This is a post that needs to be written because not only does it hit close to home, it comes from home. Today, I learned about truly embracing the little victories with my dog. No, we did not win our MACH in agility, we did not compete in rally-O, or even earned our AKC Canine Good Citizen title. No, what I won was a strong relationship with my dog built on trust and fun. I won a dog that will choose to pay attention to me and wants to work with me, not for me out of fear of what will happen if she does not.
To understand where this is coming from here is a little back story. My dog Tesla is an 8-month old intact Australian Shepherd. When we first got Tesla, my main goal was to make sure that she loved other dogs because I knew I would need to use her in my work as a dog that would teach other dogs that dogs are a good thing. I focused so much on her loving dogs that she truly loves other dogs, but she also learned something else: her owner is extremely boring and not worth her time. The real awakening hit about a month ago after using her as an older dog to teach some younger puppies in class appropriate play and to make sure play groups were evened out at the end of a class. Then I put her up and as everyone was leaving, she snuck out the front door and had a blast running around in circles chasing everyone and their dogs around their cars. As I saw her run in the street and almost get hit by a car, her recall we worked so hard on now failing us, I knew I had failed her as a trainer and that this hugely embarassing mistake was my own fault. By the time I did catch her, I was furious not so much with her, but with myself. I was embarassed that many of my clients saw a dog who did not listen to the trainer and acted like a complete hooligan. And while this was the wake-up point, this was something that had been building up over time. Before, we used to take her to the dog park and let her play since she loved dogs so much and had a blast playing with them. She would pull the whole way to the gate whining out of excitement (really overarousal and anxiety) just to get inside and be set free. One day she went and literally choked herself by standing on her back legs walking like a person the whole way to gate. In the dog park, we didn't exist. To Tesla, my boyfriend and I were the fun-suckers and if she was near us, the fun ends. So being around the other dogs away from us is the spot to be. Even as these occurences with her grew more embarassing each time we went, my eyes still were not opened. It got to the point where anytime Tesla was on leash walking and saw another dog or person from over 20 feet away, she would lunge and pull towards them excitedly because she wanted to play. One time a dog reacted to her doing that by barking a deep, throaty bark that scared her to the point she pulled away behind me, tripping me and falling directly on top of her. While Tesla was not injured, even that didn't wake me up. But as my dog told me clear as day that I am not worth working for, I knew that our relationship had suffered as well. It was time to start from scratch.
Rule number one was put in place. No more going to the dog park. Too many bad habits had been developed here and she was not ready to work through them yet. Rule number two: work with her every single day. Rule number three: she has to work for everything. This includes dinner and playtime. Rule number four: training has to be fun. Rule number five: do not let her self-reinforce. Rule number six: have realistic expectations. While this sounds like a lot of rules, I knew I had to treat myself like I do if I was one of my paying clients. I needed to make an investment in my dog and myself. We practiced every day and in little increments. Any time I was with Tesla, my treat bag was stocked and on hand with my clicker attached to my arm. We got an Easy-Walk Harness to help with her pulling because I couldn't stand Tesla choking herself constantly. She would be rewarded every time she looked away from her distractions and focus on me. She not only would get food and treats, she would get excitement and I would make sure she would know how excited I was that she did what I wanted. As she would get better, we would use less and less treats or use more of just her plain dog food and only a few little bits of treats for when she really earned them. We slowly transitioned her off of the Easy-Walk harness to walking normally with just her regular collar again. Then, today was the day I felt ready. I only had a short time window to work with her today, but I wanted to try it. We went to the dog park where we haven't been in a month. As soon as we get to the parking lot, Tesla knows exactly where we are. We start off with some loose leash walking exercises, attention, a couple of sits and short recalls, but we don't see dogs yet, she can just smell them. Then, we get to the park and there are around 10 dogs running around inside and barking and her ears and focus immediately perk up towards the park. Calmly, I ask for her focus which she gladly and willingly gives. As someone is leaving, I ask for a "sit" and she remains seated and focused on me as they walk by. We practice some heeling and more of her normal cues as we walk towards the main park area. Once we are there, she starts to whine a little bit in excitement, but still focused on what I ask her to do. Then, we work next to the dog park gates. Tesla is doing so great, I even try some distance "sit" and "down" stays while I walk away. When I finally release her telling her she can do whatever she wants and no longer needs to sit or lay down, she chooses to run towards me anyway and do more of our training. As it gets darker and she has been doing so well, we practice some more heeling back to the car. Through all of the opportunity Tesla had to run away from me towards the gate, not listen, pull towards other dogs, whine, or just plain blow me off, she chose to work with me and was having fun the whole time. We never went in the dog park today with all those loose dogs, but she had just as much fun as if she did. Every time we released her and threw a Tesla party for her hard work, Tesla would jump up excitedly and have a huge doggy-grin on her face. She would look at me not as if it was just another cue she was being forced to follow, but because she wanted to see what I had next in store for her for our fun training session. Tesla finally told me today that I am worth her time and am the most fun and interesting thing around her. Tesla finally told me our relationship is back where it needs to be. While someone may read this and say, "so what? Your dog was able to sit and lay down and walk on a leash. That's not very impressive." To those people I say this, through the weeks of hard work and effort, each training session was filled with these little, minor victories. Tesla used to no longer respond to her name in public. Now, her name means something great and awesome that should be paid attention to. I felt something training my dog today I haven't felt training dogs in a long time. I felt like my dog and I won something today. No our training is not nearly complete or are we even ready for our CGC title yet, but we are working on it and I am excited for even more of our little training sessions. These little victories can give you the ultimate high if you let them. Having a dog tell you that you are the greatest and most fun thing in what is the equivalent of dog Disney World, is an amazing feeling. I wish this feeling on anyone who trains with their dog. And yes, she was trained using clicker training. I didn't slap a prong, choke, or shock collar on her to intimidate her into what will happen if she doesn't do what I want. All we have accomplished is because Tesla made a choice to want to work with me and it was fun for both of us.
If you have a dog you are working with, yes you may have an overall goal, but embrace these small victories with your dog too. Maybe your dog doesn't let people in your house, but through lots of hard work, your dog can see a stranger outside the door and not react like he used to and thinks that training through this is a game and he enjoys not scaring people away anymore. Maybe your dog used to be the embarassing one in class that would pull you out to the middle of the classroom just to try to meet all of the other dogs, but now recalls to you every time back to your spot because coming to you is fun and rewarding now. Maybe your dog just ignored you and thought you were boring, but now looks to you for fun and excitement because training is fun again. Victories in dog training are not just winning titles. Victories also come in the form of accomplishing little things with your dog that before seemed impossible. As you build on these victories, each time you will get a high with your dog that will just further your relationship and reinforce with your dog that you are fun and worthwhile. Embrace these victories. I promise it will build a stronger relationship with you and your dog and will be so much more rewarding for you in the long run.