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Holiday Celebrations and Dog Training

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My son’s school has begun preparations for their their annual holiday pageant.

Each year, dozens of smiling children sing a variety of holiday tunes for their adoring parents.  Except for my son.  He stands, frozen, no movement visible in his lips.

Each year I ask him the same question. “Why didn’t you sing?”

Each year, I get the same answer. “Dunno”.

“Dunno” is a pretty crappy answer coming from an articulate, intelligent child who is rarely at a loss for words or conversation.

Last year, I pledged to make it better.  I spent hours learning songs and singing with him.  I made sure he knew the words and all of the cute little hand gestures.  He was Prepared.

I attended the pageant with high hopes.  This time he would sing his little heart out and wiggle his hands in all the right places.

You probably see it coming….

He did not sing.  He did not wiggle.

After those many many hours, cheerfully working right along side of him, he did not participate.

When the pageant was over, I could not find my son.  Later that evening when he re-emerged, I asked him where he had gone.  He said he didn’t want to talk to me, because I would ask him why he didn’t sing.


Let’s call this a  “Shameful Parenting Moment”.

My son knew I was not asking the question expecting a logical answer.  It was a rebuke; my way of pointing out that I knew he hadn’t participated.  It was criticism couched as a question, and ten years of age is plenty old enough to figure that out.

Never mind that we actually had fun practicing together.  That we sang and were silly, and we had a really good time.

The issue was never the singing or the hand motions; the issue was his discomfort performing in front of groups.  He gets scared and anxious.  He can’t help that, and I’m sure if he had a choice, he’d have been born with the personality of a natural performer.

If it were important to me, I could have introduced him to very small and manageable doses of performance.  Instead of singing for hundreds, we’d do family.  Then family and friends.  And then maybe a few neighbors.  It’s possible that with time and maturity, he’d have the confidence and desire to perform for large groups. Or not.  Either way he is my son.   He is who he is; not always who I want him to be.

I abhor those soccer dads that scream and coach from the sidelines – but was I any different?  More subtle, yes, but the expression of dissaproval and “you should be able to do this” was the same.

A few of you are probably making the connection….

On occasion, I’ll have a dog training student attend a trial with a well prepared dog, and it doesn’t go very well.  We might express our dissapointment and wish it were different, but in the end it’s the dog who must feel able to perform.

We can make the dog work for our goals because we are bigger and stronger.  The dog cannot speak, so we can ignore her opinion.  We can ignore even the most extreme non-verbal expressions of unhappiness.

Or we can accept the dog that we have.

We can set a basic floor of comfort for the dog and abide by it.

We can have an agreeement, “I will do what I can to make this sport enjoyable.  I will not put you in  a position where you are unreasonably stressed or unhappy.”

We can take responsibility for making the dog ring ready by exposing her in small doses, over time, to those aspects of dog shows that are difficult.  We can go to training classes and work at appropriate distances.  We can learn about stress and fear, and create a plan that allows the dog to build confidence in herself and in her handler.  We can improve our relationship.

We can enter the ring with a dog that is clear on each exercise and as well prepared for the work and the environment as we can master.

What we can learn with our dogs, working through the journey that is competitive obedience, is pretty darned cool and interesting, regardless of the outcome.

In a week, the annual pageant will come around again.  My son knows the songs and the hand motions.  I enjoyed the hours spent practicing with him.  I also know that soon he will be a teenager, and there will be fewer opportunities.

I’m fortunate that last year he was able to speak to me, because this time, I was able to hear him.

About dfenzi

I'm a professional dog trainer who specializes in building relationship in dog handler teams who compete in dog sports. My personal passions are Competitive Obedience and no force (motivational) dog training. I travel throughout the world teaching seminars on topics related to Dog Obedience and Building Drives and Motivation. I own Fenzi Dog Sports Academy, a comprehensive online school for motivational training of performance sport dogs.

17 responses »

  1. I feel for your son.
    I fainted in an ring, while showing in Novice. I never did get comfortable showing, but I was passionate about training. By the way, my Sheltie and I took second place at the showing, second out of 70 dogs. What did I say when I came to on the mat???? Looking at the judge,
    “Does this mean we failed?” I fainted in between exercises, before the last recall. The judge let me come in later and finish the exercise. What a nice judge, and I don’t even remember his name. I bet he remembers me.

  2. Denise, you have put into such wonderful words exactly the terms that I have come to with my training for Ozzie. Getting there is not just half the fun…it’s all the fun. Anything else is icing on the cake. Note to Helen (above)…I fainted with fear at my first piano recital. After a brief recovery, I was made to get back on the piano bench and play the stupid “Song of the Bells!”

  3. Denise, I hope somday I get to meet you in person. You are inspiring in so many ways. This post is wonderful, especially the last line. I will try to take it to heart. As someone who is in many ways a natural performer it is hard for me not to be pushy. Earlier dogs have been like me but now I have one who is less of a natural and I need all my understanding and self control to not ruin her. Thanks for the inspiration.

  4. Wonderful post. It is something I am considering going forward with my lab. He loved Rally Obedience but isn’t overly enjoying the more formal obedience and I am considering moving on to a tracking title instead which is one of his most favourite things in the world. It”s not always my favourite thing zooming at high speed through wet bushes and puddles but the joy for him is worth it. My new little girl Vizsla puppy is a much different personality and it will be interesting to see what path that will lead us down.

  5. Excellent and thoughtful post Denise. Your son is fortunate to have a Mom who hears him and is able to admit her failings. That is a rare skill indeed.

  6. Denise, Thank you again! I always enjoy reading your posts! I hope to get to work with you when you come to Durham this summer!

  7. Really profound Denise! Thanks for sharing this!

  8. How true and I’m sure this post hit home for a lot of us. Thanks for your insights……very well written and I hope you son will read this when he gets older and wiser.

  9. linda vartanian

    I always knew you were a wonderful dog trainer, Denise, but now I also know that you are an excellent mother! Very important insight. Wish I had been as insightful when my kids were little, tho they all grew into fine people anyway!!

  10. Wow, this is a sad and happy post at the same time. My older son is 10, too, and had a period of several years where he was a bit afraid of dogs. As a dog trainer who works with kids and dogs, this was, frankly, sort of embarrassing to me. I hear people say to their kids, “That dog’s not going to hurt you! What are you afraid of?” or some variation that belittles the child’s concern.

    I more than made peace with his concerns when I realized that he’s not me and he is, in fact, correct that other people’s dogs running up to him or jumping on him is not “his” problem to “get over” at six years old. Yes, there are plenty of things to do to help a child be more comfortable in any situation and I’m not saying to leave them with their fear, but, wow, no need to turn on your child.

    I love your part about “I’m sure if he had a choice, he’d have been born with the personality of a natural performer” – wouldn’t we all, right?

  11. I have a dog that absolutely hates performing obedience. She likes to train with me but earned her CDX only because she wanted to please me, not because she enjoyed the game. I promised her that after that last leg for the CDX that she’d never have to step into an obedience ring again and so she’s retired from obedience. Now we do herding instead – something she enjoys WAY more than I do! But it’s great to see her performing happily and I’ll do herding to please her just as she tried to please m!.

  12. Great post Denise, and boy did it hit home! I especially love the comment, “He is who he is; not always who I want him to be.” I always thought I could make my dog what I wanted him to be through training and persistence. I’ve come to realize that he just isn’t – and never will be a happy, natural performer. I no longer feel like a ‘failure,’ I’ve just learned to accept and love him for what he is : )

  13. Denise, this made me cry. I love it. I have had a hard time trying to explain to some clients that their dogs just “don’t want to” or “aren’t cut out it for” and that they aren’t any less because of it. I have had others that say, “I understand. I can see he doesn’t enjoy this and I won’t push him”. I am going to share this!

  14. Great article! Just a reminder this also applies to positive (eu) stress too. If the dog is over-excited about bunnies and there are bunnies in the area, that also affects performance and news to be dealt with similarly. I have one on each end of the scale. Interesting to dance the line where they are still comfortable and having fun, but not too much! LOL!

  15. I love the connection you make between kids and dogs. I, too, have school-aged boys and dogs (berners) that I show in obedience, though very sporadically. The one thing that I’ve learned with both boys and dogs is that each is different and each motivates differently. Some will just never like performance and some naturally love it, but there’s a lot of ground in between. I’ve had both kids and dogs who were lacking confidence and needed a little bit of a nudge, but once we found the right activity for them, they did like it. I took my old berner boy– he’d earned a CD but never liked traditional obedience–into rally, because it looked like fun. He enjoyed rally so much that even I was surprised when he breezed through his RE with great scores. The big difference, I think, was that I could talk to him; he loved the extra attention, and the more I talked, the more he wagged. I’m glad I gave him another crack at performance. I remembered that a few years later when my younger son, a natural athlete, was reluctant to try team sports because he was afraid he’d make mistakes in front of other people. He had tried intramural soccer and basketball when he was a lot younger, and had never been willing to commit in either, always hanging at the edges of the pack. I convinced him to try NASTAR ski racing (very casual racing against a timer, not other racers) and he did well, which gave him the confidence to try out for the lacrosse team the following year. He found that he loved playing goalie, but more than the playing, he thrived on being part of something bigger (affiliation is a huge motivator for some people, including my son.) Both dog and son had been put off or intimidated initially, but found that in the right activity where they received something rewarding to them, they could go on to compete happily.


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