“If I knew then what I know know, I would have spent a lot less time training, and more time being my dog’s friend.”

Last weekend marked the end of the contacts and weaves workshop offered by Flying Tails Dog Training. I am very proud of my pooch, he learned a lot. We didn’t quite make it to where I hoped, but I certainly wouldn’t say the workshop was a failure (I’ll go into it more in my next post). At the very least, it really cemented what kind of training philosophy I need to take with Mufaasa to see success, which is probably the most valuable thing we could have learned. It seems fitting then that in today’s Dog Agility Blog Event I tackle a question every person who has ever tried to train an animal over any period of time has probably asked themselves: “If I knew then what I know now, what would I change?” That’s kind of a big question for me, as it is for a lot of people, even if I limit it to just training dogs and not horses (the later of which I arguably I have more experience with).

As far as step-by-step technique there’s no question that I know more now than when I started training, but that stuff isn’t really as important as my attitude. I’m a very self-flagellating person, and I know for a fact that my self-discriminating tendencies and incessant black humour are pretty much my coping mechanism for any troubles that come my way. And as far as survival techniques go, black humour is pretty great since you can at least laugh at your failures and hopefully move on. The problem was (and occasionally I catch myself still doing this) that I always tended to be flagellatory (PS: that word is awesome, I’m going to start using it every day) toward my dogs when it comes to training, which just doesn’t work. I also like to put things together roughly at first and than finesse them near the end, which doesn’t work with dogs either.

It was mind boggling to me how a dog with a “leave it” command this good could develop resource guarding issues

My first dog, Naala, was sweet and wonderful in so many ways, one of them being that she was a super quick learner. So when she started developing resource guarding issues towards other dogs it was mind blowing to me. How can my perfect and incredibly smart dog start doing something that I had, until then, only attributed to dogs that had been raised by bad or negligent owners? I took my dog to the park most every day, I trained her in all the basics, she could travel with me nearly anywhere, and with all the years of experience I had working with some truly violent horses, surely my pleasant little dog should be perfect. So I kept bringing her to a park that had too many dogs in it for her to feel secure, and punished her (because I had no idea about positive reinforce only training then, and the horse world doesn’t necessarily encourage you to think that way. Just the opposite, in fact) when she would start hoarding balls and lunging at any dog that ignored her warning signs to stay away (I was also a lot more clueless about doggy body language, which certainly didn’t help). It wasn’t until I backed off, started to only take her to parks where there were little to no other dogs, and made sure whenever possible that she wasn’t put into a position that would make her feel less secure (and limited those situations as much as I could when I couldn’t avoid them) that I started to see results.

When I got Mufaasa I thought for sure I had this stuff figured out. I also thought so long as I could manage his physical and mental needs and make sure he got properly socialized, everything else would fall into place. I also thought  that since I had a dog with so much energy we would be able to train for, like, alllllllll eternity and he would just come back for more. That’s what boarder collies do, right?

EEEEEEEEEEE! Wrong! So totally wrong it isn’t even funny. He is young, and however awesome he is at a lot of stuff (just like Naala was), he isn’t perfect, will never be perfect, and we have alllllllll the time in the world to get to “perfect enough.” Mufaasa is incredibly bold, but new places make it hard for him to focus. Also, he has the attention span of a, well, a puppy, funnily enough. Once I started ping-ponging his training (do a few weaves, throw the ball, do some accel/decel exercises, do some weaves, do some jumps, play ball, do some circle work, do some weaves, finish with something involving nose-touches since those are his favourite), he started to learn really fast. Also, his drive went way, way up (like, broke one of my new weave polls ’cause he was too enthusiastic kind of up).

She had a recall like a goddamn champion too. We didn’t screw everything up.

The key is to make training something that feels like play. I think Naala started resource guarding balls (and it was balls specifically, not food, or sticks, or anything else) because we played ball all the time. She was a rottie/shepherd and, as her breed would suggest, decided that collecting balls was her MISSION FROM GOD. That dog retrieved like a god damn champion, and she would mow down any other dog that stood in her way. I think because we did it so much it became her main purpose in life. Chasing balls was serious business, not the fun game I thought it was. Had I introduced more variety in her life she might have turned out different.

Mufaasa reacts a lot differently than Naala, even though he’s pretty fantastic at retrieving, too. (Well, he is when none of my trainers are watching.) But the ball was always fun time, and was incorporated into our other activities in all sorts of areas. And if he doesn’t bring it back, well, ok, the ball goes away and we try something else. I always know when he’s done for the day at our workshop when he grabs his ball or his tug and runs around in circles or hides in the tunnel. You know, the more I think about it, the more I think he does that so for the same reason I make fun of my failures. He’s stressed so he makes light of the situation. Smart dog, smarter than his owner sometimes (read: a lot of the time).

So, I guess the main things I’ve learned are:

  • don’t ruin the fun stuff by harping on it so much,
  • don’t skip the basics because it will bite you in the ass later,
  • take your cues from your dog about what expectations you should have,
  • and (related to the last one) treat your dog based on who they are, not who you imagined them to be.

I hope that makes sense. It’s sort of rambling and seems like common sense, but I can tell you it wasn’t an over-night epiphany that got me to these conclusions. Also, I would by no means label myself as an experienced dog trainer, so these are the first of many things I’ll discover  (hopefully, because things are going to get boring otherwise). Someone remind me to update this entry in 10 years (you know, if blogging is still cool by then).

  6 comments for ““If I knew then what I know know, I would have spent a lot less time training, and more time being my dog’s friend.”

  1. March 7, 2012 at 7:28 pm

    In this day of the information age, we know that we can learn "systems" of training. Everyone has a foundation class and focus is on performance. What I've noticed is that the "fun" sometimes get's lost in the perfection of the system.

    I agree with all of your points. Each dog is a gift. Have fun. Make your training is thorough, but have fun. Treat your dog on who they are…and have fun.

    Thanks for reminding us.

  2. March 7, 2012 at 10:15 pm

    I think you're right, that each of us would probably write a different post on this same topic at any given year of our lives, or maybe even every month! Now that you (and Nancy Gyes's post) have me thinking about that, I think what it means is that we are all learning constantly and our lives are better for it each step of the way. At least, hope so.

  3. March 8, 2012 at 3:49 pm

    "treat your dog based on who they are, not who you imagined them to be."

    If that is the only lesson I learn all year I think I will have learned a lot. It's so hard to manage expectations. The more my dog shows she is capable of, the more I expect her to do. When she doesn't so something that she has done before (for whatever reason, stress, new environment, boredom etc.) I can get discouraged so easily. I won't tell you how many times I've wondered if I belong in agility because it's kind of sad. Okay, it's really sad. I think I build things up in my head to a point my dog has no hope of ever achieving. It's not fair to either of us.

    Great post! Thanks for making me think. 🙂

  4. Jenn
    March 15, 2012 at 12:53 am

    Excellent takeaway points.

    I think we all have to more or less learn these ourselves, but a word of warning goes a long way to seeing the behavior and recognizing what is happening!

  5. April 8, 2013 at 6:45 pm

    Going back to read some blogs I’ve not read and may I just say HALLELUJAH to your list of things you’ve learned. I have learned the same things as well.

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