Over on her blog, Kim asked “How much responsibility do you take for your dog’s reactions to things, and how he acts?” It’s a really fantastic post, full of questions but no answers- which makes it even better, in my opinion, since it lets you think through the answers for yourself.
And really, the answers are yours, and yours alone. After all, no two dogs are going to be alike, nor are any two handlers alike. I really think that the amount of responsibility we take for our dogs’ actions depends on the personalities involved.
Because of each of our personalities, when things go wrong with Maisy, I tend to assume that it was my fault. Maisy is a wonderful dog. She is smart and creative, tributes which have taught me the necessity of being clear in my requests. A failure for her to do something, and especially when she’s learning something new, is usually my fault, not hers.
I’ll never forget the exact moment I realized this, just over a year ago. I’d been trying to teach Maisy left pivots for what felt like forever. We’d done rear-end awareness exercises, like brick work, I’d tried luring and shaping her, and she just wasn’t getting it. But I knew she was smart, and since I’d tried several different training approaches, I decided to look at what I was doing. I realized that my body language was confusing her: my left shoulder was hunched forward, which was one of my nonverbal cues to move forward. I tried a huge, exaggerated backward movement with my shoulder, and she practically raced backwards!
This is true with known behaviors, too. Fronts get crooked if I hold my hands differently. Stays are broken if I don’t maintain eye contact with her. Seemingly small differences have huge impacts on her behavior.
There are also times where her failure is the result of my pushing her too far, too fast. I’m terribly impatient sometimes, which is definitely detrimental in the training process. For example, there have been times when I’ve called her and she hasn’t come. While she may be blowing me off for something more interesting, a close examination of the circumstances reveals the fact that I haven’t adequately proofed the exercise. Every time she’s “blown off” a recall, it’s been in a situation with higher distractions or longer distances than I’ve trained for.
But what about the times where she thoroughly understands the exercise, and where I’ve proofed it for the current level of distraction, distance and duration? Aren’t those failures her responsibility? Maybe… but maybe not. And here’s where another element of Maisy’s personality really informs my decision: She is a dog who wants to please me… at least enough to earn the reinforcement that might be waiting! As a result, I don’t assume that she is being willfully disobedient, at least not for the sake of being disobedient.
Last summer, she began to refuse jumps, even in the back yard. We’d been working on jumping in the backyard all summer, so I knew that she understood what I wanted. I was pretty sure I wasn’t doing anything different, so I was perplexed as to why she was failing to do what I asked. It was only later that I discovered that she’d pulled her iliopsis muscle. She wasn’t refusing to jump- she couldn’t jump, at least, not without pain! I’m glad I didn’t punish her failure to respond- I would have felt awful!
And then there’s stress… Maisy is insanely sensitive to my moods (can you say “ring nerves”??), and she finds certain places, sounds and sights kind of scary. When Maisy fails to respond during these times, I don’t blame her for it. I can’t. I’ve been in situations in which I was so shocked or scared that I felt like I couldn’t move. It’s a horrible feeling, so I have empathy for Maisy when it happens to her. It may not be my fault that she isn’t responding, but it isn’t really hers, either.
There’s also my personality to consider in all of this. I am a person who naturally takes on a lot of responsibility… some might call it guilt. Add to that the fact that I’m a hopeless perfectionist who is harder on herself than on others, and it’s not hard to understand why I take responsibility for Maisy’s failures more often than I blame her.
I recently had someone say to me, “I didn’t fail, I just didn’t succeed.” That’s how I feel about Maisy: her failures are never final, and there’s always another chance to get it right. Does that mean we might NQ at a trial? Oh, definitely, but it doesn’t really matter who screwed it up. In the end, all that really matters is the fact that we got to play the game together.