Tuesday, January 26, 2016

Tweed has humbled me as an owner and especially as a trainer

A few weeks ago, I entered a video contest with Tweed.  We spent the past year learning or I should say, relearning how to do agility as a team.  Tweed was in a terrible dog fight and almost lost his life.  When he recovered, he couldn't successfully compete in agility anymore.  So, we started over and the video was a short story about our training.  I was approached by people at trials, my students and sent many messages about that video and what it meant to each person.  Many said they cried, many said it was amazing he was brought back from such a horrific incident, and some could relate with their fearful dogs having to gain confidence again.

Everyone said how lucky Tweed was to have me and what a great job I have done with him.

But, here's how I see this past two years.  I never really talked about the dog fight. It was embarrassing and difficult.  I'm a dog trainer, I teach prevention, training, and how to avoid these exact scenarios yet this happened in my house, between two housemates.  Without sharing all the details of a history of dislike between only these two dogs, Tweed was close to death and I gone for only an hour.

After a long long recovery, Tweed was back to looking normal, cleared by his veterinarian and rehabilitated with a specialist, he was ready to go back to agility.  I signed up for Handing 360 with Susan Garrett to get a jump start on my agility again.  I needed a push after two little humans and I needed to bring new life to my students classes, all of which were becoming stagnant. I watched the videos, played around, got inspired and went back to trialing in USDAA after 7 or so years off.  Tweed did great, got out of Starters fast but we got stuck in Advanced. Not only was he avoiding jumps, he was extra sensitive to me and my training.  I was starting to feel lost and insecure about my training as Tweed seemed to be breaking down although physically well.

I had come across some information in an ebook in this class about using corrections in training.  I thought, "I don't do that, I'm not mean but he needs to know when he gets it wrong to help him learn".  I read and read and thought and thought about this training.  Was it possible I was actually being mean and making it harder for him to learn?  Could everything I know, be wrong? The idea is when your dog gets something right, we mark it happily and reward, they learn and want to do it again. When they get it wrong, I said 'ahh' or 'hey' or 'no' or any number of verbals to let him know this was not what I wanted.  What I didn't realize was he had no idea that was what I meant, he simply took it wrong and I was inadvertently keeping him from getting it right. I never taught my students to do this correction but I wasn't teaching what I was practicing.

Here is a scenario:  Tweed runs down a line of three jumps, he takes the first one, then the second, then turns to look at me and runs past the third, I say, "ah ah, no".  He stops, looks upset, runs around circling me more, questioning me.  My old thinking would say, he now knows not to run past that jump but to take it. The next time he gets it, I'll highly praise and he'll make the connection, balanced training, right! (yeah yeah, I get it now) What I actually did was give him worry or anxiety about any number of things and I have no idea which of these he actually 'learned'. Did he learn that he gets in trouble if: 1. he turns to look at me. 2. He runs ahead of me on a course. 3. He goes anywhere near that jump. 4. He runs. 5. He gets excited and too happy.  The list is endless, but he definitely didn't learn what I wanted him to learn.

What I should have been doing was teaching him when he should check in and when he should drive ahead and take the next obstacle (plus so much more).  I need to be clear in what I was asking and consistent in what those cues mean. He was constantly trying to decided what I wanted because he wanted to please me and have fun and if he was worried about an obstacle, he avoided.

Now I know, if any dog doesn't read our cue correctly, then I didn't teach them well enough.  It's our fault, go back and figure out where the hole in the training is and how to teach them. Then proof it in every scenario, with distractions and new environments.  If you ever think to yourself, "he should know this" then you didn't actually teach it well enough because he clearly doesn't know.

I admitted I did this for years, verbal correction and now I see I never really taught him in the first place.  He was very talented and I was a pretty good beginner, but when he got physically hurt and couldn't be the athlete he was, we got stuck.  I flipped through many videos and 'picked' our problems.  It still wasn't working, we weren't getting better and I was getting hungry for moving on to higher levels. I then attended a trial here in Michigan and guess who was entered, Susan.  Here we go, I've spent the last 11 months in her class and it doesn't show at all.  I didn't commit to doing it in order as she suggested and work all the exercises. I removed the verbal corrections and now have a dog that is happy but showing how little he really knows. 

I watcher her and was inspired, she handles her dogs exactly as she teaches. I could see it, after all I had watched the videos but hadn't done the work. I went home and began training from the beginning and here I am 50 days consecutive training, 1/3 of the way through the course and you have now seen the video.  I wasted 12 months of a year long class before I figured out I needed to go back and do exactly what I preach and push to my students.  A little foundation, consistent teaching and fun is 'giving me back my dog'.  I will not let my students miss their opportunity in agility, they will be better than me.

Tweed shows me everyday that I made big mistakes with him and my previous dogs. I feel guilty every time he slightly shuts down, gets worried, flanks, or shows any confusion.  I did that to him, all by using a little verbal correction that I thought was harmless, I thought was necessary.  This is what that video means to me, all the amazing changes in him due to a little confidence and a huge epiphany in my head.  Look at us, a 9 year old dog still improving and me, realizing once again that dog training will never be 'finished' and maybe I was a little late to this game but will be early to the next one.

Thank you, Tweed, I look forward to years to come.


  1. Laura, you are remarkable and an inspiration.
    The LOVE you have for your dogs and what you do is clearly evident. To admit to an unfortunate mistake is hard, very hard, but to learn and make the conscious decision to grow from that takes another kind of strength. And then, to incorporate your lesson into your training sessions with your students in order that they may become strong owners and handlers... that unselfishness is exemplary.
    Tweed IS blessed by being yours! You are the kind of teacher I would not hesitate to seek.
    Keep it up! God's got your back and Tweed is your daily reminder of that great love.
    Thanks so much for sharing your story.

    ~ Jennifer (and Sombrita)

  2. Wow Laura you have lifted my spirits & you are truly my inspiration. Your students are blessed to have you as our teacher. No one is perfect & we all learn from our mistakes. Tweed & all of your fur babies are blessed to have you as their owner. Hope to be back soon with Midgey we have a few more months to go in her recovery & look forward in coming back to classes in the Spring. (((hugs)))