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What Have My Dogs Given Me?

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I’ve been musing over my dog training past, which got me thinking about each of the dogs that I’ve trained over the past twenty five years or so. I will skip the Shelties that came earlier; they may have gotten me into the sport of obedience, but I wasn’t a conscious trainer back then; I did what I was told and each dog was trained the same way, with greater or lesser success in competition.

But I’ve grown a lot since those days, so it’s  worth thinking about. What have my dogs given me?

Justin gave me an appreciation for stability and a clear head (thinking under pressure).  Justin taught me how flexible and accommodating some dogs can be, regardless of how good or how poor my choices were.  Justin was a “good” dog.

Makai came soon after that, and gave me an appreciation for energy and will to please. I learned that poor positive reinforcement training and shaping does not work. Unfortunately for Makai, I came to the conclusion that the technique was the problem rather than the ability of the handler to execute it correctly.  

Cinder was a female Belgian Tervuren. A rescue from a bad situation, she was, to put it mildly, a shut down mess.  I learned nothing from her.  Not through any fault of hers, but because I was not ready to learn about handling a dog’s emotional state as opposed to training behaviors.  I wish I could have a do-over with Cinder.

What stands out for me with those early dogs is how little I learned when I actually had them and could have made changes. Looking back, I can see how I created problems where none needed to exist.  If the dog I had at that moment happened to fit the method of training that I was using, then we progressed.  If not, then we stagnated or failed altogether.

When Soja showed up, I had started making the connections between my choices, my methods and the temperament of the dog in front of me.  My skills started to improve as a result. Soja started the process of teaching me the difference between frantic behavior and drive.  I learned what it meant to balance precision with enthusiasm.  Due to her incredible will to please, she was the first dog where I had to acknowledge that her errors were my fault; she either didn’t understand what I wanted or she was over threshold and unable to function correctly; indeed, Soja is the dog where I learned what a “threshold” was.  With Soja, I learned that I had the intelligence to problem solve for myself, and that failure was not a reason to give up. I learned that I had the strength to advocate for my dog, even in the face of intense pressure and ridicule, and even when I failed publicly.  What a gift!

Cisu gave me an understanding of strength of temperament, independent thought, and competence.  In short, Cisu didn’t need me, so if we were to become a competition team, I had better learn how to develop a relationship.  Cisu was probably the first dog where I finally put it all together (alas, late in her career): drives, temperament, relationship, emotional connection, and preparing for competition. Cisu was my all time favorite dog to take into the ring.

Raika was another female Belgian Tervuren, two years younger than Cisu.  Raika gave me love of work, extreme intelligence, and natural focus.  Her nervous and somewhat neurotic temperament taught me early on why being “more interesting than the environment” was a Really Bad Idea for an obedience competition dog.

Lyra came when Raika was seven years old, and she is now giving me the gift of experimentation with the outer bounds of possibility….what is possible?  This is beyond the scope of this blog, but my work with her will likely play heavily into my future training.

Brito came shortly after Lyra; he’s a small  Westie Terrier/Chihuahua type mix.  Brito is teaching me to understand choice, control, and to prioritize emotions over behavior.  Brito does not “fill in the gaps” where I leave holes, and therefore he has also forced my technical skills to a level of “tiny pieces” that I did not know was possible.   Brito is the teacher while I am the student.  Sometimes I am a slow learner, so he’s also teaching me Patience and Faith.  He’s young, two years old, so he has lots of time to work with me.

As I reflect on my past dogs, I realize they have given me so much!  I can now cheerfully explore options with no fear of failure, accept behavior as a function of emotion rather than as independent events, and advocate for relationship at all times, which means digging many fewer holes in the first place.  I’ve also developed pretty good mechanical skills, but that’s not very important to me.  I can teach mechanical skills; the rest comes from inside the trainer as a function of personal growth and understanding and that is, indeed, quite hard to teach.

I’ve competed with “good” dogs, “average” dogs, and frankly, training “complicated” dogs holds more appeal right now.  So I guess I’ve also learned that competition as an end goal gives me little joy; I have the heart of a trainer, and apparently that does not involve enthusiastically leaving my family at 4 am and driving to yet another show.  Do I expect to compete in the future?  Yes, I do.  Is that reality driving my behavior or choices?  No, it is not. Competition is my testing ground where I can take different types of dogs and see how my ideas hold up.  When I have tested to my satisfaction, then I’m done.

Maybe the most important thing my dogs have given me is a completely different outlook on life.  All of my dogs, and all of my experiences, in combination, have taught me that how I treat my dogs can change who I am and how I interact with the world as a whole. When I train and play with a dog, I feel good. When I coach someone else to train their dog and I see their mutual joy, I feel good.  When I see how I can change someone’s day for the better, I feel good.  When I am kind and warm to another person or another dog, then my day is better too.  That is why I train; because training dogs makes me a kinder, better, and happier person.  It is the most important thing that I have learned, and it is why I will continue to train.

What have each of your dogs given to you?  Did you learn to apply those lessons in real time, or did you learn in hindsight?  How have those lessons changed who you are, both as a trainer and as a person?  And what might that mean for your future choices?

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.

12 responses »

  1. Nancy Elfanbaum

    I LOVE THESE WORDS! Maybe you could add “When I take the time to write words that inspire and validate a whole pack of humans, I feel good.” 🙂 Thank you, Denise!

  2. Pepper was my first dog, a medium sized mixed breed (primarily some kind of hound, maybe some terrier) who was incredibly easy to train, no matter what mistakes I made, and was a great first dog. I read all the books I could find (Carol Benjamin and the Monks of New Skete) and managed to teach him with playing and mild leash corrections (plain buckle collar), since food was apparently not a good thing. I have since learned (just kidding) that these kinds of dogs are not supposed to be easy to train without either food or harsh corrections 😉 He was more OCD about toys and retrieving than any of the BCs I have had since 😉 I saw an article on dog agility in a magazine, and kept looking for a class until I found one, and never looked back. I did finally start using food, since it was apparently acceptable to use for games (as compared to life skills/obedience) and was amazed at the difference.

    Pepper had convinced me that I was a good dog trainer, so when I started looking for a second dog to do agility with, I was a bit cocky and got a year old Pointer mix named Scout- who convinced me I knew nothing. He was neurotic and scared of many, many things. I learned to show him things were okay and give him time to figure things out, I wish I’d known more about Control Unleashed and other more modern ways of teaching dogs how to handle arousal and fear. I was finally convinced to put a prong collar on him (he came with his neck rubbed raw from pulling) and never liked it, but the more experienced dog people I was around all said it was the best way. I compromised by walking a bit at my speed, followed by a bit at his speed (running!) and finally ditched the prong. When he was older, I had learned about clicker training, and he took to it like a duck to water, as he was always very food driven. Wish I had come to that knowledge sooner, for his sake.

    When they were about 7-8 years old, I figured it was time to get another dog for agility and was ready to get some kind of herding mix. I figured it might take a while, but got a 5 month old BC from a rescue group almost immediately, courtesy of a friend who also did agility and introduced me to clicker training. Brodie was my first BC, and my first dog I clicker trained. I explored clicker training with seminars by everyone I could get to, and it was now being used in agility classes as well. Chicken Camp, Clicker Expo, the whole works. Someone said you can’t shape a dog with toys, so I proved them wrong by training him to go around 2 cones set away from me by only reinforcing with tugging at my side. Brodie came with all the GO and drive needed, just needed control. He also had some interesting breed prejudices- hated boxers and whippets, and not very fond of pointers, including his house mate Scout. Learned about DSCC to handle this, and got over Boxers since I had regular access to them. Learned about arousal and the value of food to manage it- while others were revving their dogs up before their runs, I was feeding him treats- and getting chastised for doing so without asking for anything. I told them doing nothing was much harder than doing something for this dog!

    Kyp! was not planned- I sprung her from the shelter and was going to take her to a rescue group. She was supposed to be a BC mix, but I kinda doubt it, though I registered her as a Border Spaniel for agility trials. Other made up breeds for her were MIni Landseer Newf, and Bi-color Golden 😉 I had lots of people saying they would love to have her as a pet- she was absolutely gorgeous, a very cute dog. Until I told them about her Houdini skills. She could open the fridge, freezer, cabinet doors. I came home one day after leaving the door unlocked but closed, and she had opened the front door. She got out of the crate with the simple slide bolt, had to get one that had the spring close. So she taught me about management skills 😉 I got her about a year after Brodie, but she was at least a year old when I got her, so they were very close in age. I trained her with the same methods I was using on Brodie, but she was a very different dog. After training her like Brodie, she could get around an agility course, but she was only trotting, and although she didn’t look hugely stressed, she obviously wasn’t enjoying it in the same way. So she taught me about balancing drive and control, and the importance of tailoring the training for each dog. I took her all the way back to foundation classes, focusing on drive instead of control, and was much happier, though she never loved it the way he did. I competed with her for a bit, but eventually focused on just Brodie for competition, as she was just as happy hanging out and getting attention, and money doesn’t grow on trees. She did however, get to be the star of her own kid’s training book, Kippy: Second Chance Dog

    Arie is my first dog from a breeder, wanted a pup from her mother since I met her mother and was working her breeder as my agility trainer with Brodie. She was the first dog I had from a young pup (Pepper was 4 months, and the others were older) so I had lots to learn about that. Brodie hated puppies, but liked girl dogs, so I had to do a lot of management when she was young. One of the things I learned a bit late is the value of just hanging out- because of all the management and wanting to set Brodie up to like her, we did a lot of training away from home, and was crated a lot at home. So every time she came out of the crate, it was to do something- and she loved doing things! And wasn’t very good about NOT doing things! I eventually worked specifically on hanging out watching TV. One of the most important things I’ve ever learned was a comment from the breeder, when I was commenting on how spicy and sassy she was. She said there was a lot of sweetness there too, and that was worth bringing out. It is- she is a very sweet dog, and I can’t believe the bond I have with her. One of the things I learned is to give her a way to communicate with me when she is stressed or confused or makes a mistake. So I taught her to come to me and put her paws up, and I think that made a huge difference in our relationship.

    Gethin is her son, and I absolutely adore how he is turning out! There’s all the research I did on genetics and breeding, but I think that isn’t what we’re really discussing here. I’ve learned that being a bit cautious in approaching new things can be very valuable. Both Brodie and Arie are/were very forward, attacking every new experience with gusto, immediately going in and interacting with anything new. Gethin watches first,figures things out. I learned that sometimes just watching and waiting is the best approach. He’s got all of Arie’s sweetness, but is more thoughtful, and moderates his arousal level better. He’s still got plenty of drive and speed, though! I’ve been trying to incorporate something I learned a bit late with Arie- to balance high arousal activities with lower arousal activities. I’ve also explored scent work with him, something new for me, and we are now certified for accelerant detection. I’m also learning about herding, a whole new adventure that incorporates so much of what I’ve learned- genetics plays a role, and a more holistic approach to training, the difficulty of having other animals involved, and managing arousal.

    Thanks for a great post, looking forward to reading others’ answers!

  3. Great article – I reflected back just how much training an animal (dog/horse) has changed over my life time. From choke chains, gentle leaders & now harnesses – I cringe to think about earlier times but lucky me, I had quick Learners in those early days. The last 25 years, my devoted trainers have been Bernese Mtn Dogs, all males, all different temperaments & abilities. Lovely joyful fellows, my 1st taught me patience, ultimate kindness until provacation & a serene presence of being; he was the Best Nanny, my kids could ever have and so easy to train. My 2nd Bernese boy, a singleton, was a rebel, my way or else & my journey with him begot a whole different mindset of tools to understand & train us together, as a team. Both above beloved dogs gave their ALL to my Family in their own way.
    New Berner pup, new way of training, slow & steady we go and I at 1st was concerned – too much treat reward, too slow to get the action/command down. Not so, this boy, @ 7 months, is so much more willing & fun & smart – I know, each dog is different, but we’re both so much happier as we progress through this partnership.
    Thank you for writing this article & giving me a moment to reminisce.

  4. Solo, the complicated and troubled coonhound mix obtained from a shelter, taught me the lessons I will need and build on for every other dog that will come along in my life. She was not a great choice for a first time dog owner, but in trying to “fix” her, I learned so much. I read every book, talked to every type of trainer, went to all the classes, and tried every technique we were given. We sampled and combined medications, we tried the gimmicks, and in it all we found ten pretty good years. I learned an enormous amount about dog behavior and the science of training, even if I wasn’t any good yet at applying the info. We traveled the country together, mountain biked the streets of our town, and she pulled me on rollerblades long before everything-joring was cool. I learned that strict isn’t mean, that a coonhound will take ten miles if you give an inch, to put child locks on everything, and to read and respect the boundaries of a dog’s fear. I learned that some problems, like her severe separation anxiety, can’t be fixed. And that even the best trainers and behaviorists don’t have all the answers (darn!). I learned that flexibility, patience, a sense of humor, and perseverance are skills you need to practice in dog training. And 80 lbs of gorgeous, floppy eared, drooly, loudmouthed hounddog will make it worthwhile. Most of the time 🙂

    Cade, the second dog and also a rescue, is so much easier. Quirky, sensitive, and just a little weird. Though also a nervous beast, where Solo was aggressive in her anxiety, Cade is shy. Things like flashlights and the oven scare her, and anything that scares her sends her running for the nearest lap. She constantly teaches me that the training is not just on my schedule – if the target stick is scary, we’re going to have to start in a different spot than planned and you can’t off leash night hike until we’ve taught you headlamps aren’t out to kill you. And most recently, after developing some bad manners, she’s reminded me that strict isn’t mean, and just because a dog is easy, doesn’t mean they don’t need training upkeep. Cade has also reminded me how much fun a dog can be. She allows me the joy of watching a dog run off leash in the woods, of playing with best doggie friends, and of running in a field just for the sake of running. With Cade I tried (and eventually left behind the noisemaker, if not the strategy) the clicker for the first time. I learned that not every training technique works for every dog, no matter how fervent it’s supporters are. But that in building a training relationship with your dog, you’ll take the parts that fit and find what works for both of you. And that when you hit those successes, it’s pretty awesome (even if someone still can’t walk past a strange dog for her CGC. 9 out of 10 ain’t bad….lol)

  5. I think that is sad. I learned a LOT from all of m dogs. Maybe nothing to do with dog training, and often more about myself than about them. But invaluable lessons.

  6. It is hard to think of my very early dogs, all good-hearted Labs and Goldens, and not be sad about the choices I made with them. What could they/we have been if I had just been a little different, treated them a little differently, really responded to who they were and their needs?

    My “crossover” dog was a Rottweiler. I put the choke chain on and I swear her eyes glowed red. At least I was smart enough to take the choke chain off and start looking into different methods. I attempted the “clicker-trained retrieve” and accidentally taught her to take the glove and toss it over her shoulder. Ah, youth!

    Then there was actually a horse who bucked me off, broke my foot and as I was saying “YOU A**HOLE,” as I angrily climbed back on, a horse trainer who replied, “She’s not an a**hole. She’s an AMAZING HORSE” and found the way through to the most amazing horse in the entire world — still my best friend.

    Then a reactive dog. Then a dog with impulse control problems who I saw learning to calm himself. Then another reactive dog who I saw learning to calm herself. Then a service dog who taught me to support the dog, and she’d come shining through. Then a six-year-long series of students who more or less ignored me until the last night of class when I showed them how to play with their dogs, and then suddenly everything changed for them and their dogs.

    Then a whole bunch of dogs who were amazing and I just had to let my love flow like the Bellamy Brothers song.

    I’m so happy because now *I* can be telling the owners whose dogs have just bitten them/run away/done something terrible “He’s not an a**hole. He’s an AMAZING DOG” and I’m always, always right. .

  7.   Do you explain this in your blog somewhere? “Her nervous and somewhat neurotic temperament taught me early on why being “more interesting than the environment” was a Really Bad Idea for an obedience competition dog.” Karen   From: Denise Fenzi To: Sent: Monday, October 26, 2015 10:40 AM Subject: [New post] What Have My Dogs Given Me? #yiv7259562767 a:hover {color:red;}#yiv7259562767 a {text-decoration:none;color:#0088cc;}#yiv7259562767 a.yiv7259562767primaryactionlink:link, #yiv7259562767 a.yiv7259562767primaryactionlink:visited {background-color:#2585B2;color:#fff;}#yiv7259562767 a.yiv7259562767primaryactionlink:hover, #yiv7259562767 a.yiv7259562767primaryactionlink:active {background-color:#11729E;color:#fff;}#yiv7259562767 | dfenzi posted: “I’ve been musing over my dog training past, which got me thinking about each of the dogs that I’ve trained over the past twenty five years or so. I will skip the Shelties that came earlier; they may have gotten me into the sport of obedience, but I wasn’t” | |

  8. Thank you for such an open and honest post Denise. I cried as I read it – sadness at the reminder of what I’ve failed to provide my dogs in the past and relief that despite having made those mistakes it doesn’t preclude me from being able to progress to your level of practice and understanding.

    I’m in a small town where the theory behind positive reinforcement training is unknown and practised little (in any context). I’m disappointed and ashamed that I don’t yet display the strength you speak of “to advocate for my dog, even in the face of intense pressure and ridicule, and even when I failed publicly.”

    I long for the day I can recognise that the knowledge and understanding I’ve gained/gaining is no longer a theory to be learnt or a method to be applied but a part of who I have become – thank you for giving me hope that I can get there.

  9. Although I have learnt better, I am still looking for magic bullets. If I just learn one more thing, then I will get my dog (s) to be almost perfect in the ring. Reading all the stories, reminds me again how different the dogs are and how much fun it is to learn about and from each of them. I’ve only trained two dogs in my life, so I guess I’m a novice. My first, a toy poodle, was one of those dogs/people who has clearly lived a life a few times before. Show her something, offer a treat, and she has learned it. She completes agility courses when I am lost. But she gets bored easily and has an independent streak. Joined a union a few years ago too. No pay, no work.
    My second dog (I got when first one’s wages got too high) has never been through a life before. He always seems surprised by everything, but usually in a happy way. He’s a miniature poodle, smart, but also a typical goofy guy. Where am I? What just happened? Who can I kiss now? Is sit the same thing as lie down on Sundays? But I try not to make fun of him because he has his honor. To train him you need patience. He doesn’t like to make mistakes (It would hurt his honor) and thus he loves doing things he knows, over and over again and then let’s do it again. Once he knows it, he’s solid, at least on Saturdays. On Sundays, well, its all a new wonderful world again and anything goes. What fun.

  10. I am still “young” in the obedience world, so am only on dog number four. 🙂

    First dog, a rescue beagle, taught me to pick my battles. I was mad that he got in the trash, that he got on the furniture, that I could not take things from him without him wanting to bite. The behaviorist said, “Pick up the trash, who cares about the furniture and put things away so that he can’t get to them.” Dogs don’t have to be perfect and do what you say all the time.

    Second dog, my first Lab, got me into rescue and fostering and helped me understand general dog behavior, though not as it pertains to competition obedience. However, in doing rescue I met some friends into competition obedience and that’s what peaked my interested. I taught this dog clicker training (it was new!), some agility, walking on a flat buckle collar, etc.

    Third dog, another Lab, got me started in competition obedience and helped me gain confidence. He has taught me about relationships and how, with the right kind of training, relationships are strengthened and everything changes.

    Fourth dog, another Lab who is just two, is my first true competition obedience dog. He has taught me so much and mostly because he is the perfect candidate for Fenzi type training, which has allowed me to immerse myself into training and behavior. He continues to teach me the virtues of relationships and play based training. I am also able to see the before and after, as he was started using more traditional training. I think this one will provide me with the most lessons yet!

    Thanks, Denise!


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