Teacher’s Pet

As a professional Dog Sports Coach, and International Seminar instructor, a huge part of my role is to get information across to people in a manner in which they understand. I have spent years refining and learning how to do this effectively, and I have grown in this role from my early years. Being a coach and teacher requires more then just the ability to communicate effectively, it also requires the ability to read people, adjust to them and taper your teaching accordingly.

I learnt a valuable lesson from a student years ago, and it still stays with me to this day.

This particularly student had a German Shepherd, which had the potential to be not just good but great…. She came to me when the dog was an adult, but still relatively early in its career. When she first came training with me, I quickly realised that there were some crack in her training that needed addressing. We set about doing this, and the dog just thrived on the new lessons and games we introduced.

This went on for several months over the winter and the dog just flourished. When the competitive season started the following year, the owner was chomping at the bit to start to see if the lessons had any impact. I stressed the need to generalise the training to the show environment, and the importance of reinforcing the behaviours we had worked on in training, especially as the dog had a history to the inappropriate response in the ring.

However, contrary to my advice… the owner decided to compete. And she won. The fruits of her labour had paid off and she was ‘reinforced’ by winning! Great right? Well no…..not really….

The phrase, ‘Don’t sacrifice what you want for what you want right now’, is so apt in this instance. At the following group session, we celebrated the success and the owner was absolutely elated. And rightly so. This dog hadn’t had any success in the ring for the whole previous season, because of the dog going in the ring and switching off and displacing, so for her to enter the ring, engaged and focused was an achievement in itself, however to do one better and win as a huge boost.

At this group session, we also discussed the importance and need to reinforce in the ring. She agreed that this was valid and understood the importance of doing so, so committed to doing so the following weekend.

The subsequent session, the owner attended with a rosette for a place in one of her classes. She explained that she ‘would’ve won but….’ and asked if we could work on her right turns.

I asked, does she have a right turn issue? She stated, ‘No not normally’…. I asked why she felt the need to work on them, if they weren’t usually an issue? She stated that this is what cost her from winning.

This line of conversation went on for several months, and this advice I gave was largely ignored in preference of competing. Slowly but surely, the quality of the dogs work began to deteriorate and I have to confess I was growing increasingly frustrated.

Each session, the handler would ask for a ‘solution’ to a error that occurred in the ring. She was being reactive training, rather the proactive. She had failed to adhered to the golden rule of reinforcement based training, you have to be prepared to reinforce behaviour in the environment where it matters the most.

This pattern continued for some time, and I would avidly repeat the need to do some training in the show environment. She stated that she would do this, but it was always when the dog had failed and made a mistake first. So the dog was failing, not being reinforced for the correct response and its condition emotional response and shows was plummeting. The old demons were coming back to haunt this team. I have to say, she was never cross or angry with her dog, or horrible to it in any way, certainly not consciously. She may have miscommunicated with the dog and it may have been a bit jaded, but she never punished the dog or chastise it, in anyway.

I have to admit, I was growing more and more frustrated and also not enjoying the lessons we had. I would be short with the handler, and for a trainer that promotes the use of positive reinforcement, I wasn’t following my own advise!

It all came to a head, when the handler came back with her rosette from a special class for German shepherds, after being advised not to enter, and if she did, not compete. I have to confess, I was far from understanding. After that session, I sent a very diplomatic email saying that I felt that I could no longer teach her, I stated that I didnt feel our goals aligned. I explained briefly why I felt this and that I wished her all the best for the future. The handler responded with shock, stating that she loved the sessions but understood by sentiment and that she thanked me for all my efforts. I have to confess, I stand by the sentiment of the email, as although this is my ‘job’, it has to be more then just a financial motivation for me. At the time, I was also a Police Officer, so this was not my main source of income, so I was in a position to be able to ‘not train’ people, if I didnt want to.

The handlers year progress as anticipated, and she picked up more rosettes, including a few firsts. Each time thanking me for my input, however the dog largely reverted back to showing a mixed bag of responses.

Some months later, I attended two shows held on the same weekend at the same venue. It was October, and the weather was far from friendly. I remember driving into the venue at some un-godly hour of the morning and being greeted by the handler welcoming people and parking them.

On each day, I completed stays and there was the same face in the stay ring helping out with stewarding duties.

On morning of the second day, there she was on the gate again. Smiling, friendly and polite. At the end of the second day, after an awful weekend of rain, mud and cold… as I pulled out of the venue, there was the same person helping clear the venue of rubbish, vehicles and ring equipment.

In that moment it dawned on me that, for her… it was more then just ‘competing’. It was her life. It was her joy, it was her social circle. She had partaken in this sport for 40yrs, and still loved it as much as she ever did. Her dogs going in the ring, and getting a rosette was her reinforcement for standing out in the cold, wet and horrid weather parking cars an keeping the wheels of the sport turning.

It dawned on me, that I was right to say that our goals didnt align, but in this instance it wasnt ‘my’ goals that mattered.

I could see her dog being a prolific, show stopping Obedience dog, whereas she saw her companion, that enjoyed spending time with at weekends, socialising and meeting up with friends she had known for 40yrs and partaking in a hobby that she still loved, and you know what… what’s wrong with that!

I learnt a valuable lesson that I still think of to this day. As a coach, my role is to help my students reach their goals, whatever they may be. My goals are secondary to theres, if at all.

I realised that in order to get the best from an individual, I have to ‘tune’ myself into them. I also accept that I can’t help everyone, and I may not be the right person for them. It may be that we view training dogs differently, or that I can’t ‘click’ with them or them me. The relationship between student and coach is personal and both of us have to feel it is right. The lesson I have gleaned from this one, has taught me how to be a better teacher and therefore help others.

Sometimes, this takes a minute for a teacher/pupil relationship to develop. However, we can help each other in this process.

1. Be prepared – This means, that as teacher I am prepared and understand the needs and requirements of my students, and that as a student, you are prepared and ready to learn. When first meeting your prospect teacher/student, be open. People are nervous and apprehensive, when they attend seminars or lessons. Its the nature of student/teacher relationships to be a bit daunting at first, so being prepared will remove some of that tension. This may be by having the equipment you need, or ample treats. It keeps the session flowing if you are ‘ready’.

2. Be specific – be specific in your instruction and your needs. Communication is key. Be clear about what you want. Dont give a generic answer when asked what you want to work on, be specific Not only is this better training, it is better teaching.

3. Take ownership – a teacher/coaches role is to communicate information, support and assist… the students role is to do the work, listen and be proactive. There is nothing more disheartening then, when one part of the team isn’t fulfilling their responsibility. However, apportioning blame on the other party is a choice. You don’t have to stay there! Take ownership of your dogs journey and take ownership of your shortcomings.

4. Do the work – It is soul destroying when you are giving your all and the other party isn’t pulling their weight. Its like your pulling a cart up a steep hill, and there are boulders and rocks in your path. But one person wants to jump in the cart and let you do the work…. thats not fair for anyone. This can be either the teacher or student.

5. Have fun – for those in Dog sports, lets be clear… it’s only a game!!! Now the notoriety success brings may help create seminars, classes, pupils or the Competition may result in titles and accolades, but when you break it down to the most simple conversation… its a game and meant to be F.U.N! If you’re aren’t enjoying it, even the struggles and challenges, don’t do it! Its not mandatory!

6. Speak up – stand for something or fall at anything! Be your dogs advocate! No one can ‘make’ you do anything. Honesty is the best policy, relationships are about trust. Don’t be afraid to speak up… if they don’t want to hear it, chances are the relationship isn’t right.

7. You’re only human – sometimes we all make mistakes, and we all are entitled to a second chance. Dog training is often a escape for many, and there is so many emotions involved. Compassion and understanding go a long way, what’s happening away from the lesson may be a contributing factor. Sometimes the best lessons is just a shoulder to lean on.

8. Be present. The dog deserves the ‘A Game’ from everyone. This means that everyone has to be committed of this isn’t going to work. Its ok for things not to click, but you have the right to say so, but if you’re in it, give your all. The dog deserves that.

9. To make it last, the motivation has to be genuine. For me, its not about money and accolades, its about the relationship and getting the best out of the team. This can’t be created if you have your eyes on the pound signs. Its a journey with too many trials and tribulations to do it for anything else.

10. Reinforcement isn’t just something we do with our dogs, we all need reinforcement to build our behaviour. Gratitude, thanks and appreciation goes a long way. It cost nothing to acknowledge someone’s efforts.

Whats wrong with the nice guy?

Following on from my recent blog about being ‘over dogged’, (here is the link to that blog…. https://kamalfernandez.blog/2018/04/10/all-your-options/ ) it raises the question about what type of dog is most suitable for dog sports, or indeed life in general… and it prompted me to ponder the question that I am sure I will be asking my daughter in about 18yrs…. ‘what’s wrong with the nice guy?’

You can imagine my angst as I ponder the day, Neave walks in introducing her latest ‘acquisition’…. he walks into our front door, entering it like he owns it, chewing gum loudly referring to me as ‘pops’…. This little ‘treasure’ is wearing sunglasses inside! And has a car that is the colour of Kermit the frog, and has an engine that clearly screams ‘insecure’ and ‘compensating’!!! I resist the temptation to whisper to my malinois his cue to go into a hold and bark, exclaiming ‘he’s never done that before… but I would suggest you don’t make any sudden moves’…. all the time thinking, we have a large garden… and where can I acquire some patio slabs quickly!! You get the feeling I have pondered this position once or twice….

Everyone girl has to have her fair share of ‘bad boys’ in order to find her prince…. I get that, but what is it about overlooking the ‘Nice guy’…. the guy that treats you nicely, he’s polite… he’s kind, he’s patient, he’s easy going…. I can hear you scream ‘boring’ at the screen as you read this…. but hear me out!!

I get the need for excitement and that little adrenaline rush, but overlooking ‘the nice guy’ or even discarding him, is not only a ‘fathers worst nightmare’ but a oversight on so many levels…

I get appeal of the ‘bad boy’, I really do… but lets have some ‘real talk’… after that initial rush of excitement and flurry of fun, the realisation that ‘the bad boy’ comes with a price. See the thing is, those same attributes that make them ‘fun and exciting’, and give you that huge buzz, comes with a downside. The price being, they are what they are. So when the things that drew you to them in the first place are now apparent when you don’t necessarily want them to be, what can you do? Nothing. This is what you signed up for. You can try and reason with them and ask them to turn up on time, or answer their phone when you ring, or stop texting those other girls inappropriate messages… and maybe they’ll stop… or maybe they’ll just get better at controlling themselves. And that might be the compromise you reach… but is that what you really want?

Or do you need the nice guy, who doesn’t have the flash car or huge ego, or OTT personality, or arrogant swagger… but is loyal, trustworthy, hardworking and kind. Who gets on with everyone but isn’t necessarily the life and soul of the party. Who just wants to make you happy.

Now I understand that some people are addicted to bad boys … we only need to glance over our Facebook feeds with those ambiguous statuses to know, some people just love themselves some drama 😉

So lets step aside from my parenting whoa’s and look at the parallel with dogs.

Often ‘the nice guy’ is the option that will suit the most people, and often is seen as a ‘compromise’. But why? So this dog will allow you the time and patience to learn your craft, make mistakes and forgive you for them.

They can be the type of dog that you can build up and have loads of fun with, without the power struggles or reactivity issues you may get with a bit ‘more’ dog.

They are generally easy going with life, so you don’t have to worry about all the additional training to deal with temperaments, or environments.

Now the trade off of the ‘nice guy’ is that he may not come be naturally talented or insanely driven and it may take a bit more effort on your part to get the best out of him, but thats part of the ‘journey’… the reality is that the short term gain of having a dog with Natural flair and desire isn’t always ‘easy’, and the nice guy who has learnt to love his job but is equally happy cuddling on the sofa watching Netflix. But here’s the catch… the ‘nice guy’ will probably be the dog that gets you exactly where you wanted to go…. and the reason being, you just might be a ‘nice person’ to 😉

Dogs with extremes, need handlers and trainers with the same extremes… extreme attention to detail… extreme commitment, extreme awareness…. there is nothing wrong with acknowledging that’s not who you are, and gravitating to a dog of the same ilk.

What we want, isn’t always what we need… being aware the ‘more’ isn’t always better, and the grass isn’t always greener…. the grass underfoot is green if you water it!

All your options….

I just delivered a seminar that was intended to be on motivation and impulse control, however as often is the case, the premise of the seminar altered by the nature and needs of the participants. Seminars can sometimes be organic in their nature, and take a path all of their own. When this happens, I have learnt to go with them.

A conversation that came up and was relevant to so many was the ownership of a dog that overwhelms you, or you find yourself ‘over dogged’.

This is a common issue in dog sports, when people are attracted to certain type of dog that succeeds in a chosen discipline and the natural assumption is that this dog will be the best fit for the sport, however not necessarily the needs of the individual. This can also often happen with people who don’t partake in any sport and just get a dog because they see them on TV, or film of their neighbour has one, and underestimate what that dog is, and all that comes with it. This can simply be the experience of a first time puppy owner. Or when your beloved fido hits adolescence. The feeling of being grossly overwhelmed and ‘over dogged’ can immerse you and sometimes even drown you.

I know this was exactly the feeling when I first owned by truly ‘high drive’ dog. It was like being at the base of a tidal wave, desperately running for shore knowing that I was too far away and all I could do was wait for the impending crash! To say it was steep learning curve would be an understatement. Since then, I have had numerous dogs of this ilk and now, having come through this experience, relish this type of dog and all that comes with it. In fact, I would say, not only do I enjoy it… i thrive on it. However this weekend, got me thinking of how overwhelming this can be and how this ‘experience’ isn’t just unique to dogs.

The parallel I can draw with this, is the experience of being a parent.

The cliche, ‘No one can prepare you for it’ is so true, when talking about parenting, and indeed the first time experience of owning a dog that’s every living moment is consumed with the deep rooted thirst for work and a job to do. This can be an overwhelming feeling, and can often swamp people and leave them feeling in a sense of despair because of it.

I know that parenthood can be overwhelming, and people react in various ways. Feeling overwhelmed by the responsibility, and 24/7 relentless needs of this little amazing being who you have this conflict of emotions about. You have this instant life changing love for them, but also this life changing pressure attached to parenthood and the expectation of others. You see people that just seem to be naturals, who take to every part of the sleepless nights, feeding, nappy changing, crying, screaming etc like a duck to water. This in itself can contribute to the feeling of failure and inadequacy. With some, it takes a moment to adjust to the role and it takes making decisions and choices. Feeling that you can’t cope, being tearful and stressed are ‘normal’ reactions.

This experience, is similar to those who have a dog that they feel overwhelmed by.

You see other ‘doggy parents’ with their adoring ‘furbabies’, listening, being focused, well behaved and the perfect citizen, and you assume that this is what you’ll be getting, or even if you anticipate that there may be some work, you don’t quite equate, how much. Your ego gets in the way, and conjures images of podium places and titles galore, or angelic behaviour and the envy of many. Anything less is a failure….or at least thats the story you have told yourself.

So what are the options for those in this position? What can you do to quill this feeling of being overwhelmed or Over dogged? What are the REAL options to try and deal with problem….

A) Death.

That’s right, for some… death is an option and one frequently chosen. It may sound dramatic but it is an option many resort to. This isn’t to say that this is an option that many would even contemplate, but there are many who have and would. This isn’t about judgement, its about having an open and frank conversation.

I regularly encounter instances where dogs that have overwhelmed their owners have ended up being euthanised because they have become either a liability to themselves or others. It may have been frustration. It may have been misunderstanding, lack of knowledge or simply can’t cope anymore. Again you may not be able to comprehend it, but for some it has been an option. And, in some instances, you know what it may just be the most appropriate option. This blog isn’t about debating the rights and wrongs of euthanasia, it is just having a warts and all conversation about options, and understanding which option is appropriate for you is uniquely personal and takes a lot of soul searching.

B) Rehoming.

Rehoming the dog is an option for so many, hence why we have rescues over flowing with dogs of all shapes and sizes. This was the first initial impression that jumped out at me, when filming ‘Dogs Might Fly, where we had the crazy notion to teach 12 rescue dogs to fly a plane. The dogs we had were all of a ‘type’, and their stories corroborated my thinking. These were mainly dogs who would have overwhelmed their owners and left them feeling like they were drowning. They were craving a vocation and a purpose that just couldn’t be met in the situations they were in.

I have always been very vocal about rehoming dogs, and sometimes ‘self righteous about it’. However, time, wisdom and experience has taught me that in some instances this is the best outcome for all parties who choose this option. The dog and original owners have been happier and better off for it. I have also seen the other extreme, where ‘Rehoming’ was just a flippant decision because of a lack of commitment and awareness of what owning a dog of any type entails.

C) Life Management

I have talked in previous blogs about management, but decided to live with a dog that you feel overwhelmed by may entail a lifetime of management. This may entail having a set routine that prevents issues escalating, and very consciously avoiding any triggers. This can also be overwhelming, having to comply with a endless list of rules by which you run your home, and life. But for some this is a viable option. This is the approach many take, yet do they every actually have joy in this? Do they have find this lifestyle ‘fun’? Or enjoyable? In many cases, this is the best solution for the scenario and one where the dog and person can live in some co-existence. But it is somewhat of a burden.

D) Medication

Medication has become an option prescribed more regularly then in the past, and again in some instances this may be an appropriate solution for dogs that have a physical or chemical need that can be met by medication. However for dogs that are just of a genetic predisposition to work and live life on the edge, this is often a plaster over symptom. I have previously talked about creating contentment rather then calm with these ilk of dogs. These traits have been created by us to serve a purpose, however when they are not appeased they can self implode. When feeling overwhelmed, medicating the dog to stem their over enthusiasm and arousal may be a temporary solution however the symptom will still be there.

The above may not be options that many of you would consider, however that are still options. It may be a trial and error process to determine which suits your situation and knowing what all the options are, can alleviate the pressure. However clearly the emotional and life altering affects need to be considered. So what if you decide that all the above are not options for you… what else can you do?

D) You can embrace the challenge.

This means collating help, be it professionally or emotionally. I have previously talked about ‘villagers’ and never more the case then when you are ‘over dogged’. Everyone of us need support and help, and being open to this is pivotal to overcoming the challenges and issues that will be presented. Being humble enough to accept it is another matter.

It means acceptance of what you are capable of, what the dog is capable of and meeting in the middle. No relationship is perfect, it takes work, patience and commitment.

It means enjoying the journey and savouring the wins along the way. Small achievements, keep you going. Some days its just getting through, others its achieving a milestone. Hold onto the fact that you love and adore this dog, even when you they push you to your limits. That will get you through a lot of tough times.

Change your perspective on the relationship and the dog. I urge people to remind themselves, what drew you to this type of dog… or in other words, what drew you to the prospect of being a parent. Its the moments, the tiny ‘wins’ of success that keep you going. Accepting them for what they are, warts and all. And also accepting that the perfect ‘picture’ doesnt exist. And thats ok.

Be honest with yourself. Evaluate what you can do to create clarity and confidence in your dog. Take ownership of your part in the relationship. Relationships are a two way street, make sure you do you bit…..

Every dog has challenges, with dogs of this ilk the challenges are more extreme and come fast and furious. Each day is constant reminder of how they just dont allow you any grace for inconsistencies, they highlight your shortcomings and keep you on your toes…. but there is something exhilarating and exciting about owning them. Their tenacity, determination, joy at being alive and just sheer gusto! These animals are the ferrari of the dog world, however this means that a commitment to owning them, it means you need to step up your game… you need to give them direction, and channel all these characteristics into positive activities. Engaged them, exhaust them and embrace them They have so much to give, if you do the work.

The golden moments when you get little successes or over come little challenges and reach a point where you can enjoy being with this wonderful little creature… be it two legged or four 😉

Love but not like….

As a professional dog trainer I find myself dealing with a wide and diverse cross section of dogs and people, from first time dog owners to world champions. I make no secret of the passion and love I have for my work, and how grateful I am for the opportunity. However every now and again, I receive a ‘jackpot’ of reinforcement that just affirms to me how my work impacts others and the significant role I play in helping others.

Its easy to assume that when you get your puppy or dog, that the bond and mutual love and adoration will be instantaneous, but often loving your dog and liking them are two totally different things. I’ve has this experience with my first dog, I loved her but took me years to ‘like’ her. She was challenging and I was deeply overwhelmed! I knew nothing about owning or training a dog, and she reflected this. This is a common experience for many.

One such instance is that of Catherine and Emma the border Collie.

Catherine was referred to me by a friend after attending her place of work in what can be described as total despair over the puppy that she owned. Her 12wk old high drive border collie was literally ruining her life to the point of frustrating and anxiety.

I was referred to Catherine as they were confident I could help. Catherine contacted me with a stringent list of questions, and I could sense the overwhelming feeling she was under in our conversation. She arranged to attend my life skills class the following week.

Within an hour of contacting me she sent me a message via Facebook stating that she had a change of heart and wasn’t going to attend. My ethos when this happens is not to pressure or push someone to attend. It has to be their choice. Within 15mins I had a call from my friend asking if I could ring Catherine back and talk to her again about attending, as they felt she needed help and that she was struggling with the puppy.

I rang Catherine back and I just suggested she come and watch, and we go from there.

The following week, Catherine attended and her first interaction was a sigh of relief. I could feel the tension coming from her, this was a person overwhelmed and over-dogged.

She explained that the dog had been bred for her, from strong sheepdog lines as she had a small holding and had lost her older dogs. She explained that her older dogs had come trained. Catherine was like so many people who take on a puppy from working lines, she was overwhelmed by the energy and intensity of the dog. She had attended another puppy class, and Emma spent most of the night screaming and having to be removed from the class.

We started working on laying foundations for creating a well adjusted family pet, basic skills of focus and impulse control. We worked on her recall a lot!!! This was a huge challenge! And we gave her lots of mental stimulation.

The journey wasn’t easy, Catherine openly stated that at times she would question if she even wanted to keep Emma, whether she even liked her…. and whether the better option would be to find her a home with a more suitable owner. These are questions people often ask themselves when they feel they aren’t meeting their dogs needs or that the dog is the wrong choice for them. She openly stated that she would often find herself in tears over the relationship or lack of relationship with Emma.

However, bit by bit the tide started to turn.

Catherine was determined to turn this little girl around.

We enriched her life with teaching tricks and other fun activities. The only thing to limit Emma’s potential was Catherine’s imagination! We did some nose work with her and she just lapped it up. Catherine started to see the brilliance in her dog rather then the challenges. She changed her perspective and the relationship changed.

The difference is unrecognisable! This is a dog that can do endless tricks, can be recalled off livestock, can be in a class and engaged with her owner whilst other dogs are working….

Like every journey, it isn’t finished. There is still more to do and challenges to be met, and Emma can still have her moments, but the greatest achievement thus far is that Catherine and Emma now have a relationship, one where they are enjoying each other’s company, they love each other but more importantly, LIKE each other! Its easy to love your dog, but not LIKE them. Having both is truly a blessing.

Its moments like this, that make all the heartache, frustration and uphill struggles worthwhile. And its moments like this that make my job so worthwhile.

Relationships aren’t simple or straight forward but they are worth the work and investment. It sometimes takes a concerted effort to make them work, and to learn to like your dog. There would have been no shame in admitting that Emma was the wrong for her lifestyle, but Catherine has persevered and as a result of this gained so much. She now has a family member she can be proud of and the start of something special. And a dog that she both loves and likes!

What can we learn from Voldermort?

I expect you are wondering what on earth I am talking about, how can the infamous bad guy from the Harry Potter Series relate to dog training?

Well, in dog training spheres there are names and words that must not be mentioned, and if you find yourself daring to utter these names or words, you must do so with a hushed voice or whisper and prepare for a barrage of comments declaring how heinous and awful they are…

Well lets stop, take a breath and chill… if just for a second.

Certainly in terms of dog training and behaviour, there is one particular name that if mentioned can split a room like Moses and the red sea. I am deliberately not using ‘The Name’, for fear of a barrage of emails, messages or scathing FB comments… however, here is the point of conflict.

I kind of agree with some of ‘Voldermorts’ thinking. Lets pause for a second whilst I find my hard hat and get into my underground bunker….

Let me be clear. I disagree STRONGLY with the the vast majority of what is promoted, and employed… but you know what. There’s a lot I agree with.

For example, exercising and stimulating your dog. I most definitely agree with this and the thinking behind it, I may approach it differently as may you, but if we whittle it down to ‘disagree/agree’, i agree.

Dogs should have Boundaries. I agree. My dogs have boundaries about how I wish for them to behave, I may teach this via reinforcement but the intent is still the same. I believe boundaries are healthy, they will literally save my dogs life so I have them.

Affection. Agree here too. My dogs are more then just ‘dogs’…. they have a place in my heart and soul etched out solely for each and every one of them. Being around them and near them is a joy. It always has been. I love dogs, I love them in all their weird and wonderful shapes, sizes and colours.

Can you see my conflict! I agree with a lot ‘Voldermort’ says!! Awkward!!!

So what does that say? What does that say about me as a trainer, teacher, dog owner, dog lover?

It doesn’t. It just says that I can see in others our similarities and our differences and thats ok. Rather then judging or condemning others because ‘I am better’, ‘Nicer’, ‘kinder’ or ‘more positive’… why not allow your actions to demonstrate all the above. These actions and example will attract those who want to engage, those that are curious and those that are questioning. And by not judging, you still leave the possibility of communication.

Agreeing to disagree is not a ‘loss’, and being able to differ between an opinion and a person is a vital skill to develop. I can like someone but disagree with them adamantly, or dislike someone yet totally share their views. Often we make our judgements without having a open dialogue.

Dog training, behaviour, diet, exercise and the endless list of topics related to their well being, can cause opportunity for arguments and disagreements, but choosing to discuss in a civil manner and voicing your opinion in an articulate manner may cause a pebble to drop in an otherwise still ‘pool’ and create a ripple.

This ripple may be the start of change.

In divisive times we need to look not at what makes us different, but our commonality. It is this, that will allow us ALL to prosper. Leave the door open, even Voldermort may step in 😉

Dirty words in dog training…

The title may have your mind going to strange places, and there’s nothing like a title to grab your attention! And whilst dogging may have a very different meaning in some circles, this topic is strictly PG!

The title was actually taken from a presentation I have delivered, initially at seminar, and since in various formats.

The subject matter is the contentious and emotive discussion concerning dogs, Training, living and owning them. Words that have become ‘dirty’ in the world of dog training and behaviour.

The history of dog/human relationships has been one fit for a Spielberg classic… the story of taming the wild beast, incorporating them into our lives, befriending them, domesticated them, selecting and breeding them… to eventually raising then for a purpose, if only to take a cute selfie with. Our paths have been intertwined for centuries, as has the process of Training them. We have swung from extreme levels of punishment, to more co-operative approaches which take into consideration the dogs needs and wants. We have been influenced by science and the knowledge gained from those that care give to wild animals in captivity and have employed to ensure their welfare and wellbeing in false environment is as comfortable, humane and ethical as possible. I am aware of the debates in relation to animals kept in captivity, and I am not going delve into this in this blog, as this will detract from the purpose.

I for one am thankful for the sharing of ideas and knowledge available to us, from any source, that allows me to train more effectively and clarity.

However it also appears that we have been a society and culture that swings from one extreme to another.

There are two distinct words, amongst many others that are becoming more and more contentious when even mentioned in relation to dogs, their welfare and Training.

They are stress and frustration.

Before you run for a cold flannel and brown paper bag, as you hyperventilate… hear me out.

As Training of dogs has become more reinforcement based, so has the way in which we perceive and engage with our dogs.

We are more aware of our responsibility towards them. We understand the need to consider THEIR communication signs and body language, whereas in our history this wasn’t relevant or considered.

In this thinking, we have also made the concept of stress and frustration taboo subjects that can divide a room full of dog trainers and behaviourist like the red sea parting. However, in doing so we have misunderstood how both these concepts can assist and help our dogs be happier, healthier and more accustomed to the world we ask them to endure.

Stress and frustration aren’t necessarily a negative concept. At least not in excess, and that is the key. Anything to the extreme can be damaging, too much food can cause health issues, too much sun can cause cancer, too much rain can cause a flood…. but all these things in appropriate doses are needed for us to lead normal HEALTHY lives. I see stress and frustration as the same.

The world is full of situations and circumstances that will create stress and frustration, and not educating our dogs how to deal with either, is preventing them from being healthy.

As a sports dog trainer, I can work and harness both to create better performance and teach my dogs how to think whilst in a heightened state of arousal and how to cope with frustration. But that process of inoculating my dog against both, doesn’t start for the sake of a dog sport… it starts because I want a dog that can function happily, safely and confidently in a world where they may experience both on a daily basis, unpredictably and uncontrollably. They need to develop and be taught coping tactics. That is my responsibility, no different to preparing for daughter for the same when she grows and faces the world.

This reluctance to understand and embrace these concepts can be attributed to several factors.

I believe that we as dogs owners and trainers/behaviourist, we have a lot of guilt over our gross misjudgments from the past, the techniques and methodology used were lacking in compassion and understanding, thats for sure. I am

not referring to individuals but a collective industry. But as Maya Angelou said ‘when you know better, you do better’. We all have made mistakes and misjudgments, thats part of the human experience. Are we potentially over compensating for our past guilt?

As mentioned previously, the influence on dog training and care, by care givers to other animals and species has raised the awareness of management, enrichment and living with animals in environments that are not ‘their own’. This is a huge revelation for us and we should all glean for this knowledge basis. However their are factors to consider that do needed to be taken into context. Dogs and humans have a very unique and deep interwoven relationship, more so then most other species. That is not to discredit the close interpersonal relationship others may share with their axolotl or arachnid, but we have literally created a species of animal that are ‘custom’ made for humans. This in turn has affected their ability to relate to us. They also face challenges on a daily basis as a result of this close interpersonal relationship that other species may not, simple things like the TV, the hoover, children, other strange dogs at ‘their’ park, strange people coming to the door daily… and the endless list of daily stresses our dogs are expected to ‘cope’ with and largely be indifferent to. This is not to list the everyday unpredictable challenges they may face on the odd occasions, an elevator, a hot air ballon, a reversing dustbin truck… these are just a few examples of unusual things our may encounter on any single day, and possibly unpredictably.

Having a dog with sound temperament can’t be overemphasised enough, but often this isn’t the case.

Strategically and systematically inoculating our dogs against stress and frustration will help them navigate their way through ‘our world’. Allowing them time to acclimate to the world, gain confidence and letting them be, whilst they figure out for themselves what scary thing is.

Now before you throw your arms in the arms in disgust, let me clarify. There is a HUGE difference between subjecting your dog to so much stress and frustration it causes them harm or damage, emotionally, mentally or physically and introducing challenges that may cause them stress and frustration in tiny does they barely notice, and providing reinforcement for overcoming the challenge and ALWAYS using your dogs confidence as a bench mark for progression.

Like exercise, you systematically stress your body so that it can adapt and become stronger. Rest days in between exercise are crucial to become stronger and also taking time to build takes time.

But trying to work out when you are ill, or injured is asking for trouble and this is applicable to dog training. Imposing stress and frustration to a dog that is anxious or fearful, will merely break down the dogs confidence.

Shaping, adding arousal systematically and creating achievable challenges for your dog, are just some of the ways to build their confidence and bolster it. Jackpots, thoughtful Training and awareness will create a dog full to the brim with confidence to conquer the world!

It takes a village…

I feel so grateful for to have shared my life with dogs for the majority of time I have been on this planet, and been involved in dog sports for a similar time span.

As you can imagine, owning, being around and spending time with dogs and the world of dogs has had a profound affect on who I am and how I see the world.

So I have chosen to write these forthcoming blogs to share with you some of the biggest lessons I have had. These lesson are applicable to more then just dog Training.

The process of taking on the responsibility of owning a dog and all that comes with it, is for some a mammoth task, especially if you are a first time dog owner, or you have a particularly challenging dog.

I can recall vividly the daunting task of getting our first dog in our home, and realisation how little we knew! How do they know to go out the toilet? How do they know to not pull on a lead? How do they know to come back? And the endless list of questions, are what any unsuspecting newbie dog owner will ask themselves. This was in the days before the internet… so books and other people’s guidance were our only reference.

What is without question, is that we ALL need help. Whether this is to find out how to house train your puppy or get it to a major world championship in your chosen discipline… the journey can’t be a solitary endeavour if you wish to succeed.

So the process of finding and sourcing a network of people to assist you on this, what at times seems a perilous journey, can be challenging.

However it is very much essential.

The phrase ‘It takes a village’ is so appropriate when talking of dogs, ownership, behavioural issues, goals or training.

No one can or needs to do this alone, however being able to discern who are the appropriate ‘villagers’ can be confusing to say the least.

As mentioned, when I first owned a dog, there was no internet in your home, easy access to information 24/7/365 was not a reality. Most of the information came from books, and generally gave guidance on what to do, but not necessarily what to do when the answers or questions weren’t applicable to the content.

Since the invention of the World Wide web, you can ask a question or make a query anywhere, any time and get an answer. However, the internet is awash with advice, videos and tutorials but it can often be a mind field to try and identify which ‘tribe’ to join.

This is sometimes a process of trial and error, and it is not unusual for a inexperienced owner to attend a few options before settling.

The key thing is to look for guidance from people you feel some connection with and who’s ethos, ethics and principles of training and engagement are aligned to yours.

All of us, have a moral and ethical compass that guides us on a daily basis, a internal compass that draws us to the path we should be on. Often external voices, be it literally or figuratively speaking, alter this.

However when it comes to the choice of trainers, methods, choices and philosophy’s we wish to follow with our dogs, we need to utilise this to find our ‘tribe’. Listen to your gut instinct.

The people and social group we surround ourselves with, should serve a purpose on our journey. They should be aligned with who we are, and what we stand for. With Training dogs and behaviour, we need a village of like minded people to help us. Whether this be to provide constructive feedback or to give us a dose of reality and truth. If the ‘tribe’ is aligned with who we are, this will only serve to help us grow and strive closer to our goals.

Allowing toxic negativity into your life will only distract you from your journey. The village should be comprised of those who will uplift you.

Spend the time determining who your villagers are, that connection may be instant, or it may be a worldwide search to find them. But when you do, you’ll know.

Here are some simple yet effective guidelines to help you find your ‘village’.

  1. Take your time and do your homework. Rushing the process will only act as a reason to compromise, and potentially deter your progress. Often people attend a trainer or class, because if the location but end up following a principal and ethos that doesn’t represent who they want to be. Spending the time researching potential villagers will save you time in the long run.
  2. Dont be afraid to question what you see, either internally or literally. You have the right to seek affirmation that these villagers are what they say they are, and they have the right to say the relationship won’t work. And thats ok too. Villagers have to be active participants.
  3. Trust your instinct. Social media, flashy advertising or great marketing should be taken as intended, to grab your attention. But what happens to that attention is your choice. If the feeling isn’t right, move on. There are many more fish in the sea.
  4. Be prepared to ask for help. Pride comes before a fall. There is no shame in seeking ‘villagers’, it doesn’t detract from your brilliance, just says that you are astute enough to recognise your shortcomings and take steps to rectify them.
  5. Be your dogs advocate. In the process of sourcing villagers, you may stumble across those who mean well or may not, but there actions can only have an outcome if you allow it, don’t be afraid to speak up. Someone who is worthy of being in your village will hear you and respect your wishes.
  6. Be open minded. A village takes a diverse group of ‘villagers’, each one uniquely individual. They should share the same purpose, but it’s their individuality that makes them an asset.
  7. Be open, remain humble… villagers should have your back. Being truthful and taking constructive feedback can hit a nerve, but the right villagers are doing it from a place of love and purpose.
  8. Having villagers means you are part of the village. It goes both ways. Don’t be a villager who takes and never gives.
  9. Your villagers represent who you are, so choose wisely. If you don’t like what you see, chances are neither will others when they look at you.
  10. Accept, you may make mistakes. And its ok. You may convince yourself that you’ve found your tribe, and even follow them when you know it’s not who you are. Let it go. The guilt won’t serve you. Its just another lesson pushing you closer to your true path.

And finally, thanks to all my ‘villagers’… you know who you are 😉

I couldn’t do this without you all!