When the Dog Trains the Trainer – What Dogs Have Taught Me

I have never met a man so ignorant that I couldn’t learn something from him.

Galileo Galilei

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I’ve been training dogs for many years.  I’ve seen clients’ dogs as puppies, heard updates about them through the years, and been crushed at the news that they’ve crossed the rainbow bridge.  After all these years, I still learn something new about dogs after each session.  Sometimes it’s something small, such as a new way to decrease shedding.  Sometimes it’s something profound that will change the ways I train with the PAW Method. Because learning never ends.  I will never know everything there is to know about dog behavior.  The science behind it will never “prove” anything; it’s merely a hunt for more facts to back up working theories about dog behavior, and making adjustments accordingly.  Kinda like cooking:  you have your tried and true recipe for lasagna, but while out to eat one day you discover an ingredient added to the restaurant’s version.  You realize it will improve the flavor of your own recipe, so you add it to your ever-adapting version.  Nothing is so perfect that it can’t be improved upon.

Yeah, that's pretty much how it works.

Yeah, that’s pretty much how it works.

That goes for me personally, too.  We all know that dogs will change you; always for the better, if you let them.  Be willing to add their wonderful traits to your own.  Traits such as living in the moment.  Knowing gratitude.  And sometimes something so simple as how to breathe properly. But what about other things?  How has working with dogs and owners over the years changed me? The answer: profoundly.

I can let things go easier.  Nothing personal.  That’s a dog’s motto.  They don’t do anything to get back at you…they merely do things for themselves.  And that’s a major distinction.  How does that translate into life?  Well, that $&*! who cut me off on the highway wasn’t trying to ruin my day…they were trying to make theirs easier.  And that mind frame has made all the difference in my attitude.  Just let it go.

I’ve lost “stranger danger”.  Every session I walk into involves a stranger.  Sometimes up to three times a day I walk into a strange house and try to bond with the humans, gain the dog’s trust and “fix” whatever is going wrong between the dogs and the humans.  All within two hours.  There’s no room for awkwardness with the humans.  Thanks to the power of speech, I can bond with the humans pretty quickly and form a “pack” mentality of let’s solve this issue together pretty quickly.  The first couple of years it was rough (I’m actually rather introverted), but like anything else, the more you do it, the less you have to do it.

I feel ya.

I feel ya.

Laughter really IS the best medicine. The first order of business when trying to create pack?  Get the humans to laugh.  Or at least smile.  Okay, how about a mercy chuckle? Because nothing says “we’re friends here” like a show of teeth. From the humans anyway.  I need the humans to trust me, and formality isn’t the way to go.  Sometimes all it takes is one shared laugh, and suddenly I’m not a stranger to them anymore. A sense of humor is imperative when working with dogs, or humans, but especially when working with both.

See what I did there?

See what I did there?

I’m not afraid of being afraid anymore.  Notice I didn’t say I wasn’t afraid anymore.  Believe me, I’m plenty scared when I walk into a house with an aggressive 90lb dog who thinks I’m ugly and dresses funny. Fear is rational; it keeps us safe.  It keeps me from doing something stupid.  Being afraid of fear…now that’s a different story.  I have a nodding acquaintance with fear now. I’m not always thrilled when it shows up, but I know it’s there for a reason.  The thing is, fear is an accessory, not the entire wardrobe.  I am not defined by what I’m afraid of.  My fear is just another tool, be it my fear of getting bit, or my fear of driving over the Valley View Bridge. Fear isn’t good, nor is it bad.  It just is.

The Valley View Bridge.  Hang on, lady, we're going for a ride.

The Valley View Bridge. Hang on, lady, we’re going for a ride.

Potential pack has a much broader definition. Being cautious around things that are unfamiliar is normal and natural.  It’s what keeps us safe.  Fortunately for me, I’m constantly exposed to new people, thoughts, religions, and orientations.  I’ve worked with gays, straights, transgender and cross-dressers.  I’ve worked with old, young an in-between.  I’ve trained athletes and quadriplegics. The scary thing at first is that they’re different from me.  Then the most wonderful, impressive thing at the end is how they’re different than me.  While I accept that being introduced into a new situation is scary, I’m lucky to have been exposed to yet another wonderful variation on a familiar theme: human. And guess what?  We’re all mad, crazy, fun, annoying, amazing beings.

Yes, Sally, even you.

Yes, Sally, even you.

I don’t glory in being right, because, well…I’m not always write right. I’ll never forget a training session about 5 years ago.  A family set up a date and time over email.  I show up, and they’re aren’t ready, and they didn’t expect me, and were actually on their way out.  I was furious.  I had re-arranged my schedule to make sure I could be at their house, and had, as a courtesy, traveled outside my normal area.  However, even though I was in the right, I managed to maintain calmness and said I would call to reschedule. I got home, reviewed their email so I could really lay it on thick about how wrong they were, when I realized: I was wrong. I showed up on the wrong day.  I was the one who made the mistake.  To top it all off, they were exceptionally polite and well mannered about my mistake.  I vowed never again to take the “rub their noses in it” attitude in the case of an honest mistake.

Writing this post makes me realize how working with dogs and people has enriched my life.  My life would have been completely different without having had these opportunities.  So to the furballs, wriggle-butts and rope-toy-tuggers (uh, that’s you, canines).  Thank you.  And to you fellow sapiens, I couldn’t have done it without you, either.

Keep calm and pilot on

Kerry Stack
Darwin Dogs
Dog Training in Cleveland, Ohio

Knowing Your Limits as Pilot

Men must know their limitations.  – Clint Eastwood

Boots and Bee Photography - By Brittany Graham

Boots and Bee Photography – By Brittany Graham

Two sessions today.  One was a pair of Yorkie mixes who just couldn’t stop trying to kill each other.  Second session is a new Husky.  Awesome lineup, in my opinion.  People sounded wonderful on the phone, and I love the feeling of accomplishment after a session. Both were later sessions, so I had most of my morning off.

Problem arises about 3/4 through my first session.  I start to get that sparkly vision in my peripheral.

It can only mean one thing: migraine.

I tend to get migraines when the barometer changes, but also when I’m stressed and not taking care of myself properly.  Over the past few months, business has picked up dramatically for me.  January through March is usually my slower time; yet this year I’ve had more sessions than I typically do in my busy season!  Rather than booking out a bit farther, I decided to double my workload so my clients wouldn’t have to book out so far.  Hence the stress migraine today.

For those of you who aren’t familiar with migraines calling them headaches is like referring to childbirth as some mild cramping.   Fortunately, I usually get plenty of time to take some meds before the actual headache kicks in.  Too bad they only work 70% of the time.

So I have about an hour to get to my next session, and I can’t see out of my left eye, and my brain feels like it’s trying to squeeze through my eyeballs.

 

Actual footage of my brain right now.

What to do?  Apparently, if you’re me, the answer is to beat yourself up mentally for the next 20 minutes, vacillating about whether you should contact your upcoming client or just yuck it up and do the session.

So let’s pause this narrative for a moment. How does this relate to dogs?  In every way possible.

Think about the two steps involved when you’re working with your dog. Everything from the come command  to aggressive  behaviors.

1) Control yourself.   If you’re angry, rushed, hyper or out of sorts, it’s not gonna work.  There is nothing so urgent that you can’t take a moment to collect yourself, even if it’s just a deep breath before you engage.  Calm yourself.  Walk into another room if necessary.  Or take Liz’s advice:

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2) Control the situation.  You can’t add energy nor stimuli to a situation in order to control it.  One of my favorite quotes is an African proverb:  Only a fool tests the depth of the water with both feet.  Control this moment before you add the next moment.  Sometimes that means waiting for energy to subside.  Sometimes that means taking a dog for a run before I try to work on commands.  Most of the time it just means something as simple as not opening the front door to let your guest in while your dogs are still going ballistic!

Now, as I mentioned, these are the two steps you must adhere to if you want to accomplish anything with your dog.

But I also use this as a mantra for my life.  When I address behavior from my kids.  I ask myself if I’m calm, and then survey the situation before acting or speaking.  When I leave to train for the day, I stop, close my eyes and breathe deeply before mentally running through my day and making sure I have everything.

I apparently I’m not so good at doing that when I’m sick or not feeling well.

I was about to do the dumbest thing yet.  I couldn’t see out of my one eye, and my headache, while finally subsiding a little bit, was still definitely there.  But I was so worried about letting my client down that I forgot that my showing up in that condition would actually let my client down.  Could I possibly give them my best performance like that?  Would I be able to remain safe and think critically in a dangerous situation with a dog?  Resounding no!

We are so busy taking care of everyone else, concerned with not letting someone down, be it dogs, kids, spouses or clients, that we end up letting everyone down, including ourselves.   You can’t help anyone if you are (momentarily) helpless.

So I texted my client.  And they texted back.  And you know what?

It was fine.  They were gracious and understanding.

My first mistake was doubling my workload, as I mentioned earlier.  There’s an ancient story about how you can boil a frog alive because if you slowly raise the temperature of the pot, the frog never knows when it’s too hot, and it needs to get out.  A very true, if not revolting, parable.  My mental rule is usually the moment I feel any heat, I stop, control the situation, and turn down the heat.  Unfortunately, I didn’t do that, and continued slogging along at a double workload.

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Fortunately, I got a migraine. I never though I’d say that.  But that migraine reminded to me to control both myself and the situation.  If I had not rescheduled that appointment, I could have very easily misread a situation and been bit.

So think about all the times, just working with our dogs, that we muddle our way through a situation without really even addressing it or controlling it.

- Answering the door.  Doorbell rings and it’s Bedlam.  Rather than allowing your guest to be pummeled by your dog jumping when they come in, stop for a moment to control yourself as well as the situation.  Are you calm?  Good body language?  Are you actively answering your dog’s question, “Can I bark and be hyper?”.  If you don’t know how, give this post a read for how to Pilot your dog and answer their questions.

- Feeding time.  Does your dog barge right into the bowl after badgering you while you try to measure out their food?  Or do you answer their question (“Can I bully you into moving faster with that food?”) and put them into a calmer state before serenely putting the food down and then calling them over to their bowl?

- The walk.  Is your dog in front of you doing what I call The Minesweeper?

 

Swinging back and forth in front of you like a pendulum.  Or even worse, dragging you where ever they want.  Rather than taking even another step, control the current one.  Shorten that leash, and answer your dog’s question!  Learn how here.  Start slowly, and remember, you have no destination, merely focus on calm.  If you make it to the end of your driveway and back, and you have answered questions to maintain calm, you did it!

By taking on a double workload, ignoring my own body’s warning signals, and eschewing my own needs, I didn’t realize that I was failing everyone; exactly what I was looking to avoid.  The amazing thing was that about 20 minutes after I contacted my client, my headache started to subside.  I still couldn’t see properly out of my one eye (I’m having my husband thoroughly check this post for typos!) Stress started to melt away, and I was able to focus on something more important.  My own health.  My own sanity.  And taking care of the ones I love.

Because in failing myself, I failed them, too.  My daughter had a school play today.  Just a minor part, but she was excited.  All of our family was going to attend, but I had to tell her I wasn’t able to go because I was training.  A session that had been set up a while ago.  I had been beating myself up over not being able to go, but still, I take my sessions and my work very seriously.  After taking a moment to control myself and the situation by taking a quick rest, I was able to attend her play.

Granted, I only saw half of it due to the migraine vision. But I felt relieved.  Better.  Accomplished and in control of myself and what may come ahead.

And now I can’t wait to meet that husky when we reschedule.

Keep calm and pilot on

Kerry Stack
Darwin Dogs
Dog Training in Cleveland, Ohio