Sunday, June 10, 2012

"The Handler Gets the Dog he Deserves"

Years ago, when I used to train at a different facility, those words were printed on a laminated card that hung on the wall of the training building.

And I always hated them!

Back then I was working with Speedy in his earliest stages of training and I often saw that sign and wondered, "What could I have done to deserve this?!!?"  Speedy was fearful of dogs and people, and far too easily overstimulated.  At that time he was both fearful and reactive and I was a new handler who was just learning what to do with a dog like that.  There were times when it was completely overwhelming, frustrating, and absolutely discouraging.  I just wanted to learn to train and have fun with my dog.  How on earth had I merited a lifelong behavior modification project?

In retrospect, I know that I didn't deserve Speedy.  There is nothing that I could have done to deserve a dog who is that creative, artistic, perceptive, and talented.  As I observe him at 11, I only see the amazing dog that he truly is, and the "issues" that we dealt with back time are properly in perspective.  They were serious issues and I don't pretend that they didn't require a lot of work and learning to work through.  But, also in retrospect, there is nothing that I could have done to deserve the opportunities for learning and growth that Speedy provided.  Speedy is, and always has been, an amazing dog who deserves my respect.  I no longer think of him as a "lifelong project" but as the gift of a lifetime.

But I still hate that phrase.  It always seemed judgmental.  It probably wasn't intended that way.  It probably meant something as innocent as, "if you train your dog, you'll have a trained dog and you'll deserve a trained dog because you trained your dog".  But I always took it to mean, "if your dog has issues, you caused them because you get the dog you deserve, so you must be at fault". 

The more I work with dogs, especially now that I am working with a dog with a rock solid temperament, the clearer and clearer it is to me that nobody "deserves" a dog that is reactive, fearful, anxious, easily stimulated, or overstressed.

Certainly, good training can help a dog with a less than perfect temperament become more confident, relaxed, at ease, and in his or her right mind.  That can take years of dedicated work, and a long process of one step forward, five steps back, but there is always potential for incredible improvement, and can help the dog considerably.  At 11 years old, Speedy is normal in almost all situations.  He is no longer reactive to any triggers, and his fear only rears its head in response to certain triggers, such as dogs barking at him from crates.  He plays off leash on the beach with other dogs running about, he walks through public parks and streets, and nobody would ever know he had been so severely fearful and reactive to begin with.

However, because of his underlying fearful temperament, he will never be entirely free of fearful responses in certain situations.  In other words, he will never been completely "normal".

One thing that is often overlooked is that a dog's temperament is what it is.  Training can help override it to some degree.  Training can help a dog develop coping skills.  But temperament is not created through training, and it cannot simply be trained away.  Tessa has an incredible ability to recover and bounce right back from a fear response.  Dean needs some recovery time to come back from a fear response.  After experiencing fear toward something, Tessa does not usually regard that thing something to be avoided at all cost - in fact, she is often downright curious about things that originally frightened her.  Dean will avoid anything that he associates with a noise that put him into panic mode and it will take careful work on my part to change that association.  The difference is temperament.

And a handler doesn't "deserve" a dog's temperament.  I didn't deserve Speedy's fear of dogs and people any more than I deserved Maddie's natural love for, and enjoyment of, dogs and people.  I don't deserve Dean's tendency to stress any more than I deserve Tessa's rock solid ability to bounce back.  And I didn't deserve Speedy's early reactivity any more than I deserve his natural ability to move beautifully to music.  I didn't deserve Maddie's early lack of drive for Agility any more than I deserved her sheer enjoyment of the trial environment.  I don't deserve Dean's noise phobia any more than I deserve his 100% unconditional love and affection.  And I don't deserve Tessa's hesitation toward people any more than I deserve the most strength and resilience that I have ever come across in a dog.

Truly, I don't deserve any of these dogs.  They are all gifts from God, given with love and boundless generosity.  If I must work with them on various and sundry issues and challenges, it is not because I "deserve" those issues and challenges.  It is because God has seen fit to allow me the opportunity to learn and grow as a trainer, and to give something of myself to these dogs who give me far more than I probably even realize.

"The handler gets the dog he can learn the most from and grow the most with".  That is what I would love to see on the wall of a training building. 


  1. I pretty much hate the word "deserve" in general. I don't think we get what we deserve, we get what we get, and then we do our best with what we have. I don't "deserve" my aussie who got her first rally legs and first freestyle title at six months old. That was luck and a good breeder. Of course, having a good match between the dog and the person is crucial -- this puppy was returned after a couple weeks by a non-performance person who couldn't handle her. She didn't "deserve" an out of control puppy any more than I "deserved" an outstanding performance prospect. Thank goodness for wonderful breeders who work so hard to make sure that people get the puppies who are right for them.

  2. Re-reading this over 4 years later, it amazes me how true it still rings.

    I miss Speedy every day of my life and I know more than ever that I never deserved a dog that amazing.

    I honor him by appreciating the best in the dogs that I have now, even when those "best qualities" are side by side with issues we need to work through.