Thursday, October 1, 2009

Melissa: Oh No! Have I Wrecked My Dog?

Milo is an amazingly talented tracking dog; Sarah earned two TD's with him before she gave him to me, and she says he's the most talented dog she's ever tracked with.

I, on the other hand, am a novice at tracking and have been rather unsure of myself. Until recently I mostly tracked on my own, talking about what I was doing with Sarah, but keenly aware that I could be making many mistakes since I had no experienced eyes on me. And with Milo being a very sensitive boy, I was worried that I'd wreck him as a tracking dog.

When I'd head out for a tracking session, I always had some anticipation, some vague idea of what I wanted to do, and a good serving of anxiety. Although I knew there were variables I should train for (remember my list of eighty-two variables?), I felt kind of helpless and like I was shooting in the dark. My dog knew how to track, but I know that tracking is a partnership and I felt like this end of the partnership was sadly unable to contribute in any constructive way.

Because of that anxiety and lack of confidence, any time we ran into a challenge, I immediately fell prey to discouragement. And not surprisingly, I communicated some of that discouragement to Milo, who would then become stressed by such things as the line getting wrapped around tall weeds or me fumbling with the line and getting it under his legs. Or, my mind would go blank and I'd be sure the track went in a different direction and insist to Milo that he was wrong. Oh dear... not a helpful partner at such times.

When Milo would become worried or stressed, I'd immediately take that as proof that I was wrecking his tracking ability and I'd become further discouraged, and so we'd spiral down.

Now, not nearly all our tracks were like this, but enough that it was hindering progress and diminishing my joy in tracking. Fortunately nothing seemed to diminish Milo's enthusiasm for tracking--- he was born to use his nose. I also knew enough to do my best to cheer him on and praise him for every little success, even when we were having trouble, so in the end he always left the field wagging his tail.

So, did I wreck my dog? Well, no, thankfully not, and now I'm learning how to approach our training in a much more constructive way, so we're growing as a team and enjoying the partnership.

What made the difference?

Starting with a plan for each session gives me something concrete to aim for, so I no longer feel like I'm shooting in the dark. I have two or three factors that I want to work on, so I lay my tracks in a way that will help me focus on those variables. Also, I look at "difficulties" that arise as opportunities to learn, and since I know I can address a difficulty we encounter today in tomorrow's tracking session, I don't feel overwhelmed or lost. Knowing that challenges are helpful and even necessary for the learning process enables me to welcome them rather than crumble before them.

Milo's and my communication is growing and so is our trust in each other. I now head out for a tracking session with a lot of anticipation, a fairly clear plan of what I want to address, and a great deal of confidence in my dog's ability to follow the track and to learn.

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