I’ve been debating about whether or not to write this post, and the video in the link at the bottom is what helped me make up my mind. I’m sure you’ll enjoy watching it.
You know I’ve been rehabbing Soyer for just over four months. As Soyer’s difficulties dropped away and there was less to work on, but more to just love, I had the luxury of taking a fresh look at my own dogs, with my new and improved eyes. I’d learned so much through working with Soyer, and lots of new revelations were the result. I’m sure I’ll write many times about this subject, but right now I’m going to focus on just one of my dogs, Giovanni.
Pre-Soyer, I said to myself, Wow, Schnauzers and Poodles sure must be barky dogs! (Gio is a Schnoodle.) Post-Soyer, I said, Giovanni is highly reactive to his environment–let’s work on that. (And, for the record, using the positive-only method I used with Soyer is working beautifully with Giovanni, too, but that’s not what I’m going to be writing about here.)
As part of working on my special relationship with Giovanni, I decided to take him to agility classes. I felt sure he would enjoy agility, since he has springs in his feet, loves to run and runs fast, and is delighted to be asked to do anything by me. For instance, he has the fastest sit of any dog I’ve ever seen. He watches my face for each nuance of expression, hanging on my every word to such an extent that I’ve wondered, ‘Is this one for real?’ Anyway, he’s an extremely intelligent, athletic little guy.
We went to the agility trainer in town who I believed I’d been told was positive-only. As I’d expected, Giovanni loved his first session and showed real promise. The next two sessions we had to miss, because I had extra work at the note factory for our end-of-season gala events. I’m telling you this in case, as later occurred to me, you think that it had something to do with what happened (for instance, maybe the teacher felt I hadn’t enjoyed the first class and was thinking of not continuing).
After the note factory winter season had ended and that agility evening was free for good, Giovanni and I excitedly headed out to our second class. We both enjoyed watching the other dogs take their turns, and we enjoyed our turn, too, reviewing the little jumps we’d started with, the tunnel, and the A-frame. Giovanni was beautifully behaved, meeting dogs and people with quiet confidence, resting next to me on leash, not barking one bit. I was really surprised and delighted at his lovely behavior, the result of just a short time of positive-only training, and thrilled that this new regime, including the agility class, was going to be just as good for us as I’d hoped.
Then the teacher said to me, OK, let’s try him on the dog walk (which is very similar to a balance beam in gymnastics, only with a ramp on either end). I took him over to it, and he didn’t want to go up it, but jumped off the side. At our last class, when he had done that on the A-frame, the teacher had told me to go to the other side and ‘talk him over’ (and of course, lots of high-value treats were passing from my hand to his mouth, too!), and that had worked. The fact that we’d been careful not to ‘scare’ him about the A-frame that first time was the thing to which I attributed his complete success on it this time.
So when he was reluctant on the dog walk, I tried to coax him across with happy words of encouragement coupled with treats. But this time, the teacher came over and began to push him across, with her hand on his butt. Although she was gentle, I instantly felt him tense. I had told her at our first class that he had failed one part of his temperament test at our big local shelter–he did not tolerate being hugged nor picked up. I’ve worked carefully to help him enjoy all kinds of handling from me. But he was about four and a half feet up in the air, on a completely new piece of equipment, being handled by someone who had never so much as touched him before.
As a possibly important piece of background information, at our first class the teacher had said, while teaching us how to go through the tunnel, “He’s thinking, ‘Well, I hate her (the teacher meant herself), so I’ll go through this to get away from her.’ I don’t know if I explained that well. But the teacher was using the fact that Giovanni would want to go away from her and towards me, so she stationed me at the finish of the tunnel. This made perfect sense, but I was surprised by her use of the word, ‘hate’. Surely he didn’t hate her or anybody. And he didn’t even know her. I just stored that away as a slightly odd thing.
Back to the current class. She’s pushing his rump. I’m on the other side, feeling him tense. I want to forestall any negative event, so I say to her, “He’s a little afraid; maybe we should…” I don’t have time to finish, as he whips around and (I imagine–I couldn’t see it) snaps at the air near her hand. I ask her what happened (she says, ‘Well, he didn’t bite me’), say I’m so sorry, and she answers with, ‘He’s not scared; he’s spoiled.’
I’m stunned. Setting aside the fact that I don’t like the word, spoiled, and think it has no real meaning (it’s just something one parent says about another parent’s kid or dog to indicate that he or she doesn’t approve of the other’s parenting style), I would say that Giovanni is very far from what even a person who uses the word generally means. He’s a brave fellow, never expecting special treatment nor coddling.
I am speechless for a second–my brain is trying to come to terms with what she’s said, which is not language I’ve ever heard a positive-only trainer use–and all I can think to say is, ‘Really?’
‘Yeah’, she says, ‘he has that typical Terrier thing going on.’
Well, now I’m really flummoxed. I love Terriers. My brain starts going into revision mode–who is this teacher, really? She tells me, ‘Just get him through it. He’ll get over it.’ This is so unlike what I’ve been learning lately. I get him down the other side of the dog walk, and she tells me to take him through a few jumps, the tunnel, and the platform, all of which he does very well. There is tension coming from the teacher. We go back and wait for our next turn.
At that turn, our last one of the session, the teacher, clearly battling with herself to continue dealing with us on a par with the others, makes a little course for us to follow, choosing from the equipment he’s familiar with (and I’m proud of how he does–he’s fast and perfect, and it’s only his second time). She praises him, too, and says what a nice little dog he is. I hear her and agree with her, out loud. Inwardly I believe she’s trying to make up for what she’d said before. I’m focused on making sure he has a positive experience, telling him how good he is and giving him treats. When we get back to our spot, I can feel that the tension that was coming from the teacher has been communicated to the other ‘mothers’. But that’s not my worry–Giovanni is. And he and I are happy with each other.
At the end of class, I go to the teacher and start to say to her back, ‘I know you are a little mad at us…’, when she whips around and says, pretty fiercely, ‘Don’t argue with me!’ I’m stunned again. I’m quiet. I think what to say. I start to say, ‘I didn’t mean to argue with you. I wasn’t thinking of you. I was just advocating for my dog–I didn’t want him to be scared.’ I don’t know how much of this she heard, because over me she said, ‘DON’T argue with me! DON’T ARGUE WITH ME!’ Her face looked…very intense (read, ‘kind of nuts’). She was rigid and staring.
I stood there and realized that there was a lot more going on here than I needed to deal with. I was able, through talking calmly, focusing on the fact that I was there only to show Giovanni a good time, to ramp the conversation down enough so that one could actually call it a conversation rather than an argument. My brain was in a whirl, though, because she continued to say that it didn’t matter that Giovanni was scared–he’d get over it and figure it out.
I was glad to leave there, and we enjoyed the ride home, me proud of him, he happy with me and with the farm smells coming through the partially open windows. We met a Pug at the gas station, and shared some treats, both human and dog. When we got home, I told all the dogs how well Giovanni had done, and they were exactly as happy to see him as they always are to have a pack member back from the big world. Everyone had a good sniff, and then all ran off into the yard to readjust the pack and absorb Giovanni’s experience.
When next I walked dogs with my friend who is an excellent positive-only trainer, I told her about what had happened. ‘Oh, bummer’, she said, ‘but we always knew that about so-and-so.’
‘Really?’, I said. ‘No, I didn’t know. I thought you and our other friend said she was a positive-only trainer.’ So she filled me in on the truth, that the agility teacher is excellent at actual agility, and quite kind as far as agility trainers go, but far from being a positive-only trainer. I realized that, back when they’d recommended this teacher to me last year, I didn’t even know what positive-only meant, and I very likely would not have understood the what was to me now a glaring difference between training styles. So maybe they didn’t even try to explain to me, a training neophyte, what to the two of them was clear.
I am so glad my eyes have been opened. Once you can see, you never go back.
And I didn’t go back to that class. I asked my trainer friend if there was a positive-only agility trainer in town, someone who puts the dogs’ happiness first, but she said there is not. So I’ll look for some second-hand equipment for Giovanni. But mostly I’ll just keep on putting him first, advocating for him, sticking up for him, always trying to give him and the others what they need.
The least we can do for such eminently loyal beings is to be loyal to them in return, even at the expense of another human, a supposed expert. If you truly love your dog, really see your dog, then you are the expert.
Now here’s a video of a dog probably about as spoiled as Giovanni, doing the work traditionally done by the type of dog the agility teacher trains: