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Evolution of a dog trainer.

563166_10151018658402181_1458869318_nWhen I was in my early 30’s, I developed a sudden overwhelming urge to ride horses. I  had ridden about 15 times in  my life but decided now was the time to devote to becoming  a horsewoman. I started taking lessons. And like a good student, I obsessively studied horsemanship through books, videos, online discussions and attending clinics. I followed the big name trainers: Buck, Parelli, Clinton Anderson,  Monty Roberts and Ray Hunt,  just to name a few. I bought a horse and then three more horses.

I could converse fluently with experienced horse people. Within a year, you would think I had been riding for 10 years  if we were discussing horsemanship. That is, until you saw me ride a horse.

I spent so much time studying horsemanship, yet I would go to ride my horse and inevitably walk away feeling baffled, defeated and way-too-frequently injured. I would try and connect dog behavior and training to horses but it  also sent me to a dead end. Yet, I longed for the connection with my horse that I saw in my friends that had been riding since they were children. They moved with their horses like they were dancing – the  horse made a move and they  gracefully made the next move. Why couldn’t I hone this grace? If my horse swished its tail, I would immediately brace for a buck and panic.

Over the next two years, I was in five riding accidents and my nerves became shot. It was one of the most frustrating but curious learning experiences of my life. I never had the passion for horses that I have for dogs and thus I let them go. And then I spent a lot of time reflecting on why I could not connect all of my knowledge with my ability to feel the horse.

I often joke with clients that I was raised as a feral child by a pack of family dogs. It’s sort of true. I didn’t just like dogs as a child. At 5, I started locking myself in my parents’ bathroom after Kindergarten so that I could memorize every breed of dog in the Simon and Schuster’s dog encyclopedia. I tortured my mother by asking her to point to pictures in the book and quiz me. I wrote dramatic letters to my parents requesting that they purchase me a show dog. When I got the show dog (a Shetland Sheepdog), I then had to have a grooming table and I created my future kennel name and building plans for when my adult self would have an elite Shetland Sheepdog kennel. I called every Sheltie breeder in WA state and asked if I could show their dogs. And I did. I grew up fully-immersed in dogs and learning their language. It became my second language.

As an adult, when I committed to training dogs as a professional career, I got swept up in the politics and pressure to be a ‘science-based’ dog trainer. Although, intuitively, I felt I could handle or train almost any dog based on the relationship I had with dogs over so many years. Following Hurricane Katrina, I handled some of the most dangerous dogs I will ever touch without having any formal aggressive dog training. The Humane Society of the United States requested my help in removing around 500 aggressive, feral and abused dogs from a hoarding situation in Arkansas. I was mauled by a Rottweiler there. Then I drove 9 hours with a weapon (a gun or taser if I recall correctly) in the back of a commercial truck with 40 of the scariest dogs I have ever met as I watched them slowly chewing out of their crates. My instructions were to debilitate a dog if it got loose to prevent an attack on the driver. My hands and arms were wrapped in bandages from the Rottweiler attack, I didn’t know if I could even handle a weapon. It was one of the most stressful moments of my life.

There is no scientific research or book or video that can prepare you for these intimate moments with dogs.

One of my biggest challenges as a newer formal trainer was that I intuitively understood how to dance with the dog but when someone asked me “why did you do it that way?”, I would say “because it felt right”. That was obviously not going to help my clients or colleagues. So, that sent me on a quest for answers. At first, as mentioned earlier, I went the direction of science and experimented in the world of ‘all positive, science-based dog training’. You can throw a stone and hit this ‘trainer’ in any metropolitan city. They often tell a story of how in their 20’s or 30’s they adopted a troubled dog and that led them into their career.

I remember a moment I had with one of my dog training mentors where I was trying to argue a fancy-worded science-based point about how we should approach a certain dog behavior issue. I had conviction and my ego was sure I was right. But she looked up at me and said “stop with all this science babble and get your hands on these dogs!” And she was absolutely right.

Opposite of my horse experience, all of the ‘modern’ canine scientific research and techniques I studied and read about rarely aligned with what I knew of reaching the dog (and I am a compassionate trainer!). Strangely, these were methods colored with human emotions, projections and guided by the human moral compass. Which is kind of us… but not really helpful to this entirely different species. We tried to understand them through science but we never got to know them intimately by honoring their language and learning to communicate with them in their language.

Obviously, this quest also lead me to re-visit theories around dominance, being an alpha pack leader and overall rules for leadership. This didn’t feel right to me either but I was interested in the word leadership. I started asking more questions – why does a dog comply with training? Why would dogs want to please us? Why do I cringe when people use the word respect in regard to how the dog responds to a human? Why are we making dogs so complicated? Why do herding breeds engage differently with their owners than livestock guardian breeds? And for most of these questions, I now have my own answers and many more questions.

I don’t care about politics or camps anymore. Helping dogs live peacefully with their families is about so much more than treats vs. prong collars.

In honor of the dog, I will never truly know what they are thinking. I can attach words to what I assume is happening and give them a voice but you’ll often hear me say ‘I don’t know, I’m not a dog.’ My quest for understanding them will never be satiated. I will never know enough. And every question begets another question.

My opinions will evolve, my language will evolve. But, beneath everything is the grace and child-like joy I feel when I am with dogs. They are part of my DNA, my language and my dance. And this brings me back to the horse. I wanted to feel horses the way I feel dogs, that is what I was longing for and where my frustration was born. But it gave me an incredible perspective on my history and relationship with dogs and reminds me that I have chosen the right path.

– Kelly

 

 

 

 

 

 

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