How many of you dog owners out there have encountered that stranger or friend with the perfectly behaved dog? It is walking nicely on a loose leash; not dragging her owner down the street. She sits and waits patiently while her owner has a conversation with a friend they bumped into, or lays there calmly while Dad enjoys a cup of coffee and reads the newspaper at the local cafe. The dog seems to not care about the dog barking at it from the car window or the rambunctious puppy that romps by with owner in tow. How many of you have seen that dog and thought, “I wish my dog were like that. That dog is perfect”? I will be the first to raise my hand and say that, that has been me on multiple occasions.
Well, NEWSFLASH! That dog you are dreaming about is NOT perfect. The perfect dog does NOT EXIST! And chances are that the dog you are looking at through the window of perfection did not always behave that way. Chances are the owner did invest time and effort into training and building a relationship of trust and understanding with the dog. Additionally, I can guarantee that if you had the opportunity to observe this “Perfect dog/human relationship” over weeks maybe even months you would find that they are NOT perfect! In fact they are far from it!
Personally, I have been at both ends of the spectrum. I have been the admired and the admirer. One thing I know about myself is that I am a perfectionist. I will spend hours perfecting a project. Thank goodness for deadlines, otherwise nothing would ever be considered “complete” on my checklist. In my adult life I have learned to say when enough is enough, what is done now is going to have to be good enough. But, I still fall into that viscious cycle of perfection, especially when it comes to dog training. While being on the “admired” side of the spectrum is a nice boost to my ego and validates the work I have done with my dog, I very quickly swing back to the “admirer”. There is always something I want to improve.
I vividly remember a conversation I had with a couple admiring Popeye’s good behavior. They went on and on about how well behaved he is. This couple had just welcomed a puppy into their home. I responded with a thank you and he was not always like this. I gave them a brief summary of Popeye’s story and the struggles we had. The couple’s response was “No way! He’s so good though!” I was thrilled and surprised at the same time. On another occasion I had just started training with a new search and rescue group. One of the members of the group said something to the effect of “Your dog seems to be mister A+ student. Was he always like this?” I chuckled to myself and said, “No, we had to seek outside help. We had our fair share of problems.”
When I started training Popeye for Search and Rescue, I found myself constantly looking at the other search dogs and handlers around me wishing we could be like them. I was wishing for the perfect dog. I wanted to be the perfect handler. There were certian flaws in mine and Popeye’s relationship that I was feeling overwhelmed/exhausted trying to deal with/work out. Eventhough Popeye and I have worked through the bulk of the problems we had in the beginning, I still fall into this trap, especially when weakness after weakness is exposed. The more I observe other handlers and dogs, the more I realize that the appearance of perfection is just that, an appearance. When you dig down to the core, every K9/handler team has its flaws/weaknesses. What differentiates the good teams from the rest is the ability of the handler to accept and adapt, especially when shit hits the fan. By accepting and adapting, I mean rolling with the punches, learning from your mistakes, and moving on. I think one thing many of us, especially in the working dog world, have a hard time swallowing is having our weaknesses exposed, especially when someone is there to witness it. BUT thats the POINT OF TRAINING!!! EXPOSE and KNOW your weaknesses, so when it comes to the real world you are better equipped to deal with it.
This concept applies accross the board, yes, even to pet dog owners. Train for real world, use the real world to train (with-in reason, be safe), expose and know your weaknesses, accept and manage what you cannot change. The point is that you CAN have that well behaved dog that people admire. You do NOT have to be stuck at the admirer end of the spectrum. You CAN be the admired! Change what you can through training, and accept and manage what you can NOT change. Give yourself and your dog the gift of training. Allow yourself to learn to roll with the punches of dog ownership, teach your dog the good behaviors, live in peace with your dog, become the admired! Training will enhance and grow the relationship you have with your dog to levels you never imagined possible!
Is training easy? Well, let’s put this in perspective. With Ella I spent 7 months training and working with her on the consistent basis. At the end of that seven months I had a dog that I could live with peacefully and could take her anywhere without fear of bad behavior. With Popeye I spent a solid year working with him EVERYDAY! After about 1 year of training with Popeye I gained enough confidence that I could take him places without fear, or wondering what “bad behavior” he was going to display that would publicly embarrass me. Some of you might be thinking 7 months to 1 year…AAAHHHH that’s ALOT! I don’t know if I can do that! First of all, dogs and people learn at different speeds and the time it takes to get to that point where you are “comfortable” with your dog’s behavior will depend on your consistency. Some dogs may take shorter than 7 months to get to that “comfortable” space, and some may take longer. Second, what does the 7 months that I spent training Ella amount to when compared to the 8 years I have been living with her in peace? What does the 1 year spent training Popeye amount to when compared to the last 2 years of peace in my household and the next 10+ years we have together?
The short answer is no. Training is not always easy, but it is easier than exhausting yourself by putting up with 15+ years of bad behavior. Will training end all misbehavior? No, but it will make it more manageable, and it will occur less often. Imagine what it will feel like when you find yourself and your dog on the “admired” end of the spectrum. Worried about using the real world to train because of that embarrassing display of bad behavior? Well, in my experience, people either forget about the bad behavior when good behavior becomes the new norm or respect you more for putting in the time and effort to change it. Then you have the people you meet on the street that don’t believe your horror stories of the struggles you had with your dog. If you ask me, all of those mortifying moments I had with Popeye, were just moments in time, moments that only I remember, and the further away we move from those moments the less I remember. I am going to embrace the positive place I am at with my dog. I am just happy we got there and I promise you will be happy when you get there too!
Go out there, train your dog, make mistakes, learn, and move-on! Love yourself and love your dog this holiday season! Happy Holidays to all and your canine companions!