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

Watch Dog – Learning To Do Better

I praise loudly. I blame softly.

- Catherine the Great

I hate blame.  Especially when it comes to dogs and humans trying to co-exist.  Let me tell you a little story that highlights why.

I recently acquired to adorable watches.  One is a vintage Timex from the 50′s, the other is a Lady Hamilton that’s just a bit older.  Neither one was working, and I was hoping the problem was that they each needed a new battery.  So I went to a local jeweler and explained the problem to the gentleman who worked there (and looked all of 19 years old).    He then disappeared in back with both of my watches, returning only moments later with good news.

“It looks like the Lady Hamilton does indeed need a new battery, so we put one in and it’s good to go.”

Awesome!

He then continued, “The Timex doesn’t take a battery.  It’s a wind-up watch. It, uh, just needed to be wound-up.”

I blushed right down to my pretty little danishes.

I blushed right down to my pretty little danishes.

He actually managed to get this out without any trace of sarcasm, condescension nor laughter.  I felt like an idiot already, and I truly appreciated his not adding to my embarrassment.

I personally have never owned a wind-up watch.  I have a general idea of how watches work: you look at them, take them off when showering and doing dishes, and if it stops working, you got to the jeweler to hopefully get a new battery.  Well, now I know more.  Ignorance is a very acceptable excuse in my opinion.  Determination to stay ignorant isn’t.

If I take another wind-up watch to the same jeweler and ask them to put a battery in it to fix it, I’m now a moron.  I deserve blame for not knowing better, because I have learned better.  The same goes for dogs.

Boots and Bee Photography - by Brittany Graham

Boots and Bee Photography – by Brittany Graham

For some reason, people constantly try to blame themselves for their dog’s behavior. I hear a lot of “I tried to do such and such to fix it, but it didn’t work”, and my personal favorite, “I know I did everything wrong”.

First, kudos to you for trying.  Seriously.  You may not know what to do, but you gave it a good effort and a lot of Google searches.  It didn’t work (and maybe it did make things worse), so you called me to help.  I’d call every step of that a success.  Sometimes learning what not to do is just as important as learning what to do.

My mother has a saying:

“You’re really going to wear that?

If you keep doing the same thing, and you keep getting the same result, try something different.”  

Combine that with my favorite Maya Angelou quote:

“Do the best you can until you know better. Then when you know better, do better.”

I apply Angelou’s quote to every aspect of my life, including when I’m working with dogs.  The methods I use now are a little different than what they were when I first started training dogs all this years ago – a tweak here, a different word there.  That’s because along the way, I learned a little bit more. I suspect that in another 20 years, my methods will look slightly different than they do now, too. And I think that’s the way it’s supposed to be.

So stop being hard on yourself.  Yes, maybe you did end up having to call someone out to help with your dog, but now you know better.  And now you’ll do better.

Keep calm and pilot on