Relationship-based training sucks.
There, I said it.
I know, I know, I’ve written articles about relationship as the key to the entire training process. I’ve argued passionately that we should do everything we can to make social motivation the primary motivation for the dog. I’ve spent countless hours on the podcast extolling the need to build a strong relationship if you want to have reliable training. I’ve taught hundreds of people the importance of developing a strong relationship in order to make training easier.
I did all those things. The fact that I will continue to do so for the foreseeable future, doesn’t change the fact that relationship-based training really does suck.
And make no mistake, it does suck.
It sucks because it requires 100% effort. There is no room for bad days, weak days, or lazy days. You can’t “phone it in” if you’re under the weather. On days when your stressed out and it may seem easier to just increase the pressure or get a better food treat, but you will still have to find motivation to do what you know is in the dog’s best interest. It sucks because the temptation of the wrong “quick fix” is always right over your shoulder whispering in your ear. Easy answers are rarely the best answers.
It sucks because the best case scenario means you give a little piece of yourself to a dog only to see him leave the party with someone else. There’s no way to truly approach relationship-based training without giving some of what you’re asking from the dog. The relationship must be reciprocal or it won’t work like it’s supposed to. Every dog becomes your friend, and ultimately, they leave to go live their lives with another person. Your loss becomes someone else’s gain.
It sucks because the more problematic the dog, the more attached you become. The nasty ones who seem to want to kill you, the ones so fearful they shut down at the sight of your shadow, or the ones so anxious they can’t seem to sit still for 3 seconds, these become your most beloved. You want so badly to help them, that you’ll work extra hours. You’ll lose sleep trying to figure out how to better help them. Some nights you’ll envy your colleagues who are sleeping peacefully because they have a tried and true protocol that “almost always works” because “almost always” is good enough when it’s a client’s dog. After all, “you can’t fix them all,” (more on that later). But for you, it’s not enough, you love that dog. That dog is your friend. That dog is counting on you and you have to be find a way.
It sucks because you can never kid yourself into believing you’re a great trainer. Your mistakes will harass you when you try to sleep at night. The one’s from the distant past, and the ones from a few hours ago. It makes no difference. You will rarely be able to say at that end of a session “I nailed it today!” There will be too many things that went wrong. Too many times you felt the dog struggle needlessly. Too many times you did one rep too many and just slightly but noticeably, diminished the motivation you’ve been building for weeks. While your client drives home happy with the result, you will replay moments you knew should have gone better, but didn’t.
It sucks because you will never be able to brag about saving dogs, because you know more than anyone else, that you’ve never saved a dog at all. You know that every dog you’ve ever “saved” has worked way harder than you did. You know that it’s always the dog who’s doing the heavy lifting. No matter how hard you try to make it easier for the dog, you can never hide from that fact that you can’t ever make it so that you’re actually working more than the dog. It’s the dog, in the end, who always saves himself. You’re just a coach, a guide, and hopefully, an inspiration. But the dog always does the most work.
It sucks because, sometimes you fail. Sometimes, you can’t find the way to reach that dog. Sometimes, you aren’t good enough. Sometimes you aren’t skilled enough. Sometimes you aren’t strong enough. Sometimes you just can’t get the dog to change his mind. And because you couldn’t help, a dog will lose his life.
It sucks because you can’t blame the client when training fails. You know you’re the professional hired to help. All your friends will tell you “It’s not your fault” and they will mean it. They will say “You can’t fix them all.” And you’ll know it’s true. But when others say that it’s an abdication of responsibility, it means liberation from a degree of responsibility. But to you, it’s an admission of your own limitations. Sure, we all have them. But you know your limitations cost dogs dearly, and there is no comfort in acknowledging that. You know you can’t fix them all, because your knowledge is smaller than the dog. You can’t fix them all because your skill ends before the dogs point of need. If only you could motivate the dog, or the client a little bit more you know you could help. But at the end of the day, your best will sometimes not be enough and you’ll carry that with you every day thereafter.
It sucks because you carry the ghosts of dogs you’ve trained into every session. Every poorly timed correction, every harsh word spoken out of frustration, some who lived but especially those who didn’t. You will never forget them. They will not let you.
It sucks because they grow old faster than you do.
It sucks because you know you’ll never be good enough to be worthy of the title “dog trainer.”
Yes indeed, relationship-based training sucks.
If after reading all this, you’re looking for another route, then you’re probably not cut out for relationship-based training.
If you’re reading this and saying “So what?, it’s what we do so stop whining,” I’m glad to know you.
But if you’re saying “That sounds like something I want to learn more about. That sounds oddly appealing,” then you are who I am talking to most.
Because the truth is, as much as it sucks to care and give 100% to every dog and every family, it makes me far happier than any other training model I’ve ever attempted. It also helps more dogs than anything else I’ve seen.
The world is full of people selling us easy solutions. They promise us easy answers to complex questions. From sales people on TV, to politicians and gurus of various stripes, (including dog trainers) the message is the same, “trust me and your life will become easier.”
I, on the other hand, have no easy solutions to peddle. I can promise you that if you seek to build an authentic, respectful, and mutually beneficial relationship with every dog you train, your life will not be easy. You will not work fewer hours for more money. You will not enjoy a life of casual luxury. You will struggle and you will cry. You will push yourself every day and you will almost always fall short of what you know is needed. You will not have the sense of swelling with pride at your amazing solution to a complex problem. Instead you will wonder if you could have done it better.
But despite this, all the extra work will give you something more valuable than an easy life, or a shorter work week. It will give you the peace that can only come from getting outside of oneself through service to another. A labor of love is still a labor, and the greater the love, the more arduous the labor becomes. But it also becomes more rewarding, more enriching, and ultimately more real. Because in the end, love is nothing if it’s not putting the good of another first.
If the dog is first, I can’t be. But if the dog isn’t first, who am I trying to help most? What does that say about me?