Seeking perfection

Seeker didn’t have a registered name until he was 11 months old, and seeing as he’s days away from his first birthday, it wasn’t all that long ago.

It wasn’t something I did on purpose. I wasn’t neglecting it, or holding out for some unspoken reason. I just truly couldn’t place a name to him for a long time. It was the same when he came home last summer, an unexpected, nameless puppy, who happily chewed bones and played in the living room of our small apartment with our two boys. I stared at him for a long time—first, unsure he’d stay at all (so many things had gone wrong just before him after all) and second because no name jumped out for him. In the past, I’ve named my other puppies long before they come home. Usually they’re named before I even know they’ve been born.

But this bi-black puppy wasn’t on the plans, and so, no name awaited him.

He lived with us a grand total of four days before I told his breeder it was forever. Truthfully, I think I knew it as soon as I put him in the crate the back of my car and he quietly, bravely, took everything in stride. He settled into his strange new home—and the next new one that quickly followed— as if he’d been there all along.

Image may contain: dog

We’ve taken our time learning one another this last year. He’s a dog I’ve not entirely been able to understand in ways I can with Bolt. He’s more guarded with his affection and for the first four months with us, he would usually choose to settle in a separate room away from me. He rarely came to to me for any type of affection unless play or food was involved. I tried not to be offended by this polar opposite personality and let him find his way with me. We began training as an activity that was pure play, never long enough sessions for him to choose to disengage– always quick, rewarding, and happy. I saw a lot of concerned faces in the early days of our training (then again, maybe I was projecting) and couldn’t help but wonder just a bit if Seeker would ever have the urgency or the willingness to work like I hoped. Not all dogs come pre-built with this ability but I truly think it’s something we can help create, foster, and grow with the right foundation. I’ve taken a few key things away from this year and it’s helped me to better understand this process.

Play. It might sound basic and rudimentary but I oftentimes see handlers confuse the two as separate activities altogether. Training is play and vice versa. All of our interactions with our dogs are in some way reinforcing a desired behavior– whether it be time relaxing on the couch, to tugging sessions, to clicker training, or walking civilized on leash (this is a skill Seeker most certainly has yet to learn… we’re working on it). Take away the pressure of a training session, especially with a young dog or one you’re hoping to build drive and focus in and simply play with them.

This time with Seeker has proven to be an incredible benefit for us. Our training sessions are always rewarding for both of us and over time I’ve learned to understand him better than ever before. He trusts me more than I thought he would, leaping into my arms, diving to toys, tugging (oh, I must write a post all about this someday), and so much more. He works now most times for just play alone– a far cry from the dog who didn’t entirely understand the concept of working for even food when he first came home, and who needed high value treats for training (read: meatballs). He is at my feet every instant he can be these days. He happily bounds up and down when I come home, or greet him at the foot of the stairs or gate. His love bites are notoriously quick and excited as he nibbles at my collar or shoulders, accepting and searching out hugs and affection.

If you’re lucky, he may even lick your face these days.

Image may contain: one or more people, dog, outdoor and nature

Quit comparing. It’s difficult not to, especially when you have a littermate to other dogs’ entering performance homes, but it’s especially important. Recognize that your puppy is an individual and may learn, be motivated by, and excel in things different from his littermates or counterparts or classmates. There’s also a good chance they will be quite different than the dogs you currently train or have in the past– this is what offers us the best chance to become better trainers and, by extension, better handlers in the future. I’m reminding myself to do this often with Seek, especially when it comes to comparing to Bolt. I’ve gone back countless times, watching (and oftentimes grimacing) at the training I did with Bolt at the same age. Do they run similarly? Was Bolt ballistic at a young age, or did it grow over time? At what age did I start (fill in the blank here)? How tall was Bolt at this age?

Spoiler alert: this does nothing more than cause you to obsess, and while that’s a perfectly honed skill of mine, it’s something I’m looking to limit.

There’s no guarantee what our future in the sport will be or that it will follow a path similar to our last dog. In the end, agility is a just small fraction of our lives– I want nothing more than a wonderful dog to enjoy life with outside of the ring and I’m so thrilled at who Seeker has grown into.

Take your time. There’s a lot of information available to us these days, to the point where it’s overwhelming, confusing, and sometimes contradictory. I cringe at old videos of Bolt because I recognize now that many times I was doing agility-like things with him too young and sometimes without a proper foundation. Less was known seven years ago, for sure, but I can’t help but feel a pang of guilt thinking back on closing weaves on a young dog and jumping full height before he was of age to compete. It’s something to learn from though and I took that seriously moving into a training plan with a next dog. Foundation is one of the important skills that is difficult to recover once we’ve glossed over it and moved on– everything that comes after is reliant on those first steps. For Bolt this was collection. I became so focused on building speed and drive that I did not take the necessary time to teach his body to collect for jumping and for turning as well as I could have.

It’s easy to get caught up on the fun parts of agility and find the work done on the flat boring, but take your time with it. Follow whatever method you’re following’s foundation — if it makes sense for you and your dog– until you’re sure you’ve both got it down. For me and Seeker, this focus has been spent on shadow handling, decel, and turns. He’s just about a year old and has yet to see an a-frame or weaves or full height dogwalk– as Bolt had at the same age. The coolest part? It’s working! I see Seeker putting in an extra stride when needed, turning tightly and efficiently, there’s far less exhaustion over bars and little to no lines bowing behind me when I cross. Last week my friend and I re-watched a short sequence multiple times, marveling over the understanding of the turn and how efficient and well he did it. Image may contain: 1 person, smiling, dog, tree, plant, outdoor and natureYou’ll make mistakes. Long before Seeker came home– long before I ever had an actual puppy prospect in mind actually– I had a 6 page training plan typed out. (Obsessive, remember?) It was a document I had been working on for years, taking notes on the things that were and were not working for my students with puppies, what I saw friends across the globe doing and liked, and what I thought our future training sessions would look like. It was broken down to the months I thought it would take to accomplish each step in the process and when I would start what: my very own little training crystal ball. I thought that this sort of organization would mean I wouldn’t repeat mistakes the next time around; I wouldn’t leave out the essentials. How cute, right?

Here’s the truth: I’ve not followed that document once since Seeker arrived. I haven’t even referenced it. Quite literally, I threw my own book out when he entered my life. Instead, I’ve been focused on the dog I have, not the imagined one in my training manual. He’s needed a different approach in almost every respect than I planned. Perfection is not attainable. You’ll make mistakes this time around and it’s okay. I promise your puppy will forgive you. You must learn to also forgive yourself.

It goes fast. If I must summarize puppyhood it would be like this: time travel. One day you have an 8-10 week old before suddenly you can no longer count by weeks or even months and you have a seven-year-old staring back at you. For my sheltie friends, we know all too well how fast this time passes with the growth chart especially– yet here I am, week 52, long past the end of the chart, still checking progress. (He hasn’t grown, I know.) This time will pass no matter what, so seize the opportunity to appreciate your dog for who they are now, in this moment. Plan for the future, but put no expectations, no burdens on either of your shoulders. Trust this process. In the end, it will work as it’s meant to.

So while no name awaited Seeker when he first came home, I truly thought an adventure did. Here’s a very long-overdue “to us”, my little love.

Adventure Awaits us yet. Image may contain: 1 person, smiling, outdoorLynann Adventure Awaits “Seeker”