Three Very Important Words

I attended my first dog training conference in early 2000. I’d been teaching obedience with a local club for a few years, had a read a ton of books, belonged to more training listservs than I could count, and had rehabilitated a couple of fosters and a dog I adopted for aggression issues. I fancied myself quite the expert on dog behavior, and I wasn’t shy about sharing my opinions. I went to the conference because I couldn’t make any progress with another aggressive dog that I was working with. Nobody local could help me, so I sought the advice of people whose books I’d been reading.

The conference was a life-changing experience. I saw Patricia McConnell, Trish King, and Terry Ryan speak and did a private consult with Terry. The talks were great. Terry offered me several very creative ideas for working with my aggressive dog and threw in some great ideas for my training classes as well. I learned enough to keep my head buzzing for days. My biggest lesson of the conference, however, came from 3 little words that all 3 speakers used repeatedly: “I don’t know.”

Like I said, I thought that I knew a lot about dogs, their behavior, their natural pack instincts, their drives, and plenty of other things. These speakers who clearly knew more than I ever hoped to, on the other hand, kept professing uncertainty about questions to which I thought I knew the answers. They made me see that much of what I thought I knew was only received “knowledge” or even dogma that I just hadn’t thought through. I thought back on all the convictions that I’d abandoned while embracing a new training philosophy over the previous year or 2 while simultaneously trying to assimilate all the new questions raised by one 4-day conference. I experienced a deep sense of embarrassment about my oh-so-recent (and occasionally recurring) cockiness.

On my drive home, I vowed to avoid excessive attachment to my ideas about dog training. It was tough at first to keep my passionate commitment to the dogs and the work from infusing my feeling about whatever ideas guided me at the moment, but the longer I train, the easier it gets. As Laurie said, dog training isn’t rocket science. It does, however, involve an infinite combination of variables. Everything that I do has to be appropriate not only for the dog, but also for his family, and for me. Those 3+ personalities, abilities, and affinities never come together in precisely the same way. That makes the odds of me ever getting it perfect pretty long indeed, so I’m always looking for a better way.

Trying to stay open, however, doesn’t mean that I don’t make choices. Creativity and flexibility doesn’t mean that anything goes. As a trainer, I am an important part of the dog/owner/trainer triangle. I can only teach techniques that match my experience, abilities, and values. My experience has involved plenty of mistakes that I don’t intend to repeat as well as successes that have helped me better live up to my values. I have a strong preference for methods that don’t involve fear or pain. That doesn’t mean that I will never use a tool or a technique that involves one or both of those, but I set the bar for using them very high. That decision reflects my values and the kind of human/dog relationship that I want to promote, but it doesn’t remotely make me a one-size-fits-all trainer.

I’m always willing to try something new because I know that there’s almost always a better way. In my experience, it’s a bad sign if I find myself training exactly the way I did 6 months ago. I consider that a rut and that’s how it almost always feels. I’m not always patient and engaged enough to digest the lesson, but I firmly believe that every single dog and every single client has something to teach me. I think that attitude leads to success both in training and in business. People appreciate being treated as individuals and trainers who treat them that way get better results, regardless of the training tradition that they come from. None of us know everything and keeping that knowledge close to the surface keeps us growing as trainers.

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