The image that starts the video is a still shot from this video. There is a big difference between the pretty image shown versus the actual training to the goal of a photo of Simon stacked with the long term goal of a cued conformation stack with stillness for 2-3 minutes in the show ring. What you see in a single moment doesn’t tell the whole story. This is the 9th session teaching this skill. There were various smaller steps and experiments with reinforcement and training aids. I am working hard to create a training scenario where Simon is as successful as possible. There’s a lot of flailing but it’s improving. The point? Practice makes progress.
Practice makes progress, not perfection.
Some dogs just do all the things seemingly without effort. It’s as if they’ve read the rulebook on life and sport. Some dogs challenge everything we know and understand about dog training. Most dogs fall somewhere in between. Know that when you see a particularly cool video on social media of a super well behaved family companion or a really smooth team competing at an event, you’re only seeing a brief moment in that relationship.
That moment is the product of a journey where experience was gained, skills taught, and teamwork fostered. There were very likely challenging, even ugly moments mixed in with small incremental successes that gradually grew over time into what you see today. It’s not easy, even when it looks like it is. More important is to understand is that every journey is different.
Social media and the internet have given us an incredible opportunity to grow our knowledge base and expand our skills. We’re able to get feedback from other trainers, competitors and friends anywhere in the world and we’re able to share our experiences and feedback with others. I also find that the same services which provide us with so much can also damage handler confidence or even create unrealistic expectations of ourselves and our learners.
I have shared my life with dogs for over 30 years. I have spent the past 20 plus years competing, teaching and judging dog sports. One of the most important lessons I have learned on my own journey that I would like to share with you today is:
Whether you and your dog are excelling or struggling at this moment, you are just as important as your dog on this journey.
You don’t need to apologize for where you’re at. Those that know you and support you don’t care if your dog has mud on their butt in a training session video. That mud is a sign that you and your dog are living your best lives. You don’t need to apologize for sharing a session that didn’t go perfect. That’s how we learn. Wearing pajamas? It doesn’t matter what you’re wearing. You’re doing the thing! Go you! If you’re new to learning a skill, you’re here, you’re learning, you’re amazing for being brave and open to growth. Maybe apologize if your dog steals my lunch between classes but know that I personally will laugh and find your dog’s creative problem solving most amusing.
Find your village. Your team needs and deserves at the very least a veterinary team you like and respect, trainers who see you and your dog as individuals and a support system of individuals who can talk you off the ledge when your teenage dog has seemingly forgotten every bit of training or lift you up in celebrating the first brief moment of loose leash walking or that incredible championship win – and everything in between.
Set Goals. More importantly set SMART goals: Specific, Measurable, Achievable, Relevant, Time-Bound. Goals can help us develop training plans and allocate our resources such as time, energy and finances appropriately. Setting actionable goals along with milestones and smaller goals over time help us see and measure progress. Measuring progress helps us evaluate our training plan and adjust when needed. Want to learn more about SMART Goals? The University of California has an excellent resource available here.
Be fair to your dog. Dogs are not machines. They are living, breathing creatures. Each dog is a unique individual. Like us, individuals learn differently. They have different strengths and different challenges. Love and teach the dog in front of you. Accepting and understanding their individuality is very likely to yield better results than trying to force a square peg into a round hole.
Be fair to yourself. You are not a machine. You are a living, breathing creature. You are a unique individual and learn differently. You have different strengths and challenges. You are doing your best to grow your skills to best support your dog.
Make good choices. Recognize that you’re human. You will make mistakes. You will also do your best. Split behaviors into tiny pieces. Take breaks. Cross train. Go for decompression walks. Advocate for your dog. Advocate for yourself. Separate yourself from toxic relationships. Reevaluate goals as needed. Take time for self-care. Ask for help when you need it. Remember that you matter, and your self-worth is not determined by the ribbons hanging on the wall or by how polite your dog is in public.
And finally, celebrate everything. Your dog wiggled like a maniac when you said, “Let’s go for a walk!” Celebrate. You didn’t gather up the leash nervously in class. Celebrate. You made it through the Dutch Bros drive thru without your dog barking instead of screaming at the broista? Celebrate. You won the big ribbon you’ve been working toward? Celebrate.
When you see something really cool another team is doing, tell them. Chances are they have struggled with the same feelings you have had at one point or another and that kindness and support will help them on their way too. Take notes, ask questions, try something new or different with your dog, learn or move along. The success of others isn’t a reflection of your own success, your dog or your journey together. You both are brilliant, and I am proud of you and your dog! Practice makes progress.