Oh, the things you overhear at dog events…I was sitting at an obedience trial practice not long ago. A well-dressed lady of about 30 years old, was observing intently, as though she was sizing up the competitors. As the handlers and dogs went through their (mostly) precision routines, she sighed, and looked dismal. I heard her words before she even turned to this stranger and said them. “I wish my dog could do that!!”
Well, I happened to be the stranger she was speaking to without her knowing that I was one of the event proctors. When I proctor, I will frequently wear a jacket over my event supplied “official” shirt, identifying me as an official. You hear far more important, and interesting, things when you become one of the observers, rather than an official.
I decided to go all-out “Tony Robbins” on this lady, because I had observed her dog earlier, and wanted to meet the beautiful, dark sable German Shepherd that she had brought. My original assumption was this was probably a well-trained dog that I would be seeing a lot of during this event.
“Are you competing today?” I asked her.
” I wish…” she started slowly. “But we just haven’t been able to get Loki trained well enough to even think about competing yet…she’s just way too hyper.”
“Who are you training with?” (Cue my best Tony Robbins voice)
“Well, I bought Loki from a breeder in southwest Ohio, and they recommended a trainer in Athens. The lady there told me that Loki was too “High Energy” to be trained for obedience or Agility…she was just not suitable. After that, we tried a Petsmart and they used a clicker. It kind of worked, but Loki was just not going to stay still long enough to learn. They asked us to leave because she was disruptive…They said that the breeder was probably a puppy-mill and bred poor quality dogs. They wanted me to report them…” she explained. “We attend these competitions because I enjoy watching the dogs so much, but I’m paying for buying the wrong dog I guess. But, I love her to death, so I’ll just deal with it…”
Oh, these are the times that try men’s souls…
“Okay,” I started, “Let’s talk about this. Can I ask your name?
“Karen”, she offered.
” I personally know the breeder that Loki came from. I can tell you that he is not, by any stretch of the imagination, a puppy-mill. And even more, his dogs are well-bred and very capable of taking on any work you would like, and excelling at it…”
” I don’t know…” she seemed doubtful, “the trainers have been right so far. She just doesn’t respond to anything we’ve tried…she’s got a mind of her own…” she seemed resigned to this conclusion.
This was going to be a tough case, but I plowed ahead. “I’ve learned something about dogs and their people Karen. The dog feeds off our turmoil, joys, and emotions. We usually end up creating the dog we think we have…you sound convinced that Loki will never be capable of anything you want her to do…If I may be so bold, I’ll say this…Keep feeding that mind-set to her, and she won’t ever amount to anything, but it’s nobody’s fault but yours.” I was being more forward than I was comfortable with, but this was a tragedy waiting to happen.
“What do you mean by that…?” her response was better than I had hoped.
“Well, we communicate with our dogs everyday, whether or not we know it. Our human emotions, attitudes, and feelings affect them as well or better than vocal communication ever could. When you say to people that Loki can’t learn and perform, and you Believe it yourself, you’ve created a self-fulfilling prophecy. It will happen just as you believe it will, because you gave up. You surrendered to what some mis-guided and mis-trained “expert” wanted you to believe because they failed you and Loki and their ego doesn’t allow them to admit it. They can’t possibly be the problem because they are trained and certified in the latest, most comprehensive scientific dog training method available.” This was turning into a rant.
“Can you help us?” she implored me, looking for a miracle.
“Better, I can help you understand how to help yourself. Loki needs you to help you. But I can help you change your mind-set. You have to provide her with opportunities to do what she already knows how to do naturally, and let her energy have something to focus on. It’s no harder for you to make her a success at Obedience, than for you to make her fail.”
“It’s sounds too simple…” Karen said with a hint of doubt.
“First of all, start all over from this moment on with Loki. Forget everything that the failures have said to you. Start Believing that Loki and you are going to be successful at whatever you want to do. Believe it in your heart and your mind…This is the most important first step of a journey that’s ahead of you both. Loki is waiting for you to communicate to her thru your energy and demeanor that you Can do what you want to do.” I was now repeating what I had heard a mentor of my own say to me a long time ago. It just took me awhile to get it…I pass it on now with gratitude to my mentor.
This was the first conversation that Karen and I have had. There have been others since, and Loki and Karen are making progress with a good trainer. Loki is not only a good dog, she is a great dog with unlimited potential. A large part of communication is our attitude, our belief in what we want to do…Our dog reads that far better than we seem capable of, and it’s our fault. Every thought that crosses our mind affects our physical demeanor, and dogs are body language Masters. “Belief” may sound like psycho-babble or rhetorical non-sense to you at this point. That’s fine, but in continuing to allow that mindset, your feet are walking above a treasure horde that lies buried out of your reach. Science cannot, and should not, be the end-all, be-all of our training with dogs. Allow the idea that dogs have “emotion” to drive them, and “energy” to use in their activity. You can tap into it, but you need to learn that the energy and emotion you are putting out can sabotage your efforts. Believe…
It’s important for you to know that I lived this experience myself. My 3 and a half year old German Shepherd, “Hans” was described by our first trainer as too “soft” for schutzhund or protection work. His temperament was too “social” and “pliable”. This trainer told me the only way to train him was to make him “meaner than a snake”. That trainer was an idiot.
I understood that every dog has the heart of a hunter, boiling inside of him. I just needed to learn how to allow him to use this energy when called upon to do so…My journey began with Believing he could be trained without being abused by stupid human tricks. Today, I can walk into a public demonstration of dog skills and allow my boy to mingle without fear, as we’ve learned to communicate thru the Heart.
But when I allow Hans to “release the beast”, he is fear-inspiring. The energy flow from this big, black, teddy bear/werewolf combination proves out that a positive belief in your dog can produce minor miracles. An understanding of what is happening within the dogs Heart, and then adding your own positive attitude (or belief) to his energy flow is something truly special to see.
Because of my observation, I am convinced that a vital first step in communication is a belief in, around, and through the dog from the handler. Give it a try by adjusting your attitude. If you care to test my conclusion, try jumping my “soft” German Shepherd that an expert told me would never do protection work. But wear a bitesuit…