Monday, December 30, 2013

Confessions of a Dog Trainer #5: My Dog is Not Perfect and I'm Fine With That

I've struggled to write this post for several weeks. There have been multiple attempts at typing out my thoughts for this entry, just to be deleted one letter at a time, then typed again a few days later...then, again, followed, by holding down the delete button. I don't know why it's been so tough to write this entry (maybe it's the weather, maybe it's the time of year...maybe it was because I needed a break from writing). Ironically, I think I was trying to make it perfect. Which, is much harder than I thought (and contradictory my own post), therefore I will welcome this "better than it was before" entry and let 'er rip...

Summing up this year's series of "Confessions of a Dog Trainer" posts, I must confess...I am a dog trainer and my dog is NOT perfect.

Oscar has some challenging behaviors. My sweet, Oscar Handsome Pants, bless his soul, will always need to be be managed - and I will always need to help guide him when it comes to certain things.
Little stinker around 12 weeks

Talking about my own dog's "naughty" behaviors is always humbling and an opportunity for me to reflect on how far we have come together. It also helps keep me grounded with my students and offer a piece of mind that they often times need.  I'll never get sick of seeing their faces when I tell them that, "I, too, have a sensitive dog."

I wasn't always this comfortable talking about my naughty dog. The first two (plus) years of raising Oscar were very trying on me - both personally and professionally. I spent countless hours feeling frustrated, confused, disappointed, upset (to the point of crying bawling) and unable to move past the fact that I had a "bad dog." I was failing as a pet owner and I was failing as a trainer. It was embarrassing and I felt defeated on several occasions. I didn't understand how the same suggestions and advice I was suggesting to my clients were not working in my own life. Or they would work one day, but not the next with my own dog.

I didn't know what was going on, I was trying everything that I knew how to do (without resorting to aversives like prong collars, shock collars, alpha rolls and the like). I tried classical counter conditioning, desensitization, BAT, CAT, clicking to calm and so on.  You name it and I swear I tried it. My dog book/DVD library was growing by the week as I looked for solutions to Oscar's "problems." I felt emotionally and physically drained...why wasn't this "stuff" working with my own dog?!

I was convinced that part of the "problem" was Oscar's age (anyone who has owned a dog between 6 months and 2-1/2 years knows what I am talking about). Adolescence is typically a VERY difficult time for the majority of pet owners - especially if they have a more sensitive dog like Oscar. Adolescence is also very hard on many dogs - something I have a much greater appreciation for now that I've lived through it and see many clients experiencing the same struggles.
Who's happy? Oscar is!

I also thought that part of the "problem" was Oscar's breed. Shepherds are highly intelligent and most are quite sensitive. That's not an excuse, but it is a reality and I knew that when I brought him into my family, so that didn't bother me so much.

I knew part of the "problem" was me (in fact, it still is - I'm working on it, I promise!). I'll spare you the pity party on that one, but I know I am definitely not perfect (see Aaron - I do admit it!).

I also believe that part of the "problem" stemmed from the months upon months of GI issues Oscar had experienced. His growing body and mind were being deprived of valuable nutrients he needed.

What I truly feel to be the root of this "imperfection," though, points directly at me and the unrealistic expectations I had for Oscar. That combined with my own selfish needs and wants....well, no wonder things were so crappy.  What was even more humbling is that when I sat down and audited my commitment and involvement, I didn't give Oscar a fair chance with some of the previously mentioned training techniques.

So, there you have it. I wanted Oscar to be perfect, but I since have found that perfect doesn't exist. That doesn't mean that I've given up on improving his undesirable behaviors...that's not the case (I've actually gone back to focusing on classical counter conditioning and desensitization with him). What I am saying though, is that being in tune with your dog and being honest with yourself enough to put your ego aside and acknowledge their unique ability to change needs to be respected. Having this sense of honesty builds an amazing relationship with your that is based on trust and free of ego. And, for me us, what could be more perfect than that?


  1. I stumbled on your blog a couple months ago and have been enjoying following your writing. Your Oscar and my Cooper sound like they might have been cut from the same mold to some extent as I can relate to much of what you write. I used to work for a trainer that excelled at pointing out to me what Cooper couldn't do. A year and a half later I have my own training business and Cooper is earning titles in the comfort of his own home. I don't worry so much about what he can't do and, instead, focus on the things he loves to do. We're all much happier now. :)

  2. Thanks for your comment, Carolyn! It's always wonderful to hear about the successes of someone who has chosen the +R training path. Congratulations to you and Cooper for all of your victories :)