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.
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.