Today I wanted to take a step away from the choosing of dogs and talk about something that I think is really hard for newbies to the sport, but that is so important to keep in mind.
We get into this sport for the love of our dogs, and it is important to remember that their happiness and well being are our responsibility. We ask them to give so much of themselves in this sport – and they LOVE us for it! But, in asking for so much, we must remember that they cannot advocate for themselves. If something is scary, or hurts, or is too much, they can only do so much to tell us so. It is our job know our dogs and to keep them safe from such situations.
In IPO, you will work under a lot of trainers and your dog will be worked by a lot of helpers. This is a great thing! A variety of techniques and knowledge will only serve your training well!
As a handler, it is your responsibility to make sure that whatever is being done with your dog is in your dog’s best interest.
I know how hard this is as a new handler. Over the last year – my first in the sport – I’ve had the pleasure of working with a few different trainers and with a number of very talented helpers. All of whom, obviously, knew way more than I did (or do).
The thought of ever questioning one of them never even crossed my mind – after all, they’re the professionals! They’re the knowledgable ones!
And then my dog was worked by a helper who was maybe a little less experienced than I knew at the time. A helper that didn’t have a clear picture in his mind of what the goal of the session should be. A helper that didn’t take very well to being questioned.
Had I known then what I know now, I would have pulled my dog out mid-session – helper’s ego be damned. I kick myself about it, still.
But I didn’t. I allowed the session to continue and the damage to be done.
The helper didn’t do anything particularly egregious that day. He didn’t abuse my dog or cause him any physical harm. But he did push my then-10-month-old-puppy well beyond his mental limits in an attempt to…to…honestly, I’m still not sure what the goal was.
And it isn’t important.
The point is, that my dog was put in a training situation that didn’t make sense to him and that caused him a lot of stress.
The point is, this situation would have been avoided if I had done my job as his handler before the session even started.
I failed him that day. But I won’t do it again, and I’m damn lucky that my dog suffered no lasting harm in the interim.
So, where did I go wrong, exactly?
To begin with – I blindly trusted that anyone with more experience in this sport was automatically infallible.
Next, I didn’t clarify what the goals and outcomes of the session were going to be.
Finally, I didn’t stop the session to question what was going on the second things stopped making sense.
At the time, I was so new to the sport and I didn’t want to be seen as “pushy” or like I was a “know-it-all” by questioning anything. I just kind of went with the flow – which worked great – until it didn’t.
Now, I have some guidelines for myself.
First, before working with anyone new or allowing them near my dog, I check out what their reputation is like. I ask my training director and friends in the sport. I check the internet and Facebook. Trainer uses techniques I don’t personally understand? Maybe I’ll audit instead of bringing my dog along. Helper is known for whipping dogs in the face? Maybe I’ll just skip it altogether.
Next, I watch them work other dogs. You will never see me volunteer to have my dog go first with a trainer or helper that I don’t know. I want to watch them work other dogs and get an understanding of their thought process before bringing my dog out.
After that, I always clarify what that expectations of the session are going to be before bringing my dog out. “Today we are working on ‘A’ by doing ‘B’ and if he does ‘C’, we’ll reward him”. I like to have a game plan – it helps me be a better handler, but also to know when the session is going in an unexpected direction.
Finally, if I’m not understanding the purpose of something, I’ll stop the session and ask. Any trainer or helper worth a damn will explain without getting offended, I promise.
I know this makes me sound like a crazy helicopter fur-mom, and that’s fine. But 1. My dog’s well-being is my responsibility. And 2. I have entirely too much time and money wrapped up in my dog to let someone eff it all up because I was too worried about bruising their ego.
Now, all of this is not to say that you don’t need to keep an open mind. Please do! There is nothing wrong with trying new techniques, as long as whoever is implementing them can properly explain the “why” and the “how”.
And that, I think, is the crux of the issue (or, at least, it was for me) – never be afraid to ask for an explanation. To talk through what needs to be done so that everyone involved has a clear picture of where things are going.
Trainer wants me to use a correction collar? Fine – but how am I going to be using it and how is it going to help my dog understand what is being asked?
Helper wants me to reach under my dog and hold him up by his chest? Okay, sure, as long as you can tell me why first. (For the record, the helper that had me do this is one of my favorites and this technique did help my dog quite a lot.)
I’m absolutely not averse to trying new things – I’d be a terrible student and handler if I was. I just take the time, now, to do my due diligence and fully understand.
I have, too, seen other dog handlers make the same mistakes I made with a trainer or helper with much more lasting consequences.
Just this past summer, at a seminar of sorts, a trainer offered to help someone with their dog’s dog-aggression issue. The trainer seemed more than competent, and the dog’s owner handed her dog over without asking any questions about what was going to be done, or how.
I won’t go into the gruesome details of what followed, but suffice it to say, had someone done that to my dog, I’d be writing this blog post from prison.
I haven’t seen the dog since, but I can’t imagine that he escaped without lasting damage. And, it should be noted, the dog had completely shut down mentally before another dog was brought out to “work on” the aggression issue. The trainer declared it a victory, but I doubt that the dog actually learned anything that day.
Had the owner asked questions before handing over the leash, I think maybe the outcome could have been different for the dog. Had the owner had the guts to step in when things turned ugly, I think maybe the dog could have escaped lasting harm.
But she trusted the trainer, blindly, and her dog paid the price.
And that is something that we need to keep in mind in this sport – that it will be the dogs that pay the price for our mistakes. So it is our job to to do our homework, be a little pushy, and do our best to mitigate those mistakes before they happen.
Because your dog is never more vulnerable than they are when you hand control over to someone you don’t know.
So, never be afraid to ask questions. Never be afraid to stop when things turn sideways. And never be afraid to say “no” to putting your dog in a situation that isn’t in his or her best interest, egos or politeness be damned.