Learning a Lesson the Hard Way

Let’s start off today’s blog with some deep thoughts……………

I believe we are all here on earth undertaking our own individual journeys, and that the universe has a way of putting the lessons in our path that we each need to become more whole.    If the lesson isn’t learned the first time, you better believe it will come around again –  and again – and again, until it is!


This is the lesson of putting too many expectations on a new puppy or dog.  I’ve been there before.  I thought I had learned the hard way:  you just have to commit to letting each dog be who and what they are, and not worry about keeping up with your friend’s new puppy, or competing at the same level as your champion older dog, or putting on the pressure of performing too soon.  Yep.  Thought I had that one figured out.

But, like so many trainers and owners out there, it is difficult to keep our own ego out of the relationship with our dogs.  Especially when we have had successes with a first dog, or multiple dogs.  Now, add the pressure that not only must my dogs learn the tricks and the sports for fun, but they must also be able to do it on demand, under pressure, at any time…………because they perform for a living.  I don’t just want my dogs to be rockstars – I NEED them to be rockstars.


baby boltEnter our doggy training master:  Bolt.  I got Bolt as a puppy in the summer of 2009.  You could see the potential oozing out of this 8 week old puppy:  he had crazy drive, athleticism, focus, smarts.  So I pushed him…………..honestly, no more than I had pushed any other puppy or young new dog.  But Bolt was different.  He was sensitive in ways I had not seen in a dog.  He was naturally a nervous guy, easily frustrated even though we did mostly shaping work (he was laid up with a shoulder injury from age 5-8 months).  Long story short, I created a dog who developed ways to avoid me while training – particularly during frisbee play.  Instead returning at mach5 after making a catch, Bolt learned to stop and sometimes even lie down chomping his disc, as a way to avoid having to come back and interact directly with this totally stressful person (me).  If I attempted to simply stop the game when he did this (negative punishment), it made no difference to him – because the game had little to no value in the first place.  Finally, when he turned 2, I simply decided to give up trying to make him into a performing or competing dog, and just let Bolt be a very expensive pet.  Afterall, I loved him and always did feel a special connection to him on a spiritual level.   Just because he wasn’t turning out to be what I had hoped for didn’t mean he was going anywhere.

The most interesting and amazing thing happened that year……………I hadn’t just decided to let Bolt be a pet, I had unknowingly allowed Bolt to just be BOLT.   While the building of drive and trust in me developed slowly over these 12 months, the gleam in his eye returned almost overnight.  We played everyday – whatever BOLT wanted to play:  chuckit, or ball, or hiking off leash, sometimes frisbee, too………..but all with no criteria whatsoever.  It was  about more than just having fun, it was about allowing Bolt to set the rules of the games;  I didn’t realize it was happening this way, but it was what he needed to rebuild his confidence in me and in the game itself.   The disc chomping remained a big part of his frisbee game, but now it wasn’t out of avoidance – the chomping had simply become a seriously rewarding activity!

Fastforward to this past season.  Bolt turned 3, and suddenly, he was performing in our shows!  We started slowly, just quiet smaller shows, focusing on the tricks he enjoys best – not worrying about the silly behaviors that were allowed to develop during the year of no-criteria.  By mid-season he was a beast – one of my top disc performers.  He started competing, too, and even had some very remarkable finishes by the fall.  Once again, I find myself facing the very real challenge of keeping pressure off of him, just letting Bolt call the shots.  That potential he has always had is now glaring me in the face.  We have some very real training issues that have become built into his disc game due to a year of no rules.  I think we can continue to work through these; it may very well take his entire career to fix them. It’s a tough lesson to learn, and even those of us who have been involved in dog training and sports for many years fall prey to “expectations”.   But in the end, I don’t mind, because Bolt is having the time of his life!  And, as a matter of fact, so am I!



12 thoughts on “Learning a Lesson the Hard Way

  1. Ah ha! I think maybe I have put too much pressure on Roo this past year in herding. He is very sensitive for my approval. I’m going to just make herding fun, not thinking of competition, this coming summer. Trialing in herding is nothing like actually working stock as a daily job anyway. Hopefully I will see a change like you have with Bolt.

  2. There is something magic about my heelers turning three, too. Headstrong, running off, not listening, pulling at leash – then they turn three and I have the magical wonderful dog I was looking for. I don’t get it. But I like it.

  3. Very well said Firefly is a victim of to many expectations and I didn’t learn your lesson until they end of her performance career! Go Bolt!

  4. Such a great story Bolt is. Definitely something that I need to keep in mind before starting up with my second disc dog. Jaz was so easy to train it spoiled me to a degree.

  5. Great post, Tracy! I had a very similar experience with Rider. Wally, my first competitive frisbee dog, was a give-as-hard-as-you-get kind of guy. Rider, not so much. It is so completely cool that each of them bring their own lessons for us, and some of them come wrapped up with a big bow on the top (once we figure out what the lesson is)!

  6. Going through this with my Kelpie. Just now getting back on track with her. Slower than you at figuring things out…. hoping to bring her out of ‘shut down for agility mode’. Excellent article. Thanks

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