The Sounds Of Training

Sound travels. It’s a delightfully odd phenomenon, the way sound bounces around the woods, the mountains, and especially across water. Ever suddenly hear people talking when you’re out canoeing somewhere remote, only to realize they are on the shore a significant distance away? Sound carries in weird and funky ways.

One of the new developments the pandemic has brought us here on Bramley Mountain is additional neighbors. Second homeowners who used to visit occasionally have moved in for the duration. They have a dog and children. I hear them every day – all the sounds of parenting and real life. This morning I thought I heard a different “ribbit” than usual emanating from my pond. I stopped gardening to listen in… only to realize nope, that’s not a frog, that’s a baby crying. While I really enjoyed my relative silence before they were here, I try not to begrudge them the simple pleasures of squealing, barking, yelling, air nailers, chainsaws, and the rest of it. We all bend a little and hopefully none of us break.

But if I can hear them, they can hear me. One fine summer day I sat outside on my balcony and drank a beer and treated them to my very finest rendition of Maura O’Connell’s Western Highway. At top volume. Hopefully the baby wasn’t napping at the time. I’m not a good singer, despite a lot of practice (in the car and in the shower).

Every afternoon, come hell or high water (both of which accurately describe the weather on Bramley Mountain), I take the gang out for a rousing session of play. For each dog this means something unique, something specifically tailored to the dog’s ability, my goals, and our relationship. Our play sessions have earned Hawkitt two trick titles and readied Bindi for her CGC and TKN evaluation. Brody fetches and Peeka naps. It all happens outdoors, and much of it is loud.

I’ve had to think a lot about how I sound because, for the first time, I have an audience. Ever think about that? What do you sound like to the neighbors when you’re outside training and working and playing with your dogs?

The first year or so I had Hawkitt, there was a lot of cursing. There was a lot of irritated and impatient hollering. There was a lot of NO. You see, I think I needed Hawk to comply in a certain way or at a certain rate, because I believed that would reflect upon me. I needed to be a certain type of owner and trainer. My preconceived notion of who I thought I should be was guiding my efforts and my mood. My ego dictated that we work in a particular way. It was work. There was blood, sweat, and tears. And a metric ton of F bombs.

I don’t think Hawk cared and I don’t think it impacted our relationship much because Hawkitt is Hawkitt. He is resilient to the nth degree. Wired to forgive and refocus on the task at hand (making me give him what he wants), he is both flexible and relentless. He is a fantastic role model because truly, nothing fazes him. He never gets irritable, and he never stops trying to make me throw the damn ball.  

But Bindi isn’t like Hawk. Brody isn’t like Hawk. And Peeka isn’t like any dog I’ve ever seen. I can’t only train Hawk; I have to work effectively with everyone here. And, while being demanding and unyielding worked well for Hawkitt, it didn’t make me happy. I would feel tense, frustrated, and uptight way too often, with blips of sheer elation. One day while walking the dogs, the thought became conscious and clear: I wanted to hear myself say Yes! Good dog! more often than no! It wasn’t really about them. It was about me. I didn’t like who I was, or what I sounded like. I wouldn’t want to play obedience games with me. So I rearranged what I did so I could hear myself say the words I wanted to hear and turn into a trainer whose company I enjoy.

It’s hard to describe what I’ve done differently, but I can tell you what it sounds like. If you were sitting on my neighbor’s deck, you’d hear laughter. A lot of laughter. Every now and then you’d hear oh shit! and a splash and then sorry, Hawkie! because I’d thrown a wild pitch and he had to dive into a pond to get the ball. You’d hear a wide array of commands – sit, down, around, heel, back up, cha cha (yes, cha cha, although I think the step we’re doing is more accurately a rumba), walk the plank, hop up, put it in here (the ball into the hole in the center of the snow tire rim), and so on. You’d hear a ton of barking. Hawk has a sassy mouth when he’s excited. You’d hear a loud, joyous, high-pitched YES! echoing off the mountains punctuating the session regularly. And you’d hear a ton of encouragement – more that’s right, come on, good dog, you got it! than no.

Don’t get me wrong – I still say no. I still correct mistakes or wait for what I want. Bindi has to comply even when Hawkitt is present, which seems to be downright painful for her. She races away to smooch and wonky boop her beloved Hawkie (who ignores her completely) and gets called back, the correct performance of the command must happen before she is released. Every time. Being a fun and nice Mama doesn’t stop me from training or insisting upon compliance. It just makes the process enjoyable.

If you’ve read my book you know that I’m not big on techniques and I am much more eclectic and slapdash than systematic or organized. Despite that fundamental eschewing of all methods, there are some things I can share that I do that seem to work.

  1. I monitor my own mood. If I’m getting irritable and short-tempered, I change what we’re doing.
  2. I *try* really really hard to remember that failure to comply is an indication that I haven’t been understood. It means the dog doesn’t know what I’m asking for. My dogs (all dogs) are not vindictive. They don’t fail to comply just to piss me off. It’s never personal.
  3. If I’m not getting what I want after a few reps, I need to back up a step or two. I need to teach it differently, so that the dog can understand. Repeating something that isn’t working over and over again isn’t fun for anyone. After a few repetitions without any lightbulbs lighting up, that means back up, simplify, break it down into a smaller increments, and cantilever it off something the dog is already doing reliably.
  4. Always end on a good note. Always make the last one a good one. I was taught this from a SAR trainer and I like it as a concept. It might mean more to the human than the dog, but that’s ok.

I don’t really enjoy training and I don’t do a lot of it. But I really enjoy spending time with my dogs doing fun things. I take great delight in watching them learn and grow – whether it’s Bindi growing into a confident dog, or Peeka sidle up to me and look knowingly at the balance beam or stack of wooden blocks, asking “Can I play too?” – and I know that as long as I keep offering them new experiences in safe and fun ways, they will keep growing and learning.

The bottom line it I don’t get tense or irritable anymore. It doesn’t have to be a chore and it doesn’t have to be work and it certainly doesn’t have to be serious business. As long as we’re all experiencing joy at playing together, I don’t care much at all about what actually gets accomplished. The dogs don’t have to be or do anything preconceived. Sure, they are specific breeds with specific jobs they were born to do. But their new job here with me is to have fun, build a fabulous relationship that grows ever more deep, rich and intimate, and stay out of the emergency room. The rest is gravy.

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