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Friday, May 18 2012


I've trained dogs most of my adult life and each dog teaches me something new. Ironically, the most 'complicated' dogs teach me the most.

Enter Blue Heeler:

     Describing Ranger as "complicated" is an understatement. He is a fiercely devoted little dog who is convinced the world is trying to kill him. Clever, he is held back only by his own insecurities.

     I am a lazy dog trainer. I like dogs who fetch because the fetch is the skeletal framework for almost everything else I teach. I don't like having to 'teach' a fetch. I want a natural fetcher. (Yeah, yeah, we can't always get what we want in life.)  That said, Ranger taught me that a natural fetch isn't necessary to end up with a fanatical retriever.

     As a puppy, Ranger was always underfoot as we ate supper. Naturally, he wanted some. Since he had absolutely no interest in retrieving a kong for the mere thrill of retrieving, I offered to "pay" him for bringing me the kong.  He watched me toss the kong. Watched it land. Watched it roll. Rolled his eyes. Nada. Nothing.

     Now here is the key. I didn't care. I didn't care one whit. At that point I didn't even LIKE Ranger, much less worry about whether or not he fetched. I had absolutely no aspirations of making Ranger into anything. He was a cow dog, nothing else, so I didn't burden Ranger with my expectations. His inability to fetch didn't let me down in any way.  And guess what? 

     After a few nights of begging with no results, Ranger went over and picked up the kong. Surprised, I gave him an academy award and a bite of steak. Voila. Ranger had an epiphany. He didn't learn how to fetch. He learned how to exchange a kong for a piece of food. The concept of MONEY was born!

     Again, because I didn't care, I didn't burden Ranger with any expectations. In very short time, he was a kong pest at meals and soon earned my interest.  I would toss the kong, he would happily retrieve it for payment. Soon the bug bit him, and he no longer needed payment. Ranger had become a fanatical retriever of kongs and everything else thrown.

  Hmmmmm . . . Mom had an epiphany. 

   The old school methods for teaching a reliable fetch are often brutal and over the years, I abandoned them. They simply didn't fit into my relationship with my dogs. My dogs are partners.  I don't choke or ear pinch my partner.  I taught a play retrieve and never had it bite me in the butt. (But I had natural retrievers!) Ranger taught me another way to get a retrieve with a dog who was not a natural retriever.  It took a while, but the key was not putting unrealistic expectations on the dog or myself.

Enter Trace:

Trace is a Border Collie. He should retrieve. Wrong. We're making assumptions again. Trace has no natural retrieve. Trace has been bred to herd cattle, not retrieve dumbbells, flyballs, or anything else. Still, I like a dog to retrieve. Fortunately I had learned from my experience with Ranger. The world will not stop turning if Trace doesn't retrieve. In August, Trace will be two. Guess what Trace discovered this week?


For some reason, a light bulb went off in his little head, and he discovered the joy of having a human throw a toy for him. In the past he had always enjoyed chasing the other dogs when they ran for a toy, but now Mr Trace has decided that a one-on-one game of fetch is an awesome way to pass the time.

And again, I learned something. Trace reinforced the idea that things don't have to be rushed. Everything happens in its own good time. When Trace was ready to retrieve, he would retrieve.  I'm still taking my time with Trace. His herding skills aren't reliable. The raw talent is there. The control is not. I can bang it out of him, but I've been there, done that, got the t-shirt. Instead we'll let him grow up some more, get more obedience, get more maturity. In time, he'll be better than Lily. The talent is there. The important thing is not to get my ego wrapped up in a dog. If I play it wrong, I can ruin the dog, or get him killed by a cow. 

     I'm sure I could have forced the fetch issue with Trace and Ranger, but I would have had an awful time myself, and possibly ruined my relationship with my dogs. I think the biggest lesson I have learned over these years is DON'T LET YOUR EGO GET CAUGHT UP IN THE DOG. I have seen too many people stomp off the agility field, the obedience field, the tracking field, the schutzhund field, etc, because they let their sense of worth get caught up in a dog's performance. 

     You are not your dog. The sun will not fail to rise because your dog missed a contact zone in agility. The tide will not fail to come in because your dog blew an obedience pattern. And if the sheep scatter on the field, God won't love you any less.

     This lesson took me years to learn. With each dog, I get less worked up over learning skills on a schedule.  Other Half was doing some reading and proudly proclaimed that Dillon was "ahead of schedule" in his bird dog training. He is a clever boy, and it's tempting to start pushing him, but why? He'll be ready for dove season and duck season, but if he's not, so what? Training can be slow and fun for everyone, or we can push him and maybe make a star, or maybe we'll just take all the fun out of it for him and for us.

My first show dog taught me a most valuable lesson. Navarre was a star.

     To this day, people may not remember me, but they remember him. They remember me as "Navarre's Mommy."  He had more titles behind his name than I could count. He had so many awards that I couldn't keep them all. But most importantly, he was my partner, my Soul Dog. And I remember the first night I came home after he died. I distinctly recall that I would have given up every award, every title, everything that dog had won, if I could have had him greet me at the back gate just one more time.


And THAT is the gift Navarre gave to every dog I will ever own.  

Posted by: forensicfarmgirl AT 12:17 pm   |  Permalink   |  13 Comments  |  Email
you never cease to bring tears to my eyes.
Posted by Dani Ezer on 05/18/2012 - 06:43 PM
Beautiful. Thank you.
Posted by Dana on 05/18/2012 - 11:03 PM
What a beautiful post! I've been feeling guilty about not training often enough and not entering more events (rally, tracking, etc.) but the fact is that Terri and I love to play fetch in the back yard. It's relaxing fun for both of us. Playing games that you both enjoy is really the best way to spend "quality time" with your companion dog. (P.S. Terri didn't retrieve at first, unlike my Lab, Chimo. But once she caught on to the game, she would out-retrieve Chimo easily.)
Posted by Terri's Pal on 05/18/2012 - 11:10 PM
Just wondering how Briar is gong in her speciality of NOT retrieving? Did she ever try it?
Posted by Liz (Vic Aust.) on 05/19/2012 - 02:27 AM
What a wonderful legacy your soul dog left for the other dogs in your life. Patience can be so hard to have in some instances:) Your take on dog training is how I approach my foster dogs/ personal dogs and horses I don't want to ruin the fun for them, and I don't see a point in rushing.. I like to enjoy my animals and that feeling when the light bulb goes off and they learn something new! Oh and this last week was National Police Appreciation week so please thank your other half for his service for me!
Posted by Gina on 05/19/2012 - 03:21 AM
Thanks for sharing your wisdom and insight. I love reading your posts!
Posted by Sharon on 05/19/2012 - 09:55 PM
Trace has come up with a new twist on the game. If Dillon is in the room, Trace will take the toy to Dillon. Dillon brings the toy to me. I throw it. Trace 'herd' Dillon as he brings it to me. This is repeated until D-Man is tired. When we finally quit the game, Trace picks up the toy, plops it back in front of Dillon, and backs off with this crazy googley-eye border collie stare. And it begins again.
Posted by forensicfarmgirl on 05/21/2012 - 09:02 PM
Beautiful Sheri! My Dad ALWAYS tells me that a "Dog is not made overnight, it takes alot of time." and he should know, he's been working with stock dogs his entire 73 years on this earth. I have to keep telling myself that Penny and the 5 pups I have (they are almost 6 months old!) that they are just young'uns and that it has taken BJ 8 years to become the fantastic goat dog he is today.
Posted by shawna on 05/22/2012 - 02:13 PM
If you're not making me laugh until I cry, you're just making me cry. Thank you for this beautiful lesson in dog training, and Navarre for teaching you. I hope you don't mind, but I'm posting a link to this on my Facebook page. Most of my FB "friends" are dog sport people and this is too important a lesson not to share. Me, I'm a lazy trainer so my dogs are NEVER pushed or over worked. Virginia in North Central Texas (who remembers Navarre but had to ask somebody who you were!)
Posted by Virginia on 05/23/2012 - 07:15 PM
And Virginia, I remember Sooty! I still shed a tear over Navarre, just as I'm sure you do when you remember Sooty. A dog like that has a way of just becoming a part of your soul.
Posted by forensicfarmgirl on 05/23/2012 - 08:27 PM
Liz, Briar is definitely NOT a retriever! Briar loves to play with toys, but retrieving is simply not in her data banks. I've never worked on it, so she might have a lightbulb go off and learn to love it. Who knows! Briar marches to her own drummer!
Posted by forensicfarmgirl on 05/23/2012 - 08:31 PM
I LOVE this post! I'm not a "dog" person as much as a "horse" person but I think the same ideas apply! Hope you don't mind, I posted a link to this post from my blog. I have some friends I think will enjoy this as well.
Posted by Karen on 05/23/2012 - 10:01 PM
Wow! Thank you so much for the insightful post! And my dogs thank you too! From our 13 week old Lab to our 9 yr cattle dog and all those in between!
Posted by Alison on 05/25/2012 - 03:21 PM

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