2017 was a wild ride for me and Miles.
Long-time readers may have noticed that I pretty much took a year away from this blog in 2017.
A year ago, at our first agility trial of 2017, Miles and I did really well. We not only had a blast; we were in synch in a way that we had never experienced in agility before. The next competition came and went with incredible results, and then the next, and then the next… And it became clear that these weren’t just lucky weekends… A pattern was forming. Our hard work was paying off.
With our success, I knew my work to be the best teammate possible for Miles wasn’t complete; in a way, it had just begun. Miles had passed my test and now, it was time for me to pass his.
When Miles was young, I went through a series of shocks over how multiple dog trainers and his first veterinarian reacted to natural unfiltered terrier behaviors. The veterinarian recommended a private trainer. The private trainer and several group classes all had the same result, all before Miles was even half a year old. These professionals immediately viewed young Miles as different, which to them seemed to translate to “broken,” and needing breaking in order to fix — like a dislocated shoulder needing to be shoved into place. My gut told me that Miles was just a puppy, and he wasn’t broken… Yet. This was a juncture where I could have continued down that path and he would have been broken. As easily as Miles’ instincts rose out of his little body, there was a general impatience and frustration exuding from the people I was supposed to trust as guides.
Fast forward several years, and I am now a professional dog trainer who specializes in coaching others with like or similar terriers. I come from a background of dog training, and now, I live and breathe it. To me, the living part is the experiences acquired along the way, but the breathing part is keeping an open mind and always learning. We humans don’t know everything about each other, so how can one know everything there is to know about all dogs, or even one dog?
So often when people hear what Welsh Terriers or similar wild wiry breeds are like, they say, “I am up for the challenge!” As a terrier trainer, and someone closely involved with breeders and breed clubs, this is the most common thing I hear from people who want to bring a Welsh Terrier into their lives. I don’t judge anyone for thinking this. My aim is to take that mindset further. To be blunt, we do this within our own species; thinking that difference is a challenge to overcome as swiftly as possible. Often we either attempt to accomplish this by ignoring that differences between people matter, or we begin to think of that which is different as being a problem, or less. Humans are by nature prideful and we scramble to avoid the vulnerability of admitting that we don’t automatically understand something or someone. It is our natural impulse to avoid honestly thinking about or approaching difference. A large part of the success I have had with Miles and my work with other terriers is that I know they are different, and I want to celebrate who they are. My advice to anyone finding themselves frustrated or at a standstill in training a terrier is to adjust your expectations, try something new, and don’t blame the dog.
This is a Welsh Terrier, not a challenge.
The mindset you have about your dog from the beginning will shape your training choices, and ultimately the kind of life you will have together.
You can end up with a challenge defeated, in a perpetual battle or compromise of wills, or, you can have a teammate that you will learn from everyday, and vice versa.
From basic training all of the way to optional pursuits like agility, the mindset has always been that we need to change who a terrier fundamentally is in order to succeed. I have seen many successful agility terrier handlers use this as their goal, and naturally, it also becomes a part of their accomplishment. The two main outcomes usually observed in competitive agility are the terrier who is taught to think less (and to focus mostly on physical drive), or the terrier who is taught mostly to think (and to lessen natural physical drive). The terrier taught to turn his mind off chases his handler through runs, and runs manically and in overdrive. The terrier taught only to think runs methodically and carefully, his body moving tentatively and often slowly. I don’t think most realize it often becomes an either/or of mind or body. My dream has been to channel both parts of my terrier in agility. These working parts are so different on a terrier, that we often struggle just focusing on figuring out how to channel one at a time (hence how we end up in the either/or area). On the long road towards trying, Miles was full terrier mind and body. I made sure that when my attempts at juggling failed, that I fell and Miles didn’t. If he had, it would’ve defeated the purpose of my dream. Frequently in times past, agility competitors asked me, “How do you stand the disappointment? If I could get through half of what you do with a smile on your face, I’d be better for it.” I guess this post is, in a way, my answer.
Welsh Terriers were bred to think for themselves, and to question everything. They are fiercely independent and stubborn problem solvers. The very traits that make the breed who they are, are usually seen by us as being incompatible towards living harmoniously with them as companions, and those very traits are certainly seen as contrary to success in competitive agility.
In 2017 when years of patience, hard work, ups and a lot of downs suddenly turned into something exciting and real, I avoided clinging to success or relaxing into it — I buckled down. This blog had to take a back seat because I needed to figure out how to steer this big new fancy ship. We’d made it this far…
I had accomplished the task of preserving Miles’ wild natural spirit and personality so well in every other aspect of our life together, that I was determined to keep trying as we entered into an accomplished place in agility. In 2017, all of my hard work figuring out how to navigate success in the same way paid off. Trial after trial, we Q’d a very high rate of the runs we did, and our experiences became more and more exciting and valuable to my thoughts on how to be a teammate to a Welsh Terrier or similar dog. Most of all, because he got to be himself, Miles was able to communicate his side of the team in a way that allowed me to learn constantly, and we were both able to have an unbelievable amount of fun together.
I am really proud of our accomplishments on paper this year (next post!), but even more so, I am proud of being brave, putting Miles first, and having faith in my dream. It has paid off for me and Miles, and I think what I’ve learned will help absolutely anyone achieve goals with their terriers, at any level.
2018 will be my year of writing about all that I have figured out, and sharing it. It is going to be a big year for M&E. Those who love these kinds of wild dogs dearly, or even those who aren’t sure what they have gotten themselves into, will surely all benefit!
If I can run a Welsh Terrier through 164 perfect-score runs in the top level of agility in just one year, without dampening his spirit and fully enjoying who he is, then anything is truly possible.