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Meet Them Where They're At

I can't tell you what to believe. Well. I can. But that won't make you believe what I tell you. I can only present opportunities, convey knowledge, and provide empathy.

One of the most valuable things about working with dogs I how much they can teach you about working with humans.

A kid sneaks into the kitchen and eats their sibling's birthday cake and looks at you grinning and it's hard not to ascribe malicious intent to the action. A dog steals cheese for your appetizer plate off the counter, play bows in uncertainty, their tail wagging hesitantly and suddenly your heart melts and you shrug and say it was just cheese. There is something about animals that makes it much easier for us to believe in the purity of their actions.

My dogs are some of the best teachers I've ever had. They don't tell me what to think or feel. They allow me to see how best to help them.

I'm a huge perfectionist. As a kid if I didn't think I could be successful immediately at something, I didn't do it. The last five weeks, Ash, Ami, and Amalu participated in Toss and Fetch league for the first time

Amalu at disc watching one of my teammates

It was a huge exercise in learning and patience on my part. I played a lot of frisbee as a teenager but throwing (or throwing rollers) under time constraints makes me stress and overthink at times. All three dogs will retrieve rollers and the occasional toss in fields they know. But over the four weeks we were able to play (missed one week because of road conditions) we played in three different locations. That's no easy thing with environmentally sensitive sighthounds. Ash has never participated in anything formally with me as a team and the time constraints made me feel pressured which stressed him out and he's already prone to being sensitive to pressure.

And it was so easy to get frustrated. To see my dogs chasing after the discs and then turn to sniffing and think I'd done something wrong. But getting frustrated was the worst thing I could do for my dogs. They were looking for reinforcement and reassurance, but there were days I failed utterly to give them that. Coming out off leash to a strange field with people and dogs around and then having to focus and perform under time constraints is a tough ask. Especially for breeds that haven't been bred for biddability. The fact that my dogs tried to play the game was huge. And this last week I was finally able to remember and see that. To get over my own frustration and sense of inadequacy and meet my dogs where they were at. Not at where I wanted them to be.

Ash says: throw the ball!

Ash has been one of the hardest dogs I've ever trained. He is simultaneously aloof and incredibly sensitive to pressure and unpredictability. He turns 7 this year (2021). And this last year is the first year that I feel that I could do traditional training sessions with him. To expound on how sensitive he used to be, I used to take out treats and he used to hide under the table because he was afraid that I would ask something of him. I spent years letting him be. Letting him chime in when he wanted to, but not pressuring him, because as soon as I did, he'd shut down. Since I got Anubi, he's come so far in his confidence that it's easy to forget where we started. So at disc when he was off sniffing or saying hi to people (and later I realized, hiding behind them from me who was putting pressure on him) it was very easy to attribute that to his distractible, aloof nature. But it wasn't that and once I realized that. Once I recognized why he was checking out and knelt down and invited him to come back to me and we went through things calmly, slowly, and together things got immediately better. Because Ash loves disc. He loves ball. He loves retrieving bumpers from water. But of course, since he's never done any formal team sports (coursing and racing are so independently driven, they don't count) he didn't understand how to cope with the pressure. And that's okay.

I have clients all the time who confess to me that they sometimes let their dog beg or feed them from the table. Or that they don't really care if their dog chews this specific item. Or they let their dog sleep in the bed. They admit, shame-faced that sometimes they don't have time to train their dog. They tell me that sometimes they have bad mental health days and can't give their dog attention. They say these things to me like this is shameful.

Why do they confess these things like they are a huge secret? Usually because someone else, sometimes a spouse or other family member has given them grief over those things. But more often, because some trainer has reprimanded them for being inconsistent or a terrible person for doing those things.

Guess what? I do those things. My dog friends who have incredible achievements and titles on their dogs do those things. We do those things because we're human. I want clients to tell me those things. I don't want to punish them by disparaging them when they confess those things.

So very often I'll ask if a person can simply manage by not leaving their kids' toys of the ground so a dog doesn't have an opportunity to chew them. And so very often owners will admit that it's not really possible because kids are kids and not always predictable or consistent. Does that make my job harder? Yes, but there's zero point harping about it and making the parents feel bad. There are other things we can try. There are times that I'm going to say that a behavior won't change unless you do x, y, z or don't do a,b,c. But I will always try to work with someone and provide multiple options.

I recently had a client tell me that she was so grateful that I validated her emotions. She has a teenage dog who is, predictably, being a difficult teenager as she figures out life and grows up (sounds like a lot of humans, no?). This client is doing everything right, has done her research, has put the work and effort in. But her dog is inconsistent. There's lots of things we can do to work on that. But she wasn't doing anything wrong. Not at all. And that's something she needs to know and I'm going to meet her where she's at with her dog.

Ask ‘How will they learn best?’ not ‘Can they learn?’–Jaime Escalante
‘The best teachers are those who show you where to look but don’t tell you what to see.’ –Alexandra K. Trenfor
‘Your work is not to drag the world kicking and screaming into a new awareness. Your job is to simply do your work… sacredly, secretly, silently … and those with “eyes to see and ears to hear’ will respond.’ –The Arturians

I went looking for a specific quote about teaching and educating and had no luck finding the exact quote. But I found some other quotes that very much resonated with me on this subject.

Whether they're my dogs or my human clients. I can't tell them what to think, feel, or do. It just won't work. But I can understand where they are in their journey and join them in it, guiding them as best as I know how.

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