Recently, I was at an dog event. No big surprise there, but I spent most of the day just watching how the dogs worked rather than their guardians. Every dog had a story to tell without saying a word, body language and energy made them transparent in a way words never could have.
There were different age groups from 4 months to senior, all sizes, shapes, colors and breeds. Some were veteran performers who were quite serious about their jobs while others had no real idea as to what was expected of them, the newness of it all captivating their minds which in turn made learning difficult. But they were getting the experience. Age was not a qualifying factor in who was a veteran and who was novice either.
What interested me was how each individual dog responded to their guardian. Some were so excited to do their requested lessons that they were almost incapable of holding still, shaking as they waited to start. Now that is a dog having fun! She is not as interested in treats for a job well done as the doing of the job. Others were waiting patiently but attentive, knowing praise and treats would be forthcoming after, or possibly during the performance. They were having a good time too. It reminded me of my girls and how they never really ‘understood’ a command unless they knew I had a treat in my pocket, then they were virtual Einsteins. (There is quite possibly a lot to be said for my training abilities, which is why I have never claimed to be a trainer.) A few dogs were bored, doing it because it was required and they, in the end, wanted to please. And one or two could not have made it more plain they were not having fun at all. Dragging their bodies about the ring, retrieving a dumbbell with that listless ‘yes, yes, I’m coming…’ slow motion body language the is almost unbearable to watch and makes me want to scream, ‘Would you go find him something he likes to do!’ Good thing I can, at times, keep mouth unengaged. After all, education is the key, not criticism, in most cases.
If and when a correction needs to be done…well, that is the ultimate tattletale. It is where the teaching truly reflects the heart of the guardian and cannot be hidden, even if the teacher wishes it to be, because the dog reacts to what he knows will come when he has previously failed. It can be slight and this is what I see the majority of the time at a show, trial or match. The dog is not alarmed. He simply lowers his eyes a little with a slight head bow and maybe a tiny tail move as if to say, ‘Oops! Sorry.’ And tries again. Or he is a bit of a goof and does a little dance then resumes his work. Everyone is still having fun.
Then there is the pretender. The dog and guardian that seem to be having basically a good time, pleasant enough anyway, until the correction. As soon as that voice is heard or the guardian starts to return to his dog, the dog begins to move into the surrender position. The guardian can laugh it off in the public forum, but at least once, something traumatic happened to the dog during a correction to make him go to that position. To make him beg for forgiveness. Energy cannot lie about heavy hands, it tends to spill out into the body language.
Then there is the heartbreaker. The ‘dragger’. Weighted down by the worry of doing everything correctly, anchored by fear, she can barely move through her routine. ‘Discipline’ in it’s strongest form has stripped the lightness from her feet and she can no longer dance. The joy is gone.
There are many ways to ask a dog to perform. There are the old ways, which we have all used probably, if we are of that age, myself included. But we are all learning and discovering newer ways, softer ways, kinder ways to get our ideas across. So our best friends can dance their way through the lives they share with us, no matter what we ask of them.
Next time you and your dog are working together, take a moment and see what she is telling you.
Is she dancing?