“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.
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
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!)