NEPOPO® New Silver School in the Netherlands
The NEPOPO® New Silver School was organized for the first time in Europe. The event took place from Monday, August 7th, to Wednesday, August 9th, at the conference center of the beautiful De Cantharel hotel in Apeldoorn, Netherlands.
I had been intrigued by NEPOPO® videos on social media for a while, both from the Bellons and other graduates, and by the interviews and conversations I had with the couple Michael and Bart Bellon. The Bellons, as I like to call them, are the founders of the NEPOPO® method, an abbreviation for Negative Positive Positive. The fact that a NEPOPO® New Silver School was being organized in the Netherlands easily convinced me to enroll. I finally wanted to know the ins and outs of NEPOPO®.
For me, as a Belgian, the Netherlands is not as exotic as Missouri in the USA, where the Bellons have had a permanent location in recent years and hold their NEPOPO® schools. Apeldoorn is only a 4-hour journey for me. So distance was certainly not a counterargument. For many other participants, Europe is indeed the other side of the world. It turned out that there were 101 students, as the participants are called, from 23 different countries. The students came from the Czech Republic, Belgium, the Netherlands, Wales, Italy, the United Kingdom, Slovakia, France, Germany, Hungary, Poland, Russia, Israel, Slovenia, Romania, Sweden, Lebanon, Italy, Scotland, Portugal, as well as from Ghana, the United States of America, Australia, India, and Mexico. Very international, and proof of how eager the students are to be there.
The lessons were conducted solely in English. The Bellons expressed their deepest respect for a student who even took special English lessons to participate in the NEPOPO® New Silver School.
You see, many participants make great efforts to be able to attend.
Shortly after my enrollment, I received an email from Sophie Verlinden, the direct contact person for the NEPOPO® schools. She brought me less pleasant news. For the actual event, each participant or student has to do homework. And I really dislike homework.
I readily admit that I didn't start with much enthusiasm. But the tone in the email is clear. Participants are expected to complete it. Because the homework is important for the material that will be taught. But also out of respect for the other students who are putting in great efforts. After completing the various homework tasks, you had to take a test and soon received the result.
It did take some effort on my part to find time to do the homework alongside my daily tasks and work as a private dog trainer. I suspect that this is exactly the intention of the Bellons. To get the students in the right mindset to be focused during the event. Also, to make it clear that the NEPOPO® New Silver School is not a playground.
English is not my native language, but I understand it very well and can speak it well enough to have a pleasant conversation. However, I found that reading in English required more effort than I had expected. It was a bit more challenging. So, I decided to read a few pages at a time and then take a break. In the end, this approach worked very well.
But it did mean that progress wasn't very smooth. I heard a similar story from other students, by the way. They also struggled with the English language at times and had to set aside extra time to complete the homework.
Just before the deadline, I submitted my completed test. I quickly received a response with my achieved result. Phew, that result was good. When you have to step out of your comfort zone, a good result is more satisfying. The tone was set. I knew what to expect. It wouldn't be a "walk in the park" or a vacation trip.
You might be surprised, but looking back, I'm happy with the homework and I understand why. Because it was very interesting. I'm not usually one to delve into books, but it challenged me. It made me think. It certainly helped me understand the lessons better.
The location where the NEPOPO® New Silver School took place was clearly chosen with great care. The NEPOPO® New Silver School is actually in no way comparable to a seminar at a dog club. With all due respect to seminars held by clubs with volunteers. Such events should definitely continue to exist and certainly have their value. But the NEPOPO® New Silver School is of a different caliber. In fact, no work is done with dogs during this school. It is a purely theoretical education. The hotel, De Cantharel, has a separate conference center, distinct from the other guests in the hotel. Participants who were fortunate enough to stay in the same hotel will confirm this. It's a delightful hotel. Beautiful, spacious, very well-maintained, and beautifully located in a natural area.
The lessons took place in a excellently equipped, professional auditorium with fantastic acoustics. This is quite important because they don't use a course or PowerPoint. It's crucial to be able to hear Michael and Bart well in order to follow along. They do this intentionally.
The luxurious seats in the auditorium made it easier to concentrate on listening for three days than it was to sit in school desks during my school days.
During breaks, participants got to know each other and exchanged experiences or talked about the curriculum and tests. Coffee, tea, soft drinks, and fruit were available.
Lunch and dinner were also enjoyed together in the conference center. Without assigned seats. "Let's mingle" was the message. I always find it enjoyable to learn about different people, insights, habits, and traditions at such events. They call it "networking" these days.
Lunch was intentionally kept very light so that students wouldn't experience an afternoon slump. Yes, even that was taken into consideration!
At the event, there was also a separate area with booths where 17 Gold Multiplicators could introduce themselves as well as their products or services. Gold Multiplicators are Gold graduates or, in the future, New Gold graduates who are authorized to teach NEPOPO® themselves.
During the free moments, you had the opportunity to get to know them. Students are really encouraged to do so. From conversations with the Gold Multiplicators, I learned that each of them has their own knowledge or specialties. One might be an active attack handler from the sport of ringsport, another might be very active in Schutzhund, yet another might specialize as a behavior expert, while another is focused on training dogs for Law Enforcement. Some are involved in breeding, and others train scent detection dogs.
During the lessons, questions were not answered because over the years, the Bellons have learned that questions can sometimes lead too far from the curriculum they want to cover. Students with questions about the curriculum could approach a Gold Multiplicator for help. Students could also seek guidance from a Gold Multiplicator when they had questions about using the tools from Martin System®.
After many years of traveling, Michael and Bart have decided not to teach the NEPOPO® New Gold School themselves anymore. The New Gold School is taught by Gold Multiplicators. This gives students who have graduated from the NEPOPO® New Silver School the opportunity to choose a Gold Multiplicator themselves. Potentially one closer to home or more aligned with their personality or discipline. The present Gold Multiplicators came from Poland, Germany, the Czech Republic, the United Kingdom, Belgium, Italy, France, and the United States of America.
In the evenings, after the lessons and dinner, a Gold Multiplicator also offered optional tutoring sessions, which many people gladly took advantage of.
The students are not competitors but dog enthusiasts from different disciplines, countries, cultures, and backgrounds, all sharing the same passion: to train dogs that love to do their jobs. To put it in the words of the Bellons: 'On Cue, with Heart and Soul'.
Every participant in a New Silver School receives an e-collar from Martin System®, specifically the MICRO B PRO TRAINER 3000 S.S.C. + FINGER KICK. The brand, owned by Michael and Bart Bellon, had its own booth manned by engineer Bernard Manguette. People could visit the booth to purchase all the products from Martin System®, such as a fingerkick, ball dropper, the new K9 transmitter, a Chameleon®, a klack-klack board, etc. But you could also ask questions about how the different products work and about the Doggify app.
One team member from Martin System® was also among the students and took the exams as well. The Bellons like their team to understand what NEPOPO® stands for. Even their web designer is a New Silver School Graduate, and he doesn't even have a dog.
There was also a booth offering NEPOPO® merchandise. A cap, a t-shirt, a hoodie, or a jacket with the NEPOPO® logo on it was the perfect keepsake for many attendees of the event.
When we arrived in Apeldoorn, Bart himself came to greet us. My travel companion asked, "Bart, are you ready?" Bart replied with a smile on his face, "We are always ready, everywhere." That's the essence of Bart Bellon. He's been through a lot, but he still has that fire within him.
At the start of the three-day event, Michael and Bart set the tone. Clear agreements were made to ensure that the lessons ran smoothly. Honestly, I don't think anyone was late on those three days, and the class was never disrupted by a phone or any other distracting behavior.
Michael and Bart presented the curriculum. The couple works very well together. They don't talk over each other; they complement each other effectively.
The Silver School and the New Silver School differ because the New Silver School lasts only 3 days instead of 5. Bart called it "brutal." The Bellons are well aware that they figuratively cram a lot of information down the students' throats in just three days. During the "old" Silver School, they took more time to reinforce or clarify the curriculum through various role-playing exercises, the Bellons explained. That's why they emphasized the importance of paying close attention, taking notes, and reviewing the day's material in the evenings. "Hard work" is also a slogan the Bellons like to promote. Nothing comes for free in life.
Those role-playing exercises were also part of the NEPOPO® New Silver School and did indeed provide clarification, but they also led to some animosity and laughter. There was definitely room for a touch of humor here and there.
Bart seems like a natural storyteller. I say "seems" because it's no coincidence that Bart speaks for three days straight without notes, PowerPoint, or a course outline. That's quite an achievement. It's a skill Bart has developed. With a background as a sports teacher, he has a didactic foundation. Sometimes it might seem like Michael and Bart are jumping from one topic to another, but eventually everything comes together, and you realize why they did it. They never let the students' attention waver.
It's striking how both Michael and Bart never say "um" or "uh." They know how to hold the attention of a larger audience. They even provide tips for that. The School isn't just about dog training; they also talk about public speaking, inspiring, motivating, hard work, learning from mistakes, self-confidence, continuous learning, having an open mind, and more.
Right from the start, Michael and Bart take students on a journey, frequently connecting it back to their own fascinating lives combined with their history in the world of dog training. Bart enriches the lessons with anecdotes from his childhood, time in the military, or school days, and a touch of humor is never far away. Sometimes he becomes nostalgic himself, and I found that very human and beautiful.
In this way, you realize that Bart has come a long way, and his knowledge and experience are the result of over 40 years of activity in the world of dog training. It would be foolish not to be receptive and listen to what he can tell so engagingly.
Bart doesn't shy away from criticizing himself, reflecting, or questioning changes in our society as well as in the sports and dog world. The Bellons aren't involved in politics, but they do present their ideas and leave it to people to interpret them.
Michael and Bart dare to question themselves, and that's strong. For instance, Bart mentioned that in the last 15 years, he has evolved significantly and increasingly follows the path of operant conditioning, resulting in very concise training sessions with few words but of much higher quality. Michael also said literally, "We love positive reinforcement. We don't demonize negative reinforcement!" By the way, Michael and Bart often used powerful catchphrases or analogies like "you can add the spaghetti only when the water is boiling" or "we give time time" or "the dog used to be the horse of poor people."
Michael and Bart are also willing to share personal matters, such as their lives, their children, their successes, but also more painful experiences and failures.
Bart also acknowledges areas where he's not as strong and where Michael, for example, excels. This is typical of the Bellons. They are team players. They don't need to be the stars, but they're happy to assist so that the students can score.
It's clear that Michael and Bart Bellon have strong personalities and have learned a lot through trial and error, by learning from mistakes, by keeping their eyes and ears open, by daring to question themselves. Again, this is something Michael and Bart want to emphasize very clearly. Don't be afraid to try something, to make mistakes. Let a dog or puppy make mistakes too. Don't aim for perfection immediately; that was a clear message. Michael and Bart also occasionally warn their audience about pitfalls.
What also struck me was that Michael and Bart don't pretend to have invented the only and best method. They respect other methods and ways of thinking, and they literally encourage students not to copy them. Instead, they urge students to understand their philosophy and find their own path, their own nuances.
Michael and Bart want to further ignite the fire within the students. I say "further ignite" because I believe every student had a strong desire to attend the event but left with a strong drive for improvement afterward.
Each day of lessons concluded with a comprehensive test consisting of multiple-choice questions about the material covered that day and the homework. Bart likened administering the daily tests to the operation of a whip.
The tests did lead to some unrest and stress among the students each time. After the test, there were lively discussions among the students during dinner.
On the last day, a test on the material covered that day was conducted first, and after a brief test, the final test encompassing both the homework and the entire curriculum followed. That was no small feat.
The Gold Multiplicators tried to assist students as much as possible with language issues. The tests were by no means easy. They challenged students to think deeply about the material. And that's precisely what the Bellons intended. Their goal is to have students engage with their story, not to create copycats, but independent trainers who know what they're doing.
Thanks to the multiple-choice questions, the final test could be graded quickly. Following this, there was an official segment during which participants were presented with their certificates. Each graduate proudly took a photo with the Bellons, creating a beautiful memento of a unique experience. Everyone was extremely enthusiastic about the training and pleased with their certificate.
Networking – Community
Getting to know new people is part of such a course. Friendships are formed during such courses. It was enjoyable to meet other participants over drinks as well as during breakfast, lunch, and dinner. Conversations revolved around dogs and training. These discussions are not only educational for trainers but also enriching for individuals. I got to know highly experienced and successful dog enthusiasts from various canine sports, as well as beginners, breeders of different breeds, individuals from the search and rescue dog world, behavior experts, professionals, and amateurs, police officers, people from India, Australia, and more.
This course is strong, very strong. Incredibly professional. A "must-do." Knowing the Bellons, I honestly didn't expect anything less, and they did not disappoint. The entire concept of the New Silver School is brilliantly designed. I don't think they have any equals. Every aspect has been meticulously thought out. Every detail has been considered. This must be a result of their constant hunger for improvement.
I spoke with many of the students and genuinely never heard any criticisms. On the contrary, there was great excitement about the content, organization, the entire event, and their own futures.
Labeling the Bellons as "e-collar trainers" is an oversimplification. It doesn't capture the full essence. They prefer to call themselves "motivation trainers," and I find that more powerful and accurate. They motivate not only the dogs but equally their students to grow. Michael and Bart can easily be referred to as masters in coaching.
I, and not just me, learned a tremendous amount. Those three days of lessons flew by like a whirlwind. At no point did I find it dull or irrelevant. Sometimes I struggled to grasp something, but the Bellons clearly understand where the students struggle and go to great lengths to bring the whole class along.
This training made an impression. It moved me. It took me out of my comfort zone, challenged me, made me think, and taught me a great deal. Three days of high-level training in dog training, my passion. Learning from the best is a privilege. And what Bart said about the tests acting like a whip turned out to be absolutely correct. It works!
We're letting the material sink in now. Some students immediately began learning from a Gold Multiplicator after the New Silver School, to delve into the practical side of NEPOPO® and start writing a new chapter, as the New Gold School involves training with dogs.
I thoroughly enjoyed my journey to Apeldoorn. It might not have been to the other side of the world, but it was an intensive and truly enriching experience for my evolution as a dog trainer.
Article Hondensport&Sporthonden October 2023 -- authored by Axel Van der Borght