Perhaps Thanksgiving is the holiday most closely related to positive reinforcement training, as both focus on giving thanks for what you have. As primates, we have an ethological tendency to nitpick, literally. We look for faults, and if you look hard enough, you’ll find them. All too often, this seeking of negatives blinds us to the many positives right before our eyes. We look in the mirror and perhaps unconsciously, our eyes immediately dart to our flaws – you may have a spot, frizzy hair, or a loose thread on your button which distracts you from the fact that your accessories, your smile, and your eyes are in fact quite lovely.
This is what positive reinforcement training is all about. Focusing on the great things your dog does and giving thanks for them, through reinforcement, affection, praise, and opportunity. We let thoughts of our dog’s imperfections consume us, and should make an effort to give thanks not only on this holiday but multiple times a day, every day throughout the year, for the things our dogs do that make us happy.
I see my own nitpicking tendencies in my Christmas tree. I’m a Christmas maniac and have already had my tree up for a week. It is a beautiful, majestic tree, and yet my eyes automatically go to my decorating faults – the strands of lights are more concentrated here, less dense there. This bothered me so much (what can I say, I’m a bit OCD) that I actually have considered undecorating and redecorating my tree in the elusive hunt for perfection. Then I thought about it more thoroughly, and decided to leave the tree as it was. We should love the things we love because of, not in spite of, imperfections. Our imperfections are what make us whole – nobody, and nothing, is perfect.
I think about this in my relationship with my father, who was murdered earlier this year. For many years, I focused on the pain I felt as a result of his alcoholism, to the detriment of our relationship. Now that he is gone, I wish I could take my resentment back. It all seems to silly now, a waste of precious time. I was so overwhelmed by the hurt at the effect his drinking had on our relationship for so many years, it overshadowed the glaring fact that he loved his children very, very much. I was so focused on what I didn’t have, I failed to realize the potential of what I did have. Now I am left to mourn that loss, and those feelings are painful.
It’s easy to focus on what we don’t have. This year, I celebrated my first Thanksgiving without my father. My first Thanksgiving without the dog that perhaps taught me more than all the other dogs who have graced my life with their presence combined. I wish I had a facility that didn’t flood, with large, beautiful fenced in areas for outdoor classes and events. I wish my clothes drier hadn’t broken recently.
Numerous times today, I’ve had to mentally take a break from the facilities and really focus on what I do have. I have the most fantastic friends and family in the world. A safe place to live. My home isn’t perfect, but it’s absolutely overflowing with love. I have two dogs that make me laugh and smile every day. I actually have a 6,000 square foot facility which is air conditioned and in a pretty good location, lots of dog trainers would love to have such a space. I lost a beautiful dog this year, but gained one as well.
Your dog(s) may not be perfectly behaved, but he’s your dog. He loves you more than any other person on the planet. There is probably one thing your dog does better than any other dog you know. Mokie will never achieve an OTCH, but she is one of the best lure coursers I’ve ever seen. She may not cuddle often, but when she does, she does it better than any dog I know. Her tail is looking a little funky from a recent tangle with some burdocks, but her fur is so soft, and she has beautiful, shiny teeth and sweeter breath than most people I know, making Mokie kisses especially pleasant when compared with other doggy kisses. Monte was reactive, but I’ve never known a dog better at warming a bed, bringing a toy to you when you entered the house resulting in an inevitable smile at the close of even the hardest days, or staying near me off leash without even being asked. Cuba’s got some work to do before he has a perfect stack, but he’s fantastic about potty training, being gentle with his mouth, riding calmly in the car, friendly greetings, meeting other dogs and people politely, and giving handler focus.
I get frustrated when one of my dogs has higher latency than I’d like to see in response to a cue, while others look at the same behavior and are impressed by my dog’s performance. What looks slow or sloppy to me looks like absolute perfection to someone else. Excellence is in the eye of the beholder.
Your dog may have a sloppy sit, but the best recall of any dog you know. He may bark too much, but he is also the most tolerant dog around children you’ll ever have the pleasure of meeting. He may pull on the leash when he sees a squirrel, but otherwise serves as a therapy dog and improves the lives of people who are in great need of a smile. Training can improve your dog’s behavior in any situation, but is it the worst imaginable situation in the world if your dog is not absolutely perfect in every environment or circumstance? (Do you know any humans that can attain such a high standard?)
This holiday, I am thankful for my dogs. They’re not perfect, neither am I. Despite our imperfections, they’ve taught me the following about life:
Compassion and empathy are the foundations upon which healthy relationships are built.
Humility is important. The ones who you love the most are in your life to teach you important lessons – if you are not listening, you’ll miss the message.
The best things come to those who wait, or, patience is a virtue. The things that are most valuable to us attain that status because we invest the most in them. The effort we expend correlates directly with the results we can expect.
Take time every day to laugh, smell the roses (or anything else that smells good), and play.
First impressions can be deceiving. The dog that seems to be your worst nightmare can end up being the best friend and teacher you’ll ever encounter, if you open your mind to possibilities.
You catch more flies with honey.
Never miss a chance to let someone know that they make you happy or thank them for a kindness; someday it may be too late.
Life is too short to be angry with the ones you love the most. Instead of concentrating on faults in your relationships, brainstorm ways you can improve the relationship.
Appreciate individuality and encourage innovation.
Communication is key. How can anyone know what you need or want if you won’t tell them?
If you are able to love someone at their worst, it is easy to love them at their best.
Love is often defined by sacrifice. More than once with my dogs I have had to sacrifice immediate performance goals in the quest for long-term reliability, enthusiasm, and trust. “Better” is more important than “faster.”
What you look like isn’t important as who you are. If someone really loves you, they’ll love you even if you’re muddy, slobbery, in desperate need of a bath, covered in burdocks, or having a bad hair day.
Learning from your student is every bit as important as teaching them. Your dogs are talking to you (literally) through their body language – you’d be surprised at what you can learn if you understand how to “listen” to this communication.
A complete list of thanks to my dogs would fill an entire book. For today, I will thank Brandy, Max, Baby girl, Honey, Winnie, Ransom, Willie, Gypsy, Chino, Gracie, Bella, Mickie, Fritz, Mokie, Monte and Cuba for allowing me to learn from you as we shared our lives and a home. I can’t thank you enough for being such fabulous friends and mentors.