More in Common Than You’d Think

“I did then what I knew how to do. Now that I know better, I do better.”

– Maya Angelou


Before you walk into my classroom and feel embarrassed, stop for a moment and remember a few things. Most importantly, remember these things:

  1. If you’ve made mistakes in the past, I’ve probably made them too.
  2. If you think it’s mind-boggling that doing some of the most counter-intuitive things on the planet can work so well to train dogs, I’ve probably thought the same thing about the same exercises.
  3. If you make mistakes in class, know that I’ve probably made the same mistakes, maybe even worse, and often in front of a group of people.

Let’s examine a few of the many, many mistakes I’ve made in living with, loving, and training dogs:

  • Growing up, we lost a dog to the road because she was off leash, unsupervised, without a good recall. “She’d always been fine” before.
  • We got dogs from pet stores and back yard breeders/newspaper ads.
  • We NEVER took our dogs to training class. We rarely trained them at all, in fact. If they could sit, great!
  • We fed whatever dog food was cheapest/on sale that week.
  • I used to think all vets were created equally.
  • I used to think dog training was a luxury and not a necessity.
  • I used to think it was ok to select dogs based solely on cuteness.
  • I have trained dogs with pokes, verbal reprimands, choke chains, prong collars, leash corrections, etc.
  • As a child, a family pet that had a known history of chasing bikes bit someone’s ankle riding a bike past our house. The judge ordered he be rehomed.
  • While I never liked giving dogs “corrections,” (in fact, I hated it and thought it the only part about spending time with dogs I really didn’t enjoy) there was a time in my life when I honestly believed that was the only way you could achieve reliability in behavior and certainly the only way to show an aggressive dog he “couldn’t get away with that.”
  • All that pack leader/dominance stuff made a lot of sense to me.
  • I adopted a dog with behavior problems beyond my capability of handling.
  • There was a time when I was too proud to get help for my dogs’ behavior problems. I’d grown up with/loved dogs my whole life, I didn’t need no stinkin’ trainers! (Until I got rescued a Saint Bernard that could and well may have seriously injured another dog or person.)
  • There was a time I thought dogs had an “innate” desire to please people and that dogs who failed to display this characteristic were “stubborn.”
  • There was a time when I believed dogs could be well enough trained that they would NEVER bite someone.
  • There was a time when I used food to push a dog past his limits and when the food went away, he bit me.
  • There was a time when I responded too slowly to a dog’s body signals and he bit me.
  • I used to assume all dogs were friendly/wanted to be touched. “Dogs love me!”
  • I used to think dogs loved to be hugged and have their faces kissed
  • I’ve yelled at my dogs when I’ve been very frustrated

There, I said it. If I’d just let my dogs breed irresponsibly and indiscriminately, used a shock collar, rubbed a puppy’s nose in a potty accident, and shoved a digging dog’s face into a hole filled with water, I’d have made pretty much every mistake in the book when it comes to dogs.

When I actually swallowed my pride and hired a trainer, it was a real eye-opener for me to realize just how much I didn’t know about dogs. It still is. I’m always learning new things. I didn’t always know how to train dogs, or use reinforcement. It definitely hasn’t always made sense to me to think of growling as a gift, of distractions as reinforcers, cues as reinforcers, or mounting (humping) as a stress behavior.

Those were my old mistakes. I now make an entirely new bunch of mistakes frequently. These include:

  • the occasional poorly timed click
  • the occasional “bonus treats” (bend over with open treat bag = food extravaganza everywhere)
  • occasionally repeating a cue (oh, I hate it when I do this!)
  • lumping instead of splitting with clients and/or dogs (more on this in another entry)

I like my new mistakes better. As my skills improve, they reduce in frequency, but I’m certainly not perfect.

I admit these embarrassing shortcomings from my dog-understanding evolution in an attempt to show my clients that they don’t have to be ashamed of the things they’ve done. I don’t believe that all people who use “balanced training” methods are cruel to dogs, hate dogs, are lazy, or are taking the “easy way out.” I think many (most?) of the people I know who used balanced training techniques actually do love dogs a great deal and are trying to improve the welfare and lives of dogs through training. I think even taking the time at all to train a dog is a sign of love and commitment, people that truly don’t care about their dogs wouldn’t bother investing the time.

So you can talk to me. It’s not my job to judge you, it’s my job to help you! Making mistakes? You’re in good company. With time, your new skills will grow along with your understanding, and your tendency to fall back on those old habits will decrease. Be honest with your trainer – it helps them help you!

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