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!

Cowboy Builders…

I have little expertise when it comes to DIY, I openly admit that it is not my forte…. I once attempted to put a lock on a door.. it involved, nails, screws, glue, an old dog lead and a hammer!!!! All I can say in my defence, is that no one has ever shown me what to do…. I needed to be ‘lured’ to perform task relating to DIY! So my knowledge of building in any form, is what some would say… limited.

However, even I know that the importance of laying strong and deep foundations in order to ensure you building stays upright! After all, no one likes a building that is likely to topple over at the first gust of wind….. 

Well dog training and rearing a dog is no difference. 

I travel the world helping people with their dogs and their respective problems, and the first question I ask is…. how did you train it? The answer to this, should be detailed, comprehensive and easily recalled. However often this isn’t the case, and this is often where the problem lies. 

This is applicable to the frame it takes to rear and train a dog to the level where it can be a asset to you. If human years vs dog years, is 1 dog year equates to 7 human years, we have to assume that it will take a considerable amount of time to achieve that ideal. However the end goals, starts with your foundations. 

The foundations you lay will ultimately be the core on which the rest of your house is built. Often people start thinking about wall colours, and lighting before even having their walls up and I understand the excitement of planning ahead, however worrying about which colour blinds to have may not be an issue if your walls fall down or are strong enough. 

It is a classic mistake made by those just starting out on the first rug of the dog training ladder, to want to rush ahead to the finish line… The cries of ‘yeh but, can I do that bit now…’ are relentlessly cried at instructors worldwide, and the response of ‘not yet, lets get your basics right’ is often the response. 

Its all about your foundations. The time spent building them are worthwhile in the long run, as they will save your countless hours of time and effort in ‘repairing’ parts of your building. 

My youngest dog, Mighty is 2yrs old, and for the first 18months of her life, I barely didn’t any training with her. The reason? Her arrival coinciding with the birth of my daughter and as a result, her training was very much on a back burner to nappies, sleepless nights and milk bottles! Her siblings were being trained with much more intensity and commitment, but sometimes life takes priority. 

However, what I was able to do with Mighty was lay sound foundations. She has a super temperament, and being female and of a breed and line that are less likely to have dog to dog issues then some of the other breeds I have owned,  knew that i could get away with minimal socialisation. She was naturally greedy and had great play, however like most puppies she didn’t have any ’skills’ on how to play and how to interact. So this is where I spent my time. I worked on foundations. I would snatch 5mins of time here and there and work on a foundation skill, be it bringing a toy back, releasing a toy on cue, some shaping or It’s Yer Choice. Her siblings were all progressing at a rate of knots, and I couldn’t be prouder. It was only after a family reunion that I released how little she could do, and I promptly went home and taught her some simple skills. I can honestly say, I taught her some key skills in one session. Yes she is a bright dog that wants to engage with me, and for that I don’t underestimate how fortunate I am, however more crucially I knew she had solid foundations. For example, I wanted to throw a toy for mighty to reward her, have her pick it up, turn back to me at speed, and deliver it to hand. Simple right? Wrong. This is a simple yet crucial skill so many over look in favour of progressing to more ‘sexy’ stuff. So progressing to the sexy stuff with this skill, means you have to alter how you train it. You have to find a compromise or an alternative to accommodate for the fact the dog is unlikely to bring a toy back…. lets take a scenario…  

You want to teach your dog to do agility weaves, and you want them to be fast and independent. So you start the process using which ever method you opt for and you decide to reinforce the dog. 

So the ideal would be to be about to throw a toy for the dog at some point once they have gone through the weaves. However, you opted to say that you didn’t need that skill and you wanted to start weave training. So this means you now have to find an alternative means of reinforcing your dog. It may be to use a lure, which may work but will mean that you will struggle to create independence. You may have a second person help you, this means you are now only able to train your dog when someone else is present…. you decide to throw the toy anyway, which then creates your doh grabbing it and doing a wonder wall of the training field and a scene from ‘The Benny Hill Show’! Can you see by simply not having your dog bring a toy back, the knock on affect it can have. 

But here is the tricky part…. When you first start training, you can’t always tell what foundations you’ll need until your much further down the line…. Is it important that my dog can take a treat in a certain manner? Does it really matter if my dog doesnt let go of the toy straight away? Isn’t it better to just use a treat on his nose to get him to do something? Surely it can’t be THAT important?

Well actually, it is…. and the better foundations you have, the more likely your house will withstand the bad weather, rain, sun and storms that it might face! You can race along and skip this parts…. bit like a cowboy builder will skip the damp course, or insulation… you’ll be fine when the sun is shining, but wait till you get a bit of bad weather or rain…. you’ll certainly realise the value of both in that moment!

If you want to find out a little more about building great foundations… join my face group ‘Kamal Fernandez Dog Training Group’! In that group, I am currently sharing videos, information and articles of creating great foundations for your dog, whether it is destined to be a top notch competition dog or just a well behaved family pet! 

Just click on this link to join….


Every journey starts with the first step, every house starts with a solid foundation……

The missing layer…

The concepts of frustration and stress in our dogs lives and training is a conversation that can polarise dog training fraternities like the red sea parting, some avidly stating that both should be avoided at all cost, and efforts should be made all times to minimise them.

Whilst I don’t disagree with this statement, I also feel that there is a time and place for both. Let me explain and clarify.

In dog sports, frustration and stress are inevitable parts of the process to have a dog perform in a environment of extremes. At your average competitive event, there will be in excess of several hundred dogs and people in a relatively close proximity, there will be strange smells, strange people, strange sights and sounds.

This in itself can be a stressful situation for a dog to be in.

Combine this with the requirements to perform for a length of time, be it 30secs in agility or 45mins in a mondio ring trial, all without reinforcement from the handler as such and being required to listen to cues and signals, and ignore distractions and temptations. This can create a lot of frustration for a dog.

So it is a necessary evil to consider and incorporate both into your training and your preparation. However how do we do this and remain ‘positive’, maintain our relationship with our dog and not have them tip over the edge?

As a trainer who uses positive reinforcement to train my dogs, I run the risk of my dogs never experiencing the failure, frustration or stress in their training.. The aim is to reinforce the dog to encourage a behaviour to be repeated. However this is a big gap between reinforcing every behaviour or skill by dog does, and creating a performance dog or even a service dog, or police dog or any other active role.

Whilst they may have some experiences in ‘real life’ or have a natural tolerance to frustration and stress, I could risk them being fragile to exposure to either in a competitive situation, if not adequately prepared.

This was the challenge that I was faced with when I made the commitment to training with this methodology.

Shaping is my preferred approach to teaching my dogs any behaviour, and it allows me to develop their understanding of ‘concepts’ prior to actually commencing any formal training. There are so many perceived ‘qualities’ of purpose bred sports dogs, that can be trained, For example, I can strategically create a challenge for my dog, to build up their resilience, and tenacity. I teach my dog to ‘recover’ from mistakes, I can create perseverance in them, and create a high drive dog with a clear head that can think when aroused.

Teaching a simple base behaviour such as ‘get in a box’, is an easy way of doing this.

The dog is initially shaped to step into a large box, and progressively the box is reduced in size so that the dogs ability to manoeuvre into the box is challenged. This will create some frustration, and maybe even stress at not being able to complete the task. My role is to support this stage of learning. Equate this to learning any new skill, at first it is hard and even challenging. You think you’ll never get there. Its frustrating and you may even get stressed in the process. Say for example when you were learning to drive and you first went on a busy road, and had to pull out from a round about. Having to think of all the things you were advise in the formative stages when learning in the car park or quieter streets, in a contentious situation can cause you to feel stressed. Hopefully you’re instructor created an environment that was supportive, safe and allowed you to function. They helped and assisted if need me, but left you in the driving seat. Imagine how’d your driving would be, if every situation like this they jumped in and took over the wheel? You’d never succeed. In the same way allowing you to try and learn to drive on a formula one speed track wouldn’t be appropriate either.

Good teaching creates just the right amount of success vs challenge, to create confidence. Inoculate your dogs confidence and training against both frustration and stress, to ultimately create a dog that oozes confidence and clarity!

Beauty in the struggle….

I am often approached by keen and enthusiastic dog trainers who want to have a career in this industry, and asked advice about the best course to take or the best book to read, or what route to take…all of which I often offer suggestions on. However the biggest piece of advice I give is, be prepared to embrace the struggle.

I recently listened to an interview with Ed Sheeran, in which he tells a story of spending time living from sofa to sofa, and the goodwill of others that allowed him to pursue his passion and his craft, to eventually reach the heights of stardom that we all now know. However he also states that it took years for him to accomplish this and people don’t always appreciate the struggles and heartache that goes into becoming an ‘overnight’ success.

When I equate this to my own career, leading to the path that I now follow, I can see this same pattern. Not just with my own journey, but that of training my own dogs and helping others realise their own goals.

The path to ‘success’ is laden with boulders and valleys, and it is this that makes success so much sweeter. The rosette, prize card or accolade is often a representation of the years of dedication that go into creating that perfect moment.

This doesn’t matter if you are a World Championship performer, or starting out… or even a first time dog owner trying to navigate the trials and tribulations of dog ownership.

I started training dogs 27yrs ago, when like so many, I had a dog that didn’t listen to me and as a naive first time dog owner, I needed help! I had seen Agility on the television and watched the junior competition and saw these kids, not much older then me competing and thought ‘I want to do that…. if they can, I can too’.

So I took my first steps on the ‘ladder’

and started homing my craft. But this is not where the struggle started….

My love for dogs was evident way before that, I literally had to beg my parents to let me have a dog… even threatening to leave home (not sure that was a threat or an incentive), several emotional outbursts and eventually I wore them down, till I was allowed to get my own dog.

The first dog we actually had was a kelpie cross, from the RSPCA in Sydney. We only had a few months before having to give her back because my dad got a job back in the UK. We would have had to have her in quarantine, and as we didn’t have a house to move back to, we had to live in one room above my uncles accountancy offices, we literally weren’t in any position to bring her with us. She would have had to be in quarantine longer then we had owned her. The heartbreak of finally getting ‘my’ dog only to have to give her back was a ‘struggle’ in itself.

However the dog that I then got in the UK, my dear little brown mongrel Scrunch (this was in the days before designer crossbreeds!), after more begging was the ‘perfect’ dog to start this journey as she has every issue you could think of! Separation anxiety, resource guarding, no recall, didnt play, fearful… the list goes on! So training her was filled with struggles.

Then came Tai, my first ‘proper’ Obedience dog with his quirky ways and his sensitivities…. the pursuit to gaining his title was filled with struggles… struggles in his training, personal struggles, mental and emotional struggles.

Every dog I have owned has had ‘struggles’ to overcome. I use the word ‘struggle’ because thats what they are… they are challenges that show me who I truly am, and what I am really made of. Every time I encounter one, I am convinced that this struggle is the final one and I contemplate giving up. Its at that point that I grow.

Its these struggles that now allow me to help others, empathise with them and assure them it will be ok. As, others around me have assured me.

Training and owning a dog, isn’t always plain sailing… don’t get me wrong I’ve had easier dogs, but there is always a struggle to overcome.

This is applicable to any goal, aim or dream you have. Struggling through and overcoming obstacles are what make the eventual success so glorious!

Thats the irony. The real beauty lies in the struggle. It is where you develop your skills, hands on experience, where relationships are forged. Its where you develop your ‘feel’. There is no short cuts to this. No amount of reading books or talking about it, can compensate for ‘doing’ it and applying the theory. Its a necessary part of the process.

The struggle isn’t to be avoided, its to be embraced. The sacrifices and hardwork are what make success that much sweeter. Getting in the trenches and getting your hands dirty, is all part of the process. And sometimes you’re going to hit some rock….In what I do, having my own dog and going through those struggles allows me to relate to those I teach. It would be like learning to drive from someone who has read a lot about driving cars and seen it on YouTube, but hasnt actually driven themselves or drove so long ago, they have disconnected with the speed of vehicles now and the roads that exist. It is in the field that our theories ideas and data is tested, collated and ratified. Be it getting your dog to recall away from a running rabbit or achieving a High In Trial at your Nationals. It doesn’t matter. The blood, sweat and tears that go into achieving that one ‘perfect’ performance are what its all about.

There are so many cliches to articulate the concept that hard work goes a long way, and that the path to success in any field is built of years of sacrifice, dedication, hardwork and commitment.

No short cuts, no magic wands, no easy fixes…. its all about the journey not the destination! Enjoy the ride!

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.