Like us, dogs learn from their success. We and they fall in love with our mistakes.
Trust. Faith. Relationship. The holy trinity of training if you will. Throughout most of my training career one thing that has always stuck out to me, is the language and the very specific words we use when talking about our dogs. Now, let me preface this by saying that I love my dog. He’s my world. If you’ve been following the blog (all two posts) you know how much he means to me. He’s my blood rider, the real ride or die type of dude…but there are still rules…he’s not my baby, he’s my dude. Yes, I provide him with food, water, shelter, snuggles, but again, there are rules.
I hear all about our babies, fur babies, children, and one that hit me recently was “pibble.” I audibly exclaimed to myself “what the hell is a pibble?” Oh…its a pit bull. So anyway, lets get on with it. It’s a dog. Let’s train the dog. Often you’ll hear a trainer say “it all starts with the walk.” I would agree with this, however I’d like to go a step further and tell you that it all starts with our perception of the four legged animal in front of us. Our dog’s are amazing creatures, capable of some incredible things. But it’s important to note that no matter how you look at it, it’s still a dog. That doesn’t mean we should love them any less, but it does mean we have to love them in a different way.
I used to teach a group class, and often times I would have Roland out in the class with me. Many times I would hear people comment about how incredible it is that Roland would just hang out and watch me, staring at me intently, ignoring the dogs in the class that are blowing up with excitement and frustration. I always told them that their dogs could be like him too, they’d just have to listen to me. Not listen to my instruction, but listen to me. Listen to the words I say. “Thanks, Roland is pretty awesome. He’s a great DOG. I love him, he’s my dude, such a lovely DOG. He’s really a great PARTNER.” How did this RELATIONSHIP become this way? The answer is simple. Trust and Faith.
All of the obedience, and all of the fun that we work on with our dogs is built upon a relationship we have with them that is propped up by trust in each other, and the dogs faith in the handler. I trust that my dog will do what I ask because he has faith in me, that I wont put him in a situation that will lead to harm. When we’re actively listening to our dogs requests for space (barking, lunging) we begin to rebuild trust within the relationship.
So how does this all relate? Author Mike McConnery has said “The dog is powerful because he’s a dog. You start making him into a human and he becomes as sick, distorted, and demented as us. Thats NOT your baby. That’s a dog, and it should be treated as a dog because thats where it shines.” Earn your dogs trust by leading them. If our dogs are sheltered from the world because we’re afraid of them experiencing stress, how can we help them navigate the world and lead them through the stress? Your dog is capable of extraordinary feats, when you allow them to be. Let them experience stress. Let them be uncomfortable. Let them be scared. Lead them through it. Your relationship depends on it.
“Being such wonderfully uncomplicated beings, they need us to do their worrying.” I came across this quote some time ago, written by George Bird Evans, a breeder and gunner from Union Town, Pennsylvania. I immediately typed it out into the “notes” app on my phone because it hit me with such a ferocity that I read it a thousand times. “Is he nuts? These dogs are incredibly complicated!” I mused over the cup of coffee. We’ll get back to that.
I recently took a road trip to Illinois to visit my good friend, Forrest Micke. For those unfamiliar, Forrest is a fantastic trainer, decoy, and human being. I’ve known him for a number of years, meeting through my mentor Josh, and having taken Forrest’s online courses through Leerburg, we became friends. The biggest compliment I ever received was from Forrest; he referred to me as a “very thoughtful trainer.” I really appreciated that when he said it, however I never told him, upon reading this: Thank you, Forrest, it means a lot. Anyway, I brought my heart and soul, Roland, with me to the seminar as I had purchased a working spot. The seminar was part three of an obedience seminar, while I’d like to think Roland’s obedience is pretty sharp, I figured I would work on his heeling. Those of you unfamiliar with me as a person; I’m very…particular. With myself, my dog, and my things. I like precision. I also try to act nonchalant when doing any obedience in front of people so they dont judge me too hard…after all I am the professional, so my dog is perfect. Right?
A little backstory on Roland. He was adopted five years ago from the city shelter. He was at the time, a ten month old pit bull with zero manners, zero inhibition, and zero impulse control. He did whatever he wanted whenever he wanted. He was incredibly leash reactive, couldn’t be within thirty yards of another dog without barking and lunging. He was loud and boisterous, a terror to walk…and did I mention, my first dog. At the time of his adoption I was working at a health care agency processing claims. My dog training knowledge was zero. I was in a bind. I cried. Thinking I would have to give up this creature who stole my heart with such reckless ease. A quick google search led me to a local trainer. I enrolled in the three private lesson and three months of group class program. I had to try. This little mare of a dog with a crooked eye was so in love with me, and I him, that I owed it to him to try anything and everything I could to make it work.
I attended the “reactive class” religiously for three months. Roland and I working our best together to keep it under control every moment of that one hour class. Every minute felt like a millennia to me. He was barely keeping it together, and I was doing everything I could to not cry after every class. After my three month membership expired I signed up for another three. After only a few classes, we were being called up to the big leagues. I was instructed to show up next week for regular group class. I was overjoyed with the news…I looked at Roland and I said out loud “I love you, dude. We did it!” I’m not really sure what it was…but I was happy. Roland was Roland. Roland is always on. Always jacked. Always happy. Next week comes, and here we go. Walk in the door and EXPLOSION. Roland is out of control. Barking, screaming, lunging, throwing himself at the end of the leash. I failed. We didnt even make it into the room. The next week Roland and I were able to make it into the room, but we spent the entire hour walking back and forth into and out of the corner. I failed yet again.
Finally, something clicked. I don’t exactly remember what happened, but as I was worrying myself into and early grave waiting to be let into the room for class, another dog blew up at Roland. Roland looked at me, and sat there….he let out a bit of a whine…but he sat there and just stared at me. We left. We went into the car. I cried and hugged him. I was over the moon with happiness. Fast forward four years and Im walking Roland into a strange building eight hundred miles from our home, with twenty strangers and twelve strange dogs, half of which are barking and crying…my nightmare. I worried the whole seven feet walking from my car to the door. Im going to let one of my best friends down, Josh, who was integral in the success Roland and I have had dealing with Roland’s reactivity was in attendance, Forrest of course was present, and the only thing I could think of was making sure my dog didn’t act a fool in front of everyone.
Roland and I worked together multiple times both days. Roland had absolutely zero issues in that room full of barking dogs. Roland was masking his stress like I’ve never seen any dog do before. He performed every task I put forth with heart and soul. He gave me everything he had to offer during those training sessions. We were one, working together, there was magic. The ebb and flow was a sight to behold. Never could I have asked more out of that dog than I did during those sessions. Never have I felt closer to anything emotionally than I did in that moment. Everything about us at that moment was uncomplicated. Everything we went through leading up to it was very complicated. That golden moment, the realization that all of those fears and insecurities that both Roland and I had were pushed aside and we were able to achieve this state of catharsis…it makes me smile. What else can we do but smile at our love?
I put so much pressure on myself, on Roland, to achieve this messianic moment where he’s “normal” around other dogs. However, a messiah who actually arrives is no good to anybody, a hope fulfilled is already half a disappointment. I took Roland for a walk today. He acted upon his insecurities and barked at another dog while he pranced along side of me, never interrupting our stride. I looked down at him, he looked up and me…I smiled. There’s still hope.
There is a moment of beauty that we as humans, busy humans, tend to overlook. Once we become consciously aware of these moments, we're always looking for them. Constant searches yield zero results.
Stop looking for an epiphany and start looking for weak points. Rather than looking for angels, start looking for angles. The moment is there, or rather I should say; the moment was there. Don't be disheartened, it will come again. As dog trainers, we're always training for THAT moment.
Be it competition or be it pleasure, we're always training for that perfect repitition. The successful completion of a task on verbal cue. The most beautiful moment within the training is there, but please, stop actively hunting it, you've already missed it.
Stop your training session right now. Sit on the ground. Let your dog crawl into your lap. Touch your dog. THERE! There it is. Miss it?
Try this: Find your lover, hold their face in your hand and kiss them; look at their face. That smirk, the rosy cheeks, the little look away...that is the most beautiful thing about that moment.
When your hands are cupping your dogs face and their eyes close, ears go back, that is the moment. You may say "No, that's just my dogs reaction to the physical sensation of touch." Technically speaking, you may be right, if you're looking for that desired behavior; but what you just received from your dog was a culmination of love.
The most romantic thing I have ever witnessed was watching a trainer, view his dog being worked by another trainer through some simple position changes and then being sent out for a bit. There was some "sit," "down," "heel," and "place." Then. "attack." The sheer elegance of this eighty pound canine bearing down on the decoy was insignificant - don't get me wrong, it was a physical manifestation of beauty; the bite was strong and deep, the drive was intense, but the alluring moment was when I looked at the face of the dogs owner.
Unadulterated love. That is what filled his eyes. There was a sense of wonderment within the look...as if he was unsure how the dog knew to do all of these actions with such perfect precision. To me it was clear...he taught the dog. But the dog was in love with the work; he knew what to do because any commands were given. Very rarely does one get to see love seeping from another's pores.
The culmination of the flashy obedience, precision striking, and intense bite resulted in an outpouring of love, the entire bring of this man was on display for all to see. To see someone so vulnerable, but being unaware of what was being displayed was such a conundrum for my brain to comprehend, like trying to track a metaphor that just exceeds your mental capacity for the time being.
Our dogs are always wearing our emotions. one thing I've given much thought to lately has been the shoving of our inadequacies upon our companions. My dog is always showing me exactly what I'm lacking, and what that is I'm still searching for. I'm sure he's really sick of showing me, but somehow there's still a love between us, that I share with no one and nothing else. I'm usually focused far too much on what he is doing wrong, rather than what I'm doing wrong and he is doing right. You've got to move forward to find the proper way back...or something along those lines. So, what now?
"Au Pied." He swings into a heel with such fervor that is only reserved for me. "Beautiful boy!" I exclaim as I stride forward on our path full of prancing and spinning, reaching our final destination with "YES!" He leaps behind me towards the hand full of food, teeth clacking as he furiously mashes his muzzle into the pieces. "Au Pied," swinging his body into position; he's crooked. Well, that's not right. I turn my head to view the position. His back end is slightly wrapped around my leg. Alright, let's try that again. "Au Pied." He barks, jumping and spinning into his favorite position: my left side, head up, eyes locking onto mine. We stride forward, and he barks. I stop. he stops. I reward him for a job well done.
Pausing for a moment, because I'm pretty sure my dog just said "HELL YEAH!" Why would he say that? How could he say that? He can't possibly be speaking English. This is becoming far too Kafkaesque for my tastes. Why am I uncomfortable here? I most certainly should not be afraid, as the only thing present here is love. His understanding of the command, of the position is so deep, that's he's fallen in love with it.
We've all head the clichés about being afraid of love, but there is a reason it's becoming a cliché; it's true. I'm terrified of love. I'm scared because I love working with this dog, teaching this dog, being with this dog, I love this dog, so much; and I know our time is limited. IT's something I struggle with every day. If I lose this dog, I'm alone. Alone, that's the key word here. The most awful word in our language. "Murder" doesn't hold a candle to it, and "hell" is only a poor synonym. Are we afraid of love? Or are we afraid to love? Samuel Beckett wrote "Time passes. That is all." These words always ring true, be it life or death, time passes. Now what? Back to that mistake.
He was crooked in that entry. We cleaned up the mess. We're born again to continue this lovely waltz; one, two, three, and four. I'm out of food. my dog is out of brain power, he's panting, sluggish, and sloppy. We're done for now. I sit down. No need to call him over, he's trotting over to smash his head into my chest. I touch him.
Ah, there is is. Finally, I wish I would have found it five paragraphs ago, could have enjoyed it longer.