Slow downMay 10, 2021 2021-05-25 1:22
Dog training is an endless activity. So many disciplines to try, so many titles to be won, so many trials to enter, so many tricks to teach your dog and classes to take and videos to watch and seminars to attend.
We look at our friends’ dogs that are the same age as ours and wonder “Why are they further along? Why can they do so many more things? Why are they more mature/social/advanced?” How much more do we need to do to catch up, which new toys do we need to buy and which treats do we need to try and whose methods should we follow to keep up with everyone else?
Dog training is not a race. It is not a daily competition. It definitely should never define your self-worth.
We have all left a class, or maybe just ended a bad session at home with a feeling of defeat. Maybe your dog was suddenly entirely unable to do what you had taught him and what he had previously performed brilliantly in a distracting setting. Maybe you started a session at home with a great plan, just to see it all fall apart after the first couple minutes and finish with a frustrated, barking dog who knocked over the treats and is now eating them all for free off the floor.
It happens to everybody. And just like we would never judge or define someone else based on their momentary success in dog training, be kind and don’t do it to yourself either.
A few weeks ago I took my young dog to a local agility class that we had not been to before. She had trained less than five times on a field that was not her home field.
I knew what to expect, I knew she would most likely not excel and I was ready to show her my appreciation for her work regardless of the level of her performance.
We got there and she was so wildly excited that I was out of my comfort zone before we had even started running. She ran fast and was determined to take all the tunnels, I ran slow and uncoordinated and confused. We were failing at the shortest sequences.
We both needed some cheerful intervention so I played with her and praised her.
Back at home I went through the thoughts that everyone has probably had ‘Have I failed in all her training? Was my whole approach completely wrong, did I just make one big mistake from start to finish?’
I was defining my self-worth, my success, ultimately my relationship with my dog through this one instance of ten minutes of a wild young dog on an unknown agility field. It was overly dramatic and I can laugh at it now, but in the moment it was a true pain and worry that I have often seen on the faces of others as well.
I went to bed and snuggled said young dog all night (who by the way had passed out blissfully after her big evening, oblivious to my doubts and free of worries herself – she is the type who thinks she is always right and makes no mistakes, I can learn a lot from her).
The next morning we went back to our own field, set the previous night’s course and ran it in the sunshine in beautiful flow, our minds free from stress or expectation, not set on impressing or performing for any spectators or even ourselves – only running, enjoying, being.
How can we keep from falling into those – sometimes small, sometimes huge – holes of doubt and discouragement whenever we are stuck?
The reason we feel like this is that we of course feel good about success in dog training. Everybody is proud if their dog recalls off of a rabbit chase or has learned a new, challenging trick, or for the first time stays in a sit when you move 30ft away, or has earned a new ribbon.
It’s a rush of excitement, self-esteem and pride that is addictive and wonderful. I love to see these emotions on the faces of clients who have just had a training breakthrough – a human who is profoundly happy with himself and his achievements shines in a truly beautiful way.
Unfortunately, we take an absence of these achievements in the exact opposite way – the feelings can be just as strong, however they are those of disappointment, sadness, maybe even anger and despair.
It is unnecessary of course. No one other than ourselves would think any less of us because of one (or two or twenty) unsuccessful training moments. Your trainer won’t (if he does, find a different trainer). Your friends won’t. Most of all, your dog surely won’t.
Let’s try to define the relationship with our dogs and the resulting self-esteem through the moments that are not training-related.
Consciously experience the times that you and them feel connected and content together that are not dependent on either one’s performance:
Cuddling on the couch in the evening. Playing at the park. Taking a long, quiet walk. Watching your dog sleep contentedly at your feet during a lazy Sunday breakfast. The little moment throughout the day when he looks at you and you tell him he’s a good boy and his whole face lights up and his tail wags with delight.
Remember all those moments, they are the moments that count. If you have great training sessions, by all means, feel proud of them – you should!
If you have bad sessions, don’t fret over them. Put the treats and clicker away and go for a walk instead, or sit in front of the window and watch the squirrels outside together with your dog, or give him a belly rub and tell him you will try again tomorrow.
They are only here for a short time, much too short to worry about a success that’s defined by entirely arbitrary parameters (a perfect running contact? That is not an intuitive definition of a great relationship). Take the training success proudly if it happens, but embrace the connection with your dog regardless of any training achievements.
Happy being with your dogs. You are their greatest hero, believe in yourself the way they do.