Saturday, December 31, 2011

2011: The final review

Better to write for yourself and have no public,

than to write for the public and have no self.

— Cyril Connolly

Back in the day when I was in 4-H, we had to write a report on what we learned each year.

Where to start?!

Clearly, the biggest learning curve of 2011 was Phoenix’s obedience work. Or his attitude. Or my attitude. Or all three to varying degrees. Since many of you agonized through it with me, I’d like to summarize things amidst the blinding dazzle that comes with hindsight.

I’d also like to say everything is happily resolved but until we get into the ring (6 weeks until our first obedience trial since September) I can’t say it with absolute certainty. Although I’m feeling much better about our work together, I’m not so naive as to expect a shower of rainbows and 200s the second we step back into Open and Utility. But I do feel certain our journey through 2012 will be much more enjoyable for both of us.

Looking back, Nix got his UD in the spring. He was not happy in ring. Conversely, I was not happy in ring. I’d never had an unhappy obedience dog before. Horrors! What to do? I blamed ring stress for his crappy attitude. Spent a lot of time trying to dissect ring stress. Concluded it is different for every dog and handler team and can’t be singularly defined – but the basis of ours wasn’t lack of treats in the ring, it was lack of trust and understanding coupled with his feeling that he could never do anything right so why bother. It took me awhile to figure this out.

Summer followed. I tried the “You must do it because I said so” training approach. Showed again in the fall. Didn’t think it was possible to look worse in the ring than we already did. I was wrong.

Got totally fed up with the “You have to make him do it” training theory. Neither dog nor I were enjoying training. In fact, I was coming dangerously close to thinking this might be the end of Phoenix’s obedience career and I’d have a lovely agility dog who happened to have a UD. Did some soul-searching. Thought a lot of “What if . . .”

Talked to my dog. I asked him to forgive me for being an idiot. He gave me that Malinois grin. Oh yeah, he forgave me but it came at a price. I’ve had to let go of a lot of training notions I used to think were carved in stone.

Took a HUGE mental step and explored the concept of letting my dog tell me when he’s ready to engage and work instead of the other way around — always before I’d thought the dog had to work whenever I demanded it. Discovered Phoenix can be incredibly pushy and hysterically funny about demanding to work. Discovered I like this much better than begging my dog to work and/or correcting him for not working. (Yeah, there’s a lot more to this, too – you can’t just sit around in your recliner, waiting for your dog to say LET’S GO!) But it's gone a long way in helping re-invent our obedience attitude. You catch more Malinois with honey than you do with vinegar.

Probably the most important thing I learned this year is to listen to my dog and listen to my heart and do what I feel is right when it comes to training. It’s an over-simplification but we both need to find joy in our work together and there were a lot of negatives (mainly, my demands that he perform everything perfectly every time and make corrections – even what I thought were gentle ones - when he didn’t because God forbid you ever allow your dog to “get away with” anything) that drained that energy and joy right out of it. Phoenix would give me the moon and the stars if he knew how. That doesn’t mean he will perform brilliantly just because he loves me but to me, a successful obedience team is more than just one who can get a high score.

The second most important thing I learned this year is TRAIN THE DOG YOU HAVE. (I’m speaking from a psychological standpoint, but if you want to train your neighbor’s dog, go right ahead.) Look at the dog you have and train in response to what he needs from you. You’re not training your previous OTCh. dog or the dog you think you SHOULD have or the dog you want this dog to become. Train the dog you have NOW.

Sitting here in the twilight of 2011, I cannot thank Phoenix enough for being such a talented, impatient, blunt, forgiving partner.

I’ve always believed our dogs come into our lives for a reason. It’s not an accident that we have the dogs we have, whether we choose them or someone chooses them for us or they wander into our hearts by total accident. They’re ours for a reason.

Wishing you all a very happy new year!


  1. Great post! Completely agree that you get the dog that is meant for you. Happy new years!

  2. Well said Melinda. Phoenix is AWESOME as well as Jamie, Connor, Jesse -just in different ways. I'm glad I'm getting to watch him in obedience, agility or just being a dork, snapping, chasing his tail, etc. Love your reference to "honey". I knew he was going to be a spitfire the night he was sipping the marg!!!(lol) Wishing you a 'fun-filled' 2012.

  3. Happy New Year's to you too
    thanks for sharing what I know was at times a very frustrating journey with so many of us :)

  4. Reading this post of yours really reminded me of the internal emotional and mental journey (ok, struggle, ha) that I went through with my own dog with regards to training ... can't agree more that they come into our lives for a reason! Happy 2012!!

  5. Happy New Year!! It looks like you had more revelations and learned more this year than your dogs did. Congratulations :)