Five Lessons Taught By One Great Dog
The most painful day as a dog owner isn’t the pain of embarrassment when our agility dog knocks just about every bar on a jumpers course, nor is it having to come up with the cash to pay a rather large and unexpected veterinarian bill. I think each of you who owns a dog knows the most painful day I am referring to . . .
Today John and I said our final good byes to our amazing Border Collie “Buzzy.” Yes at close to 18 years old Buzz and I have shared a lot of experiences…more than 1/3 of the time I have been on the planet Buzz has been here with me. But even when you can clearly see the heart break heading towards you… it doesn’t lessen the pain that it brings when it finally hits.
As suggested above, his life was an “amazing ride” and he lived every thrill with zest right up to the end.
Throughout his entire long life Buzzy’s eyes remained remarkably clear … as if giving everyone he met an open window to his soul. That was Buzz.
He was never sick a day in his life. Would never miss out on a daily walk (even this morning we shared a short jaunt together) and Buzz never missed a meal … right up until last week. This past weekend he was very clearly letting me know, no food could tempt him to stay…he was ready to move on, ready to see what Stoni, Shelby and Twister were up to :). So I let Buzz go early this afternoon. Such a blessing to have kind hearted veterinarians at times like these, who will step away from their busy “heart worm” season to come to our house and allow Buzzy pass with ease and grace. I am so grateful to Dr. Kelly Ciggar and Tammy Frank for being here for Buzz and I.
I could use this blog post to brag about all of Buzzy’s accomplishments and tell you how amazing he was to live with and partner with in agility. But I’m sure many of you have already read Buzz’s story in my book “Shaping Success.”
I thought instead, I would share with you what I consider the five most powerful lessons Buzz taught me as a dog trainer. Of course there were LOADS of lessons. Buzz came to me during a massive transition period in my dog training. For the 4 years prior to Buzz, I had been “experimenting” with “clicker training” mixing it with the mild punishment I was routinely using in my training at that time (in the early ‘90s).
Buzz changed all of that.
With Buzz I attempted to walk the road of true reinforcement based training. For the first few months together I attempted to train with only reinforcement, not even using “time outs” or any negative punishment in my training. It only took a few months before I knew I need something to help me with his amazing energy so enter the use of a head halter and mild negative reinforcement. . . I am happy to say even through the struggles, I didn’t feel the need to go back to using “positive punishment” in my training. Today I realize that my frustrations early on with Buzz were due to what was lacking in me… in my mechanics and my understanding of how to be a reinforcement based dog trainer.
Buzz and I were in unchartered waters. Although operant and classical conditioning were not new, their application in competition dog training certainly wasn’t widely accepted back in the mid 90s. There was virtually no one having success with it in the world of dog agility, so I had to look to other areas of the animal training world.
With mentors like Bob and Marion Bailey, Buzz and I made our way and through it all, I grew exponentially in my understanding. Here are what I am selecting as the five most powerful lessons I learned from my life with Buzz.
LESSON NUMBER ONE:
The answer to every challenge is REINFORCEMENT. Look to the kind you are using, the way you are delivering it, the alternative ways the dog is obtaining it and your strategic use of all of the resources you have that the dog finds reinforcing. If you are thinking your training needs punishment because you aren’t getting the results you expect . . . re-think your strategy. It is very likely your training plan is flawed … reinforcement is the answer to your struggles.
LESSON NUMBER TWO:
If you are are “okay” with using negative punishment in your training because you have been told “time outs” are innocuous to our dogs . . . see lesson number one. Time outs are a crutch that we all use when we don’t know what else to do. Buzz took all of my crappy training in stride. The only stress he ever showed was spiralling higher in his drive to please. For years he was patient with my lack of understanding. My current dogs today are the great benefactors of Buzz’s tolerance during those early years in my reinforcement based training journey. My youngest dog Swagger, is a lot like Buzz in his drive for work. Buzz’s life with me is what made it possibly for me to have the amazing relationship I have with Swagger today.
I am not saying there is NO need for negative punishment anywhere in training, but I have a strong suspicion we may be able to get it down to a VERY mild form (like just a mild ‘response cost’ or withholding rewards while waiting for something better). Today, any time I give Swagger a “time out” I have visions of Buzz. Buzzy is there to remind me “you may have missed something in your training and that is why you are now giving this dog a time out.” Thank you Buzz.
LESSON NUMBER THREE:
Learn from your past but don’t be afraid to experiment while moving into your future. Buzz opened my eyes to the fact that we need to continue to look further away from “what worked with my last dog.” Not saying that we should discard everything we learned in the past, just that our history or past success in dog training shouldn’t pre-determine the future choices we will make for every dog going forward.
Buzz was the dog that got me started on this path.
LESSON NUMBER FOUR:
Your dog will be your greatest teacher if you allow him to be.
Funny thing, it wasn’t just my years training Buzz for competition that I was learning from him. As strange as it may seem, the learning became more powerful long after Buzz was retired. Kind of like when our dogs are failing at something over and over and we take a week or two away from training THAT behaviour …then suddenly everything seems more clear to the dog. My life with Buzz has been like that. The further away from “formal” training him I got, the clearer the lessons he taught me became.
LESSON NUMBER FIVE:
My last powerful lesson I learned from Buzzy is that growth requires vulnerability. None of us is expected to “know it all,” so drop the front and accept that you are only human. We need to allow ourselves the luxury of admitting that we “may be incorrect.” If we get stuck on what we think we know, we can fall victim to believing our dog isn’t learning because of something that is different or wrong with HIM rather than something missing in US. Without vulnerability as a dog trainer, it becomes impossible to have any major break through with our own understanding. We become that trainer that does the same thing with every dog, complains about the same shortcomings without considering that the solution is through YOU the trainer and not with the dog! When you label your dog as “stubborn” or “stupid” or a “bar knocker,” you have instantly limited their potential… the dog’s future has been defined.
Be vulnerable. Consider yourself as the source of your dog’s struggles, that you have challenges that require more knowledge. That should spark a hunger for education, for better mechanics or for more clarity in your choices for your dog.
When you get to that vulnerable place as a dog trainer, it opens up the endless possibilities for every dog each of us will ever own in the future . . . just like Buzz has done for Swagger and I . . . and each of my dogs I will ever own for the rest of my life.
Today I am so very grateful for the opportunity to have owned, loved and learned from such a very special dog. I miss you already Boo Boo boy.
Cedar’s High On Emotion aka “Buzz”
Sept 20 1996 – April 22 2014