Philip Roth said, “Nothing bad can ever happen to a writer. Everything is material.” He meant that all of life’s tragedies and heartbreaking events were to be viewed by the writer as gifts; no one wants to read about a boring life. If Cheryl Strayed‘s mother hadn’t tragically died of cancer in her 40s, Strayed may never have hiked the Pacific Crest trail and subsequently written her bestselling memoir, Wild. In the same sense, for dog trainers, problem behaviors and struggles in training should not be viewed as misfortune, but as valuable education opportunities.
Last week in my podcast interview with Bad Dog Agility I mentioned that I don’t get to have normal dogs. I consider that a blessing, truthfully. What would I learn if a dog fit perfectly into my preconceived puzzle? How would I grow if I simply applied what I believed to be true and saw the expected results manifest perfectly?
Kelso, my first border collie, was severely dog-aggressive. I had to be more than a hobbyist to help him. I had to do more than follow advice blindly. I had to think, innovate, and learn how to love him through every setback. Because of the endless tears, countless mistakes, and miles against the current every dog I get, every dog I work with, gets that from me today; it’s a promise I make in his honor.
Idgie, my current competition dog and second border collie was easy to train for agility. She presented few challenges in that area; but plenty of plot twists outside of the game. Separation anxiety, dog-directed resource guarding, dog-directed reactivity, and inability to come down from the cascade of arousal dogs experience in our sport are just a few of her more interesting problems. She also refused to let people touch her, making routine trips to the vet difficult. It has not been an easy road for us, and now there’s a new promise to be made, that of respect. Idgie’s feelings will not be disregarded; her requests will not be ignored. Her emotions must always be considered, and her consent must be earned at each step of any training process. She, and all the other dogs I work with, are honored in their experience. They are promised a choice.
Because I have been blessed with these dogs (and others) I see each challenge my sweet young Felix presents as not something to fear, but as something to thirst after. His hair-trigger arousal, his do-first-think-later jumping style, and all of the other delicious training puzzles he has presented thus far have only given me opportunities to exercise what I believe I have learned so far. When something I thought I knew turns out to be wrong or incomplete, I am excited when it is my own dog who shows me the truth, rather than someone else’s. My third promise is to never forget that a dog’s behavior doesn’t lie. Seekers of truth should never shy from that truth; no matter its packaging.