Revelations from Puppy Kindergarten

I’m a dog trainer with many years’ experience. I’ve taught puppy classes, basic and competition obedience, beginner and advanced agility. I’ve studied dog behavior extensively. I’ve observed thousands of dogs and their human partners in countless situations. I’ve watched both dogs and their humans become happy, sad, thrilled, impatient, excited, bored, ecstatic, confused, astonished, overwhelmed, pleased, angry, embarrassed – pretty much the entire gamut of vertebrate emotion. In all of these situations, the dogs act as dogs do – quite uncomplicated, no games, no underlying motives, no hang-ups. The humans, on the other hand, bring much more to the game. I experienced this myself, last night at my first puppy kindergarten class in ages.

Yes, we have a new puppy. Genie is a petite thing, adopted through Australian Shepherd Rescue (ARPH) and transported to us from Georgia just before the New Year by our friend Karen Stinnett. She is blue merle in color, and about as adorable as any puppy can be – and we all know how adorable puppies are! She’s bright, outgoing, and a total delight to be with and to train.

Wanting to get it totally right with this gal, I enrolled her in puppy kindergarten taught by Linda Vance at Mountain View Dog Training (my own training facility) and at A Click Above LLC (ACA), a training center in Leesburg VA. Last night was the first class at ACA.

We’ve had Genie since December 30 – therefore 11 days. In that time I’ve fallen completely head-over-heels in love with this little star. I won’t bore you with a description of her shining assets, but know that she is wonderful. I’ve worked with her several times a day, every day since she arrived. She sits, downs, responds to her name, touches my hand, touches a target on the ground, lies down on a mat, spins, leaps in the air, walks on planks, sits on little tables, and sometimes even comes when she’s called. Brilliant. Now not all of this is on cue; as a clicker trainer, the progression is *get the behavior,* *mark and reward the behavior,* repeat umpty-seven times until that behavior is predictable and perfect in execution, and then *cue the behavior.* So the sit is the only behavior on cue – oh, and the leap in the air, since that’s a natural one for her.

So last night we’re in this totally new (for her) place with maybe 50 other dogs (or so it must have seemed to her – it was really more like 16 shared among three instructors). She was totally mind-blown. She leaped on the instructors (this is a behavior I’ve permitted, shame on me, but she’s sooooo cute!). She lunged to get to the other dogs. She couldn’t hear her name. When she finally would sit, she’d hear the click and then maybe eat her treat, and then turn around to see what the dog next to her was doing. During one period she would do as I asked and then get up and turn away as soon as I clicked – didn’t even care about receiving a treat. I experienced sadness, impatience, confusion, even a bit of overwhelmedness (like that word?), and embarrassment.

Little GenieNot only was her behavior problematic for me, but her appearance as well. Here’s this tiny (she weighs 14 pounds at 3 months), light-boned, long-legged merle thing with a tail (!) who claims to be an Aussie. In class there is another three-month-old blue merle thing with hair out the wazoo, no tail, and bone so heavy he could be a baby Clydesdale (have you ever seen a blue merle Clydesdale?), weighing probably 25 pounds. He’s lovely – and it’s hard to imagine that they’re the same breed. Genie is *exactly* what I wanted when I was looking for a dog, but somehow in this environment I was a bit embarrassed for her, and even got a bit defensive. WHAT IS THE MATTER WITH ME?! I love this puppy, and who the heck cares what she is, since she’s so obviously perfect! I even felt a little disappointed in her. Shame on me.

Genie head studyWho hasn’t felt this way about their puppy (or adult dog) during an obedience class? Forget the part about Genie not meeting the Australian Shepherd breed standard for beauty – she’s still awesomely beautiful and truly is what I wanted. As an instructor I’ve heard the “but she does it at home” story so many times I hear the tune in my sleep, and have congratulated the trainers on the fact. After all, the dog does live at home, so that’s as it should be – who wants a banshee living with them? The first class for dogs and handler is always crazy. But my pride was getting in the way and I found I had to keep stopping myself from acting out the impatience I was feeling. Poor puppy never before had to work for a whole hour. So we stopped “working” and played with a toy for a bit, went out for a potty break, snuggled a bit (with her wriggling to get away to go meet the other dogs), and eased off the pressure on both Genie and me.

This was quite eye opening for me. I have reassured hundreds of people in my classes on the first night, but forgot how it feels to be a first-nighter. I know what to do when the dog is just not with me – and it’s not to feel embarrassed and pressured, and not to insist repeatedly that the poor creature perform a behavior it’s not equipped mentally to perform at that moment. But we humans are so into accomplishing what we’re told to do and forget that our four-legged partner doesn’t understand what’s so all-fired important about sitting (or lying down, or paying attention to mama) in a strange place with other dogs all around, when they should be performing their genetically programmed duty of meeting all of these dogs, assessing friend or foe and furthering important relationships. We humans carry the baggage – the dogs don’t. The dog doesn’t feel embarrassed when her human spills treats on the floor (in fact, that’s party time for the dog!), or clicks at the wrong time, or forgets to pick up the handouts on the way out of the training center. The dog just doesn’t care. The dog just *is*. We should learn from them.

So now Genie and I will be missing our next class since I’ll be on vacation. That means that in two weeks when we return it will be like the first time for her. Again. Hopefully I’ll be better prepared for the experience. She will have more exercise on that day (yesterday she was crated in the car almost all day and didn’t have her usual play sessions) and I’ll be taking even better treats than the meatballs and cheese we had last night. I’ll also train in different locations between now and then. And I will remember that she is a baby – this is an important time for her to see the world, and meet dogs and people. Perfect obedience performance is for later. Now we just approximate it. And she’s perfect.

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