Tricycle to Tour de France…

So I have made a decision, and I think its one that you all will be interested in hearing about…

I have decided that I am entering Neave, my 2yr old daughter in the Tour De France next year…. I am pretty sure she will be fine, I mean she is really good at home in the garden one her tricycle…. How hard can it be?

Its a decision I have been pondering for some time, I have been planning and looking forward to this since the second my daughter came home… I mean, we had her because we wanted her to be a cyclist…. Its really important that she loves cycling, because I REALLY want her to.

I am pretty sure she will be fine, she can go straight on her tricycle, and she can turn if she has enough space… well sometimes she can, sometimes she has to push it with her feet… But thats ok. She has a little while yet.

How hard can it be? She is fine with people, so the crowds wont worry her… And she has travelled on a plane when she was young, so she should be fine with the flight over to France.

I think we are all good!!!

Before, you all start to google the number for the NSPCC…. you may have figured that I am jesting about Neave doing the tour de France next year…. It may be a few years before she does, maybe 3 or four 😉 but this is the scenario people impose on their dogs on a regular basis.

In my past vocation, we had a saying…. ‘Failing to prepare is preparing to fail’, and this articulates beautifully the thought process that should be going through our mind, when we contemplate exposing our dog to a new experience.

It doesnt matter whether we are discussing dogs sports of general domestic pet dogs, there is a multitude of experiences that we must ensure we prepare them for prior to venturing out into the ‘big wide world’ of competition or indeed life.

When I use the metaphor of asking my 2yr old to jump from riding her tricycle around in our living room, to competing in the Tour De France, the epic failing on my part, can be sighted instantly. However, it is often not so when discussing dogs.

Even getting your puppy to live in your home, can be filled with potential incidents and encounters that if not prepared for, can lead them to a road of trouble and danger. For my dogs, who live in a world where emphasis is placed on highlighting to them what I do what them to do, rather then correcting or chastising them for inevitable mistakes, preparation and anticipation is key.

When I get my puppy home, or have a dog with me for training, I have dog proofed there environment and set up areas where the can live and be where they are safe. This allows me to reinforce behaviour that I want, and deter or prevent behaviour I dont want. This is a preparatory step to creating a dog that I can live with, and take anywhere.

How about taking your puppy to the vet… this is itself is a huge ‘step’ for them to overcome. A strange person, handling them intrusively, and then potentially making them feel uncomfortable or even, in pain. Getting my puppy to accept me handling them intrusively, and also having other people do so, is a huge part of their upbringing.

These are the ‘standard’ things I have to prepare for. And depending on the dog, and the temperament, this could be where the lions share of the work will need to be placed.

For those of us that do, dog sports, we now have to add onto this list, the endless challenges that our dog will face within the sport.

First, laying the foundations. Core skill and behaviours that will create the basis for which our dogs career will be built. Then skills that are required, plus proofing, generalising, chaining, reinforcement schedules…. just to name a few.

We then have to transfer this information and learning to other environments, plus add the competition pressures and ‘furniture’, people, sounds and distractions.

When you break it down, it’s HUGE what we expect of our dogs and therefore easy to underestimate the work it takes to achieve this.

All to often, the extent of work and layers needed are overlooked and often there is a breakdown. When people approach me with issues, often its as simple as reviewing their preparation.

Dogs don’t sent out to deliberately ‘mess about’ or be ‘naughty’ and I defy anyone to prove otherwise. What they do do, is repeat what has been reinforced, whether you intended this to happen or not.

So the key is to reinforce behaviour you want. Simple, and use to articulate to your dog what and how you want them to be.

Here are some tips for effective preparation:

1. Prepare them in small pieces, not by ‘testing’ and gambling. Everyone can get lucky once, but at what expense.

2. Thorough preparation takes time, but ‘thinking, planning and then doing’ will save you this in droves.

3. Your dog should ideally not encounter anything they haven’t experienced in training or at home. That way you can teach them what you want, and reinforce behaviour rather then pick up the pieces of a mistake or error.

4. Classical conditioning wins every time. If your dog isn’t happy or comfortable in the environment, no amount of clicking sits will make any impact. Ensure they are confident, always!

5. Get your skill, behaviour or chain in 5 locations, with 5 ‘challenges’ as a means of preparation. So your dog do a sit in 5 different locations, under any one of 5 challenges in the form or environmental, noise, equipment, distraction or ring prep. This will give you a pretty clear indication of your dogs readiness.

6. Look at it from the dogs perspective. What do they see, hear and feel. This will give you an idea of what you need to do to prepare them for the question you are asking.

7. Your foundations create the basis on which everything else is built. The issue may be nothing to do with the exercise or behaviour itself, but a crack in the foundation. Review them constantly. Even experienced dogs need foundation skills brushed up now and again.

8. Attention is everything. It may not be literally looking at you, but being able to have focus in any environment irrespective of the distraction, is of paramount importance in every dog sport. Don’t underestimate its value and don’t overestimate the need to reinforce it.

9. There are two members of your team, the dog is one… do you part. Don’t let your dog down by failing to prepare yourself, physically, mentally, emotionally.

10. Its not about the destination, its about the journey. Preparation is the journey.

Culture of Influence

As a professional dog trainer, and sports dog coach, I teach a lot of people, with a LOT of dogs…. and I have been fortunate enough to compete, and teach people in most sports currently in existence.

Its really interesting, ‘sport hopping’ from one to another, and as a observer of behaviour, watching the ‘behavioural patterns’, beliefs and traditions that exist within each discipline.

For example, if we take a sport like obedience. There is a lot of superstitious behaviour… and thats on the part of the humans! For example, there are so many ‘old wives tails’ associated with an exercise like scent discrimination, what you must and must not do. The rigorous containers that clothes are kept in, which require a retina scan and finger-print ID just to access them… then a series of intricate handshakes and secret signs, to extract them from the said container, not to mention to endless list of criteria that people subscribe to when placing it on the ground! Whilst in a sport like Working trials, where a High level track can be 3hrs old, in gale force wind looking for a match stick… or in agility, where the cultural approach to training is to create maximise drive and speed, where everything is fast and furious, and the by product is a mass of hysterical Border collies, that need a stringent management system, straight jacket and padded cell to have them ringside…. or the traditional approach to bitework is to allow the dog to parade and ‘possess’ the sleeve, with a type of dog that is genetically possessive, and the trade off is an issue with ‘outs’ or control….

So what are the pros and cons, of having this cultural ‘approaches’ to training?

Well Albert Einstein once said, ‘the definition of insanity is doing the same Thing over and over again, and expecting results’. But one could argue, ‘if it isn’t broken, don’t try and fix it’.

Often we fall into the trap of approaching training in a way that is familiar or ‘traditional’ because of the culture of a sport, and the approach is ‘tried and tested’.

Like all sports, those that are successful often dictate the culture and methodology to training. This is applicable to the type of dog and person.

The most successful breed of dog across the vast majority of dog sports would arguably be the border collie. A breed selected and designed to ‘want to please’, have an intense desire to do a task, repeatedly, over and over again. They have a desire to run and chase, both attributes which can be utilised to train for dog sports.

Its a catch 22, the majority of successful handlers, select dogs with an innate desire to perform and work, and therefore the methods they use are influenced by the type of dog they train. However, is this ‘the best information’ for our dogs? Is the communication as efficient and effective as we can make it? Is the by product of training with superstition, that dogs that don’t ‘conform’ labelled as ‘weird’, ‘stupid’ or ‘stubborn’? Or is the by-product of a ‘behavioural’ issue like over arousal?

The question to ask is, is what we are doing ‘actually’ working? And is this how I want to train MY dogs?

There is no, correct or incorrect answer to this question.

It really is an opportunity to reflect and decide for yourself.

Many years ago, I decided to change the approach I took to training dogs. I did so for several reasons. It wasn’t because the ‘methods’ didnt work, far from it. I had been very successful with that approach. It wasn’t even that there was a moral or ethical ‘concern’. I hadn’t done anything to my dog that I would be ashamed about, any ‘mistakes’ I made were due to lack of knowledge rather then malicious intent. And whilst I wouldn’t make some of those training decisions now, I know that it was all part of my own personal dog training journey.

I choose a different path because I wanted a different result. I explain my approach to training then and now, as watching TV in black and white, and now watching a colour HD, surround sound flatscreen! I like that my dogs have a choice, I like they can say ‘not today’ or ‘please’ and ‘thank you’. I LOVE that we can have a conversation and a direct line of communication between us, that takes into account the dogs perspective.

I love that I am conscious, aware and enlightened about my dogs learning. I have data, I have video, I have prepconceptual teaching, I have clear reinforcement placement, I have shaping, I have clarity when aroused….

I have these by looking at my own training objectively and through a new lens. I allowed myself to detach the emotional attachment, superstition and tradition…. Not throwing out the baby with the bathwater, is also wise.

And trust me, it was daunting and scary… But the gains far outweigh the discomfort of growth and change.

Moving forward doesn’t mean forgetting or discarded the past, it means learning from it. This is so relevant in todays climate, and being woke to appropriate and relevantchange is crucial! If you’re happy with what you’re doing, stand by it but also be smart enough to be objective.

PTSD is Pretty Real….

As a professional dog trainer, dealing with everything from top level competitive dog sports, helping people have well behaved family pets or behavioural problems, the focus of my work is partly on the dog, but more times than not, it is about helping the owner/handler/trainer.

A reoccurring issue that I deal with is the past experience or issue that the owner has experienced with another dog, affecting the current relationship they have with the dog they have now. 

In dog sports, this can often be the case where your previous dog had a significant issue or trait that caused you problems. For example they may have had too much drive, or not enough drive… and you struggled to deal with whichever end of the spectrum you faced. Or you had a training issue, for example your dog was a pole knocker or tracked badly, and you are overly determined that you WON’T have that issue again. So inevitably, you get the polar opposite….. the phrase careful what you wish for is definitely relevant here. Someone who has had a dog with low drive, over compensates and creates a ‘monster’! Or the person who has had the out of control head bangers creates the meek and mild wilting wall flower.

The other variation to this theme, is when you have had a dog that has had an ‘issue’, or a trauma paired with that dog, this could be an untimely loss, or a all consuming behavioural issue that governed your life.

This could almost be defined as a form of PTSD. Dogs that have had behavioural issues or ‘problems’ can have a life changing impact and as a result, affect the subsequent choices, behaviour and mentality of care giver.

For example, a rising phenomenon is that of the ‘reactive’ dog (a label I dislike, and even written a blog series on). Anyone that has lived and dealt with a dog with any form of aggression, even, as is often the case, if it is based in fear, will verify the life altering affect it can have. 

It can affect your behaviour, devising intricate coping strategies to circumventing a simple task such as a walk or the visitor attending your home. It can result in relationship break downs, or stresses on a interpersonal relationship.

It can induce anxiety, depression or trigger an emotional response to what would previously have been an insignificant event. It can leave you with a sense of shame or failure. This might all sound extreme but, I can assure you, this is very much the daily plight of thousands if not millions of people worldwide. 

It could be that the outcome has had a long lasting affect. Maybe the dog had to be rehomed, or you used methodologies you now regret. Or the dog injured you or another being, either dog or person. Or the dog may have had to have been euthanised.

It would be more abnormal if any of this didn’t have an affect on you. The trauma and affect could be obvious, but sometimes it could be buried deeper until you get your next dog.

So how do you have prevent and overcome this, which can be described as ‘second dog syndrome’. 

I write about reactive dogs and the causes of reactivity in previous blogs. 

https://kamalfernandez.blog/2017/08/05/quick-reactions/

But the affect of PTSD in owning a dog that has caused you to feel anxious, apprehensive and affected your sanity is real. It could simply be that your dog is being an obnoxious adolescent, testing boundaries and reaching sexual maturity. This is a challenging time for anyone, and often sees dogs behave out of character or a new ‘personality’ emerge. This can be both over whelming and all consuming, considering that adolescence can occur till up to 3yrs old. The daily challenge of having to deal with varied unpredictable behaviour can be, in truth, exhausting. It can knock your confidence, or make you hyper-vigilant, which can lead to anxiety related issues. 

I have had many people express a sense of ‘relief’ when the dog that has caused them so much stress and anxiety, passes or they make the decision to home that dog. This in itself creates an internal conflict. Guilt and shame over feeling a sense of relief versus the love and loss they also feel. This can resonate with someone and they bottle this up, so when their next dog arrives they over compensate for this guilt. 

Or it could be the trauma experienced with seeing that dog attack another, or being attacked themselves. The list is endless. But the concept, very real.

So how do you avoid this? How do you deal with PTSD? 

Here are some simple words of advice, to help:

  1. There is No failure just feedback. Every dog I have owned has guided me to the point where I am now, and irrespective of my career as a professional dog trainer, and sports dog coach, they have given me a ‘life lesson’. It could be acceptance, it could have been perseverance, it could have been overcoming obstacles. Whatever the lesson, there has been one. At the time, in the midst of the storm, it can be hard to see, but it’s there. Just be patient, trust that it will show itself and embrace the struggle. 
  2. You are one step closer to what you do need. You don’t always get what you want, you get what you need. Having a dog that challenges you, tests you or even drains you, is all part of the process. No, it isn’t always easy, but nothing in life worth having is. If you’re in the midst of a struggle, hold onto this. If you’ve had one in the past, make peace with it, and learn to let it go. 
  3. Everything happens for a reason. Good and bad, everything happens for a reason. Its being able to trust that, which can be the test.
  4. Being humble enough to ask for help, isn’t a reflection of your inability to ‘solve’ the issue, but you ability to recognise and accept support! Pride comes before a fall! Put ego aside.
  5. I’ll say it again….Make peace with the past. It’s behind you for a reason.
  6. Train the dog in front of you! The dog in front of you deserve a ‘chance’, don’t put the burden for living in another dogs shadows on their shoulders. Doing so, will only cause them to never shine. 
  7. Be aware of labelling! A label is limiting, as is putting your past dogs on a pedestal. What you project is what you receive! So be mindful if what you put out in the universe.
  8. Be open to change. Growth and knowledge lie ahead if you are open to change, changing your approach, changing your perspective or changing your mind.
  9. What you would/should and could do is often not what the person needs to hear. Offer support, not judgment. 
  10. Talking about it, and being open can allow others to share in your story and reduce the feeling of being on your own, or sense of shame. 

Owning a dog that is a companion, friend and member of your family is the most joyous experience you can have, and sometimes the path you are on, will lead you to that. And thats ok. We are all presented with challenges, lessons and experiences that ultimately give us lessons. After all, the movie to your life would be pretty boring without a little ‘drama’ 😉

Push me, Pull you….

More and more I see a tread emerging in dog sports, which is causing far reaching issues and and problems, often without the person even being aware. It doesn’t matter if I teach in the UK, Australia, America, Europe or anywhere in the world…. I see this same consistent pattern emerging irrespective of the country, breed or sport.

There seems to be a stigma attached to this specific behaviour which really needs to be clarified and addressed.

So what is the behaviour? What is this problematic dog training trend that is sweeping the world… and causing so much concern?

Tug. 

The problem relates to tug.

Let me explain.

There seems to be a stigma that EVERY dog, irrespective of the character, personality and breed of the dog should and will tug. And there is a part of me that agrees with this sentiment. Indeed I have owned numerous dogs over the years, from various breeds and backgrounds, some regime, rescues with chequered pasts. They have all been taught to tug and ended up enjoying it, and lots have ended up being absolutely crazy about it!

I am confident that this is a topic that I can talk about with an open mind and clear head. 

Every dog has the ability to play. Its how mammals learn, educate and interact. That ‘play’ may be social interaction, to create bonds, it may be a pre-cursor to hunting and predatory behaviour. And dogs specifically will fall under this heading. However there are a lot of factors that determine if a) a dog will play b) it can be used as an effective reinforcement.

See all dogs will play, but whether it is the thing that is their ultimate reinforcement, is another thing all together. 

My German Spitz Sonic, is a fantastic example of a dog that has been taught to tug. He likes it a lot, but he doesn’t LOVE it. He wouldn’t walk over hot coals for a game of tug. He would for a sausage or piece of cheese. 200% I can say that he absolutely loves his food. Some would say that it’s because I haven’t created the desire for him to ‘crave tugging… or it may be that I didn’t do the right things when he was a puppy, or that I just needed to motivate him more, and there could be some truth in all the above, however if you could sit Sonic down and ask him which be prefers, food or toys, it would be crystal clear. Sonic was a dog that I got when he was about 5months, and was incredibly sensitive and had no ‘tug’ nurtured. In fact, his interest in picking up any items had been greatly deterred. This gave me additional obstacles to overcome, when building his confidence. However over time, and with patience I have been able to create Sonic enjoying tug and being able to perform foundation skills with toys, that mean I can train him more efficiently and effectively. I can use a game of Tug or an informal play retrieve to reinforce him for behaviours, but if he did something that was exceptional and I wanted to ‘jackpot’ him, his preference of reinforcement would definitely be food related. 

See, Sonic like so many dogs across the world has been taught to tug and had it developed so that he really really likes it, but he doesn’t LOVE it. And I am fully aware of that. That doesn’t make me a failure, that makes me a smart trainer. See when it comes to reinforcement, it isn’t an book, or method, or person or sport that dictates what the reinforcement is for your dog, the only person that dictates reinforcement and where it stands in the order of preference… it is the dog!

I have owned lots of dogs over the years I have been training, and owning dogs, of various breeds… and I can honestly say that every single one of them has played and enjoyed tugging. However, not all have valued tug to the point of which it could be used as the primary reinforcement when training. My Labrador, Jessie was a dog that I rehomed when she was 3yrs old. She was a trained Gundog and had clearly been ‘discouraged’ from any form of tugging. Over time, I nurture her want to carry a tennis ball into a tug, and then eventually built it up to the point where she would do some bite work. Her reward was to win the sleeve, and carry it around. She was your typical gundog who liked to carry things constantly, be it your shoes when you walked in the door, or pillow or her dog bed. This was the conduit to create her tug. Jessie grew to value this game so much, that she learned to LOVE to tug. She would bring toys to me to try and instigate tugging. She was a typical Labrador that just LOVED food, but I was able to create enough desire to tug, that the two things were interchangeable, with no conflict. 

These are two examples of dogs that I had to work at developing their ability to tug. But whilst both dogs developed tug, they did so with confidence and trust. There was no pressure for them to tug, and it took time to develop. 

My little Jack Russel Cross, Sugar was a dog that showed distinct apprehension and distrust when you tried to handle her. Whilst she adores people, she definitely showed anxiety when I tried to initiate play. 

Here is a video of Sugar’s early tugging. 

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=nDcqk7ZRtg0

And here is how it ended up!

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=hD6PwPYhoi0

For me, the tug was a means to gain her trust and confidence in me. I used the medium of play, to establish that my hands wouldn’t harm her and that my motion and body language needn’t be concerning for her. Over time, she has developed a fantastic tug and now she will happy play with any toy I present and also allow me to make physical contact with her when she does. 

The key factors to creating this tug, was that I allowed her confidence to dictate the speed at which we progressed and I never made it a ‘thing’, I was confident it would come at some point, and I also was aware where and when she was likely to be lacking in confidence or distracted and therefore didnt push the tug. 

I often see dogs being put off by the ferocity and intensity of the tug, being too much for the dog or the moment. Strength and confidence to play ‘full on’ can take time, and is a ‘art’ in itself. And with some dogs, that just isn’t their ‘bag’. The process and mechanics needed to play effectively need to be homed before trying them with a dog that is reluctant to play. This can take time to master, and as such can hinder the dogs experience until the mechanical skills are fluid. 

It would appear that in todays dog training climate, the benchmark for a trainers ability is placed so heavily on ‘tugging’, and whilst this is something that anyone can achieve and master over time, the pursuit of achieving crazy tug can actually cause more harm then good. This is Ego talking and not ‘dog training’ with compassion and consideration. Like everything, there is a balance to be struck. 

Often the pressure placed on your dog, to tug be it because of peer pressure, pressure from ‘the sport’, or the culture of training, can create major avoidance and displacement behaviours associated with tug, and therefore the relationship you nurture with your dog. It can even affect the very behaviours you are attempting to reinforce, if the dog is anticipating that ‘tug’ is coming, and the negative emotional response it has to this activity. 

There are as many ways to engage and interact with your dogs, as there are dogs themselves. Some like the chase, some like the win, others like physical interaction, or food as an alternative. Being aware of what you dog prefers is crucial. 

The benchmark for trainer shouldn’t be the ability to master one skill, but the ability to nurture and create a relationship with an animal who’s perspective and wants, should be taken into consideration to. This relationship should enhance the dogs personality, strengthen their assets and minimising their issues. 

Tug is an amazing medium for creating and enhancing a relationship, if done correctly and efficiently. Observing your technique, awareness and tools used, can greatly assist you in the pursuit of amazing Tug!

For a way to help you, develop your tug and enhance your skills, I have put to gather this ‘mini course’ focused on this exact topic!

If you want to learn more about teaching your dog to tug, how to do it correctly and effectively… sign up for my ‘Mini E Course’ “TUG-LIFE’… this is a short and simple series of videos, e book and cool bonuses designed to start your dogs tug off on the right foot!

https://www.kamalfernandezonlinetraining.com/tuglife

Have fun and enjoy your dogs!

Kamal

Lessons from a lesson…

I have previously written about Neave’s swimming lessons before, and today I attended a session after a long break. I have written in detail of the strategic and layered approach to teaching and how each behaviour was broken down and explained, how games were used to teach and explain. 

Even I, was taken aback by the progress I could see in Neave and her confidence grown from a few months earlier. She has always enjoyed swimming but at times had a few sessions where she was clingy or reluctant to engage. And even when she was initially submerged under water, how she was then reluctant to do so again, in the same session.

This was 6weeks of no swimming. She was so full of confidence and couldn’t wait to get in the pool! She did all the tasks and games with ease. She was happily and confidently jumping into the water, time after time with total joy. We shared the session with another parent, whose child was a bit younger the Neave. 

She had clearly been before, but there were some tasks that she wasnt totally confident with. The instructor/teacher advised the parent accordingly and was about to achieve progress, even though there were moments when she was definitely unsure. The parent handle it brilliantly, you could see there was a conflict between parental instinct, and the advice given. However, again you could see that the instructor understood this and remained calm, gave clear directions, whilst being supportive and showing great leadership.

I know from Neave’s learning curve, that she has grown in confidence and now absolutely loves her ‘swimming sessions’, she bounds up the steps to the pool with joy and a smile across her face! She waits intently watching the other children, and gets animated when we start to get ready. Everything about her demeanour says how much she loves this time!

However, along the process, she experienced both stress and frustration, and yet she LOVES to swim! How so?

If we parallel this to dog training and the ever changing opinions that are being shared, there is a train of thought that advices against creating or allowing any form of stress and frustration  in your dogs learning. Stress and frustration are often being perceived as ‘dangerous’ and even damaging to your dogs health and well being. However, if I can taken this approach to Neave’s swimming, she would never be where she is, and she would probably be sitting at the edge of the pool, being reinforced for looking at the water a year later!

Now let me clarify before people take umbrage at my comments. 

Neave has had moments where she wasn’t sure, had a unpleasant experience and even a fright. Some would say she was stressed and some would say she was frustrated. And yet she has learnt from those. And ultimately gained in confidence because of how the moment was handled. 

If we look back at the instructor in todays lesson, as an example and parody that with dog training. 

Firstly she observed the childs body language and facial expression. The child’s speech was as to be expected for a baby, and she probably wouldn’t be able to convey her inner emotions or exact feelings, so it was down to the teachers observation to gauge whether she was comfortable or uncomfortable with the tasks. Similar to a dog, there was no opportunity to converse about what the participant was feeling. It had to be based on observation of those non-verbal communication signs. 

The teacher engaged her in the activity and made it ‘fun’. This was the dog training equivalent or raising your dogs arousal level to an appropriate point, where they are engaged and animated, yet not over stimulated and hysterical. 

She was positive, clear and showed distinct leadership when she engaged with the child. She didnt pacify them unnecessarily, or verbally check if they are ok repeatedly in a anxious manner, or talk in a manner which would convey concern or apprehension. She took control, but in a way that conveyed confidence. 

She observed and monitored throughout. She was able to make decisions and adjust what she asked of the child. She was being receptive and constantly evaluating body language, facial expression etc. 

She made the experience a game. She conveyed that everything would be fine, and she conveyed joy and celebrated the small successes, in a big way!

I am fast learning that there are many gifts you can give your children, and none of them revolve around the latest touch screen gadget! At the top of that list of ‘gifts’ is, Confidence. 

Confidence is the asset that can get you to conquer the world, and climb the highest mountain, sail the seven seas or take a trip around the world! The same can be said of our dogs. 

A lack of confidence, can manifest itself into fear, anxiety, relativity, displacement etc. But avoiding stress and frustration doesn’t mean that you are building confidence, in fact you could be diminishing it. 

The key, like all things in life… is balance. Balance between too much and not enough. 

For example, if you expose your dog or child to stress and frustration constantly or don’t monitor their reaction, you are not building confidence but merely testing it, and potentially eroding it. In the same vain, not allowing to come through situation which has caused them stress and frustration and celebrating their achievement will not grow their confidence. There is no greater sense of achievement then overcoming a struggle! 

Neave’s confidence has grown over time, and with patience. It isn’t an over night solution or quick fix. Confidence takes time to develop. When she showed those signs of anxiety and apprehension, I could have taken a very different path.  I could have reduced the challenge or took her away from it. I could have pacified her or allowed her to approach the water or have the water level lower etc. I could have even medicated her. 

All these are options, and in certain cases absolutely the correct decision. If the level of experience could be deemed as traumatic, then a more conservative approach would be the wiser path. However we are talking of extremes. If Neave had shown an extreme level of fear or apprehension, because she had fallen into a pool previously, or had a strong and profound experience that caused her a long lasting issue, then the above would be absolutely appropriate. But not for a slight concern or minimal level of apprehension. Overcoming these minimal doses of stress and frustration, will ultimately create an abundance of confidence and resilience, which will allow either a dog or child, to face challenges and struggles in a manner which doesn’t incite stress and upset. 

I protect my dogs confidence at all cost, and proactively aim to build it and also create opportunities for them to struggle and succeed. This may be in a training environment or a life lesson. If they panic and show signs of fear, I adjust my training and exposure accordingly… I may create distance or reduce the distraction, but I dont avoid them. I give them confidence and I create in them, resilience. 

Like children, at crucial developmental stages, I am more aware of the fragility of their confidence and I may be more mindful of the experiences they have. These are times, when there may be hormonal changes, or a fear period, or adolescence where boundaries are being tested. Negative experiences can greatly affect the eventual temperament or behaviour of your dog/child if not handled correctly. When I worked with young offenders in my previous vocation, you would see this pattern consistently. Behavioural issues created due to impactful experiences at key points in their developmental stages. Sometimes, we can get ‘lucky’ and a potentially contentious situation at a crucial developmental stage, can be brushed off with no long lasting affect. However being proactive can helped build confidence. For example, at adolescence, I am vigilant and proactive with my dogs experiences. However, I utilise situations that can be stressful or frustrating. Create learning experiences for your dogs and use reinforcement, be it from the environment, experience or you, to build their confidence. I know that when i was a teen, my parents were proactive in getting us to engage in activities where there was always a responsible adult around, be it a sports event, socialising with peers or activity. They didnt hide us from the world and create a false environment for us to exist within, but were vigilant, proactive and invested. The same if my female dog is due in season and her behaviour randomly changes, I make a note of it and monitor it. I dont over react or implement some in-depth process or protocol to deal with it, I let nature take its course and I allow common sense to prevail.

Now, we could start a whole other conversation about ‘genetics’ and the affect this has on resilience to stress and frustration however this is a case of adjusting the exposure accordingly. I have had countless dogs in for training, that have come with major confidence issues, and in a very short space of time, have shown a total transformation lately from follow the same pattern of behaviour that Neave’s swimming teacher used. I observe body language, give direction and confidence whilst remaining positive and observant. 

The use of stress and frustration, in appropriate doses can actually create resilience, tenacity, determination, joy, exhilaration and ultimately confidence! This will ultimately create a dog that is well balance, well adjusted and confident! And I am sure, the same can be said of people. 

Sometimes you’ve just got to say no…

As a professional dog sports coach and teacher, part of my role is to prepare my students for the rigours of competition, including what the test requires and also the challenges their dogs may face.

However there is another part of the conversation that I often have to have, and its not one I enjoy.

They say that competition brings out the best and worse in people, and it is the small minority who act negatively that I have to ready my students for.

Recently, I have had a student have some success in our sport, who has also become victim to malicious rumours and ill intent. This has come as a shock to this person, as prior to this, those same people were showering her with compliments and praise. It is a bitter pill to swallow, when those that appeared to lift you up, now want to tear you down.

Unfortunately, this is the nature of the beast. Competition really does bring out the best and worst in people.

I have also read of my friend and peers having Facebook groups set up, specifically to mock and ridicule them, even making comments about their physical appearance. And criticising aspects of their lives that crosses the line, by anyone’s standards.

Even, I have been the ‘victim’ of negative energy, but in this instance from individuals representing a governing body.

However when you scratch beneath the surface of those malicious comments and ill placed views, it is rarely about you. But always about them.

This is often the case when you find yourself victim to negativity.

As a new parent, I am constantly thinking about my daughters future and the person I want her to become. One of those biggest objectives is to teach her to have compassion, empathy and kindness towards others.

However along the way, she will develop insecurities and inadequacies that I can only hope, her early upbringing can counteract, by given her strength, confidence and self belief.

But there is a danger that, she may project her own insecurities, inadequacies and shortcomings onto others.

I am sure that with the prevalence of social media and its ‘power’, has exaggerated this pattern of behaviour, and in my previous vocation, I dealt with numerous cases where this pattern of behaviour gathered far reaching momentum with serious and dangerous ramifications. The extreme out comes being physical altercations, violence and worse.

I can only hope to educate Neave that our words and actions have weight, and whether we are conscious in our intentions or not, they can hurts others.

Developing an awareness of what energy we put out into the universe is a process, and one that many have yet to undertake.

Sometimes the best choice is to take the higher ground, and sometimes the best response is to say nothing and let your example silence your critics. But there are the rare instances when sometimes, just sometimes you got to let someone know…. this is acceptable, I wont allow this behaviour, so stop. Now! Sometimes you’ve got to say No. How you choose to articulate that may vary, but standing up for what it right takes bravery and courage. We only have to look to Hollywood to see that. This can ignite a flame for others to follow. It may be a lonely path to tread at first, but I assure you, you won’t be alone.

But like all things, life is a journey and everyone has their own path to travel. This isn’t about judging anyone, but perhaps instigating a different thought process.

When you put out into the Universe, something that may hurt another, and having malicious intent in doing so, the greatest damage you are doing is to yourself. There is a proverb which says something along the lines of, feelings anger or negativity, towards someone is like drinking poison and expecting the other person to die. That toxicity will implode, or manifest itself in your own life.

Being a reinforcement based trainer doesn’t just end in at the training field, it should extend to all areas of your life. I am

Human, and I am far from perfect… but i endeavour to treat people in a way I would want to be, and I would treat my dogs.

Dogs accept us regardless of our flaws, and shortcomings. They forgive us, love us and adore us despite our imperfections. Surely we should aspire to be the person our dogs sees as as?

And even if you’re not a ‘doggy’ person, maybe you should take a leaf from their book.

Being kind and considerate shouldn’t just end at the way we treat our dogs, but each other 😉

Being Gracious in defeat….

They say that competition brings out the best and worse in people, causing them to act totally out of character or show an aspect of themselves that they may or may not be proud of.

However for someone who has competed in various activities including martial arts, athletics and dog sports, learning to compete graciously is a skill everyone should develop. It can be an acquired skill…..and one that you need to develop.

The journey to train a dog from puppy hood to top level competition can be emotive to say the least, the ups and downs of training in itself can be challenging, frustrating, upsetting, joyous, overwhelming… the list of superlatives go on and on.

However being gracious in defeat is part of the journey.

At the weekend past, I competed with two dogs, Thriller my older Malinois and Girlee, a young border collie who I bred, but owned and trained by my close friend and student Val Venables. I was fortunate enough to win a Class and come second in another. The second place was her first attempt at a higher level, with added complexity and exercises. So this was a big step up for Girlee. To say I was elated would be an understatement, she showed me how truly talented and capable she is and how bright her future could be, but on this occasion, she was beaten by the better dog.

The dog is owned by a peer, friend and fellow competitor Jane Pottle, and her young blue Merle riot. This is a fantastic team, at the start of a fantastic journey and I was totally ok to take second to Jane. Some may describe this as odd. We are in a competitive sport, why were you happy with second?

Well let me explain.

For my dog, this was a big ask. Two full rounds, in testing conditions and a step up in what she needed to do. I was pleased she completed the test on her first attempt, and did it well enough to be ‘in the mix’. To finish with, she has had a glitch in scent discrimination in training recently which we have hopefully worked through. Well she did it brilliantly, losing a mere quarter on this exercise. Girlee was super! She surpassed my expectations on all accounts. She has competed 5 times, gaining two wins, and 3 seconds. How can i possibly quibble over that! But on the day, she was beaten by the better dog. This was Jane’s first A win, after gaining second the week before. But its more then that.

I have known Jane for years, when she first started competing in Obedience with her rescue collies. She has taken on rehome and rescues with baggage and hang ups, and built their confidence and trained them to championship level, but never quite having that luck needed or their temperament has stopped them truly shining.

When her young girl was born, Jane wasn’t meant to be having her… but fate and good fortune brought them together. And the start of something truly special was born. You can see it. Its that special something that we all hope for.

Dont get me wrong the competitor in me, was partially willing for a stray meteorite to strike Jane down as she walked over to the ring… I wouldn’t want any PERMANENT damage, just a slight startle so she had to have a lie down and decline to do scent. But there was no meteorite, she did a super scent, and won. And rightly so!

I couldn’t be more pleased for Jane, as she starts her journey with Riot. I did say when we went to get our prizes, that I hoped we’d be in the position again, but next times reversed 😉

See, acknowledging someones else’s success doesn’t detract from your own, be it in competition, business or indeed life. Its ok, to say that someone was great, wonderful or brilliant and then strive to better yourself. Thats what good competition should do, it inspires. Tearing others down, doesn’t raise you up.

Being ’beaten’ isn’t a permanent state, it may be a cliche, but it is always possible to pick yourself up and start over. Adjust, adapt and learn from your loses. You aren’t losing, you are learning.

Success in any field isn’t a given and the hardwork and dedication to your craft, takes time, effort and energy. But so do politeness, humility and grace.

Even in defeat, acknowledge your own achievement and that of others. The psychology of competing is a area that has always intrigued me, and understanding it, and going through the journey to train my ‘mental game’ has meant that I can help countless people with their ‘mental game’. My students and pupils across the world, range from first time dog owners who have stumbled into this world of dog sports, to World championship competitors. Being able to help them master their own mind, to over come apprehension and anxiety ultimately fills them with confidence and changes the way in which they perceive themselves. For me, that is a win in itself. But part of that journey is understanding defeat, loss and ‘failure’. Teaching people to cope with an experience they perceive as a ‘failure’ is crucial part of being a ‘coach’. And teaching people to accept loss graciously is also part of my role.

Acknowledging other people’s shine, takes nothing away from yours! Being gracious, changes your perspective, you can either choose to focus on what you lost, or what you gained!