Thursday, August 2, 2012

The Road to Being a Better Dog Trainer

My best friend came up with the name of Olive.  She introduced me to “Olive the other reindeer” children’s story.  By naming Olive, memories came flowing back and the name has many levels of meaning for me and is a reminder of how far I’ve come in my journey of dog training.

13 years ago I wanted to do agility and my dog Sophie was older and couldn’t do it so I went looking and found a very nice breeder and came home with two shelties (I was so naïve back then J ). I researched everything I could find on agility, started taking lessons, bought equipment, and looked for seminars to attend. 
I attended my first Susan Garrett seminar about 11 years ago.  I drove down to Valencia, CA and stayed in a seedy Motel Six all by myself with my little Bi-Black Sheltie Maddie.  At that time, Susan was already making a name for herself and I was eager to find out the secrets of agility handling so I could be an agility champion. 

At the seminar Susan had a young Jack Russell named Decalf.  Decalf was adorable (and still is).  She wanted to use Decalf as a demo dog for the seminar, but was having some difficulty because there were olive trees dropping olives all over the ground and Decalf couldn’t focus. Decalf kept stepping on the olives and focusing on the olives rather than on the demo.  At the time I remember thinking, “oh, this is not going well.”  But then, the most amazing thing happened.  Susan laughed and used it as a training opportunity.  The entire weekend, she never got upset at Decalf.  She just consistently rewarded (even when he didn’t want the reward) for behavior she was looking for and ignored all the distraction around the olives.  I was confused.  Here was this person that I expected perfection from her dogs but my perspective of perfection was all wacky.

When it was my turn to work Maddie (we were doing what would become crate games), I was incredibly nervous.  I wanted so much to impress this woman.  I wanted to show her I knew what I was doing and deserved those secrets of becoming a champion.  But alas, between my stress and the pressure I was putting on Maddie, I couldn’t get her out of the crate. When she finally did get out of the crate, she started sniffing the ground and wouldn’t pay any attention to me.  Susan said, “Run away and hide.”  I was like, “What?”  “Run away,” she said.  “I want you to hide and see if she’ll come find you.”  Hide I did.  Sitting behind some sort of trash bin for more than 10 minutes.  I was so worried.  What was happening to Maddie?  Was she ok?  How long am I going to stay behind the trash bin?  I yelled, “Can I come out now?”  Susan yelled, “No.”  So I stayed there.  I popped my head around the corner because I couldn’t stand it.  What I saw was Maddie walking around with her tail up and wagging, visiting all the people sitting listening to Susan, not a care in her world. 
Finally Susan yelled, “Ok, come out now.”  I came out, found Maddie, and scooped her up in my arms.  Obvious to everyone there, but not to me was I needed Maddie more than she needed me.  As a matter of fact, I put so much stress on her, she was shopping new owners while I was cooling my jets behind the trash bin.  Susan said, “You need to develop a better relationship with your dog before you work on agility obstacles.”  I almost burst into tears.  I simply didn’t understand and had no idea of how to communicate my lack of understanding.  What the heck was wrong with this woman, couldn’t she see I love my dog!  So I walked back to my crating area, put Maddie in her crate and spent the rest of the seminar taking notes.  I didn’t work Maddie any more at that seminar.  I took as many notes as I could.  I tried to understand the lectures and demos, but my focus was not on secrets to agility handling, my focus had changed.  I was now worried that I might be a terrible trainer and even worse, a bad mom to my dogs.
Today as I sit here Maddie is fast asleep under my feet.  She never was the agility champion I had dreamed of when she was 8 weeks, but she is one of the most wonderful little dogs I could have ever hoped her to be.  She and each of my other dogs have taught me so much about patience, expectations, ego, and how to be my dogs bestest friend.   Teaching is in itself a learning experience.  With my little “Olive” I know that the journey will not necessarily follow the path that I expect, but I do expect that the destination will be worth the journey.  My focus today is not “how fast can she run the dogwalk,” but does she want to be around me more than that interesting hole in the ground. 
Susan Garrett has gone on to write books, provide training to the world, compete in multiple international competitions, and is widely recognized as an expert in the field of dog training.  For me what she represents is a person that absolutely adores her dogs.  She provides incredibly clear rules to live by and I know that each of her dogs lives a life that is full of love and low stress.  I aspire to do the same.

BTW:  Little Olive is tugging.  I still have to take it on the road, but I believe I’m figuring it out.


Susan Garrett said...

Vici, I have told the story of teaching in the Olive orchard hundreds of times over the past 11 years. I still remember how freaked DeCaff was, it was a great learning opportunity not just for DeCaff at the time, not just for me as a dog trainer at the time and not just for the students at the seminar at the time but it has become a pivotal story in my teaching for so many, it really was a blessing.
Thank you for sharing your memories, it brought tears to my eyes, you are a wonderful story teller. I can't get over how much Olive looks like DeCaff. Best of luck with your next chapter, I hope our paths cross at another seminar in the future.

Diana said...

This was so well written. Thanks so much for sharing it.

Elf said...

Cool story, both about you and Susan. I went through a similar sort of thing with my first agility dog, where I finally figured out that he was happy to do agility with anyone except me. Quite an eye-opener.