Today I went back to the canal trail I visited with Luna last week with the “Young Guns”, Stark and Ella. It is definitely a new favorite, and it feels good to have a favorite place again. The day was warmer, but the trail was just as quiet as the last trip. For part of the stretch, I even let the dogs have a bit of off-leash time. It was a narrow, secluded area, one where I could easily see if others were joining us on the trail.
Whenever Stark is off-leash I marvel a little bit. He can be hard to “get rid of”, not underfoot, but never going far. On the rare occasions he gets an uncomfortable distance a quick call of his name calls him to bolt back towards me. Today he created his own game where he would run out a few yards full speed, turn on a dime and charge back to us, continually re-orienting. It’s a beautiful thing for someone that never felt comfortable letting her dogs run, no matter how secluded.
When I was eleven our family dog was hit by a car and killed, in the mountains of all places. It left a lasting impact on me of the importance of always having control of your dog. No matter how safe you thought it was. I never expected to feel safe again, to trust myself and my dogs. Today we played, and I knew I didn’t have to worry.
While Stark played his own game of environmental orientation Ella and I played an actual game of orientation, keeping her close and focused on me. We’ve been working hard on developing a natural proximity with her, similar to Stark’s. For him a leash is an accessory, a social requirement. She can still get a little excited, recalls on a dime, but wants to pull when she gets excited.
So we played somewhere we had never played before, met with several impressive distractions, including splashing ducks that startled Stark (for half a second) and a cat. Both looked at the animals and back at me as we moved on. My dogs are starting to find novelty (intimate or not) optimistic, non-events and it is amazing. They’ve become flexible in new situations and find it easy to go with the flow. Again, all thanks to the games.
As I’m writing this I am regretting that I don’t have a post on what concept training is, because it would make a lot more sense to anyone reading this if I did. But I’m going to write it anyway because its where my mind is and anyone who has spent any time writing knows you can’t always choose the subject that takes over the keyboard.
A short answer, concept training is about reshaping a dog’s brain. Helping them make better choices by strengthening good concepts like Engagement (with you), Disengagement (with distractions), Confidence, and Self Control. As I’ve said over the last few days, concept training is fairly new to us, we’ve only been a part of this world for the last year or so. Every day I see more and more how my dogs have changed in a positive way, and when I’m beginning to notice the way I’ve changed too.
You see, while I was reshaping my dogs’ brains I was also reshaping my own in not so subtle ways. I’ve become more optimistic, believing that every situation can have an upside, even in the middle of a pandemic. There are days I struggle (don’t we all?) but all in all I’ve been able to hold my optimism, to guard it against pessimistic thoughts and actions.
I’m certainly more flexible, I can adjust a training session as needed. Move tasks around on my calendar either by days or just hours and still accomplish them, something I’ve always struggled with in the past. I can “wing it” when I need to, and right now I’m finding it not so difficult to transfer all my training classes online.
Self-control, this is a hard one, especially lately. I want to carbo-load on everything these days. But I can say no to desserts and chocolate more often than before. I make healthier choices, food, exercise, and self-care. I can win internal arguments when I just don’t want to do something. I can even, on most days, avoid getting sucked into the news or getting lost on social media.
There are other things like focusing on my goals and tasks that need to be accomplished, and the grit to get them done. But what I’m most proud of is personal and it’s hard to put it out there in the great big internet world.
It’s confidence. The confidence that I’ve got this, whatever this is. That I’ve become resourceful and flexible enough to roll with the punches. And the toughest one, the one that brings us to today, that I’m comfortable with me. In my own body, in my own skin. The concepts that I was building gave me the self-esteem I would never have without it. It’s a little crazy that dog training can build confidence with you both as a handler and as a person, but it does.
Today I proudly asked my husband to take a picture of me with Stark and Ella. I’m the one that takes photos, that stays safe behind the camera. All I see in that picture is me, my dogs, and my smile. There are no insecurities or fears, just me and them. They bring out the best in me, each and every day.
I struggled to find a topic for today’s blog. In some ways, it felt like nothing happened. Another day spent social distancing, hiding away from the world. I kept myself busy with work, filming and corresponding virtually. It's just not the same as seeing clients and can leave you melancholy.
At the same time, I managed another small adventure, this one in the heart of our city. I've been selective in the hiking spots I’ve visited near my home in the last few days. Searching for those that have little traffic. I grew up in the same zip code and had no idea the places I visited yesterday and today even existed. Both days I passed two other hikers, keeping more than the recommended six-foot distances, but it felt so good to get out. To get back with nature in a way I haven't in a long time.
When I lived in southern Utah I knew all sorts of secluded, tucked away spots to hike, but have always complained that I lived too far for anything similar in the busy salt lake valley. Today I found a quiet spot, not ten minutes from the building I rent. It was odd to drive by and not stop, Luna even whined as we neared the street. But I have to say, I enjoyed today just as much, if not more than a training session.
It wasn't a lot to look at, not compared to the red rocks and sands where Luna and I would have been this weekend if not for Corona. But the small, worm trail next to a canal running so close to state street had its own charm. You could forget you were in the city as we walked, forget about the virus, and just enjoy being with your dog.
We did little training, but I marveled once again at the difference between THIS Luna and the Luna from before. I'm realizing that I'm always so busy running here or there I often don't see the transformations in my own dogs. The way she confidently explored terrain she was not used to, in a place where she had not been. Sounds in the distance did not phase her and the few strangers we saw she ignored as they passed. Even a dog yapping at their fence caused her little concern. She crossed an old, narrow bridge without hesitation and although interested in birds and ducks she paid them little attention in the grand scheme of things. She sniffed, explored, and checked in. All while I observed, truly observed, the dog she has become.
Training isn't new to us, not by a long shot, but concept training still is. It's been a little more than a year since I was "converted". I could never go back. The results we've had in just a single year are tenfold what we had in the five before that. Every season, no week, brings a positive change to my dogs through the games. I just have to learn to see it.
Owner, Head Trainer