Friday, October 30, 2009

Calm Waters and Precision Heeling

This morning I walked on Ferry Beach in Scarborough with my two dogs Liam & Gimli. It was just me, the boys and a flock of gulls enjoying the beautiful, but cold morning at low tide. As we slowly made our way down the beach, the wind at our backs, my little corgi Gimli, trotted at my side in the perfect heel position.

As a dog trainer, I have spent many hours working with my dogs. As demo dogs for every class I have ever taught, my dogs have shown off their PhD levels of obedience tricks, have wow'd audiences and in short…can be very charming.

I love training my dogs. Shaping behaviors with a clicker until a complex new trick emerges. Watching their eyes twinkle as their brains are processing what is being asked and then celebrating victory when the right response is achieved. But as a trainer, I know there is more then just having a clicker, good treats and perfect timing to having a healthy, enjoyable relationship with a dog.

As the progression of a trainer’s career goes, there is pressure to put titles on our dogs. To some, titles are like the platinum American express card of dog training. The clout that one is ‘worthy’ to teach dog classes for a living. I see validity in titles...but I also believe there are other forms of currency. I am impressed when a handler and dog are disciplined enough to obtain precision heeling, straight sits, and the perfect front and finish. I am even more impressed, and envious, when I see a handler and dog equally enjoying their time in ring, working together as a team and walking in balance. As a former agility buff (until a non agility injury permanently removed my dog from the game), my best runs were not the ones where I achieved a qualifying round…or even a ribbon. They are the ones where my dog and I shared an invisible tether of pure blissful energy. Where 1 minute of speed was slowed down and we moved in perfect harmony.

I tried to achieve that same connection in the obedience ring with my corgi. But he had other thoughts. Not the serious competitor as Liam, he is more of a class clown, where tom foolery is the name of the game. In class, he found the only good thing about heeling in a predetermined area, like an obedience ring, were the remnants of treat smells from the team prior to us. Needless to say…I worked A LOT in class to get him to not sniff the 6 inches below him but instead look the 5ft above. Not easy for a dog who is 10 inches off the ground. After weeks of classes and drills we both became bored. Then in class he started to ‘check out’, and it was obvious to me that this was no longer fun for him or for me. I took the high road and made the decision that the obedience title meant more to me than it did to him, and we gracefully bowed out.

Maybe someday I will get a pure bred dog that loves the obedience ring as much as my mixed breed loved the agility ring. But until then... I will fast forward to this mornings walk. Unleashed on a huge stretch of deserted beach, Gimli chose to give me that perfect heel. I smiled down at my funny little dog who smiled up at me, and we enjoyed our invisible tether of pure blissful energy that no ribbon or title could ever replace.