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On the joy of training your dog

As the Behavior Program Coordinator at the Siskiyou Humane Society, it's been my privilege over the years to meet many very fine young people, and be a mentor for some of them.  I remember (would I could forget) myself as a teenager, a troubled bundle of awkwardness, lack of confidence, desire to fit in and passion to become my own person.  I remember those few adults who took the time to give me something of themselves, who listened to me, who I felt "understood" me, and how valuable they were in my life.  I can only be myself--and golly, am I no guru.  Still, I always hope and wish that the young people I interact with can come away with something meaningful and helpful to them.  We never know, of course--all those horses led to water, but the drinking is up to them.

I always think, though, that if there was a magic button I could press that would allow me to give these youngsters a gift, it would be this:

To know that they are powerful.  That their behavior matters and counts profoundly.  That their choices and actions make a difference--to their quality of life, to the people around them and ultimately to the world.   And that taking responsibility for our own actions and results isn't about getting blamed or feeling guilty or accepting some social "trip" laid on us--it's about spreading our own wings into who we are and taking our power into our own hands.  

There's an old truism in the world of dog training:  Every handler gets the dog that they deserve.  Or, every dog is a reflection of the handler.  It's one of those ditties that I've heard many times and I always heard it with a little twinge of discomfort:  true as it may be, it sounds perilously close to wagging a scolding finger and blaming pet owners for not training their dogs "the right way."  But then something happened and it opened my eyes to seeing these truisms in a new, vastly more empowering light.

I videotaped one of my training sessions with Tinker and watched it.   Uh, oh boy, uh-oh.

See, I may be a professional dog trainer with your dog, but I'm really only a pet owner with my dog.  When I come to your house or teach a group class, I'm on the clock, so to speak.  I'm focused on one thing and one thing only--you and your dog and providing the best training services possible.  I'm not multi-tasking on my computer, calling a friend on my cell phone or deciding it's time for a sandwich and I need to put the laundry in the dryer.  I wouldn't dream of stopping in the middle of a group class to smell the roses, repair an agility jump or ponder what I'm having for dinner tonight.   And I'm usually pretty good about not deciding I'd rather rub your dog's tummy and laugh at her goofy antics than train.

With my own dog, though... its all on video.  Tinker is a marvel of flashes of brilliance followed by lack of focus; over-excitement and laziness; little gems of technical perfection mixed with gobs of sloppiness, checking out the flowers and deciding the heck with training, let's go sniff and get a belly rub.  She is in fact exactly a refection of me: trying to do too many things at once, easily distracted by shiny objects and a sudden urge for pizza, too tired at the end of a long day to be sharp and inclined to throw up her hands at the boring or tricky bits that need real work.  Well, they say every dog is a reflection of her handler.  I just had no idea it would be so darned literal.

What's cool about all this is the other old truism: knowledge is power.  And the truth is, I don't need to do a lot to become a better trainer for my own dog--just like you don't have to do as much as you might think to get really useful improvements in your dog's behavior.  We just need to remember:  our behavior matters.  Our actions count.  And sometimes the difference between a truly well-trained dog and a dog driving you nuts isn't hard or complicated:  it's you taking back your own power.  It's taking a deep breath, turning off the cell phone, and giving the dog a few short minutes of our undivided attention when we can be fresh and focused and fully engaged.  It's the joy of communicating and learning and teaching and meeting another mind across the gulf of our differences, human and canine, not all at once but in gems of baby-steps that build, one at a time, to something wonderful and true.

The beauty of group classes is that we get to do these things together, to support and empower each other in the process, and to practice in a setting where dogs can learn lessons they need  most:  how to listen and perform around other people and other dogs.

I hope you'll join us in 2014 for a season of training joy and fun.

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