It’s the first day of school, and you’re the teacher. You run a tight ship and the kids in your class do well. You know what you’re doing.
This morning you are welcoming a new student into your classroom. You don’t know anything about this new student — no information about the child, his home, or his family is available.
When he walks in and sits down, you can see something is off. You’re not sure what. His eye contact is fleeting and he doesn’t answer when you speak to him. In fact, he seems both afraid of you and oddly defiant. He won’t interact with you or any of the other students. Within the first few minutes, he’s broken about half a dozen classroom rules.
At this point, you have choices about how you attempt to manage your new student. You can withhold everything: bathroom breaks, food, water, etc. until he starts interacting more appropriately. Remember, nothing in life is free. You could try cajoling him with M&Ms to change his tune. You could just watch and wait and see what he does next. Given your power and control over the classroom, you have lots of options.
But wouldn’t you like to know if he speaks the same language as you or not? Or if he is able to hear? Or if his mom died last night in a car accident? Was he in the car? Is he injured? Is he in shock? Does he have a traumatic brain injury? Or was that car accident five years ago and his injuries were minor? Has he traveled from a war-torn country and is here living with relatives he barely knows? Or is he the spoiled rotten son of the local aristocracy?
Would knowing any of this information assist you in reaching him and working with him? Would any of it change your approach?
On the surface, it sounds sensible to say, “I train the dog in front of me.” It sounds like a bandwagon we can all ride together. Don’t dwell on the past. Don’t get mired in pity. Don’t get caught up in the story. The dog in front of you will tell you all you need to know. Just be the leader the dog clearly needs. The rest will unfold.
As a psychotherapist, I know how important telling a story can be. The very act of telling can be cathartic and healing. That doesn’t mean we turn the story into gospel, however. Using the story to excuse or ignore unacceptable behavior isn’t helpful. The story isn’t a prediction of future behavior, and relying on the story as a reason to stay stuck in an unhealthy pattern is unfair and lazy. But none of those pitfalls are reasons to dismiss owners who need to tell.
I’ve had trainers say to me, point blank, “the story doesn’t matter.” I’ve heard trainers say “I train the dog in front of me,” which is shorthand for “I don’t want to hear another sob story about who abused your poor fur baby.” Some of the time, these trainers may be correct. They may do just fine with a Peeka or a Brody without knowing anything about the dogs. But they also might fail, wasting time, money, and hope. Not to mention getting injured.
The thing is, people who adopt dogs with a poignant backstory need to tell it. Trainers need to work well with human beings, so that these humans can work well with their dogs. Dismissing an owner who needs to tell their dog’s story is shooting yourself in the foot. It is a trainer’s job to listen, hear the critical parts, and tolerate being with the discomfort. Knowing a dog has been harmed is painful, but tolerating the emotions and then working with the dog and his human is the trainer’s role. Doing so teaches owners that we can feel and still make wise decisions, guided by emotions and knowledge, technique and sound methods. We can train with love, structure, and boundaries, providing clear guidance and safety. We can use our head and our heart together, in concert. Hearing wrenching stories is part of the job. Role modeling compassion and empathy while making sound decisions is part of training dogs. It’s a key aspect of teaching owners.
Ignoring the story is hubris. Telling an owner their story is not important is not only unkind, it’s also incorrect. The story is terribly important and beautiful. In it lies the seed of the bond. The owner is telling you who they are and how they see themselves in relation to the dog. This is information you, as a trainer, really need.
Being present to hear and feel the hurt and harm other humans have inflicted upon a dog is, quite simply, god’s work. It is beyond important. It is necessary. It will make us ache and weep, but it will also make us present. Being present sets us up to then take the next step: to provide what the dog needs.
You can’t know whether to be tough or lenient, strict or a softie, easy going or a total drill sergeant, if you haven’t been open and present to receive the whole picture. You can’t know how to deal with that new kid in your class if you haven’t found out what’s wrong. Does he need hearing aids or detention? You need information, and that information is in the story.
You need to be vulnerable and present to find out. As a trainer, you need to listen to the owner when they recite what seems like a rehearsed litany of wrongs the dog has been subjected to. You need to sort through the nonsense, and sift out the nuggets of truth. And then you need to step up to the plate and teach that owner how to meet the dog’s need, even if it isn’t easy. But you’ll never be able to do that if you haven’t truly listened to the dog and the owner.
Long story short, falling back on the “I train the dog in front of me” line is a cop out. Strong emotions can support bonding and training, but we can’t deal with them appropriately if we’re too scared to feel them. Feeling, being present, and being vulnerable are critical components of bonding… and training.
If you find yourself sighing and rolling your eyes at yet another canine tale of woe, ask yourself what it would cost you to be present and feel. We steel ourselves against feeling to avoid the pain, but when you let yourself feel the pain, you discover the answers. You have more to gain than to lose.