Photo credit Frank Wisneski

“Wanna grab your dog?” I glanced at the woman standing quietly off to the side, and smiled slightly as I did.

She was new to the group, and she hesitated at my question, nervously agreeing after taking a moment to steady her breath.

A group of regulars chatted on the sidelines, exchanging stories and training techniques and sharing the latest gossip as the woman retreated silently to her car.

It was a breezy afternoon in Central San Diego. We staked out our spot in a hidden gem of a park nestled in the center of a new condominium complex, the green grass striking against the backdrop of concrete and perfect geometry.

It was a weekday, and the park was empty. No doubt the residents of the complex were all at work, donning their suits and ties and rushing through the city while we took over their park with a group of working dogs.

As I was reflecting on just how lucky I am to have a job that affords me afternoons at the park, the woman returned from her car, dog in tow. He was a beast of a Belgian Malinois. He must have weighed a good 85lbs, and he sauntered out onto the grass with an air of confidence and self assurance.

As they stepped onto the grass, the dog’s nose hit the ground. The group quieted as the newcomers took the field to practice their obedience routine, their watching eyes leaving the new handler insecure and fumbling with her leash.

She started working engagement. She pulled out her tug, and in response, her dog snapped to attention the moment she did. They played for a few minutes, but the second she said the word, “Out!”, the dog’s nose found its way to the grass again, enthralled by his environment and fully disengaged from his handler. The woman picked up the game again… running, playing, and at times pleading with her dog to hold his attention. But each time he responded the same. He’d focus for a moment or two, and as quickly as she got his attention, she lost it again, the dog taking time to explore his surroundings and collect a very detailed account of exactly what dogs had stepped onto that grass before him, and when.

She was tired now. Breathing hard, her face flushed as she exerted so much energy  competing for her dog’s attention. Finally, she gave up. As her dog darted to the end of the leash, following something obviously other than her voice, she threw in the towel and headed back to her car.

One by one, the rest of the group filed onto the field, working obedience and playing with their dogs. And at the end of training, after the last dog walked off the field, the woman approached me.

“You are so lucky,” she said as I waved to a handler who was piling himself and his dog into his car to leave.

I looked at her inquisitively. I wasn’t sure where she was going with this. Sure, I was lucky. I had an amazing job and got to spend an afternoon in sunny San Diego at a park working dogs. But I was pretty sure that wasn’t what she meant.

She went on, “Your dog focuses so well. It’s like you’re his whole world. I wish my dog was that way.”

“Thank you,” I said. “But the only luck in this equation is the fact that my dog’s original owners gave up on him, and I had a shot at taking him home. After that, there was and still is a fair share of blood, sweat, tears and more blood that got him to this point. And we still have a long way to go.”

She gazed at me, her eyes revealing that my words had hit hard. She thought for a moment and then gave the best response that I could have hoped for, but one that I rarely hear.

“Can I get my dog out again, and will you help me?”  

I agreed, and we worked dogs and chatted the rest of the afternoon.

Here’s the thing. I am so incredibly lucky to have my dog. But he wasn’t born knowing how to focus on me. In fact, when I first got him, he didn’t want to play with me in favor of retreating with his toys and making his own game. We spent countless hours building a relationship, building our routine, and building a shared language. And I’ll be the first to tell you, it wasn’t easy….and there are things we are still working on constantly.

It can be so easy to see the end result of a training plan and forget about the hours of work that went into it. When people see my dog working, they don’t see the fact that when I first got him, he wanted nothing more than to play on his own his toys and would literally chew me to shreds if I tried to take them, drawing blood when he did.

What they don’t see is the hours we put in combatting his selfish behavior, him retreating, hoarding and possessing his toys and remaining completely suspicious of me if ever I neared.

What they don’t see is the training we did EVERY….SINGLE…..DAY.

And what they don’t see is the hours upon hours I’ve struggled, completely blowing my lure or failing miserably with my leash, but repeating the exercise OVER and OVER until we got it right.

Instead, people look at the end result, and that’s all they see.

“I want your life.”

I can’t tell you how many times I’ve heard this simple statement over the course of my career. In fact, I had a woman I didn’t know tell me just the other day how jealous she was of my life, that she followed me on Facebook and she wished with all of her might that she could quit her job and play with dogs all day like me.

My response is always the same.

“I’m pretty sure you don’t want my life” I always say with a quiet chuckle.

Photo credit @Tamandra Michaels
Photo credit @Tamandra Michaels

Now, I’m not complaining about my life. I love my job. I love my dogs, and I feel incredibly fortunate to just be me. I wouldn’t trade my life or my career for anything and I feel blessed every day to wake up and do what I love. But I’m here to tell you, living with a pack of dogs and being a self employed dog trainer is HARD.

When people see my life, they see only the good parts – only the things that seem amazing. They see me hanging out with my dogs day in and day out and assume my life is made up of parks, hikes, and belly rubs. But what they don’t see is the impact this lifestyle has on me.

They don’t understand the fact that travel is damn near impossible unless I tow a trailer full of dogs along. And they don’t see the countless hours I spend cleaning only to have my house instantly destroyed.

They don’t see the holidays I’ve missed with my family or the fact that dogs don’t understand “sick days”.

They don’t see the sleepless nights when I’m doctoring an injured or sick dog, the house peppered with medical supplies as I make my camp on the hard tile floor and settle in for a night of worry, stress, and tears. 

They don’t see the fact that having nice furniture is a thing of the past (or nice anything for that matter!).

They don’t see the number of times I’ve sat in the emergency room, treating an inadvertent bite received from stepping in the middle of a scuffle, or from the client who failed to tell me their dog was aggressive.

They don’t see the blowouts, the diarrhea, the vomiting, or the plethora of other doggy ailments that I inevitably find myself cleaning up at 2am.

They don’t see me sitting up all night at the emergency vet, trying to hold it together as my senior dog’s health begins to decline.

They don’t watch me shell out entire paychecks to save the dogs I love so much, sacrificing my own luxuries to take care of my four legged family members.

They don’t hear the barking, the noise, and the fact that, with a house full of dogs, peace is hard to find.

And they don’t see the fact that I alone am responsible for my own paycheck – there is no promised income and things are always uncertain. 

Instead, they see me play with dogs. They see us frolic at the park as they sit in their office. And they think to themselves how lucky I am.

The Grass is Always Greener

My favorite saying of all time is “The Grass is Greener Where you Water it.”

The fact of the matter is, it’s so easy to observe someone’s life at a distance and want what they have. It can be so easy to see the end result, compare it to what we have at the early stages of working towards a goal, and want it – yearn for it. But when we do that, we oftentimes forget about the hard work that went into getting there.

At times, I can be one of the worst offenders. I see someone. Maybe it’s their yard (I have terrible yard envy as I live in So Cal with water restrictions and a yard full of dirt), or maybe it’s their gorgeous, giant Sprinter Van outfitted with built in crates (you know who you are). I see these things, and I envy them. But as I do, it always strikes me. I am responsible for my own life. And envying others doesn’t do me any good. Instead of wasting time with envy, I could quite easily get out there and work my a%% off so that I can have those things that I want so badly. Envy, as it should, then turns to motivation for me to work and to be better.

Dog Training is Hard

Photo credit @ Tamandra Michaels

I hate to break it to you but there are no shortcuts in dog training. To build a good relationship and to get good results takes hard work…and at times, blood, sweat, and tears. It doesn’t happen overnight, and if someone tells you it does, they are either lying or about to cause some serious emotional fallout in your beloved pet.

There is no magic fix, and dogs that are performing well weren’t born that way….I promise. Perhaps they were born with certain drives that make them good at their work, but their trainer spent countless hours shaping those drives into something they could work with, something they could sculpt to achieve their goals.

So next time you see a well trained dog, don’t waste time on envy or discouragement. Instead, use the experience as motivation to be better…motivation to get out and train. Realize that it will be hard. You will make mistakes, and at times you’ll look like a fool (you should have seen my heeling session yesterday – a complete and utter disaster!). But keep at it and don’t give up.

Take some time to water your grass. You’ll be amazed at the growth you see from a little TLC and hard work.

(And I’ll let you in on a little secret….this isn’t just about dog training!)


Meagan Karnes
Meagan Karnes

Meagan has been training dogs professionally since 2002, most recently working with private security, military and law enforcement to provide K9s for high level applications. She owns both The Collared Scholar, an online dog training academy, and 690 Security Services, a company that trains and deploys Executive Security and Protection K9s to private customers. She recently partnered with both Average Frog and SM Leaders, who repurpose the proven performance principles of the Navy SEALs for individuals and organizations.

    23 replies to "Water Your Grass: Finding Motivation and Training Your Dog"

    • Melanie

      Thank you for a great post!!! While My dog and I are not hardcore athletes and competitors, we have spent thousands of hours training (my dog is a majestic and somewhat fluffy German shepherd) for life obedience (as opposed to show) and personal protection. He is 10+ years old and we still go to group classes once a month or so to keep me honest.
      So when people say ‘oh, I want a dog like yours’ calm, approachable and completely under verbal control, I just Tyler them “you can have one- all it takes is hundreds of hours of exercise, training and relationship building”. Blank stares ensue. Gotta love our ‘instant gratification’ culture!

    • Chris Loverseed

      Made my night! Thanks for sharing!

    • Sharon Pehle

      Great article…for anyone struggling to keep pushing through the tough times. And knowing and accepting that those struggles are part of it all and will always be there. Because as soon as you get one thing accomplished it just sets you up for that next step. (Now I have the “heel” down in a quiet place ? I need to move us into a more distracted environment ? BUT we will conquer that with time and patience and practice ?)

      • Meagan Karnes

        Thanks! And I’m in the same boat! Focused heel perfect when nothing better is going on. Slowly adding distractions. Its a process for sure!!! Keep up the awesome work!

    • Wendy

      Farming is the same, things don’t just happen they have to be made to happen. Folks think because I have home made butter in the freezer I live an idyllic life, Let me tell you when the time comes to milk a reluctant first time calved jersey heifer at 6am on a freezing wet morning, the butter is the last thing on my mind. What I would give at that point to be in the warm house drinking coffee and smelling the bacon. But like dog training, eventually the heifer realizes I’m the relief she needs and the day becomes workable. and the next day enjoyable, but it takes working at relentlessly to get the desired results.

      • Cathy

        Thank you for your comments on the Jersey heifer. I remember those days fondly. I miss my girls but am happy to be retired from the sometimes awake and working for 72 hours straight life.

    • Patty Elliott

      This is a wonderful article on so many levels! Thanks for a good start to my day.

    • Chris Turner

      Oh so true. Love it when someone takes on board what you say, and achieves results, but there are always those who think they know better, and sad to see a dog demoralized. And when your working dog suddenly gets ill, and you know no vet is gonna make him better, and they are your responsibility, breaks your heart. Again.

    • Denise

      I’ve had some actually easy to train dogs …obedience, innate protection, discernment…it’s made me resentful of the two I now have. This was a great post for me because I needed to know i just need to put in the work.

    • Maryann Roth

      Awesome post! I once thought I wanted to own a dog boarding kennel, but after talking to someone who was doing just that I changed my mind, lol. So many things I hadn’t thought about, most of them scary and distressing.
      I tried running a few training classes at one point in my life and that got out of my system quickly. You didn’t mention owners who argue with you, people who trash talk you, etc. I very much enjoy reading your posts, not just the content (though the content is always thought provoking) but also your engaging writing style. Keep up the interesting work.

    • Meg

      Thanks for the inspiration and boost to my confidence. My neutered male 7 yo Tervueren BSD is a handful and while some stuff works well, he is aggressive with strange dogs and takes it out on me. We work hard, get up very early for our walks to be on our own and some days I feel defeated. Reading this article has given me a great boost. Thanks!

    • Crystal

      I was, and still am in some cases, that lady that showed up to the park. I watched everyone else in my IPO club work their dogs in awe at their engagement. When asked to bring out my pup I practically sulked to the truck because I knew he couldn’t do anything like that at all and frankly I was embarrassed. I felt like a complete failure as a handler. It doesn’t help that I’m super shy until I get to know people so it can be hard for me to bring out my personality that I have at home when my pup is engaged with me.

      But my club has been awesome and supportive! They’ve helped me grow a ton and shown me where my failings are, but also some of his. He’s a show line, not a working line (I didn’t realize there was a difference) and I’m starting to beat myself up less over his short comings and learning to work at his pace and not mine. He gets a little better each week.

      Thanks for sharing the post on FB. I think I’ve read this before, but it was a great reminder not to dwell on where I think he should be, and to focus on the progress we’ve made and the plan going forward.

    • Christa

      Thank you for sharing! Any specific tips on building engagement?

    • Deb

      Thanks for sharing. Taking the time with dogs is everything.

    • Danielle Lindblom

      I nearly cried reading this. I have been a full-time dog trainer for one year, having been laid off from my corporate job. Yes it is living the dream but thank you for shining a light on all of the Stress and Anxiety that comes with it. It’s not glamorous. I’m making less than half of what I used to but I love what I do. It comes with a bucket of worry though. Thanks for acknowledging that and thank you for all that you do.

    • Denise

      This was a great one for me, especially as I’ve just found you (through the recommendation of a newfound friend ) I have this exact situation happening, a just turned three year old male who is ruled by his nose. I’ve known for a while it’s up to me to build that relationship, to be more interesting than dog pee! but I haven’t figured out yet how to get there. This is the first dog I’ve had and the first dog I’m hoping to compete with. I’m now off to read your article on playing tug, no doubt that’s a place to start

    • MeLynda Trowbridge

      I really enjoyed this article and am glad I found your site. I had been struggling with my new four legged companion who had come from an abusive life before my daughter had rescued him. As I was working diligently to help him feel secure in his new surroundings, I had for one slight moment, taken my thoughts off what we were doing on our daily walk and dropped the short part of his leash to close a mailbox. The sound startled him, causing him to bold behind and around me, wrapping the now long leash around my hip and jerking me back into reality as well as causing me some pain. I then sought out help to see if there was someone out there that could help teach me how to be a better person to my companion and was lead to the Collared Scholar website. Amazing blogs and stories have opened my eyes to the things I needed to do to help my companion become more secure and confident in himself as well as trusting me as his new companion. I found that he and I are now working better together with what I am learning and applying into our lives and we have become better partners.
      Thank you so much for all the time and effort you put into these training blogs and stories. You are an amazing persons for doing what you do.

    • Bora

      Thanks for the articles… Although I am not a dog trainer there are many points that I can relate to. People see my dog doing a few tricks, heeling and etc. and they assume this is how they are from birth. Very rarely they appreciate the long hours spent to reach the point where my dog and I are. (By the way we are very very far from reaching a decent level) I struggle with one dog that has no major issues but yet you get challenged every day with dogs of every possible problems. So I very much appreciate you and what dog trainers do for both dogs and their owners.

      PS: Despite all the problems I still want your life 🙂

    • Marcelo

      Great article.any tips how you got your dog to start playing with you; that is why I am going tru with mine hi play but when hi get the toy live no interest in trades or nothing wel maybe to be chase 😜

    • Michelle

      Thank you for the wonderful post. So true!!

    • Toni

      Thanks for those honest words. I am a volunteer trainer at a club and spend so many hours trying to persuade people that they need to do a bit of training – the dog doesn’t get trained in one hour on a Saturday morning. Some come to me with dogs that have a problem and expect it to be solved right there and then in that lesson. Especially the dogs you talk about – “When I take my dog for a walk he barks and lunges at every dog we see. He needs socialising.” It’s hard to get them to understand that it’s not about how they interact with other dogs but how they interact with their owner. “The grass is greener where you water it.” is a great concept to get the idea across.

    • Tracey Peterson

      I was reading this at 2 in the morning while I was litening to my dogs howling to the moon becaus they could hear the siren in town, and thought, yip, you got it right.
      I have been training dogs for over 20 years now, mostly detection dogs, and yes, it is damn hard work, and all the things you mentioned sounds just like my life. But make no mistake, I do love my life, and I do hear “You are so lucky”, and when things are going good, I say “yes”, I am damn lucky, but when things are not going so well, I just smile.
      I do love what I do, I love the fact that I give dogs a second chance, and I love the look of joy in the dogs eyes when working them, but I can’t save them all, and that is heavy to carry.
      Wonderful article.

    • Suman Ipe

      Hi Meagan,

      Your piece below and the rest of it describes my experience to a T-
      When I had my first dog Koby, before I was a dog trainer, I struggled…I hired trainer after trainer and consistently failed to get results.It felt like I was always trying something new…Latching on to another promise…

      I had a handsome Doberman pup Shadow – to cut a long story short – 4 trainers and 8 months later we had to return him back to the breeder – he is currently with UK’s leading Doberman authority – so we are very happy for him and he is the best possible hands. However it is devastating for us – I have never been this sad in my life . It’s created a painful void that I hope time will heal. I had written a piece about Shadow ( writing helps me deal with things) . It’s below

      Shadow the Legend!

      Who are legends?
      They are unique beings who come into your lives to alter the way you think or act for the better
      It is brief – as they are here on this earth for a purpose and is quite specific
      Then they suddenly disappear after the work has been done after enriching our lives in some manner
      My Shadow is such a legend.
      For years during prayer the request was simple
      ”Oh Lord – give us the best possible dog for this family”
      At the right time God answered our prayers
      He was born on the 3rd of July and this was special as my children were
      born on the 3rd of other months – it aligned
      Of course in our bliss we ignored the caveat of God’s blessings
      They are on his terms not ours.
      What Shadow gave us in his brief presence at home
      Was a masterclass in dog training
      Every day he stretched us – he challenged us to think differently
      He gave us love when we needed it and he gave us painful
      lessons so that we may never forget
      He taught us that there is no one size fits all
      He forced us to listen to different views to search for excellence
      and most of all to keep going
      He educated us to be firm, be assertive, be creative and most of all be consistent
      He also helped us find the time to do things – to get more out of a day
      Shadow starts a new Chapter today – as his work is done here
      A working dog who keeps working
      A guide who led us through thorns to appreciate the roses on the other side.
      Thank you God – for giving us the best possible dog for this family
      and Thank You Shadow for being who you are.

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