Emotions are part of dog training. We cannot escape them, nor should we try. Indeed, when it comes to the “positive” emotions, I’m a big fan of making sure the dog knows how I am feeling. I addressed that a month ago in my post “The Happy Emotions – A Party for Two”. Sharing your happy emotions with your dog allows you to reduce the use of food and toys in training, making for a better transition from the training grounds to the ring.
Unfortunately, not all emotions are positive. We also have other emotions…the ones we try hard not to show, but feel anyway. The majority of the time training should be highly enjoyable; I would hope that your typical emotion ranges somewhere between neutral and positive during training sessions. But sometimes you’ll find other emotions coming up.
As a professional trainer, it is easier for me to keep my emotions in check because of the luxury of experience; I know what matters, and what is probably inconsequential in the long run. In time, you will learn this too, but until then, you need to make sure that your head and heart talk to each other. This will allow your rational mind to win when your irrational or negative emotions attempt a hostile takeover. Some of the most common negative emotions in training are frustration, anger, embarrassment, and anxiety.
When you find yourself feeling frustrated, put the dog away; unchecked frustration tends to turn to anger. Mentally review the approach you are taking with the exercise and the expectations you have set. Rather than asking yourself if the dog is progressing slowly, ask yourself if it matters. Sometimes it is inconsequential; you simply expected to be further along at a given point. Other times it does matter, because it suggests that the method is not the right one for the dog. If you decide that a change in method is the answer, make those changes, and remember that since you’re starting over, you need to give the new plan a reasonable amount of time to succeed.
If you decide that you’re using the right method but the dog is a little slow getting it, relax – accept your dog as an individual – and give both of you more time. To let go of the frustration, remind yourself that you’re not in a training race, so sit back and enjoy the process. If you are frustrated because your dog is not living up to expectations, take a look at my “talent and puppies” article. Convince yourself that your puppy or dog has not blossomed yet. If you are past that stage, work to accept that your dog is doing the best that she can, under the circumstances of you as a trainer and her as a unique temperament. Let it go, or avoid training until you can find a way to make it better.
If you feel angry, STOP TRAINING. Having seen a lot of angry training, I can say that, without fail, good training decisions are never made under the influence of anger, and indeed can lead to some spectacularly bad ones. Training decisions made in anger can set you back months. Put your dog away – call a friend or a training partner and work through your frustration verbally, not with your dog. Lock yourself in the house if you must, but absolutely do not train until you are calm and rational again.
Embarrassment is complicated, because it’s usually the result of an unexpected situation and therefore can’t be planned for. One effective strategy for dealing with embarrassment is simply to admit it….if your dog has a disastrous run, come out of the ring and admit it. “That was so embarrassing. She looked terrible!” When you admit you’re embarrassed, people have a way of being sympathetic. Sympathetic people are a lot more supportive than smug people, so you might as well get people on your side. It doesn’t matter what training method you use, or what method those outside the ring use. Keep the discussion focused on the issue at hand – you and your dog had a bad day at the show. That IS the issue. If you keep that focus, you’d be surprised at how quickly everyone will be swapping their “most embarrassed moments” stories. Cheer up – you’re not the first dog trainer to feel like a fool.
If your embarrassing episode also had a training component (your dog gets into a fight with another dog in the middle of a class, or runs away and takes twenty minutes to be caught), it can take embarrassment to a new level. It’s particularly bad if you have some sort of authority in that class, such as being an instructor. The desire to show people that you are “doing something” causes bad decisions – decisions not designed to further our dog’s training, but to satisfy our need to show others that we are taking control of the situation….even when “non-action” might be the best strategy.
If something embarrassing happens and you are in a position of authority, make the best decision for your dog at that moment. Use the experience as a learning opportunity for your students at a later time. The next week, as class begins, take five minutes to review what happened, what your choices were, which one you selected, and why. If you are a participant in the class, return the next week and make amends to the best of your ability. Talk to the person who was involved, apologize if appropriate, and explain your actions. If you master your embarrassment, you can take a negative experience and turned it into an educational one. It may be hard to feel it at the time, but people have a great deal of respect for trainers who put their dog’s welfare about their ego.
If you are feeling anxious, identify exactly what is causing you concern. Usually this part is easy. Maybe your dog breaks on the stays, leaves the ring, or shows aggression towards other people or dogs. Learn all you can about your problem area. Do research. If your dog’s problem affects only you and your dog, then you have some freedom; develop a strategy to help your dog feel more comfortable so that she can perform at her best.
If your problem area affects other people or other dogs, you need to do some serious soul searching. The single hardest question I am ever asked is, “do you think my dog is ready to trial?” when it has exhibited aggression towards other people or dogs. My answer is always the same, “if any part of you has a concern, then you are not ready.” You know when your dog is safe; you will feel it in the way you interact with them. If you are asking the question, you are not ready.
As a rule, you’re trialing too early if you feel anxious about what your dog “might” do. You should KNOW what your dog is likely to do. It’s ok if you’re managing behaviors for the life of the dog. It’s ok if your dog occasionally barks or misbehaves to get space. It’s not ok if you’re afraid that your dog might leave you and seriously frighten or hurt another dog or person. When you know your dog is safe, you’ll be past asking the question. If you get to the point where you feel your dog is not safe, and will never be safe, it’s normal to be sad or even a little angry. Recognize that you made a courageous decision – you will be a better trainer when you work with your next dog, and you will be well respected for your decision not to endanger others.
You can’t control how you feel, but you can control your actions. The worst dog training decisions I’ve ever seen were made by handlers under the influence of negative emotions, in particular embarrassment and anger. As I look back over my dog training career, I’ve experienced all of the above emotions. I’ve made decisions that I’m proud of and others that still embarrass me to this day. I don’t think it is reasonable to avoid all negative emotions when working with animals, but I do think that advance preparation for how we’ll respond when we experience them can allow us to make a better percentage of good decisions – decisions that we will be proud of with hindsight. If you’re paying attention, you can catch changes in your feelings before your emotions are controlling you.