“Attitude” – probably the most important component in dog training


I had a bit of a rough patch lately. Well, by lately  I mean all the fraking time. There are moments when I feel like I’ve been in a bad mood for the last ten years. It’s all just personal crap, stuff that’s not particularly important, and stuff that I’m pretty sure is all typical “I’m a twenty-something trying to figure out my place in the world” ridiculousness that will seem pretty minor later in life. I won’t bore you with the details, but long story short, I often feel like Mufaasa’s the best thing I’ve got going. Which, frankly, is a horrible burden to put on your dog.

The latest Dog Agility Blog Event is right on time to help force me to think about my attitude and how it helps or hurts my dog. He’s a pretty happy-go-lucky guy, intelligent and super fun to work with when he’s properly motivated. It often seems like if I can just get him revved up, my attitude won’t matter. Except that he is sensitive to my mood, like any good dog that’s bonded to its owner. If I’m relaxed and happy, so is he. If I’m tense, he starts all sorts of classic displacement behaviours. Either he starts sniffing the ground and not performing, or he takes any reward I throw out and heads for the hills (not in a tail-between-the-legs sort of way, he actually looks perversely cheerful about it). Once that happens it seems like I might as well call it quits—even if I try to force myself to chill out, he can still tell and I’ll be lucky if I can get him to do anything. Intellectually I know that’s just a fact of life in any training program; there are regressions before advancements, and the smallest victory in a difficult situation is equivalent to a major victory in any other situation. It’s still a hard pill to take if it looks like you’ve never spent a day on training in your life.

Fortunately my dog is pretty awesome and rebounds from disappointment a lot quicker than I do. Probably because he could care less about this agility nonsense. He’s super inconsistent, but at least he fluctuates between being unproductive and being pretty damn kick-ass. And really, when I get my head out of my self-induced funk I realize just how kick-ass he is. I was super cranky for a lot of last week because he decided to spend most of our practice meet at a strange park he’d only been in once before running off, and then when I tried to teach him to fetch a frisbee, he kept running off. Nevermind of course that his obstacle behaviour at the park was awesome, and never mind that we made minor victories in then frisbee retrieving department.

Version 200.0 (give or take)

But here’s the kicker with my bad moods: they often give me the fortitude to work through whatever is troubling me. I work as a graphic designer, and I actually count my crankiness as part of my creative process. I’m presented with a difficult design problem, and I will sit there for hours working on it until I sort it out. One of the best covers I ever designed went through over 200 revisions, and at least five radical re-imaginings. You’d think that would be a pain in the butt, and I certainly made some huffing and puffing noises along the way, but I totally enjoyed it all the way.

After Mufaasa screwed off at the park instead of chasing a yellow round thing he’d barely ever seen before, I was super cranky. I talked about this in my last post, how afterwards I gave him the silent treatment for a while, but since my brain doesn’t let me let go of these things I decided to shape the behaviour I was looking for. It was a tactic I don’t usually use, mostly because it can take a really long time, and there’s no guarantee the dog will figure out what you want. Usually I combine luring in the early stages to speed things along. And this did take a long time. I was probably at it for 40 minutes on that first session. But guess what? A week later, and oh boy, has he figured it out.

He’s starting to show that much enthusiasm at the park as well. And it ONLY TOOK A FRAKING WEEK. That’s nothing in dog training terms. And, AND he looks a whole like he’s having a blast doing it. I think he will be a disc dog before he’s a full fledged agility dog at this rate. But then again after having one crummy weekend (read: not really, felt it at the time) he bounced back and had a pretty good week and a TOTALLY FREAKING AWESOME FUNSHOW. Tones of drive, great enthusiasm for the contact equipment (we’re in the middle of learning running contacts—he’s super into it). Of course I didn’t get any pictures or videos of the fun show, but I did get some of our training session two days earlier.

These are the moments I live for when it comes to hanging with my dog. Which improves my attitude and heightened my expectations and then we have a bad day and then…I think you see where I’m going with this.

Attitude, I’m kind of your bitch right now.

Look, here’s the thing. Everyone says you need to have a better attitude. I remember working for a certain well-known horse trainer, and he was displeased with something I did (I think I said something mildly grouchy in front of one of my riders, and she decided to try to complain on my behalf, which backfired spectacularly). Instead of taking me aside and speaking to me like an adult, he gathered all the grooms together and told us how we’re really only useful to him for a third of the time we’re there. When we arrive, we have a good attitude, but we don’t know our jobs yet, so we’re not that productive. Then we learn our jobs and it’s great. And then we develop a bad attitude and just stop doing our jobs and are useless again. Now, nevermind that the way he saw it, it was a fault with all of us, even though the one constant in this particular situation was the environment we were working in. And nevermind that if he and his management would take people somewhere private to discuss our problems instead airing them out in as public a way as possible we might not have developed bad attitudes in the first place. After this little speech, there was another girl who was way more vocal with her displeasure, and the manager took to following her around one day shouting, “You need to have a better attitude! You need to have a better attitude!” Guess how much that worked? Neither she nor I lasted much longer in that place, and believe me, despite that little speech I mentioned, there was some bagging when I left because I have a freaking ridiculous work ethic (also, I didn’t screw off in the middle of the night like most people who work there). The point is, if you’ve got a bad attitude, it is supremely difficult to force yourself into a good one.

Being aware of this stuff helps a bit, but it certainly doesn’t stop it from happening. And as I discussed above, sometimes it’s good that the attitude happens, at least for me. Forcing my way through the hard stuff is how I learn (and apparently how I force my dog to learn). We probably wouldn’t have gotten as far with our Frisbee training if I hadn’t gotten so worked up over it. So, I suppose the best advice I can give is try not to let the crappy parts of training give you a bad attitude. And if you do find your attitude turning sour, try something else and give it the time it needs to work, you might find your attitude changing.


3 Replies to ““Attitude” – probably the most important component in dog training”

  1. Great advice and great post. We have all been there. Everyone starts at the beginning, right?

    My frustration comes in now mostly due to the fact that we have been at this game for so long and yet we are still dealing with the same things. Sometimes it's better, sometimes it feels like we're back at the start. I know it's totally wrong but in those moments I feel like everything is just so hard and maybe I just can't do it. Maybe there is just something in me that is completely incapable of handling this dog. It is hard to to focus on the positive things when you feel like the negative is so glaring.

    However, I think I will skip your former manager's advice and I will not chant "you need to have a better attitude" in my head over and over again. I think I would just piss myself off. Perhaps instead I'll try what a former manager of mine used to say all the time: "smile and you'll feel better!" It never really worked when I was a restaurant server but maybe it will work now?

    1. Are you kidding? You handle your dog sooooooo well. She tries to leap out of an arena and you just take it in good humour and transition it into an awesome run (I'm aware inside you may have been waaaaay more annoyed but believe me it was hard for the rest of us to notice). That can be really hard to do.
      Now, there isn't much advice I would take from that particular manager (she actually used the phrase, "We don't pay you to think, we pay you to do as we say." in a completely non-ironic way). And the whole "Turn that frown upside down" business never had much of an effect on me. I just try (and often fail) to take the bad, let it go, and move on to the next thing, just lowering my criteria until I can get somewhere. But I don't think there's any harm in taking your dog into a new place and seeing what you can get (so long as you aren't flooding them!). If you fail, well, whatever, it's an agility compitition. It's not like your dog's going to flunk out of training and never get into college and have to work in a call centre for the rest of it's life 😉

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