When the Teacher Becomes the Student

Last week I had the wonderful chance to finally get to take Rious to a training class! I have not been a student in a dog training class in about five years and it is long overdue. I have missed it! He is doing wonderfully and I am very excited for our upcoming debut in a Rally Obedience competition next month.

Today I had several wonderful revelations and it has made me very introspective.

I am what is considered a “cross over trainer. I began training dogs with a very traditional mindset, believing in dominance as a driving force and being okay with the use of pain and aversives in my training. This was not a conscious decision on my part, it was just what was “out there” in the available information and what I learned to do. I was not brutal to my dogs, but I definitely would not use the same techniques that I used then on dogs I train now. To paraphrase Maya Angelou (because I can’t remember the exact quote!), “You do the best you can with what you know. When you know better, you do better”. I think that sums it up well.

This type of training did not do great things for my work with dogs. I take great pride in them and their performance and the general gist of that training is that if it doesn’t work, get tougher. Taking great pride tends to lead me to be a bit of a perfectionist about them. “Back in the day” this led to me putting too much pressure on them and letting myself get frustrated by “what they were doing”. Ultimately this led to activities not bringing me the joy I was looking for.

So fast forward to today, many years and what feels like a lifetime of learning about positive training theory and technique later. I was working Rious on some skills that were new to him and rusty to me. Having last practiced them with Maggie (rest her sweet soul) who was a rock star at this(!), I felt myself getting momentarily flustered with him and myself. Almost simultaneously I reminded myself this was brand new to him and I needed to break it down better. Amazing things happen when I do that. It worked! The lightbulb came on and he got totally into his work! It was really exciting to see that happen and to walk away truly feeling like we accomplished something great together. A true working partnership is blossoming and that is exactly what I have always strived for.

At one point in class I felt all thumbs juggling my leash, treats, clicker, watching where I was going, paying attention to everything at once while being watched by a teacher and class of other students. This made acutely aware of what my students feel when they are learning these new skills that I take for granted. I always try to empathize with my students and I think I do a decent job. But today kicked that awareness up another notch. To me, this is so incredibly important and I treasure any personal struggle that helps me relate to and help my students have a better learning experience.

One of my most relevant personal take aways today was that years ago I would have looked at our struggles on various exercises today as “failures” but now I was actually excited by these things as it made my training plan for this week abundantly clear! And a clear training plan makes life a whole lot easier and more clear to me and my dog. It reminds me of a song lyric I have always loved (and forgive me because I remember the song line but I can’t actually remember the song, but it is sung by Garth Brooks!!!), “Failure isn’t failure if a lesson from it’s learned”. Never in training have these words echoed so true for me as they do today.

This journey of dog training is such an incredible road of learning more about myself, inner peace and truly feeling like a better person. I feel so privileged to work with dogs and their families and I just can’t imagine how many paths I might have chosen differently in my life that may not have led me here and I am thankful every day for the “lucky disasters” that landed me where they did!!!

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