Today I had a thought… How could my life have been different “If I knew then what I know now?” Think about that for yourself, what would be different? What would that extra knowledge mean to you? It would be easy for me to say “sure, if I knew about 2×2 weaves training, successful running contacts and working in a handling “system” when I entered my first agility trial with Shelby & Stoni, wow . . . things would have been different!”
Wow, we would have won tons of events? Well, we did win more than our fair share back then. Wow, we would have had loads of fun? Well, we did have loads of fun. Wow, we would have qualified more often . . . okay… got me there as my dogs and I did lack consistency back in the early ’90s.
But funny enough, if I could do it all again it isn’t the knowledge of training or handling I would want to change. I earned all of that knowledge by working hard and met some amazing people along my journey. I wouldn’t want to change those experiences or those wonderful mentors. But there certainly is something I would change if I could do it all over again. A brief walk through my history in dog training will shed some light on what I mean.
The Age Of Innocence:
I trained my first dog as a child with noexpectations. She was a toy Poodle that my older sister Vicki owned. Vicki taught Tina a couple of tricks and at the age of 8 I was inspired to try it myself. I still remember trying to “train” Tina back then, there was absolutely no expectations on my part. Anything I got was a bonus and somewhat of a shock! I had no knowledge, no books, no mentors — heck I didn’t even know anyone else that owned a dog. I still remember the feeling of absolute awe I felt when I got Tina to roll over for the first time.
My takeaway from this era; dogs are amazing and will try to do everything you want if you have cheese!
A Little Bit of Knowledge is A Dangerous Thing
As the old saying goes . . . a little bit of knowledge is a dangerous thing! As I got more and more experience “training” dogs my mindset changed. As a teenager, I was totally in love with the Chow Chow breed. Even though I didn’t own a Chow, I had the handbook; “How to Raise and Train Your Chow Chow.” For many years it was my sole training resource. That was where I learned you should use a choke chain and leash to make your dog to do what you wanted. Once again my sister’s dogs where my guinea pigs. By this time Vicki was showing various sighthounds in the conformation ring. Those poor dogs absolutely did not look forward to their “training” with me.
Suddenly I had expectations, my outlook towards the dogs had changed as I judged them and held them accountable for what they did and how they did it. The dogs showed obvious signs of stress and submission when they worked with me, but of course I didn’t have the knowledge to recognize those signs. Looking back there was far less joy and far more emotion in that training as I learned to “expect” these dogs to do as I told them!
My take away from that era: dogs are the most amazing creatures on earth, they tolerate all our bull$*!t and always act like they are the luckiest dog alive to be living with us.
Mixing Cocktails Rarely Turns Out Pretty
Over the next years, I took “formal” classes and seminars that taught me that, yes force is fine if the dog “deserves it”, but first we use cookie lures to “teach” what we want. Again I judged the dog inferior, rarely measuring up to my high expectations, me often thrilled but sometimes “disappointed” in my dog’s behaviour. I showed them with cookies so they now “knew” what I wanted when the dog failed to perform she was at fault. I did see more joy in the dog, however, the signs of stress/fear were still lingering. I had loads of “success” now in the obedience, flyball and agility ring. I was winning a lot but there was a lot of stress for my dogs as I continued to judge them. I had expectations they had to live up to. I could still be disappointed by their behaviour when they “let me down” not doing as I asked. And again, I dismissed any “feedback” those dogs gave me with their errors.
My biggest take away from this era would be with just like mixing cocktails just doesn’t work – neither does mixing dog training methods. The dog never knew who was coming out to train with them; the happy, cookie wielding Susan or the judgmental, punishing Susan that expected perfection and blamed the dog when she didn’t get it.
Value, Choice and Balance To Create the Dog of Your Dreams
By now most of you know where I sit where dog training is concerned. I observe where the value currently is for my dogs, I know where I would like the value to be and work towards that goal. Along the way I always give the dog a choice to show me what they know, controlling their environment rather than their choices. And finally, I am constantly evaluating if the dog has balance in his; life, responses and drives. There is no judgement and no blame. Errors my dogs make are feedback to my training and handling. I laugh more and build responses in my dogs around the joy I can put into their lives as I work towards making them the best I can. I am confident all will end well and if I ever come up against roadblocks the search for more knowledge will lead me to answers.
If I Knew Then What I Know Now . . .
The biggest lesson I have learned through all of this is that dogs are more amazing that any of us really can grasp. They happily play the role we need them to play during the time of our life we need to learn OUR lessons to take us forward. Many years ago I stopped judging my dogs and stopped being disappointed in them. Yes I still have high expectations, yes I still get frustrated when things don’t come as easily as I would like, but I no longer judge the dog or get disappointed in the dog’s behaviour. I get frustrated by my inabilities to communicate or my lack of knowledge of what to do next but not in the dog. I know for certain that our dogs really are a reflection of our dog training knowledge. When you have an understanding of how to best use reinforcement in your relationship with your dog, the need for punishment will be gone or at least drastically reduced.
Knowing that keeps me humble and makes me realize if something isn’t working it isn’t through any fault in the dog. I am responsible for what my dog knows, how he performs and the decisions he makes. Training is just posing a series of questions to your dog. The more correct answers he gets, the more knowledge you are transferring to him. The moment you find your dog in a pattern of consistent failure that is your signal that YOU let your dog down. You need to come up with better questions because the ones you are asking are not giving him the clarity he needs to be correct and conversely you are adding unnecessary confusion.
Not only do I enjoy dog training more today but I believe my lack of “judging” has spilled over to my life and dealings with people. People used to disappoint, frustrate and anger me. Today I realize that each of us is on our own journey. How my fellow competitor chooses to conduct himself towards me, towards his dog or towards other people is part of his life lessons not part of mine. I cannot control the way others chose to treat me or their dog but I can control how I react to those experiences. My experiences with dogs have taught me that and allowed me to be a better teacher in the process. You cannot be the best teacher for someone if you are judging them, that is so true.
What I Really Would Do Differently
So sure, knowing more back them would have been less frustrating, but I don’t think it is “knowing more” that was missing along my journey, I think it was the innocent amazement of dogs that I lost (and had to re-discover) along the way. That is what I would have as a “do over” today if I could go back and do it all again. To know the dog really is just a product of what we know and when we get annoyed at the dog, we are blaming him for our lack of ability to communicate what we want. To be receptive to the lessons the dog is sharing by their inability to do what we want and to make sure “every day is game day” when I train my dog.
We all have a “first dog” that likely had to endure some unfair blame as we grew up as dog trainers, but as Maria Robinson once said
“No one can go back and start a new beginning but each of us can start today and make a new ending.”
Today I am grateful for Tina the Poodle, little did I know she would be giving me my first lessons on what would turn out to be my life’s journey, plus she went tricker treating as George Washington’s dog . . . what more could a kid ask for?