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.