Granting Grace - Remembering the Human Component of Dog Training
Updated: Mar 8
"I failed him."
"I should have done better."
"I need to be more vigilant."
"I should never have put her in that situation."
"I know my timing is bad. I make a lot of mistakes."
"I'm just not managing well enough."
I hate the narrative in dog training nowadays. I hate that many people expect themselves or other owners or their clients to be perfect. Now, if you ask them, they'll tell you they don't expect perfection, everyone does the best they can. But then you'll turn around and see: "Well, you could have done X, Y, or Z better/differently/more thoughtfully" a million times a day.
Am I being hyperbolic? Yes. But such hyperbole often seems to be the state of dog training of dog training these days. You should never walk your reactive dog down a street where they might encounter a dog. If you do, you're failing your dog. You're failing as an owner. I wish I was exaggerating, but I'm not. I literally saw this exact conversation (emphasis mine) a few weeks ago. That's simply not a reasonable thing to ask of a dog owner. And it's going to very likely infringe on both a person's quality of life.
Here's a hot take - you're failing as an owner if you don't consider your own needs before your dog's.
It's one of those situations where in case of emergencies, you need to put your own oxygen mask on before helping anyone else with their oxygen mask.
You're no good to anyone if you're not taking care of your emotional and physical needs.
I ended up sleeping back in my bedroom as opposed to in the whelping room much much sooner with my C litter than I did when Birdie was born. I've been struggling with migraines due to heavy smoke in the area and I was just not sleeping well in the bed in the other room. So I grabbed my monitor, swallowed my guilt, and slept in my own bed. I got up to check on the puppies the first couple nights, but ultimately I still ended up getting much better sleep and was therefore a more functional human and I could better care for myself and my dogs in the midst of my migraines.
Now, if the puppies had been struggling and I'd needed to feed them every two hours, I would have done what was needed to save a life, including going very short on sleep. But sacrificing my health to soothe my guilt that someone might judge me for "doing it wrong" and not sleeping in the whelping room every night the puppies are here is doing no one any good.
This superiority complex that wields guilt as a weapon has to stop. You are not a superior dog owner because your dogs' nails are so short you can't even see them. You are not an inferior dog owner because your car broke down, your washing machine is broken, your dog needed surgery, and your partner is out of work and thus your dogs' nails have gotten long. How many times have I artfully cropped pictures with slightly long nails? Far too many. My health has not been great the past month. My dogs' nail maintenance has suffered accordingly, but in the long run, I'll get their nails shorter and no one's lives will be impacted. Do you know whose nails I haven't fallen behind on? The puppies, because they can scratch Gem and potentially cause mastitis. Pick your battles, prioritize, and:
Grant each other grace.
Another hot take, because apparently I'm full of them right now - avoiding stressful situations for your dogs is rarely doing them much good and often is doing their humans a lot of harm.
I brought Tabiri home in the cargo hold of a plane. The flight was from Atlanta to Seattle. He was in his crate close to 8 hours. I walked him out of the car, into the house. Timing had worked out badly and all the dogs greeted him excitedly - him at the bottom of the stairs, them at the top behind the baby gate. I sent them away and let him into the house. He jumped up and curled up on the couch. I brought him to bed with us. He jumped up on the bed with the other dogs. I used his drag leash to get him into his crate.
The next day we went on a hike. The following day we went on another hike and got attacked by three dogs. Two days later, we drove five hours south for a retreat I'd been planning on for half a year. He stayed in a small room not only with my dogs, but with two other dogs and a stranger. That stranger trimmed his nails. And he ran in a paddock with his four packmates plus the two strange dogs - muzzled at first, but then without. When my car died in my host's driveway, I put him in the kennel room so he didn't get too cold in the car. There were other dogs barking, strange people, and a strange crate, but he went with it.
One month after arriving, I drove nineteen hours to go open field coursing and took him with me. Two months after arriving he ran in his first LGRA (straight racing) meet and three months after, he earned his first title. Ten months after arriving, he won his first NOTRA (oval) meet. Just over a year after arriving, Tabiri took Best of Winners at the biggest UKC show in the country, one of the biggest dog events regardless of venue. Two months later he took Best in Show at a UKC Regional Classic, a show bigger than some AKC shows. That was his second time in the show ring.
Were there times when Tabiri was in situations where he was flooded (exposed to so many stimuli at once that he can't focus on any one in particular)? Certainly. But if you look at him now, did that flooding do him any long term harm? I would argue it didn't.
At no point did I just throw him into a situation without guidance. He always had role models to follow, me to trust, and carefully laid foundations to fall back on. The difference between my approach and those increasingly common in the dog world? I don't protect my dog from stress. I live my life, knowing that my dogs will encounter situations that will be stressful. I trust in their genetics, I trust in the foundations I've built. I trust in the pack dynamics of my dogs to support each other. And I trust in their faith in me.
When I had to carry Anubi off the field after his injury, Tabiri let a friend of mine catch him. He stays with a friend at times and is comfortable and at ease there. When he got out of her yard because of a freak accident, he let my friend catch him, even though his adrenaline and flight reflex was sky high. He lets a judge examine him in the show ring. Because he trusts me. He trusts me to never expose him to something he can't handle and thus walks through situations that many dogs melt and quail from without a second thought. I do not believe for one second that Tabiri would have risen so far and so fast in his confidence if I had not treated him like he was capable of those things from the very beginning. If I had made a big deal of working through every small hurdle our path would have been very different.
Protecting our dog's from stress is making them less resilient and less capable. Why aren't we granting them agency, as opposed to trying to distract them from potential troubles. I want a dog that can confidently show me a trigger that might stress them out, not one that I must constantly talk to with a high reinforcement rate to distract from that trigger.
When my dog startles and the second they see me investigate the thing that startled them, I want them to follow my lead. I want to lead by example and let them see there is nothing to be afraid of rather than trying to soothe them with food. I want them to take cues from my interactions with the environment.
I don't think it is fair to tell people they need to tie themselves into knots in order to work with their dog. I want to see more trainers respect their client's boundaries. Don't want to use a squirt bottle? Great, what else can we do? Owner isn't going to cue Keep Off in time? No matter how hard you work it. Could they use a Place cue or even tethering in place?
Owner is struggling with clicker timing or struggles to remember to bring one on walks? Can they use verbal markers? Can they snap, reward with good food placement? Yes, it would be ideal if they remembered to bring a clicker and food on their walk. But maybe they just lost their job, or their kid is in the hospital, or (and this is really important) clickers are just a methodology that don't meld well with their brain and timing.
As trainers and dog owners, we need to have empathy and we need help find solutions that work within owner's means. Yes, monetary means. But also within their time and stress means as well. Teach an owner how to use the Premack principle to reward with the environment, if that is motivating for dogs and the owners tend to forget treats (no matter how hard you try to help them build new habits). If your dog relishes petting and praise, then reward with that and don't feel that you must reward with food every time.
When I started flyball with Anubi, I was told repeatedly to build his tug drive, because flyball is rewarded with a game of tug. That was literally all I did for months and his tug drive was still hit or miss within the context of learning new concepts. I was at a seminar working on his wall work in preparation for a box turn. We were on the spot and there was a lot of pressure on us and immediately, Anu's interest in the tug waned. I didn't have any treats on me, so after a successful repetition I praised and pet and played with him and the person teaching the seminar, who had just stressed the importance of a tug watched the two of us and noted that the praise seemed to be more rewarding than anything else. That was the point where I stopped fighting the reward my dog wanted and suddenly the relationship between us eased. To this day, I use tugs rarely and treats sparingly in most of my Azawakh's training, because often they snort at me and look at me judgingly for daring to interrupt their rhythm by stopping to reward with a treat (Amalu hates being given a treat mid course during agility class).
I have a fair number of training friends who talk about how frustrated they are about their client's lack of follow through with training. I remember discussing at length with my colleagues at the training center our frustration over client's lack of compliancy with the training exercises and homework we'd assigned. It wasn't until shortly before leaving the training center that I had a lightbulb moment - it doesn't matter if I can get a dog to do a behavior. It matters if the owner can get a dog to reliably do a behavior.
And suddenly my eyes were opened and I really started to watch what worked for a person and what didn't and tried to tailor my teaching to that. The teenage dog with young children at home where the dog could not resist stealing toys? I didn't waste my time explaining to the parents that they need to get their children to clean up the toys. No doubt the parents are already trying to achieve that impossible goal. Instead we scattered toys all over the training room again and again and again until those toys are no longer novel. You build a leave it behavior starting small and adding more and more things and making it worth the dog's time to ignore the items. But if that dog couldn't walk into a room with scattered toys everywhere and not automatically leave them, that behavior was never going to transfer to working with the owner.
I have been very lucky in the past few months to work with dogs that I worked with at the beginning of the pandemic but that I haven't seen in at least a year. Across the board, I have been blown away at the amount of information and desirable behaviors those dogs have retained since I last worked with them. Now, I am very lucky to have some phenomenally talented, intuitive dog owners as clients. However, I have been so happily surprised by the number of owners who are less intuitive dog trainers whose dogs still look better than when I last saw them.
Teach both people and dogs in a manner they understand and can maintain. Don't expect either of them to tie themselves into knots to try to be someone or something they're not. Help them communicate clearly and freely rather than constantly be in conflict. That is the way to an owner and dog that work together without frustration and high stress.