This year, Fenris, my best friend of 15 years passed away. Since she passed on I’ve been thinking a lot about what she taught me over all those years. I didn’t really realize it until I looked back, but I am amazed at the depth and breadth of all the lessons she taught me. It’s easy to consider it as accidental, or even to credit myself for being aware enough to learn these lessons, but in all honesty there is no way I could have ever learned the things she taught me without her actively and intentionally teaching them. She was an amazing teacher, and I’m humbled by how capable she was in communicating these deep lessons without ever saying a word.
When most people think of dog training, they envision a one way process - the human teaches the dog certain behaviors. The more you work with dogs, the more you recognize that training is really communication, and that the communication is a two way process - the human and dog are constantly offering each other feedback. The successful trainer is not the one who can bend dogs to their will, but can read and respond to the communication the dog offers and modify their training to best suit the dog they are working with in the moment.
When you tune into your dog, you may discover that not only are you trying to teach your dog lessons, they are also using their communication skills to teach you important lessons as well. If you pay very close attention to your dog, you may find that the lessons that they are teaching you are even more valuable that what you may be trying to teach them.
Over the past several years I have noticed that no matter how much care and thought people (myself included) put into selecting their dogs, they rarely get the dog that they want. Strangely, that can turn out to be a good thing - The Rolling Stones were right - “You can’t always get what you want; but if you try sometimes you might find you get what you need”. It almost seems that when we bring a dog into our lives, they quickly discover how we could be better, and set themselves on the path of teaching us that lesson. If we were perfect people with no lessons we needed to learn, every dog would be perfect for us!
Some of the more common lessons I see dogs trying to teach their owners include patience, perseverance, emotional stability, leadership, compassion, problem-solving, acceptance, focus, mindfulness, loyalty, dependability, enthusiasm, and forgiveness. Sort of makes teaching a good sit-stay feel a bit trivial, huh?
Unfortunately for many people (and often their dogs), learning can be difficult. Lots of people stubbornly refuse to accept the education our dogs are trying to provide. Just as we can’t explain to our dog why walking on a loose leash is important for them, they can’t explain why a lesson like patience is important to us. The only way either of us can teach the lesson is to consistently give the appropriate feedback until the other party figures it out. This sad fact is what keeps me in business. If you are experiencing frustration with your dog’s behavior, it isn’t because your dog is behaving badly, it’s because you have a lesson to learn. If you knew what you needed to know, you would set about getting into communication with your dog and addressing it.
Learning is work. The process of teaching your dog new behaviors or modifying existing ones will take time, effort and commitment. Going through the process of training will not only move you closer to your goals, it will move you forward in understanding the important lessons your dog is here to teach you. The faster you learn these lessons, the better off both you and your dog will be. If you are frustrated with your dog’s behavior, and you’re not taking steps to work through the problem in a way that works for both you and your dog, imagine how frustrated he is with your behavior!
I’m fortunate that I had such an amazing teacher. Chances are you do too. Tune in to your dog and learn the important lessons they are trying to convey to you. I can’t emphasize enough how worthwhile an endeavor that process can be.
Thank you Fenris.