgeably about their subject area.

Which is better, why, and how you stand to gain (or lose!)

When you’re looking for a coach, trainer, mentor, or guide, whether it be for your dog training endeavors or your underwater basket weaving passion, you want somebody with KNOWHOW. That person is going to not just be knowledgeable, but experienced. You always want the expert.

If you have multiple experts to choose from, then choose the expert who is also skilled at teaching their subject matter (not all dog agility experts are also expert teachers!). But, if it’s a choice between a real expert who may be a bit quieter about their expertise and a loud flashy knowledgeable person whose expertise is lacking, go with the expert every time. You may be fine learning from somebody who is knowledgeable but not an expert so long as things are going smoothly. But, when you run in to trouble or require specialized help (which, let’s face it, most of us do at some point or another), only the expert will have the practical experience to go along with their knowledge to help you solve your problems, get back on track, and take one more step toward becoming an expert yourself.

When you’re looking for a coach, trainer, mentor, or guide, whether it be for your dog training endeavors or your underwater basket weaving passion, you want somebody with KNOWHOW. That person is going to not just be knowledgeable, but experienced. You always want the expert.

Experts may not be working as hard to get your attention as those who are knowledgeable but who lack expertise. Often, experts are busy…being experts! Becoming an expert in any subject matter takes time. There’s just no substitute for it, and no way around it. Expertise relies on time spent engaging in the activity you want to become an expert at. And, you can’t speed up, slow down, or make more time.

While the ‘10,000 hour rule’ is an oversimplification of how experts become experts, and has in fact been debunked several times over, it does take time to become an expert. How you spend that time certainly matters, and there’s a lot out there these days about purposeful practice. I talk a lot about it in my Agility Challenge content, and help others to change over from ‘just practicing’ to engaging in purposeful practice that actually WORKS. So, be careful throwing all your chips in with somebody who positions themselves as an expert but who hasn’t been around all that long. Remember, there’s a difference between simply possessing knowledge, and actually possessing KNOWHOW.

We’ve all had the experience at one time or another of being taken unaware by somebody who talks a big game but who can’t actually deliver when it comes to real expertise. Maybe you went to a seminar, or took an online course, and were told to do X, Y, or Z based on the presenter or teacher communicating information authoritatively. You took their advice, not bothering to question if it made sense or was rooted in experience. It maybe did no harm to you or your dog, but it probably didn’t actually produce much in terms of results, either. Maybe your friends encouraged you to jump on board. Maybe a splashy advertisement or special offer piqued your interest. But, just because “everybody’s doing it” or it looks shiny and flashy, doesn’t mean it’s worthwhile.

How do you spot an expert?

As I mentioned before, experts have usually been around a while. They’ve enjoyed success in the ring with more than one dog over the years. They’ve seen agility fads and fashions come and go, and can more readily see the big picture and the ‘trends’ from a perspective that encompasses some wisdom and experience. They will also possess vast quantities of knowledge, but they may also be less likely to make sure you’re aware of how knowledgeable they are. The volume at which somebody speaks does not necessarily correlate to their level of expertise! If you want to learn from somebody who is a subject matter expert, you’ll also want to find somebody who is an expert instructor! An expert dog trainer doesn’t necessarily need to be an expert competitor – maybe you know somebody who is an amazing trainer and handler, but who just doesn’t have any interest in being competitive in the sport. But, if you’re looking for help with training and handling that you can take in to the competition ring, your best bet will be to find somebody who is a subject matter expert on training and handling a dog with the end goal of being competitive in the ring.

Furthermore, even if you yourself don’t have any interest in success beyond local competitions, if you’ve got a subject matter expert in your area who has high level personal goals and is also a great instructor, I recommend you RUN, don’t walk, to learn from that expert. For example, I have high level personal goals, and that means I am going to work toward high levels of expertise. My students need not possess the same interest to benefit from my personal goals, and I do not project my personal goals on to my students! But, my personal high level goals do mean that a high level of expertise is going to benefit students for a big chunk of their agility journey, and they’re less likely to present me with a problem that I cannot help them solve, given my expertise.

True experts are usually NOT overconfident in their expertise. They’ve been around long enough to be confident about what they know, but also to know that methods do change over time. Experts tend to be skilled, but also flexible, lifelong learners, and capable of saying “I don’t know” when they’re asked a question that they don’t know the answer to. A subject matter expert is not a know-it-all, and those who are subject matter experts become so and REMAIN SO by continuing to learn, change, and grow.

Beware the promises of a cure-all!

There’s a weird phenomenon in our sport where people seem to think that if it’s not new, not the latest and greatest, it must be junk, or not worth paying attention to. In general, not just in our sport, we as human beings seem to be attracted to the shiny, the cure-all, the magic pill that promises a quick fix. Of course, this isn’t a new phenomenon, and whether via conscious effort or not, marketing one’s products or services tends to prey upon our human weakness for magical promises.

But, in dog training as in many things, the fundamentals persist while promises of this or that instant fix come and go. The fundamentals are…fundamental. They’re often not super sexy, and require that you pay out your most precious resources to REALLY unlock ‘the secrets’ – your time, your attention, and your focus. It may well be worth it to open your wallet for this or that thing that is being marketed to you, but do your due diligence and ask some questions. Do not be afraid to ask WHY you are being told to do this or that with your dog training or handling. Keep asking why til you get answers that make sense at a fundamental level. Not all that glitters is actually gold.

Ok, so what – what is your point, Daisy? Well, first of all, don’t come to me for plumbing advice or underwater basket weaving advice and expect much in the way of useful, actionable information.

Second, let’s talk about not letting FOMO dictate where you go for expertise. What’s FOMO? Fear Of Missing out. If you go to a seminar, make sure you’re going with a clear picture of what you expect to get out of the seminar, and how what you gain will fold in to what you already know. If you’re going to seminars and constantly reinventing your handling and training based on every seminar presenter that comes through town, whether they’re an expert or not, it’s going to be tough to advance toward your own level of expertise.

Although I mentioned earlier that experts are flexible, lifelong learners, they’re also careful about how they fold new information in to their existing body of information and expertise. They evaluate new information against their current understanding and training (as well as their dog’s). They are themselves careful about how they let social media dictate the direction they go for training and handling, and are ALSO careful about relying on false feedback to indicate whether or not they’re on the right track with their own training and handling (likes and shares on social media are NOT honest feedback about how you’re doing with your training and handling!). If you’re aiming for expertise yourself, be very, very careful about this, and if you’re curious and enjoy reading scientific studies, check out this study titled Combating Fear of Missing Out (FoMO) on Social Media: The FoMO-R Method published at the National Institutes of Health website, which talks extensively about FOMO and how you can combat it to maintain a healthy perspective on life, training, handling, social interactions, and more.

Finally – be a discerning consumer. I admit that it’s difficult for me at times to resist the temptation to buy the latest fancy piece of agility equipment, or the popular leash, or collar, or harness. It’s tough to resist the urge to take an online class just to see “what do they know that I don’t” – but if you can step up a level above and see the big picture, you’ll see that again, it’s the fundamentals that are important, and the rest? Well, an awful lot of it is just…glitter. And that’s fine too – different people resonate with different coaches and instructors. However, even THAT should be a purposeful choice. If you aren’t resonating with an expert due to simple differences in personality or communication styles, find another expert.

Make your gathering of agility information something that you do mindfully, and with some consideration given, so that you can avoid flailing around gathering more and more knowledge, without gaining any real knowhow. Become an expert at spotting experts, and sidle up to those experts, so that you too, can get one step closer to becoming an expert yourself.

Become an expert at spotting experts, and sidle up to those experts, so that you too, can get one step closer to becoming an expert yourself.

  • FOMO ~ I have lived with that affliction all of my life (thanks for the NIH link). I eventually learned to look for “meat & potatoes” seminars to give my dog experience because I believe in the importance of foundation skills and I saw that bringing my young dog to a new trainer to learn challenging new skills was not good for his confidence. It’s great to generalize to new people and places, but now I make sure that we are working on basic skills so that he is building on success. Thank you for your expertise!

  • What a great and thought-provoking essay. I do take exception to your plumbing analogy, because my expert plumber doesn’t need the additional skills that my expert agility instructor does (teaching skills, people-skills). The expert plumber I rely upon is pretty much monosyllabic but he does a great job. The agility experts who are able not just to train and compete at high levels, but to share their expertise to make a difference for those of us who want to do better — they are many steps beyond just skilled or expert in their chosen field. The “educator” piece, added to the experience piece is what makes the difference.

    • You don’t EXPECT your plumber to have good plumbing educator skills. Somehow, we tend to assume that because a competitor shows up, with even one dog, and has success, that makes them an expert on the sport AND a good instructor 😉

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