As a dog trainer, I am sometimes seen as some kind of wizard by my clients. That I’ll come into a situation, wave a wand, say some magic words and the problem will be fixed. That their dog will no longer do the thing they didn’t like and will be perfectly behaved forevermore.
Now, I have my clicker and a targeting stick, and I have an array of cue words, but none of this is magic. And it certainly can’t solve every problem for every dog owner. And yes, I say the owner, as nine times out of 10, the dog is perfectly happy with the situation. We are the ones that have invited an alien species into our lives, and yet we expect them to be the one to change their ways.
I have had comments along the lines of “If you were a good trainer you could teach any dog to do anything”. It’s even something I’ve told myself at times, darker times when Kimber has just (not) done something frustrating. I have to remind myself of all the progress that I HAVE made with him.
But listening to Kay Laurence’s podcast, Learning About Dogs, recently she said something that seemed so obvious I couldn’t believe it hadn’t occurred to me before. She said, and I’m paraphrasing here, “You can get the best music teacher or sports coach in the world, and they’re not going to be able to teach everyone how to play the piano or kick a ball. Some people are just not musical or sporty. Or maybe if I was that music teacher, I could teach you to play, whether you like it or not! Is that fun?”
It’s the same for dogs.
Some dogs don’t like doing certain things, or at least not as much as other things, and so those things will be much harder to teach.
Take my dog, Kimber, for example. He’s a beagle. Bred to hunt, but not to retrieve. Throw a ball, and he’ll chase it to the ends of the earth. Loves that. Will sometimes pick up the ball, and start to wander back. But then there are smells. And he gets distracted. And only about 20% of the balls (I’m feeling generous) would come back to me.
Now, if I were a ‘good’ dog trainer, I’d be out there with him every day teaching him to bring it back. It would be hard work, for him and me. And to what end? So that I don’t have to go pick it up myself? And he has to resist good sniffs. Why not just let him have the fun part, and I can pick up the damn ball? I used to beat myself up over this, but now I realise it’s no big deal.
If I were a ‘good’ dog trainer, he’d be right by my side on walks at all times. Facing front, walking at my pace. But these walks are for him, not for me. And I want him to enjoy it and have as much choice as possible. So he can sniff, and wander back and forth a bit, and I’ll do my best to keep to his speed.
So, am I a good dog trainer?
I say yes, I am. Because being a good dog trainer is not about your own ego and what you can get a dog to do. Being a good dog trainer is about working with the dog in front of you, their owners, and the lifestyle that they are living. It’s about making life good for all parties involved.