Today is the “shortest” day of the year, with the least amount of daylight hours. Starting tomorrow, the daylight hours gradually lengthen. Can’t wait until June when it’s daylight until almost 9 p.m.!
In the meantime, the Celtic people called twilight “the time between times” and that’s sort of how I feel about late December. It’s the twilight of the old year, a time between times. For me, it’s time to think about what I’ve learned while training and trialing Phoenix this year.
The thing that comes to mind over and over is training with joy.
A simple concept, right? Since we do this dog stuff for fun, shouldn’t the element of joy always be present? Then little things start sneaking up and undermining our joyful foundation. Pressure to achieve. Ring stress. Failure to get a certain score or title. Anxiety. Disappointment. Worry we’re not doing it “right.” Ugh. Tons of things to squish the joy right out of you and your dog.
A friend of mine showed several dogs in obedience. It was always fun to watch her in the ring because both she and her dogs were obviously having fun. When those dogs retired, she began showing another dog. She wanted “more” from this dog. She took lessons from a Big Name Trainer. This new dog was a very good obedience dog but lacked the flair and enthusiasm of her previous dogs. “He hates obedience,” my friend often said. “This is my obedience dog who hates obedience.”
I always wanted to ask her why she didn’t change her training methods since her dog obviously disliked it. Surely there was a different approach that would allow them to find joy in the work together. The dog worked with a great deal of accuracy but without much joy. They got very high scores and eventually, she finished the dog’s OTCh. and even got a 200 in the process.
I think about them often when I train. Many trainers are so focused on the technicalities of the methods that teach the dog how to perform a required skill that they totally ignore how the dog feels about it.
For me, the bottom line is joy. I want my dog to WANT to work with me, no matter whether we are by ourselves at the club building or in the ring at a trial. If I get a mechanically perfect performance with no joy, it’s an empty achievement. As a trainer, it is my job to make training (and performing) rewarding to the dog. That doesn’t mean cookies every two steps and it doesn’t mean I’ll never make a correction. Neither are fair to my dog’s expectations or understanding.
But it does mean I will make my dog’s happiness a very high priority when we train. I’ve stumbled around in that no-man’s land of “This is how I will train my dog because So-And-So said ‘Do it this way’ and her dogs are brilliant and she’s got a bazillion titles so I’ll shut off my brain and mindlessly do everything she says and never have an original thought of my own.”
Experience has taught me this is not a good idea. I will keep an open mind. I will try new things. I will experiment. Then I will decide what is right for me and my dog.
This means constantly evaluating how we are working together and tweaking the details to improve our performances AND make them “more funner.” Believe me, Phoenix is all about the “more funner.”
As 2010 slips into the twilight, the image of the year I have in my mind is Phoenix giving me that goofy mal smile while he tries to steal the dumbbell or glove out of my hand when he thinks I’m not looking.
Here’s to much joy and even more funner training in 2011.