I Wish I’d Known…

I pulled the prong collar out of the bag, and turned to Kelso. His ears flattened. He lowered his head. He licked his lips and waited for me to attach it around his neck. I saw him, and I wish I could say I put that archaic tool back in the bag, but I didn’t. I put it on him and we proceeded to join the group heeling exercise in class. That moment, and many others like it, haunt me still. Usually late at night when I can’t sleep and I’m reviewing all the things I’ve ever screwed up in my life. Everybody does that, right?

My dog training past is full of garbage I wish I’d never done. I’d tell you all about most of it because I have reached a place where shame no longer keeps me from doing so. I still feel guilty about all the times I ignored my sweet dog’s feelings, but I don’t feel shame. As Brene Brown tells us, guilt is feeling that we did something bad, and shame is feeling that we are something bad.  Paying myself the respect all learner’s deserve means that I keep trying to do better. It means that I can acknowledge the things I did when I was learning and let them shape the student I am now. It means knowing beyond a shadow of a doubt that I am making mistakes now, and I will make them tomorrow, and that none of them make me less worthy of the blessings I enjoy now in my career.

Kelso, photo by Tori Self 

Dog trainers are always lamenting about what they wish they’d known when training their earlier dogs. I am no different; when I am feeling particularly raw about Kelso I feel like I’d give anything to have another chance to be a better teacher to him. He deserved more than I knew how to give him, but like all angels, he was here to guide me, not to be guided by me. I am happy to say he guides me still; he colors all the interactions I have with dogs and their humans. So if I had known better at the time, my experience would have been quite different, which is why this lament is worthless. The secret is that if we are on the right path we will always know better someday than we know now. If we are lucky enough to be a student in this life we will continue to learn and grow and we will never cease looking back on how little we knew back when. We never reach a place of all knowing; it doesn’t exits. The only promise we can make is to do better when we know better, and to keep seeking information as we go.

Next time you’re lying awake mulling over the errors you made at your dog’s expense cut yourself a little slack. You feel like this because you learned something, and that is always a gift.


6 thoughts on “I Wish I’d Known…

  1. Thank you so much for this post. I have never quite been able to forgive myself for all of the training and handling mistakes that I have made over the years. The perspective you provided in your post will help me do that and see those experiences as a chance to do better next time. I often tell myself that I will learn from these mistakes, and I do. But often they result from some deep flaw in our personalities that goes beyond dog training. It is difficult to turn some of these negative attributes off, but working with our dogs gives a perfect opportunity to learn to do just that.

    Your thoughts, stated so eloquently, help me to move further along the path to self-forgiveness. I always hope to be the person my dogs think I am. Does one ever achieve that level of perfection? Probably not, but it is something to strive for. One thing that I have learned along the way, is that I need to remain aware of the dog’s perspective. When I am able to do that, communication is considerably enhanced and I can avoid frustration and inappropriate actions on my part.

    Thanks again for posting your thoughts on this topic. It is always nice to know that one is not alone.

  2. Great article. I made a lot of mistakes with our big pitbull mix starting agility. The “trainer” I had told me to ‘get on to him, he needs it’ Well, he didn’t need it and we were both miserable. I finally found the one who changed us and I had to undo a lot. He’s got the focus and drive of a herding breed, but he’s built like a linebacker and sounds like a train coming at me. We may never be a PACH or MACH dog and that’s okay, the joy he brings me is unbeatable an taught me there is a better way.

  3. This made me cry. I guess nearly everyone who ever tried to train a dog went some ways down this path. I like your guilt vs shame explanation. Nicely written and good to revisit on bad days.

  4. As I read this, I cry for the guilt of all I did wrong to my sweet pups in the name of training, and what I was told they ‘needed’. Thank you for the article as it helps to know that others share my feelings; I’m just so thankful that I met up with the right trainer who set us on a better track and that my pups are happier and healthier for it.

  5. I also feel horribly guilty for subjecting my sweet Skye terrier- who just wanted to please me- to the old fashioned terrible training techniques of many years ago. We succeeded through Open- and 2 legs in Utility (yes, a Skye!!), and she never stopped trying- but it would have been so much better with “today’s” positive training. I appreciate the article, but won’t assuage the guilt.

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