There are many sport dog rearing programs and philosophies that center on the concept of controlled resource allocation. Heavy crate time, restrictive devices, and a weighty responsibility placed on the human half: control all access to reinforcement, all the time. The sell is seductive; just do all this, just manipulate each tiny piece of your dog’s life until it centers on you, and you’ll have that dream sport dog you’ve always wanted. By this logic, anyone could have success in their sport with any dog; whether that dog fits their lifestyle or training preferences is no longer in the forefront.
What is forgotten here is that we are not actually talking about machines. Your dog is not your race car that you can keep in the garage, shining it, tuning it up, replacing the tires, and then finally taking out on the track. Dogs have brains. They have minds. They have feelings, thoughts, wants, needs, and a complex emotional life. Highly intelligent and acutely aware of the importance of things like food, water, and social engagement, yet utterly helpless to care for themselves in our world; there is no question that we have the upper hand from the get go. I suggest we not abuse that upper hand, and the reasons stretch far beyond ethics.
Take this familiar story: an agility competitor decides she is ready for the next level in her new sport puppy. She goes for a more intense breed this time, or perhaps a more intense type in her current breed. She has been told that with this “upgrade” she is going to need to be more disciplined from the start, lest her new mali-border-kelpie-whatever take over her life and become one of those kamikaze dogs on course. So from the beginning she carefully orchestrates her new pup’s day-to-day. Her pup is crated often, trained often, and is not allowed much free access to explore the world. He is the star of the class, but life becomes difficult for him somewhere along the way. Some things are too exciting, some things are too terrifying, and he is unable to function without being told what to do. He is responsive to cues, but there are times when the world is much too loud for him to hear those cues. Because his emotions were not a part of the program, the competitor is now at a loss with her shiny new puppy. She is frustrated and certain she went wrong somewhere. The trainers and books and websites said that if she followed the formula he would be perfect; but he isn’t. She falls victim to internal blame and external judgement. She figures this dog was too much for her after all.
The danger here is now that two imperfect beings (because there is no other kind of being) are made to feel inadequate when it is the program that is inadequate. Any training program that disregards the dog’s emotional state is incomplete and must be regarded as such. The reality is that the above example is sadly not uncommon, and it’s time that the culture in sport dog training shifts. Perfection is an unattainable goal. Total control over another creature can not be gained without taking something from them; their autonomy, their self-control, their freedom.
I suggest instead that our training of young dogs always involves quite a bit of empowerment and freedom. I suggest we reinforce the choice to engage with us heavily; but that we are certain we have actually given the dog a choice. I suggest that we not take unexpected troubles in dog training as personal failures.
I remember feeling paralyzed when Idgie was a baby. I wanted so badly for her to be perfect. I was desperate to have the fast, competitive, but well-controlled dog I had dreamed about. Every single time she found something reinforcing that was not me or related to me, I put it under the “Sarah screwed up” column. It took me too long to see that she could love me and agility and chasing squirrels/playing with other dogs/saying hello to her human friends. I made a lot of mistakes that hurt us still, all in my quest to manipulate her into the dog I thought I wanted. Finally I learned that connection can’t exist where control rules. I decided connecting with my dog was more important than having power over her. I surrendered, and in that I found out how much more incredible she is than that imaginary dog I made up.
Behavior is modifiable, broken relationships much less so. A message of doom and gloom, one wrought with “never” and “always,” sold to new puppy parents should be replaced with this one:
No living being values anything above their own freedom. You want your dog to think you’re important? Be his safe place. Meet his needs. Connect. Know you will make mistakes and nothing is broken as long as that connection remains.
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Currently doing agility with my dog who has big feelings in some environments.