What does it mean to master something? Truly master something? What would a master say to someone who hasn’t mastered their skill?
It seems like lately, I’ve been dealing with a lot of doubt in owners. I’m not sure why. It could be the pandemic stressing people out, or the election, or any number of things really. This year has been a test of our collective and individual wills.
Many of the owners of who I work with seem to be struggling more than usual. I am having to give pep talks a lot more frequently. Owners are having set backs, struggling with mastering skills and techniques, getting discouraged. And that’s okay and here’s why:
Training and modification, on any kind, takes time.
Let that sink in. Training and modification takes time. The skills that I am teaching you took me a long time to master, and even now, I am still learning, developing, and rethinking what I know. To me, mastery doesn’t mean that I can stop learning or stop practicing, it means that I have learned that time is the greatest teacher, and patience is the classroom.
Let’s think about this for a moment. Doctors don’t master medicine, they practice it. Athletes do not master a sport, they practice. They don’t stop learning. Dog trainers, true dog trainers, are the same way. We do not master our craft, we are mastering it. Actively mastering it. There are no master dog trainers, there are trainers that are pursuing their goals and constantly honing their skills and expanding their knowledge.
So what do owners do? You do what you can. I’m going to say that again, so you understand exactly I am saying: YOU DO WHAT YOU CAN. You aren’t a trainer. You don’t always have the time to train. And while I try to recommend ways to work this into your schedule, that doesn’t always work.
Do not get disheartened. You have something that I don’t: constant exposure to your dog. I am not here to fix the problem right away. I am here to give you the tools so that you can keep working with your dog when I’m not there. Remember, you are the one living with your dog, not me. You have all the time in the world, literally the rest of your dogs life, to get this right. And as long as you keep trying, keep working, remain patient and persistent, then you will see progress.
Keep up the good work everyone! We’ll get through this. You and your dog will get through this. And I’ll be here to help you along every step of the way.
My favorite seasons are Fall and Spring. I prefer Summer to Winter, simply because I like warm and long days to cold and short. But I love Fall and Spring. Fall has my two favorite holidays, Halloween and Thanksgiving, and I love the colors. I love Spring because it brings an end to Winter. I love the explosion of life, the brilliancy of colors, the warm and pleasant days. But Spring and Fall are seasons of change.
In ancient cultures, there were many holidays and celebrations associated with Spring. Ideas and concepts of rebirth and change are intertwined with Springtime. This reflects nature itself, as plants bloom, animals that gave birth over winter begin to bring their young out into the world, snow melts and rivers run strong. It is a time of change.
I’ve been thinking about change. Change isn’t easy for people, and definitely not for dogs. There has been so much change this year. It’s hard to accept some of the changes we’ve seen this year.
As a trainer, I’ve taken some time to reflect on how I’ve changed, not just this year but in general. Changes in how I teach, how I present information but also changes in my views and techniques. I want to reflect on that and why it’s important.
First of all, I’ve been working with an apprentice, and a lot of you have met her. I’ve mentioned this before, but teaching her has been beneficial to me. She asks questions that owners don’t think to ask, and given the time we spend together, asks follow-up questions and provides me with her views and opinions. This has been beneficial to me because it has taught me how to better explain novel concepts to people. On top of that, she has helped me find gaps in my knowledge and motivated me to fill in those gaps. I can’t fully explain how beneficial teaching her has been for me.
I’m also thinking about the techniques I’m using. I’m working on a new one that I started last night, and it got me to thinking about how I try to keep up-to-date with methods and trying new methods. I am trying to get out of my comfort zone and look for new and more effective techniques, updating ones I currently employ, keeping myself sharp. That is always difficult. Looking for faults in how you do your job is never easy, and I’m no different than anyone else.
Finally, I’m changing how I view things. My point of view on things is shifting. I remember reading an article by a trainer that, like me, specializes in aggression counter-conditioning. I remember that she asked the question: Are we normalizing behaviors that we shouldn’t? That question has stuck with me for a while, and while I don’t have an answer yet, I do have some observations on it. When I first started out as a trainer, I believed that there wasn’t a behavior that couldn’t be modified. That is, of course, incorrect. There are many behaviors that cannot be modified. As I learned more, I held the view that there are some behaviors that can be modified, and some that can’t and we should learn to live with that.
Take prey drive for example, this is an intrinsic behavior that is stronger in some dogs than in others. Flynn, my terrier mix, has a strong prey drive. Through training, I have been able to modify his prey drive to a degree. But while he no longer chases cats or squirrels, he still has a problem with raccoons. So, as a trainer, what do I do about this? Modifying the behavior, specifically with raccoons, is unlikely. I can’t control when the raccoons are in the yard, and for their part, they are getting better about avoiding the yard when we go out. Is the behavior harmful? Not really. The raccoons usually has a pretty good head start, and since Flynn can’t climb trees, I don’t usually have to worry about him catching one. Flynn also displays a good situational awareness when chasing them, avoiding trees and obstacles, and he stops once he loses sight of them. The few times we have encountered them on leash, he has been content to bark at them. So, the answer is no, I will not modify the behavior, even if I felt like I could.
Let’s talk about his dog reactivity. Flynn has never been seriously hurt by another dog. I tried socialization, play groups and the like, as a puppy but he never showed much interest in interacting with other dogs outside of our home. When my in-laws visit, and bring their dogs, he coexists with them relatively peacefully. But outside of the home, he doesn’t care for them. If a dog approaches him, especially if they are larger and more active, he will bark at them. If I let him get close, he usually calms down, checks out the other dog, and leaves them alone. When it comes to working with clients, this is actually a useful behavior, because he provides a good distraction for other dogs. As an owner, it can be annoying and I once considered it embarrassing. Although now, four years later, I’ve come to accept that Flynn is just an asocial dog. He prefers the company of people to other dogs, and my company to anyone else. As a trainer, I’ve elected to not worry about training this out of him. I accept my dog for who he is, because the behavior is harmless.
It took me a while to come to this realization, and I still struggle with it at times. Things change. I hope as owners, I communicate that to you in our classes. Whether we are trying to keep your puppy from pooping in the house or keep your dog from attacking others while walking, change will happen. Sometimes that change is simply being aware of your dogs behavior or we are changing you and your dogs behavior through conditioning, things will change. How much they change isn’t up to me, that’s between you and the dog. And if things don’t change, or don’t change right away, don’t worry. We’ll keep working. Persisting is a kind of change all on its own.
I hope you all enjoy the rest of Spring and Summer! Hopefully, this year will get better!
I know it’s been a while since I’ve posted a blog. I apologize for that. This last month has been insane for everyone, and we were no different. The short of it is, pandemics suck. In this last month, both my dad and Jennifer’s dad were ill. My dad had to be hospitalized for a few days. Her dad actually had COVID and has since made a recovery. Jennifer has been home more, first because PetSmart had closed their salons and then because she was sick. She had a negative COVID19 test and is much better now, but she was pretty sick for a while and I had to take care of her. Her being home has put a bit of monkey wrench in how much work I get done, both because I tend to focus better when I’m alone and I don’t want to be rude, taking up time and space while she is here.
On top of all of this, we have a new laptop. But it isn’t working correctly, and keeps blue-screening on me and restarting. This is my 3rd attempt at writing this blog because of that. So much fun…
Anyway, quarantine has all taught us some lessons about a variety of things, and dog training is no different. Here are a few of the lessons I have learned from this:
1.) There is no substitute for in-person training.
I have read several articles from a variety of professional resources about conducting your training business online. Last year, I began offering online assessments and distance learning for clients who were out of my area of operation, although I have yet to work with a client that way. I have done exactly one online assessment to date. And what I can tell you is that it is no substitute for doing this in-person.
Part of it is my teaching method, I like to observe the interactions between you and your dog. Part of it is being able to demonstrate how to do whatever it is properly, having you watch my body language and so on. But a big part of it is simply space. We have a small house, and I don’t have a lot of space that I can use. We have a big back yard and I do my best to put it to good use, although there are some issues with that that I won’t get into. But with the number of people and animals we have in our house, space is a precious commodity.
2.) Training dogs is easy, training people is not.
I remember reading a book called “It’s Not The Dogs, It’s The People”. The title kinda gives it away. But it’s the truth. Training people is…hard. No offense. But I’m not standing in a glass house, casting stones. The truth is, the hardest people I have ever tried to train is my own family. My wife, for the most part, tries to do things with the dogs the way I want her to. But even then, she has moments or does things that I really don’t like. I’ve yet to find a way to communicate to her why we shouldn’t do some things the way she wants to do them. But, by far, the hardest person has been my mother-in-law. We all know the jokes about mother-in-laws being difficult people. Mine’s a little more difficult than most. She doesn’t like dog training as a rule, and just simply ignores what I ask her to do with my dogs. It’s enough to make me consider using a shock collar…on her…not the dogs…
3.) I do not understand why everyone has taken up running! And neither do my dogs!
I so appreciate the healthy choices all of you are making. No, really, I’m being honest. I’m glad that you have the drive to get out there and exercise. I sure don’t. My inner hobbit has been quite happy with quarantine life. But my dogs do get extremely frustrated seeing everyone in my neighborhood run by our windows. I’ve talked to a lot of clients about barrier frustration since all of this began. And the truth is, the best thing you can do is manage it. Just don’t open the blinds. Or if you do, accept that your dog is going to bark. We’ve been breeding dogs for around 30,000 years to bark at threats. It’s only been within the last century that we have decided that it is inconvenient.
4.) We finally have the time to train our dogs…and we didn’t.
Again, I’m not going to cast stones here. This more about me than anyone else. I had a lot of time on my hands, and I could have put it to better use. Now, you don’t always want to, I get that. Suffering from depression and anxiety the way I do, I can’t always work up the energy to do it myself. But I know it’s not always that. I guess my point is that…we take a lot for granted with our dogs. Maybe we shouldn’t?
What lessons did you learn quarantine? Has it changed your outlook on things? I want to know!
“What I told you was true, from a certain point of view. You’re going to find that many of the truths we cling to depend greatly on our own point of view.” – Obi-Wan Kenobi, The Return of the Jedi
Our perception of the things around us are limited to our senses and our ability to process the information our senses provide us. That information isn’t always accurate. A blur of movement in the night might be a mugger, or it might simply be a trick of light and wind. A brush against your arm could be little more than a shift of air or it could be a spider crawling on you. Our vision, which is our main sense, is fallible in so many ways. There are so many optical illusions and tricks our eyes can play on us that I am reminded of yet another Kenobi quote “Your eyes can deceive you, don’t trust them.”
If there is a disconnect for us, what about other creatures? In this particular case, dogs? What information are they taking in? What conclusions are they drawing from it? Is the information accurate or interpreted accurately?
They are so many questions I wish I had an answer for. For everything I feel like I know about dogs and their behavior, there are hundreds more that I wish I had an answer for. Sometimes, I wonder if I’m even asking the right questions.
So where does that leave us as owners? Our points of view effect how we interpret what our dogs are doing and, perhaps more importantly, why our dogs are doing what they are doing. One of the greatest risks we run is anthropomorphizing our dogs: attributing human motivations and emotions to them. This is unfair to our dogs. So often I hear the words “He knows that he is doing wrong” or “She only does it when she is mad at me.” This isn’t fair to our dogs, because we can’t confirm that, and all evidence points to the contrary. We are incorrectly forcing our point of view onto our dogs actions and in turn dealing with them in the wrong way.
So what should we do? Train the dog that’s in front of you. I know this is going to sound counter-intuitive but don’t dig to deeply into WHY your dog is doing what they are doing. We might not always be able to answer that question. I can’t always explain why your dog is frightened by something. But that isn’t important. What’s important is what your dog learns to do in the face of that fear, and how you train your dog to face it.
So what’s the lesson here? I guess the lesson is to stop letting your emotions cloud your judgement, and stop letting it guide your actions with your dog. Don’t let your point of view twist what is really happening. Stop focusing on the “why” and focus more on the “what now”.
Unless you’ve been living under a rock, you’ve probably seen this meme or heard this song making the rounds on the internet. “Toss A Coin” is a real ear-worm. If you don’t know what it is, I’ll take a moment to explain it you. This is from The Witcher, a fantasy show that follows Geralt of Rivia, a witcher, as he wonders The Continent hunting monsters for coin. Think of him as a bounty hunter of sorts, but only he hunts the things that go bump in the night. The guy in the picture is a bard, Jaskier, who takes it upon himself to extol the virtues of the Witcher to the various people Geralt helps along the way and make a little coin in the process for both of them. Countless memes have spun up around it, but for the people in my profession (and professions similar to mine), we have found an odd way to relate to both the song and the character it depicts.
While I wish I looked as handsome as Henry Cavill, I have some similarities to the character he plays. Geralt gets paid to hunt monsters, and admittedly, it’s rarely the people that have a lot of money that hire him. In the books, show and video game (all of which are great), Geralt is rarely hired to hunt monsters by rich nobles or kings. Usually, it’s poorer people, farmers and peasants, that offer him their coin in exchange for his services. And occasionally, he gets the question “Why can’t you do it for free?”
I don’t fight monsters, not real monsters anyway. The scary things I fight are in your dogs head and the fear that your dogs behavior creates in you. And while I think it would look pretty cool to wear armor and a sword, the truth is that my “weapons” are little more than a clicker, a treat pouch, knowledge, and patience.
Why don’t I do it for free? Well, mainly because good intentions don’t keep the lights on or food in the belly. In an ideal world, I could do this without charging people money. And while I know that some of you think my prices are high, you may not understand the costs that go into being a dog trainer. Even for a sole proprietor like me, there are a lot of expenses of operating. Supplies, maintenance for my vehicle since I don’t have a facility, gas, insurance, business licenses all factor in. Then there are expenses that people don’t think about, like continuing education costs. My certification, and certain professional memberships, require me to continue learning and to provide proof of that. Those classes are extremely expensive, most around $500 or more. And of course, there’s a powerful need to eat in there too. So, for now, I have to charge, and I charge appropriately for my services. I’d love to do this for free, I really would; but until I get my T.V. show and become a celebrity, I have to make a living.
So, toss a coin to your dog trainer, and your groomer, and your vet, and your dog walker. Remember that this is a mostly gig economy right now; and that while you shouldn’t break the bank, you should remember that others are trying to make a living as well.
As a side note, I would like to take a moment to thank you all for your patronage and support. I have seen a 159% growth in my business this last year. I could not do this without the amazing clients that I work for, and for you I am eternally grateful. Thank you all so much!
” Who need a hero? (hero) You need a hero, look in the mirror, there go your hero”
-Pray For Me
So, this has been a busy year for me. Which is good! It’s bad for my blog, but I’m trying.
I hear a lot of funny things when I’m working with a client in their home. I get a lot of “you’re so good at this!” Well, yes, I have had years of practice and repetition. I also get a lot of “My dog listens to you, why doesn’t he listen to me that way?” Well, do the homework I am telling you to do, as I am telling you to do it and your dog will listen to you to. But there is one phrase I hate hearing:
Could you just move in and live here with us?
Now, don’t get me wrong, I’m flattered. I’m also not an awful house guest. But I hate what that phrase implies. I know most clients say it as more of a joke, but many a truth is said in jest. When you joke about me moving in, then it implies to me that something is wrong. Now, there could be several things that are going wrong, but it means we need to talk.
So, where’d we mess up? As a trainer, I spend a lot of time watching you and your dog interact, looking for ways to improve your training style. I try to encourage people to ask questions, frequently; in whatever format they prefer. I keep my phone on and near at hand for just this reason. And there is no such thing as a stupid question.
But there are two sides to every coin. And I know that part of it is your confidence level. Now, there is only so much I can to help raise your confidence. I can say things to encourage and inspire you. I can cheer you on and praise you. I can even click and give you a cookie! But you need to realize that at the end of the day, it is all about you.
I wasn’t always this confident. I am not always this confident. I have my days where I just want to bury my head in the sand. Flynn’s dog reactivity acts up on his way to the groomer. Or Phillip gets snippy with the cats. Or I just get inside my head and start beating myself up. What do I do?
First thing I do is something I find relaxing. I’ve got a few hobbies and things that I enjoy. I’ll do something related to them. I’ll do something that’s not related to dog training. I also find watching a favorite show or movie or book helps immensely.
Then, I come back to the training problem I’m dealing with. I try to approach it from an objective point of view, without any kind of emotion clouding my judgement. This is much harder to do than it sounds. And I follow my own advice. I start with what I want the end result to be and work backwards from there. I try to take a look at where the problem is occurring and focus on that moment. And I keep doing this, practicing over and over again until I get it right. I train.
Training isn’t just for the dog. Training is for you too. You need to train yourself as much as you need to train your pup. You need to master your behaviors, fine tune your cues, build up your muscle memory and form new neural pathways. You need to be a hero for your dog and a hero for yourself.
And to quote Nick Fury: I still believe in heroes.