In Training


What I learned from my dog

Though I grew up with a German shepherd, I had never taken care of a dog myself. Among so many priorities in life, a dog would not fit, I thought. Around our house, which is a garden cottage in a shady neighbourhood, security concerns finally ignited the possibility: could we get a dog? The decision-making itself became part of the beauty. I heard an expression, “good roads lead to good roads,” suggesting to me that the process of high-quality decisions brings out the right choice. Reasons to get a dog were plenty, but the quality of the choice itself was why we did it in the end. 

The love between my wife and I was the reason we got a dog, the follow-through a product of our willingness and confidence as a couple. We enjoyed placing that weight on our relationship, knowing we can do it. For me individually, I enjoyed seeing that the biggest reason not to have a dog was laziness, comfort and complacency. The emptiness of the reasons not to  get a dog only propelled me into taking the value seriously.  A dog would be extra work, but I love running around outside, and they say “busy people get things done.” I was ready for the extra cardio and mental workout implied in dog training. With “yes” and empty hesitation as my options,  “yes” became the one and only — so often the better choice of the two. 

The puppy of dreams appeared at our step

We visited a litter of German Shepherds. Olivia wanted “to see what’s like” to visit puppies, and I suggested it might become our first and last encounter before adopting one. The breed is my favourite; the photos of the parents looked stunning, and we trusted our ability to tell puppy-love from the real deal. We risked it, leaving handfuls of consideration to the winds of romance. But Olivia had caught a truly good scent, and we followed it 2 hours out of the city to check out this batch or German Shepherd beauties. 

As we pulled up to an acreage, I switched my brain to “alert buyer mode” — then doubled it to account for for the puppy factor. All signs indicated a dedicated breeder: an acreage showing care without indulgence, and the people were kind and clear. I asked every question, direct and indirect, to ascertain whether the breeder cared more for dogs than money. His primary job as a mechanic, his experience owning horses, and that he and his wife had five children all suggested a couple who were empathetic, hard-working, and enthusiastic about living things. Lastly, he offered all manner of papers and knowledge about German Shepherds (it turned out he supplies them to the police force.) And when I saw the regal dam and sire I knew these dogs were of exceptional build and disposition.

The puppies were cute, but that wasn’t enough for us to commit. It would take more, all of which trotted in as a watchful, confident and relaxed pup. I held her belly-up and she melted into our arms, never drifting from that intelligent look in her eye — within which I saw the majestic creature she has now become. 

I was captivated, and so was Olivia, though unsure about the prospect of the notoriously powerful breed. I was clear on this: we didn’t need to worry about making the right decision; we would rely on it. Regardless of the breed, we will know which puppy is the prize, and I doubted we’d meet any dog as fine as the little black wonder who lingered like superb espresso on my mind.

The next morning, we agreed that the puppy met all our criteria and more — her name, “Charlotte” appeared along with the commitment to adopt her, and within a few hours, she was home in our living room, sleeping near my toes. 

A good cause breeds commitment

Though exciting, owning a dog was a challenge I thought I would would likely skip. Not an object of desire, a dog was a beautiful potential that Olivia and I continued to respond to until it crystalized as the right thing for us.

This gap in motivation yawned broadly our first night at home with the puppy. After the little fur ball pranced around for the evening, it was time for us to take responsibility for her.  We enclosed her in a crate, and tried to figure out how locking up a wailing puppy all night was taking care (though we trusted for good reason). As I lay awake listening to Charlotte’s squeals, and jumped out of bed every half hour to take her to pee (preferably) outside, I looked closely at this choice to raise a puppy. The backdrop to my thoughts was the shriek of a panicked animal — but I said to myself — why stay up all night merely tolerating this sleepless strain? Why not use the discomfort to see, in its contrast, the beautiful clarity of our decision? I remembered how this clarity sparked our purchase of Charlotte. It was undeniable when we first held her, and it was still bright and clear in the scary moments. That clarity is the gold in any decision, regardless of outcome, and would be the basis for all of my training and connection with this creature. 

That clarity was not only the reason for our new challenge; the challenge was the lifeblood of our clarity. Okay then! Eyes exhausted in the dark, squinting to see the point — no looking back! There was glory, big lessons, and inexhaustible cuteness to be had!. 

Dog Training is Self-Training

A dog is a remarkable hybrid of intelligence and innocence. Charlotte is able to perform sophisticated tasks on cue, with physical prowess at the meager age of one year. Yet she has no idea what is going on in the world. She seems to think that magpies and cats are lethal enemies; she howls at sirens as if long-lost friends are calling her home. This combination of innocence and intelligence makes dogs an amazing responsibility. Everything you say or do shapes them, and so the training regimen becomes an exact reflection of your character. I do not “make my dog do what I want.” I show her what to do, teach her the language of command, and then motivate her to follow my lead. It takes patience and precision, and each slip-up results from me stepping ever so slightly out of balance.

Nothing is Charlotte’s fault; if she makes a mistake, I know I have failed to reinforce the lesson, or I’ve allowed a scenario that makes it easy for her to stray. With human relationships, a million factors can distract us from our own accountability; dogs reflect 100% responsibility, and the technical dimensions of training, as well as the energetic dynamics of communication are based entirely on how I compose my inner equilibrium. My faith in that is my dog’s reason to trust and love me — though she does no matter what. 

Input is everything

I’ve also learned that dog’s comprehend in a binary code: an experience is either safe and rewarding or threatening and uncomfortable, and all her actions respond to that duality. So my dog doesn’t learn skills and behaviour because I explain it; she learns because I code everything according to her binary perception, and then use my wider spectrum to imprint that system onto her life. I create the stability of that code. 

Charlotte will continue to fail, when a situation pushes us past her level of understanding and obedience. In the first year of training, this could be frightening and frustrating. Consequences can be huge, like Charlotte being hit by a car, or worse, seriously harming a person. But in the moments of doubt, I told myself that “input is everything.” Charlotte is young and will continue to waiver, but the consistency of my training goes into her whether I see it or not. It may take years to develop those layers of character in her, but nothing is lost. Even if she forgets a cue or skill, my consistency in training forms my character, and my character is what she follows more than anything. 

This opened perspective for my whole life: results may not come the way I want, but I don’t worry or control results. I only have full control of what I give. This is law in relationships, like marriage.  When I contribute what I believe is a rose, but receive thorns, it seems to shape the entire experience. It may be painful and confounding, but in the most troubling times, I remind myself: all that matters is what I’m putting in, even if it never comes to light. This makes any situation bearable, if not nourishing. My wife and I find that our independent and unspoken tithings to love eventually become obvious and palpable between us.

We too are binary

We may think we are more sophisticated than dogs, but that’s debatable. We structure our existence around pain and pleasure, avoiding one while chasing the other. My job as a trainer is to speak to that sense in Charlotte so that she moves according to a constructive framework, opening and deepening her relationship with the world. How pointless would it be, then, to forget that I am also in training. 

The difference is that I may let go of pain and pleasure as the framework for my life, and choose a more meaningful one. Each moment I can choose to give more, or take more; open up in my heart or let it close; hide awareness inside, or uncover it and see what I may not want to see. Dogs are equipped not only with far greater agility and sense of smell, but they also exceed us in their absolute givenness and loyalty. Dog owners are lucky to receive and take care of that devotion every day. As I ask Charlotte to attend with alacrity to my every command, I learn from her undivided faith. If I were to accomplish nothing, but embody the one-heartedness and selfless love I see in Charlotte, my life would be a success. 

I would be crazy to put all this work and time into training a high-octane German Shepherd, and not be changed by that laser beam of love. 

We are diety to dogs; they follow us with the narrow perspective with which we look for God.

With almost no understanding of the wide and wicked world, dogs view us, their masters, as the substance of their lives. From her early puppy-hood until she dies (presumably) her existence will be under our care. This again makes training such a great responsibility — to be fair and intelligent in communication, and to model the fullest of human character. As I endeavour to communicate this to her, her life consists of reading and meeting the communication I give her. She does this with the limits of a dog’s mind, but also with amazing focus.

This makes me think of the consciousness that is unfathomable to us, but which we detect and follow with our deepest senses. It is a miracle of history that wild creatures developed to attune to humans in both technical and emotional communication. If only we could give Charlotte the whole of our comprehension, and say, “look Charlotte, the dog across the street does not intend to break into our house, fight us to the death and take our food.” (Then again, human beings also tend to see threats where there are none). Instead, we have to translate our knowledge into a form that dogs can understand and follow. All we can ask, and dogs so beautifully deliver, is loyalty and focus. 

I like to remember that compared to the vastness of consciousness and divinity, my awareness must be like a dog’s, catching a faint scent amidst so much complexity, and trying to follow the cues. Meanwhile, I provide a sphere of love for Charlotte, a line of communication, and hold to the trace  that comes to me from somewhere greater and higher. If I learn anything from my dog, let it be to live by the trace that educates my mind and soul. 


15 responses to “In Training”

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