Getting It Right
Whenever I finish a good book it takes a few days to slip back into the real world. My body goes through the motions of my daily routine, but my head isn’t in the game. I’m still back there …. wherever that might be. The book Stable Relation was “that” kind of book; a book where somewhere around the halfway point I started glancing at the dwindling pages left to read and dreaded the fact that the book would soon end. I slowed myself down to a crawl, putting the book aside every couple of pages and giving myself time to digest the words. Still, the story had to end and when it did, I found myself wanting more. More wisdom. More patience. More love.
Anna writes a lot about love and patience and her intuitive wisdom leaps from nearly every page. That’s not to say Anna thinks she’s wise. She doesn’t. But I guess when you spend the first two decades of your life steeped in angst and irritability you eventually have to make a choice: you can either become what you’ve been shown or you can run like hell in the opposite direction. Having been trapped in midst of a very dysfunctional upbringing, it seems like it would be the wise choice to try to change your destiny. That said, I’m fairly certain this is MUCH harder to do than most think.
I grew up in an era where animal training and farm life were not particularly pleasant. We did not operate from the core philosophy of first, do no harm. It was more or less assumed that all animals were “dumb” and humans needed to bend them to our will. The vast majority of farmers didn’t consider the animals in their charge pets, friends or companions, but saw their animals as a source of income, be it in the beef or dairy market or as breeding stock. And they didn’t speak of these roles in politically correct terms so as not to offend anyone. What’s the saying now? It was what it was.
When I left home with the first dog of my independent, adult life, I didn’t know squat about training an animal. I grew up with an assortment of animals, but training wasn’t a big focus in my life. I had a horse that was already broke to ride when I got her and although I suppose I can claim I taught her how to race barrels, I suspect (because she was so enthusiastically good at it) that she already knew how. My first dog was a Humane Society adoptee who, a little initial fear aggression aside, was so biddable and willing to please that merely thinking what I wanted her to do got immediate results. Naturally, with these two highly successes starts behind me I thought I had a gift.
I do not.
As life went on I got out of horses (briefly) and into dogs. By the time my future husband entered the picture we had four dogs between us, and that number didn’t drop for several years. The dog’s ages were staggered and almost as soon as we lost one, we got another. We were into the big breeds then; German Shepherds and Dobermans, soon followed by the slightly smaller (but formidable) Australian Cattle dogs. I was usually the one who spent the most time putting some basic training on our pets. I had moderate expectations and none of our dogs were particularly difficult to train. I soon found I had good results training the dogs I considered “mine,” but somewhat less success working with the Doberman gang that belonged to my husband. By the time we morphed into Cattle dogs my husband was removed from the training process all together. It was me who spent the lion’s share of the day with our dogs so the responsibility fell on my shoulders.
I never took a formal training class until I got Cattle dogs. Having been forewarned that ACDs can be more of a challenge, I enrolled my second ACD puppy in something new: Puppy Kindergarten. It was 1998 and it sounded like a great idea. After all, who can argue with teaching a young puppy how to sit, come, and play nicely with other dogs? I eagerly arrived for the first class only to discover that I had the smallest, youngest and most easily intimidated pup in the group. Unfortunately, the trainer knew very little about how to help pups with issues like mine and I was even less enlightened. With hindsight, I should have gathered up my puppy and walked away, but I thought I had to stick it out and we were encouraged to try. By the third or forth class my pup’s fearfulness had turned into aggression. She was so tiny that several of the other puppy owners thought her behavior was “cute,” but I got a sick feeling in the pit of my stomach and I think I stopped going shortly thereafter. Fortunately, my puppy didn’t end up aggressive, but she was always aloof and very much a loner. I’ll never know how much of her adult personality was nurture or nature.
Because I’m a slow learner and have a burning need to DO THINGS RIGHT, several years later I enrolled my next ACD puppy in puppy kindergarten. By then the Internet was well into swing and I belonged to an ACD news list. For the first time I could rub virtual shoulders with experienced trainers and dog folks and learn the proper way to go about raising a responsible pet. Most of the people on these lists had high expectations of new puppy owners. Lots of folks showed their dogs and bragged about their prowess in everything from conformation to obedience and agility. The Canine Good Citizen test had just been created and many experienced handlers encouraged novice folks to aim for that.
My second puppy kindergarten class was far worse than my first. My puppy Hazer was a social menace and our attempts to change his behavior with positive reinforcement and gentle exposure was a disaster. In his defense, he nailed everything connected to performance. Sit, come, stay, down, place … he did it all and he did it flawlessly on the second or third try. Problem was, his mind worked at warp speed and he was easily bored once he knew something. He didn’t “get” repetition. It irked him. And when he was bored he was trouble with a capital T. I distinctly remember the instructor asking me to remove my puppy from the classroom while other dogs were socializing off-leash. Hazer was a land shark and nobody wanted him anywhere near them or their puppy. I stood in the hall with my treat bag, drilling Hazer on anything I knew he could do so I could reward him. “Watch me!” “Good boy!” “Sit!” Over and over we worked on skills he’d already mastered while his classmates flailed around and failed abysmally in their attempts to grasp the most basic stuff.
In retrospect, I should have left that class too, but I didn’t. Some deep desire to Get It Right held me captive to the bitter end. That decision was hugely detrimental to my dog. I didn’t know that then. I erroneously thought sticking with it was important, but I know that was a mistake now. Fortunately, I’ve since learned to put what’s best for my dog ahead of my own needs, wants, goals and yearning desire to “fit in.” But back then Hazer was going to be my golden boy, my first wonderfully bred, purposely chosen dog who was created and selected with certain long-range goals in mind. I had high hopes and standards. That sounds pretty lofty for someone who’d never really learned how to train a dog before. But all my previous success (via minimal effort) with my former dogs led me to believe that I knew a boatload more than I did. I had an ego in my way. Not a loud, pompous ego, but a quiet, profound belief that I was much smarter than I was.
I firmly believe Hazer came into my life to teach me that I didn’t begin to know how much I didn’t know. And much to my chagrin, he wasn’t the only pet to do this. A few years later my new horse Dharla did the same thing. She rode into my life on the heels of a well-honed 23-year relationship with the perfection that was known by me as Tia. Young, green and full of vinegar, it would have been easy to blame Dharla for our early blunders, except at some point I stumbled onto Anna’s blog and I stopped thinking I had the wrong horse. Ironically, I also stopped reading everything I could find about “natural horsemanship” and began looking at my own heart stuff. Because Dharla and my roadblocks weren’t about leadership or round pens, they were about me. I am my own worst enemy. I know that now. No, Anna never came out and told me so, but her words left little doubt in my mind. And I’m actually OK with that, with me being the problem. It makes me appreciate Dharla’s patience with me so much more.
To show you just how far I’ve come, there was a time when I thought I knew what leadership meant. I did lots of basic training and ground work and tried to build trust slowly. Still, Dharla and I continued to encounter friction under saddle. The more we worked on basics, the more frustrated I got. So I started to search for a different approach and naturally, turned to the Internet for answers. Eventually I found Anna’s blog, signed up and started the gradual shift in my thinking. For awhile I still grappled with the concept of leadership. Oh, I understood what the word meant, but the internal debate about leadership and how one ought to go about creating it was so mixed and emotionally charged that it was only through much experimentation and personal exploration I came to see that leadership is the wrong word for me. I now prefer to have a partnership with my animals because a “partnership” suggests the mutual desire to share an activity or goal. A partnership also implies respect. Respect for the leader as well as for the led. So when I’m working with my animals I like to keep in mind the concept of asking as opposed to demanding. A leader says, “Follow me because I said so.” A partner says, “Let’s do it this way, together. Will you trust me?” Bottom line, am I asking my horse or dog to follow my lead or am I stubbornly insisting? Since force tends to lead to resistance, I try to keep my leadership soft and pliable. I’m open to options. I’m willing to work with what my animals can give me today, even if it’s not the whole enchilada. Don’t like passing the gate? OK, let’s cut the ring in half and skip going past the gate for now … and my, what a wonderful, calm trot you have today! It’s hard to make an issue out of something if you remove the problem from the equation and focus on what is going well! Go back and revisit gate-passing another time, when you and your horse are working and thinking better as a team. I try to remember there’s no “Have-to” in training. You get to progress at a rate that’s right for you and your partner. Sure, in an emergency situation you might have to insist your animal follows your lead without hesitation, but that aside, most training is about building trust and partnership slowly, one small step at a time time. It’s about finding that sweet spot that’s not built on the theory of “Because I said so!” but, “Because I asked.” And yes, I’ll always be grateful to Anna, the friend who helped me hone my mantra.
So what is getting it right? I guess for me it’s learning a better way, a way where I can lead and follow with my heart. Because like Melvin Udall says in As Good As It Gets, that makes me want to be a better woman.