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.
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In the 90’s, I retired my two (multi HIC, multi HIT) Dobies from obedience competition because I didn’t have the skills and knowledge to address their dog-dog aggression. I could never have lived with myself if my dogs had harmed another dog for the sake of a $2 rosette. I was surprised by the number of people who didn’t support my decision and pressured me to return them to trialling. (Obviously, none of them had toy breed dogs!)
If I’d had them today, knowing what I know, and having access to so much better resources, I may have been able to address their needs better. I know I sure would have approached it differently now.
I think one of the greatest things about choosing to leave certain ‘tools’ in the toolbox, and never bring them out, is that it forces you to be a more thinking trainer, a more creative trainer. You have to stay in your own forebrain which really helps if you have dogs that tend to slip into their hindbrain all too easily.
another great blog! thanks! there are so many people that need to see this!!
Thank you for this! I feel much better now about my decision to delay teaching Storm the long down for Schutzhund until I knew exactly how I wanted to fix the down she already had (in spite of the frustration of my coach who has a different training approch). Storm had a down with a solid but brief stay for dock diving (similar to an agility start line wait) but it was all in done in high arousal which was not good for a really, really long down. She ended up obeying partially – she would remain down but creep towards me. It took me months to decide I was going to:
1. change her cue (I’ll have to change that back for trialling of course)
2. use mat training
3. reinforce in a different location (under her chest)
4. practice whenever and wherever I could (which was hard as she is dog reactive)
5. BE PATIENT!! (and put off her BH for the next season)
nice to read your well thought out plan
Experience is an excellent teacher here as you point out. You realize that most things are survivable and that trialing is not life. One thing that helped me a lot is to realize that people usually want to see you succeed, and if something goes wrong you’re going to get a lot of empathy because it’s likely happened to them too.
I’ve only seen anger work when it’s transformed into something else more useful and that’s more in a herding rather than obedience context (e.g. Let go of that sheep NOW). Obedience is about precision and anger is so not precise. Also with obedience you and your dog have to be connected emotionally to be your best and no one wants to connect to an angry person.
For embarrassment/stage fright issues things that help are getting more comfortable being in front of people and having their attention. Acting, Improv, Toastmasters, teaching a class anything that gets you used to having more than two or three people looking at you closely.
Thank you for this wonderful post. It really strikes to the heart of the matter. We so often forget our priorities and need to step back and reassess where we are.
Thank you so much for the wisdom. Part of me, a big part, needed to hear this today.
This post just reinforced what I was telling myself two days ago. Upset about something non-dog related, I just didn’t train, but threw the ball over and over, and of course, began to have fun with my boy. About the only times Kaleb really pisses me off is when he jerks me over somewhere to investigate a smell. He knows he isn’t supposed to, but I think the desire to sniff is so strong he has trouble thinking about anything else. Fighting about it wasn’t fixing the problem, only raising my blood pressure. Per your advice, I began to put him back in his kennel every time he did this. Ditto if he stopped his distance work/play out in the field to mark a spot. It can be a long walk from the field to the car and lunch is short, so he just loses his time to run. Smart dog, he’s not sniffing without permission much at all now outside. And when he’s out running back with his ball I can see a smell catch him, and while he is in the moment, he slows, thinks and pulls himself back to the play. He is too smart though, because now he pulls his trick when we are on our way back to the car and he knows work/play is ending. He’ll give me a look sometimes. Hard to be mad then and if I laugh that’s it. You gave me a very fun dog Denise. Life with Kaleb is a never ending adventure.
See, you are killing two birds with one stone! Eliminating your frustration by ending training, and teaching your boy an important lesson at the same time.
Very useful and eloquent post as usual. With my previous dog I trialed (in rally) earlier than we should have, just because I didn’t have anyone to guide me and didn’t know any better. I also suffered quite a bit from anxiety about everyone watching me. I wanted to prove myself as a trainer and would also be embarassed if my dog didn’t do something perfectly.
I’ve found that this issue is much lessened with Dragon. Instead I frequently find myself impressed with what he’s able to do, rather than expecting a particular level of performance. I’m delighted every time I try a new technique or exercise and he’s able to do it. (Scent articles, how cool!!) I think it helps that we’re not trialing any time soon. He’s still “in training”, so of course he’s going to make mistakes, and I also have a lot to learn about obedience and agility.
I plan to attend lots of matches with him and train in other public places to work through my “performance anxiety” before we start trialing. (And, of course, for distraction training.)
Been there done that and have lots of unflattering t-shirts. You are totally on the right track in my opinion. Putting that kind of pressure on yourself and your dog can be crippling. Every mistake we make is a learning experience that adds to my skill set. : )
“All experience is an arch, to build upon.”
Henry B. Adams
That’s really good advice; thank you.
I need to work on going to some sort of mental happy place while walking my dog. She’s gotten really pully lately, and I’m getting *soooo* frustrated. But I shouldn’t be surprised by it when I don’t remember the last time I actually rewarded her (other than verbal praise and the ability to keep walking) for not pulling. So it’s half frustration with her and half frustration with myself.