Last weekend, Harry our newest associate, and I, went to an aggressive dog handlers course in Atlanta. It was a full two days of discussing how to handle aggressive dogs safely and effectively and how to treat aggression cases. Even though we have been specializing in aggression cases for years at DD, I love doing continuing education that’s pinpointed specifically for our area of expertise and I always get something out of it. It actually only needs to be one little thing, but if it changes my perspective even a tiny bit or gives me a skill I didn’t have before, then it’s worth it.
Over the weekend, the two speakers running the show each talked about their own particular areas; one is a male dog trainer who goes into peoples homes and works exclusively with problem dogs, the other is a lady who has been involved with shelters for years and talked about managing aggression in a busy multiple dog environment.
Both of these areas apply to us here at the Ranch and so I found each teacher fascinating.
The male trainer, Michael, even though I thought he was excellent, did not once touch on any mistakes he had made, preferring to concentrate on ‘proven’ paths to success. He gave us step by step tuition accompanied by power point to show the steps he uses to work with aggressive dogs which were all kind, empathic and well executed, then finished each case with an update with how well the dog was now doing. In each case he gave, the dog was thriving, things were great, life was good.
The lady, Trish, was, by contrast, painfully honest about her career.
She shared about how when she was only two years into her dog training career and thought she knew it all, she brought home a problem dog to foster for a whopping 18 months who completely ruined the lives of her entire family, yet, right up until the very last disaster, she was too egotistical to say ‘Enough! Nothing I do is working, lives are at risk, I need to end this.’
She talked a lot about systems that she now puts in place simply because of the many painful learning lessons she has had, and of how she now sees aggression cases differently than she used to when she was green and wet behind the ears. I have to say not one of the attendees in the room was unaffected by her brutal honesty.
We watched video of her putting her hand into a dogs bowl while he was eating to ‘evaluate his behavior’, jerking it away when the dog started to growl and then going back in, time and time again, to see what his breaking point was. This was a technique very commonly used in the 80’s when people thought that dogs who growled were bad dogs and testing their breaking point like this was a good way to evaluate if the dog was a fit for family life. If you ever see a trainer do this by the way, kick them out of your house. They are assholes. Or better still take them to the nearest circus and see how brave they are with the biggest, most pissed off hungry lion!
Thankfully, Trish, like the rest of us in this profession who can read, now realizes that if we invite this other species into our home we have to make some allowances for their species appropriate behavior ( ‘Uh Dude? I’m a dog, we don’t typically share our food!’) and give them physical and mental space.
In an apologetic but candid tone, she won her audience over by saying ‘You see the idiot with her ‘fake’ hand in the dogs bowl? I’m ashamed to say that was me.’
It’s so refreshing in a world where everyone thinks that spouting off about their absolute success in everything makes them more appealing and more valuable to the listener.
If I interview someone and they don’t own up to making some huge mistakes, then I won’t hire them. I think they’re full of shit.
I don’t know anyone who hasn’t ballsed up.
If they haven’t ballsed something up, it means that they are not innovative, creative, problem solvers, it means they don't/ can’t go outside of the box.
Anyone can go by the book, and play it safe, and get marginal results, but when, say, a life is on the line and nothing else works, we all, no matter what field we are in, have to be willing to try...and possibly fail.
I remember when I started studying dog behavior in 2003 and very quickly thought because I had read a few books, done a course or two, that I had all of the answers to every dog problem under the sun.
A lady I used to walk with every day at a local reservoir asked my advice about her leash aggressive dog and I jumped at the chance to show off my new skills as a ‘dog listener’. I had visions of her later lauding me up to her friends over a glass of wine, telling them that no-one had ever been able to solve her dogs’ problem but ‘Penny Miller who is nothing short of a genius, well....she walks on water!’
( In my head that’s how it played out, there was lots of back slapping and bouquets, standing ovations etc, TV appearances, you know the drill!)
The Jack Russell, whose name was Archie, saw right through all my self serving bullshit from the get-go, and set out to make me a laughing stock in the worst possible way.
I grabbed the leash from the owner, started to walk in my back-then, highly affected ‘Alpha dog’ style and immediately started a running commentary about how if you walk like this, your dog is going to respect you and be very well behaved.
Which was all very well, and it looked really impressive with me walking along like a fat, trumped up, female, decidedly un-Mexican Cesar Milan with Archie trotting obediently along beside me like an angel, until a cyclist whizzed by and Archie decided to run after him and viciously attack his ankle; the guy screamed at me to contain that ‘bloody Dog’ because of course I was holding the leash and I shouted back ‘Stop being an asshole, we are working with him!’ in my most self important voice. I couldn’t have been more arrogant had I shouted ‘Excuse me, my good man, we are curing cancer here, you know!’
Dear God, I want to cringe in the worst way when I look back at that scenario, and thank The Lord that He at least gave me the presence of mind to finally get over myself, shut the hell up and quickly throw hot dog pieces for Archie near the guys’ leg, or he would have been badly injured. I should never have been walking Archie there on that day in the first place, let alone let it get that far.
At the time I was all mouth and trousers, piss and vinegar, indignant that he had shouted at Archie but moreso, lets be honest, that he had elucidated my own stupidity. Later, however, when I got home, I thought of what a complete dick I was.
I wished the ground to open and swallow me up. I was too embarrassed to go back to walk there for a good while, I can tell you!
On another occasion, when I was a proponent of ‘all positive’ reinforcement (you’ll see why I’m not now in just a minute) and shoving treats down every dogs throat to reward them for tasks performed, I took a bag of rotisserie chicken pieces out into the yard to work with a group of dogs that I didn't know very well, with visions of an amazing mass ‘sit’ happening and me looking like Jesus in front of the five thousand, passing out food to calm, grateful canines like a boss!
Well, you can already guess how that went down......one of the dogs, a Labrador retriever, dropped his piece of chicken, a collie went after it which started a minor fracas between the two of them, which brought the attention of a hefty little bulldog who waded in like Mike Tyson before a title fight, all swagger. The scuffle which ensued was not serious but could have been. I aimed a spray bottle at each of them, got a few lucky squirts in and it thankfully dissipated. Anyone who’s ever seen a mass pack brawl knows what a lucky little sausage I was and any decent trainer worth their salt knows what a bloody idiot I was in the first place!
(Now I only ever use food as a reward in one-on-one situations or if I know the dogs so well that it’s cast iron guaranteed they aren’t going to get competitive. Your dog trainer may tell you that food is the way to a dogs heart, but don’t necessarily believe it. NOTHING works better than praise and love. Food is the icing on the cake, but if you’re doing it right, the absolute joy on your face when your dog gets it right is all the reward he will ever need. Likewise, and here’s where I’m against ‘all positive’ reinforcement, the displeasure on your face when he gets it wrong will work better than anything to get Fido to mend his ways. Feel free to shove food down his face as an added attraction, but the relationship is where it’s at, guys.)
Amazing life lesson #one...never think you know it all or someone’s going to show you how much you don’t!
Amazing life lesson for dog trainers#2....the minute you start to think about how good the dogs’ success makes YOU look, is the day you should find another job. I was guilty of that for a year or two when I started but I’ve been well and truly humbled by experience and complete cock-ups!
It’s all about the dog. It has to be.
Here at the Ranch, 16 years on, now that I am a bit more mature, every time one of the team makes a mistake, I ask what happened and how. Then I tell them I'm glad they own it, to make sure they learn from it and to be glad that it happened. As long as no one dies, or is badly hurt, then mistakes are good.
Trust me, if you mess up with something once and that ‘close call’ scares the living shit out of you, you ain’t gonna do it again.
I proudly ‘own my own shit’ and have no problem ‘fessing up’ to anything.
We are shaped and molded by our mistakes, they are the best path in our pursuit of knowledge and perfection and should be acknowledged and appreciated. Knowing through experience what makes a soufflé fail to rise in the oven and having to learn how to rescue some disastrous dishes when cooking in restaurant kitchens made me a way better cook than some fresh faced kid out of catering school with a bunch of distinctions, but no kitchen nightmares he had to take ownership of, behind him.
Mistakes check us, they make us think, they take away our ego and open us up to greater learning.
I’ve made some appalling mistakes and I’ve had some very lucky near misses, I’ve had moments of genius and moments of abject stupidity...of course I have, I’m human.
My moments of genius have saved some lives and made me proud of myself but it is my monumental cock-ups that have made me a better behavior counselor.
As you may know, I’m a huge fan of John Maxwell, who says that anyone who calls themselves an expert clearly has stopped learning......unless you can rightfully say that you know absolutely everything, and who among us can do that? Well, then ‘expert’ is a bloody stupid thing to call yourself isn’t it?
Instead of calling myself an expert I now just think that I know quite a lot.
My successes have taught me very little but my mistakes have taught me a whole bunch of things that have surprised me and humbled me and I hope that process carries on til the day I die.
Go forth and f*ck up. You have my permission.