By Debby Kay ©February 2016, all rights reserved
The beginning of love is to let those we love be perfectly themselves, and not to twist them to fit our own image. Otherwise we love only the reflection of ourselves we find in them.-Thomas Merton
With Valentine’s Day this month it is a perfect theme to set this month’s blog against. Thomas Merton was so insightful when he made the above quote, which also pertains to dog training. I have written before about developing a relationship with your dog to get the very best from all the work you do together, but what exactly does that mean?
Everyone has a dog for different reasons, but for a large portion of the people who have chosen to bring a dog into their lives, they are expecting something from that dog. That expectation might be to bark and warn their person there is someone lurking around outside their residence, it might be to help with a medical condition, they may be needed to bring in game from a day’s hunt or track down lost people or criminals as part of their person’s job. Whatever is asked of the dog, in addition to the obvious education of the dog to do that task, there is the often-overlooked component of the dog wanting to do the work because he or she has a relationship with you. I won’t go into the semantics of whether this is love, a bond, or any of those arguments because for this discussion it is not relevant. The point is there needs to be something beside the mechanics of the training to keep the dog motivated, responding to you, and doing some pretty amazing things.
I help train people on how to train their own dogs to monitor medical conditions by teaching workshops around the world. In these workshops I have met dogs of every breed and description imaginable with people just as varied. What I have noticed is every team that has been successful has that something extra they bring to the class. It is a look that they exchange between them before starting into this new field of endeavor that says very clearly, “We can do this!”
I am raising four littermates right now, not something I would recommend for people to try, but in my case I had the good fortune to be blessed with these lovely pups from a frozen semen breeding that cannot be duplicated. Knowing the value of their genetics to the breeding gene pool, it was apparent they would be living here with us and joining our breeding stock in the future. The first thing though is to get them socialized and trained. What is interesting about the whole exercise is I can compare just how different each of these pups are in character, learning styles, and most importantly, in our relationship. Each one is very different from the other and as suggested in the opening quote, I am allowing them to perfectly be themselves; that is not an easy task. It is difficult to switch from the soft and gentle Tara who needs more verbal encouragement to the brassy and bold Tessa who really needs little if any verbal encouragement. But in allowing them to develop their own personalities we are also developing our own unique relationship. They are learning to respect me, to trust me, to understand I am not going to let anyone or anything hurt them, to learn that I am there to make them feel better, feed them, groom them and play with them. Is that enough to make a relationship that will carry them through their training? It’s a start.
I think the other part of this equation is the human. While I am developing my relationship with each of these puppies I am allowing them to get to know me. I am opening myself up to them so they can understand what brings me joy in what they do, when I am not feeling well, when I am tired, and so on. I am letting them learn how we can work together to be a smooth team at what we do. They recognize me as being the teacher when we are training and try to make it all work. You can see them trying, and it is important that when the dog is making a honest effort to try and do whatever you are teaching correctly, that you allow them to try without reprimand. In your training, you should be setting them up for success and rewarding that success. I cringe when I see many people watch a dog make a mistake and correct when the dog has yet to learn what is expected or worse yet was trying to do their best but got corrected as it was not “perfect” enough for their person. When that happens you begin to compromise the relationship. You add in doubt and distrust. If you happen to have a sensitive dog, you could cause them to completely shut down.
I saw a dog that had lost total faith in humans. He had been a good pup, learned his hunting lessons well and had several successful seasons with his owner when he incurred a torn cruciate in his leg. His owner could not afford to have the surgery done and instead chained the dog out in the backyard and abandoned him. This dog had helped the family’s kids learn to walk, had been part of their Christmas and other celebrations and had been a faithful and loyal friend and now he was forgotten. For over a year, in pain, this dog sat with no attention. When I rescued him he had a distant and empty look on his face. I found a great surgeon who restored his badly mangled leg and with several months of intensive therapy we managed to get him back in good working order. The therapy caused me to have a lot of intimate time with him. That distant look was still there however, even though he responded well to my constant fussing over him. When pronounced ready to put weight on the leg again and start walking and working again he seemed happy but there was something still missing. I was able to find a person willing to adopt him and the next part of this dog’s journey is what this blog is all about.
The person who adopted him already had another dog and in taking on this fella really had her hands full when he turned out to be not too nice to anyone. She too noticed the distant and empty look in his face. There were many trials and tribulations as we worked together to find strategies to peel back layer after layer of hate, distrust, and suspicions of this dog. It did not happen overnight. But much to the credit of this saint-like woman and her unconditional love, a day did come over a year later when he finally realized that he had found a person that would not let him down and was worthy of his devotion. I met with them both after that point and what a joy to see this dog with a gleam now in his eye, tail wagging as it should be, and his coat glossy and reflective of the excellent care he was receiving. That missing piece had been put in place and he was once again a whole dog. What he would do for her was amazing knowing what this poor dog had been through.
It is difficult to write about this missing piece of the relationship that makes for a super experience with your dog. There is no doubt in my mind however that it is vitally important though to achieving success. This cannot be truer, when you are talking about the success of a service dog team.
I want to end by reminding those of you who live or work with a person that has a service dog, PLEASE, respect the fact that they are a working team and need to be in touch with each other at all times. Show your love of animals and your family member by not interfering with them. It is difficult when you want to give them a treat or pet them or play with them but it really is necessary that you keep out of the picture and allow them to develop that special relationship that will carry them through whatever might lie ahead in their future.