Ego is the Enemy of Great Training

Oh, adolescence. I am raising a dog currently well-entrenched in this frustrating stage of development. It certainly is a humbling experience, as we have entered...


He's a big silly idiot right now, but he's my big silly idiot!

Oh, adolescence. I am raising a dog currently well-entrenched in this frustrating stage of development. It certainly is a humbling experience, as we have entered his second fear period and I am beginning all over again with careful and extensive socialization, much like when he was a puppy. (If you are unfamiliar with the second fear period, it is a stage of development that arrives in adolescence when a dog may be unsure of his surroundings, even stimulus to which he was well-socialized as a puppy.) The difference is, now he’s about 130 lbs instead of 16.5 lbs, and the hormones in his body are totally out of whack, saying, “guard things! No, try to play with things! Freak out! No, wait, maybe if I don’t freak out I can get a treat! Bark! Play bow! Bark again! Try peeing on something! More trying to play with things! Is there food anywhere around? Oh wait, never mind, I forgot I was considering barking at things! Hang on, I haven’t peed in 2 minutes, let me pee all over my front legs real quick!”

In short, he doesn’t know what the heck to do with himself, which is not uncommon in dogs of his age, particularly intact males.

This phase is frustrating for me, as it is for many of my clients. This is the age when dogs end up in shelters because adolescence is a prolonged stage of development (in some dogs, lasting until four years of age or longer! Trish King says “adolescence is a state of mind,” and I have certainly seen a 6 year old lab acting like a huge, ridiculous teenager) and requires patience and consistency for the duration, which is considerable.

I admit that I am familiar with the stages of development, but I foolishly told myself, “that second fear period thing won’t happen to my dog. No way, I socialized and trained him well!” Um, yeah. Too often, I find myself thinking in terms of “shoulds” and “shouldn’ts.” At nine months old, “he SHOULD be ready to enter dog shows.” “He SHOULDN’T be barking at other dogs.”

What I find is that the more you focus on what your dog should or shouldn’t be doing, the less present and aware you are of what he is doing now. Maybe I think he shouldn’t be barking at strange dogs, but the fact of the matter is, he is. Maybe I think he should be ready for a show at this age, but the fact is, he isn’t, in regards to physical development, emotional maturity, and skills. I can either bemoan these shoulds and shouldn’ts or get to work on the “is” – what is this dog doing in this moment and how can I help him through this while developing his confidence?

I also find that I have to remind myself of the things I tell my clients. “Don’t get so wrapped up in what your dog is doing wrong that you take for granted the things he does well.” This barkiness is frustrating, but on the other hand, I can call him away from the middle of very arousing play with his favorite dog friends and he will turn on a dime and come bolting back to me as fast as he can, slobber, ears, jowls, tail flopping and flying, with a smiley face. I know adolescence is a time when dogs are notoriously unreliable off leash (and therefore do not risk it – he is given freedom on a long line or in a securely enclosed area for now), but he is amazing!

I feel a lot of pressure to get him in the ring – a lot of folks say, “Now is the time! Start him today!” If a client came to me and said her dog was not ready for performance, I would tell her to wait – training is not a race, and her dog would let her know when he is ready to compete. I would tell her it was her job to protect her dog from situations he cannot handle or which may set them back as a team. I would tell her those ribbons will look just as pretty in six months as they do today, and that the more preparation she did before entering the ring, the less her or her dog would have to stress when the day of their first competition arrives. I would tell her that she knows her dog better than anyone else and is therefore most qualified to determine when he is “ready.”

Somehow when it’s my dog, that common sense just flies out of my head. The “shoulds” and “shouldn’ts” are the voice of your ego. The problem with this is your ego may often tempt or persuade you to put you and your dog in situations that you are not ready to handle. “My dog SHOULD be able to recall off chasing a deer.” But the fact is, if he’s not ready, and you put it to the test, he may be three miles away before he realizes you’re not following behind and joining the chase. “My dog SHOULD be able to be friends with our new bunny rabbit.” In case your dog didn’t get that memo, formulate a plan in your mind – how will you explain to your six year old that her “bunny went far away with his friends to bunny Disneyland,” or worse, that he’s what’s for dinner? “My dog SHOULDN’T have any trouble being out of his crate for four hours, last week he was fine when left alone for fifteen minutes.” Four hours later, you come home, and you are rushing your dog to the vet because he has consumed half your microwave. “My dog SHOULD be ok with the new baby, even though she’s usually uncomfortable around children.”

I have no doubt that provided he grows into himself well, Cuba will get his conformation championship at some point. But we’re not ready yet. I don’t get to decide when Cuba’s ready. My trainer doesn’t get to decide when Cuba’s ready, nor does his breeder or anyone else. It’s time for me to set my ego aside, because it’s telling me to do things which my heart knows are not in my dog’s best interest. I know Cuba. I know adolescent males. I know that I have to handle this situation correctly or risk exacerbating the issue.

So we wait, and practice. The pretty ribbons will come, but only when we’re both ready to enjoy the experience. Take that, ego!

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