“THIS dog,” my trainer and decoy always tells me as he points to my little riot dog Shank, “is going to be your points dog.”
I don’t disagree with his assessment. As angsty and nasty as Shank can be, he’s really quite handler sensitive, picking up on the slightest change in my inflection, my body language and my mood. Because he is so in tune with me, we stand a chance at performing well in competition.
“And THIS dog,” the trainer continues, as he gestures towards my other dog, “this one is just going to break legs.”
It always makes me laugh when I hear him say it. He couldn’t be more right. Frankly, I’ll be lucky if I get a passing score as I bring my behemoth of a dog onto the trial field for the first time. Suffice it to say, there will be plenty of silent prayers said.
This guy’s got more drive than sense. He sees nothing, hears nothing, and feels nothing when a toy or decoy are in play. He is the epitome of a big dumb jock … a giant meathead.
The thing is, these boys are so very different from one another. And I’ll be honest, my second dog is the dog I always wanted.
You see, when I thought about my ideal dog, I knew I wanted something BIG. Something reckless. Something intense. And something thick-skinned. No self preservation at all? Sign me up. I wanted a dog that would plow through the side of a building if it meant he’d get his toy.
And with my second dog, I got what I wished for.
While my “meathead” is quite literally the dog of my dreams, secretly, (although I’m pretty sure he knows it) Shank has my heart and soul. He owns me. And I love it.
Shank isn’t the dog I would have chosen. I knew it when I brought him home. In fact, he is not my style in the least. Instead of plowing through a building, he’d be the one in the parking lot studying blueprints and making advanced calculations to find the most efficient route.
But he chose me. And I’ve quickly come to learn that whatever Shank wants, he gets.
You see, Shank is sensitive. I lovingly (and I’ll be honest – at times, with a hint of frustration) call him a “Pansy”. Now, don’t get me wrong, he’s not sensitive in his work. He is in training for protection sports and his bite work is strong. When I feel down about his sensitivity, my decoy regularly reminds me that he can take pressure in bite work just fine. He likes to fight. He isn’t sensitive in that sense of the word. But he is VERY sensitive to me. To his handler. He sees every move I make and he holds me accountable.
When I watch Shank work, I swear he was a mathematician in past life, counting repetitions and predicting my behavior before I even figure out a plan. He knows my habits better than I do.
“Mom!!!” I swear he’s thinking as we move through our training routine, “you ALWAYS reward me with the decoy on your left, after seven paces of perfect heeling when we are approximately 20 yards away…”
“When we practice positions, you’ll reward me on the third position. It will be a stand. You’ll smile slightly before the release. The second attempt, you’ll hold out for four positions. I’ll get the reward on the down.”
While I’m convinced I’m mixing things up, Shank is likely thinking to himself how utterly predictable and boring I really am.
And let me tell you, when I don’t get things right, when I don’t stick to the habits I don’t even know I have, he’s quick to let me know. In fact, just the other day, he made it abundantly clear that I was rewarding the stand too often and too quickly, as he began frustratedly barking when I asked for the position and didn’t immediately release him to his tug.
Shank might not be the dog I would have chosen, but I know, without a shadow of a doubt, that he is ABSOLUTELY the dog I need.
Here are a few of the very profound lessons I’ve learned from my little riot dog in the year and a half I’ve had him.
(1) I lack patience.
Ok. I knew this already. But Shank regularly reminds me that this is an area in my life where I need work.
I’m terribly impatient. I swear, I’m like a 5 year old sometimes. I want what I want and I want it now. In fact, I’m pretty sure things like Amazon Prime were invented just for me. I mean, there is no way I can wait for shipping. I’d much rather just drive to the store and buy what I need for double the price.
For that reason, I simply don’t possess the time or energy for 20 million repetitions to get flashy obedience when I’m working my dog. I want to get to the point already.
While I’m confident in my skill set, it’s the patience and determination that I lack. And I’ll regularly throw a temper tantrum (no really, I will) when the precision work starts to get tedious. (Ask any of my good friends who’ve watched me work on precision heeling for the umpteenth time.)
The problem with my impatience is that it bleeds into my training. Sometimes I don’t spend enough time on a specific step before moving on and sometimes I tend to lump behaviors together in my race to get to the finish line.
I’m taken back to a quote my good friend and colleague (and former Navy SEAL Sniper Instructor) Eric Davis always says. He tells me “Meagan, slow is smooth and smooth is fast”. And in my rush to get to the finish line, his words couldn’t ring more true.
As I skip steps and rush the process, I create holes. And when I do, behaviors become inconsistent and comprehension declines. As a result, I have to revisit fundamentals and fix problems – things that could have been avoided if I would have simply taken my time the first time around.
(2) I get emotional.
“Your attitude totally changed while you were working that dog.” my friend told me as I walked off the field with Shank.
I paused to reflect.
My little riot dog had a rough day. He hurt his paw early on in the session and had to be put up to recover. When I got him out for his second round, I pushed the incident to the back of my mind, and when he began to fall flat, instead of cutting him some slack, I went flat too. I was frustrated that he was being so sensitive. And my complete lack of a poker face showed him (and everyone else) my cards.
I wear my heart on my sleeve. If you know me you know my tells.
If I’m mad, I won’t look you in the eye.
If I’m frustrated, I go quiet.
If I’m happy and confident, I’m LOUD.
Everyone can see it. Despite how discreet I convince myself I’m being, my mood is really quite obvious to anyone who has known me for longer than 10 minutes. But no one recognizes the subtle nuances as much as Shank does. In fact, he recognizes my mood shifts more readily than I do.
After seeing me work the “meathead” later that afternoon, my friend went on to tell me how different my attitude was when I worked him compared to earlier in the day, when I worked my dog Shank. “He’s up, so you’re up.” he told me as I walked off the field.
He was right. I had tethered my emotions to my dogs. As they performed well, I stayed happy, upbeat and supportive. And as they faltered, when they needed me the most, I instead faltered too.
The problem with letting your emotions affect your training is that emotions are reactionary. They shift you from thinking, processing and effectively problem solving, to simply reacting. And often times your gut reactions aren’t always in line with your goals.
And the tricky thing about it is, your dog feels your emotions. They bleed right down your leash. While your dog might not fully understand your feelings, you can bet they sense the change in how you carry yourself, changes in your breathing patterns, and changes in your body chemistry. And those emotions add uncertainty to the training and lessons you are trying to teach.
(3) I need a team.
Call me crazy, but I love criticism (when it’s constructive). I love when people point out my missteps because it is the only way I can learn and grow as a handler.
Shank tries to tell me every day where I go wrong. But sometimes I miss the messages he is trying to send. With a good team around me, people who are willing to point out the mistakes I make, and most importantly, with people who WANT me to succeed, the lessons I fail to learn from my dog don’t go unnoticed.
Here’s the thing. My meathead is resilient and can take my mistakes and missteps without missing a beat. But because of that, he lets me off the hook easy. I don’t have to be perfect and I don’t have to control my body language, mood or inflection because plainly stated, he doesn’t care. While he tests me in different ways than Shank does, he doesn’t hold me accountable, and as a result, I get by without always getting better.
But Shank is a different story. If he starts to flatten, I can’t follow suit like I do. If I let his mood affect mine, we will crash and burn together. So I have to stay on my game. And that’s not easy for me.
Both dogs have their place, and I learn from each every day. Shank teaches me patience and forces me to examine my own behavior, master my timing, body language, emotions and self-control, while my meathead reminds me of my strength. He tests my willpower and ultimately my determination as a trainer.
While Shank isn’t necessarily the dog I wanted, he is absolutely the dog I need.
He forces me to up my game with my handling. He demands perfection. He keeps me thinking, outsmarting me every damn day. And when he does, it puts a fire under me to just be better. Every single day he teaches me something profound about myself. And every day (when I actually listen), he makes me a better trainer.
So thank you Shank for teaching me self control. For humbling me. For making me be a better handler. For reminding me that I will always be a student and that there is always something to learn. For keeping me hungry. For being honest and forcing me to be as well. And more than anything, thank you for never letting me off the hook. I’m a better trainer because of you. And while you weren’t the dog I would have originally chosen, I’m so grateful you forced the issue because you are absolutely the dog I need.
(And a BIG Thank You to my team. To the awesome trainers at Marvel K9 for helping us get better every day and getting us trial ready (GASP!), to Decoy Dustin for ALWAYS being there for us and for helping me fine tune both boys every week, to Auntie Amy for your support and for being Shank’s absolute favorite person, to the very talented and knowledgable Glenn for always looking out for us and helping me think through the tough stuff, and to the rest of “Team Shank” and “Team Meathead”. I value you all more than you could ever know.)