In training, I do my best when I’m in the middle of it, but find it all to easy to look back after I’ve done it. It’s the If Only game. I bet you’re familiar with it.
…I had known [insert training technique here]
…I had realized sooner how to meet this individual dog’s needs.
…I had read this book, met this trainer, gotten this training tool…
Sometimes this way lies madness.
While I didn’t start agility with any particular training philosophy, I did do something else–I started with Jean-Luc Picardigan, an autistic, brain-injured young Cardigan Corgi. In truth, none of the usual techniques worked for him–just a lot of guidance, a lot of repetition, a lot of patience. Eventually agility changed Jean-Luc’s life and he earned multiple (unexpected!) titles. But that’s another story.
The point is, when I started training Belle (AKA Miss Belle AKA Princess Belle AKA b-b-b-BELLE!), my sole experience with training for competition dog sports was based on this brain-injured boy. So training Belle–who was a natural, full of glee and amazingly fast to learn–came very easily.
What I didn’t realize–what eventually became our major struggle–was how very, very sensitive and soft she is to the unspoken and the incidental, and how things to which she gave no real-time reaction (such as someone shouting to someone else across the agility training field during drills or class) added up to make a significant impact on her.
For in contrast to Jean-Luc–who was largely oblivious to all forms of communication until agility and even afterward required specific, direct (and unique) management, Belle assumes that all communication is directed at her. And she takes on the worries of the world in the process.
Belle: Am I a good girl? Are you sure I’m a good girl? Someone raised her voice five five minutes ago. I don’t believe you.
And you’d better believe she knew it when I was frustrated during training, even if I happened to be frustrated at the weather, another dog’s interference, or a stone in my shoe.
So even though I was working with a “it’s the handler’s fault” philosophy when mistakes happened, Belle’s extraordinary sensitivity–and her need to be perfect–meant that wasn’t enough in the long run.
Not that she didn’t accomplish awesomeness along the way. She was the 20th dog to earn a PACH nationwide. She’s a PAX2 dog who retired at twelve years old and 100 speed points shy of PACH2, and at that time she was #1 Preferred Corgi. And this in spite of being out of the game more than she was in it, between her health and mine (that, too, is another story).
But what if…?
…I had better understood behavior-based training when I started
…I had found the book Control Unleashed when I started (never mind that it wasn’t published yet)
…I had understood the profoundly unexpected way Belle absorbs the weight of the world.
I can’t change any of it, but thinking about it is more than an exercise in self-flagellation, even now that her single role in the house is to be the Princess. Thinking about it means maybe I can do a little bit better the next time. But still, there’s plenty of regret. Because…
If only I had been able to ensure that she never, ever believed herself to be the least bit imperfect at all…
(Because she never was, you know.)
…(Because she never was, you know.)…
And neither were you!
I know you can’t help the self-flagellation, but…
My respect and admiration for you, and joy in simply knowing you’re around, simply cannot be measured. The aplomb with which you handle things that would leave many lesser folk flattened in the mud, the richness of your writing, and your wonderfulness as friend and fellow human being are a few of the many things about you which inspire me every day.
Much love and hugs from us three Down Under! And lick-licks from Scruffy.
With dogs so much more than 2 legged people the teacher/trainer has to become the student/trainee.
Thank you for sharing this, it is a very moving and profound essay.
Seconding both the above comments. You are critical of yourself because you are a sensitive and a caring dogmom–and yes, the what-if and if-only are always there to bite us in the patoot. But you are a superb dogmom and horsemom (and friend-person) and you need to be reminded of that by those who treasure your acquaintance and correspondence.
What a beautiful and touching essay. You show more understanding of dogs than many people do of their own flesh and blood children. The world would be a better place if there were more animal lovers like you in it.
You folks are just too kind. Seriously. Thank you for all those really nice words, because they’ve really made a difference to my day (and to most days).
No lick-licks back to Scruffy because that’s just plain icky, but maybe a nice gentle scritching?