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5 universal truths I've learned from training my dog

My miniature schnauzer Orwell has been teaching me a thing or two about life, and about myself, lately. I've been having some issues with him off the lead, and sought help from a dog trainer, who spent some time with us and reminded me that actually her role is to coach the owners, not the dogs. This approach of course makes perfect sense, and reflecting on this, and about my own behaviour around Orwell, I realised that there are several big lessons we all need reminding of occasionally. And here they are:

1. You have to let people make mistakes if you want them to learn

2. Don’t avoid problems. They rarely (if ever) resolve themselves

3. You can’t control other people’s behaviour, or outside circumstances, but you can control your own response to them.

4. Lower your expectations.

(A controversial one, perhaps, but I find it to be universally true. We expect so much of ourselves and others – that we’ll be perfect in every way, but it’s just not possible. I was struggling because I expected to be able to control Orwell like a highly trained and intelligent sheepdog, with him following my every command immediately and unwaveringly. I’ve now accepted that he’s never going to be that dog, and I’m never going to be that owner. His brain is the size of a small walnut. What I’m expecting now is realistic for his age and breed. And that in itself feels so liberating!)

5. Don’t always be in such a rush to move on. Enjoy the moment, and let others enjoy it too, without always being impatient to get moving.

The real revelation though, was my discovery that other peoples’ approval is so important to me. Underpinning all my training difficulties is the fact I just hate people judging me and thinking I’m a terrible dog owner. This was genuinely a surprise to me for some reason and my barrier to letting him make mistakes and learn from them. Of course, it's completely self defeating, but our unconscious brains don't always join those dots as they just want to protect us from immediate harm. Carl Jung once said:

“Until you make the unconscious conscious, it will direct your life, and you will call it fate."

I pride myself on my own self awareness, and on my skills to help others be more self aware, but this particular insight eluded me for some time. And there's the main lesson for us all: examine why you're finding something difficult, and you'll probably find the answer that will unlock it inside yourself.


A bit of background for people interested in dogs. (If you’re not, thank you for reading this far and enjoy your day!)

Orwell joined the Butler gang in November 2019. He’s practically perfect in almost every way, except one. He loves other dogs more than anything else on this earth. Off the lead he has to run and see every dog he sets his eyes on. On the lead, he won’t rest until he’s greeted every other dog. So if they’re behind us, he’ll slam on his brakes until they catch us up. If they’re ahead of us, he’ll pull and strain until he reaches them. Recall is generally fine if it’s one other dog. Recall is patchy at best if there are multiple dogs in multiple locations within sight.

Instead of dealing with this problem when I should’ve done, a year ago, I instead just avoided situations that would overstimulate him; or put him on the lead when I saw multiple dogs. In my defence, a year ago we were hit with a global pandemic where we were told to avoid seeing other people. I just took that instruction maybe a little too far…

The outcome of this avoidance strategy is that now I have an adult dog that behaves like a small puppy because he’s never been given the freedom to learn the ropes, and the novelty of groups of dogs is still incredibly strong. What he really needs is lots of practise and guidance, like any of us learning something new, and the opportunity to make mistakes and learn from them.

And despite the bad rep I'm giving him, he's actually a real sweetheart.

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