In 2017, Miles and I did really well in competitive agility. We not only had a blast, we were in synch in a way that we had never experienced in agility before. Each 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. So why did our Agility statistics seem so surprising to me? We’ve worked hard together, and we are a real, solidified team. Still, success for us took a long time to sink in due to the memory of our beginnings, and because of the statistics of Miles’ breed.
So many Welsh Terriers, despite being rare and in high demand, end up in rescue with all of the “boxes” checked: no dogs, no cats, no children… Behavioural problems run rampant in this breed. Why? Where does it start?
When Miles was young, I went through a series of shocks over how multiple dog trainers and his first veterinarian reacted to his natural, unfiltered terrier behaviors. The veterinarian recommended a private trainer. The private trainer and several group classes all had the same negative result, and all before Miles was even half a year old. These professionals viewed young Miles as “different,” which to them seemed to mean “broken.” To them the only way to fix broken was to jam the confusing parts together into “normal” in the way that a dislocated shoulder needs to be painfully shoved back 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 naturally 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 authorities.
Fast forward several years, and I am now a professional dog trainer who specializes in coaching others with like or similar terriers. It was somewhat luck that I got a Welsh Terrier, and a Welsh Terrier was the perfect fit for me! 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. Dog trainers and other professionals who work with dogs are often not questioned because they are the “authority.” But no one is without bias, and no one can know everything about a whole species. I want my clients to ask me why. I am passionate about working with terriers, and they too always ask “why.” In my work, the answer comes from both parties, in the form of communication, problem-solving, and understanding. I think the most important thing when you are responsible for the the well-being of any living, breathing thing, is to ask “why?” and trust your gut. I urge anyone working with any professional, be it a canine professional or otherwise, to remember this.
You are your dog’s protector. If it doesn’t feel right, try a different way.
Welsh Terriers and many other breeds of what I affectionally refer to as “full-strength” terriers are rare. I would say that most, if not all, breeders of these dogs do their very best at trying to speak candidly to prospective new owners. Many prospective owners leave the initial conversation(s) with one personal motto in mind: “I am up for the challenge!”
This is a Welsh Terrier, not a challenge.
I don’t judge anyone for thinking that these breeds are “challenges” that one can handle or overcome. However, 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 even, a frustrating nuisance. 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. Partially, because it is scary, and also, because it is hard work. A large part of the success I have had with Miles and my work with other terriers is that I accept that they are different, and I want to celebrate and work with 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. Shift your vantage point.
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. If you are going to take on a different breed, like I did, you will likely at some point (or many points!) be told that your terrier is willful, stubborn, or even broken. If you take on those perceptions, it will alter the course of your life with your dog. I chose to go a different way. I chose to be a teammate to a very intelligent, different dog. I chose to resist the urge to surrender to thoughts of “what is normal” and other’s opinions of something natural being “broken.” To work with Miles, I realized that I needed to figure out who he was. I picked a very intelligent breed, full of history and personality. It was time to set aside human expectations and norms and decide: was I going to be Miles’ owner, or his teammate?
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 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 on physical drive), or the terrier who is taught mostly to think (and to lessen their natural physical drive). The terrier taught to turn his mind off chases his handler through runs, runs manically in a state of overdrive, and often lacks control. The terrier taught only to think runs methodically and carefully, his body moving tentatively and often slowly. I don’t think most realize it can often become an either/or of mind or body. My dream has been to channel both parts of my wild terrier in agility. These 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! Over the years, I worked hard to make sure that when my attempts at juggling these two parts failed, that I fell and Miles didn’t. 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. The more true to breed, the more fiercely independent and stubborn problem solvers they are. 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. These traits are also seen as being highly 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, it became clear to me that there is a place for a “different” team.
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. We kept at it, together, and we made it. Because Miles has always been able to be himself, nothing less, he has always been able to communicate his side of the team. I have learned so much from Miles that I would not have otherwise. Best of all, we have been able to have an unbelievable amount of fun together. So many opportunities and experiences have been possible for us. I cannot express in words the feeling of getting to be Miles’ teammate.
I am really proud of our accomplishments on paper this year (see here!), but most of all, I am proud of being brave, putting Miles first, and believing our team. It has paid off for me and Miles, and I think what I’ve learned will help absolutely anyone achieve goals with a terrier, at any level.
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.