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?