How Training My Smart Dog Makes Me Feel Dumb


When I signed up for an adult-dog refresher training class with my boy GhostBuster, I had high expectations for the both of us. I imagined my dog and I working together in perfect synchronization, showing off just how smart a rescue pooch can be. It turns out I was half right — GhostBuster certainly did showcase his intelligence and ability to pick up new skills, but all I really demonstrated in class was ineptitude. We definitely weren’t in sync. Going to dog school with my smart dog made me feel dumb (but I still left each class beaming with pride over my pup’s progress).

GhostBuster and his Mom
I may not be the perfect handler, but my little dude is the perfect dog.

GhostBuster’s training evolution started when my husband and I adopted him a year ago. He was sitting for us right from day one, and we worked hard to help him understand many other common commands in the months that followed. As we approached his adoption-day anniversary, GhostBuster had a consistent sit, a semi-consistent stay, and an impressive ability to ignore bacon when asked to (among many other skills).

He could shake a paw like a boss and roll over upon request, but I knew we needed professional help to master the more important practical commands — namely heeling and really solid recall. Without these kinds of next-level skills, three-year-old GhostBuster was basically on par with younger dogs who’d taken a puppy class or level-one training: still a bit basic in the obedience department. I felt like I owed it to GhostBuster to help him fulfill his genius potential, and being pregnant, I wanted to set him up for success when the new addition arrived. 

After taking the class GhostBuster can resist food even when it's on him!
After taking the class, GhostBuster can resist food even when it’s on him! How’s that for impulse control!

Before our first class, I had carefully packed all my supplies, including GhostBuster’s favorite blanket, plenty of tasty (allergy-free) morsels, and a treat bag I clipped to my waist. My husband mocked my enthusiastic preparations, but I wasn’t messing around — I really thought GhostBuster and I were about to rock “Adult Refresher, Level Two.”

Unfortunately, all my confidence started to evaporate when our trio entered the classroom for the first time. GhostBuster was distracted and excited, pulling on his leash as other dogs started to file into the room. I wondered if my boy was really ready for this. What if Level Two was beyond him?

In a sit-stay. Clearly he's got this.
In a sit-stay. Clearly he’s got this.

My fears about GhostBuster’s ability to cope with the Level Two curriculum were banished within a few minutes, and I quickly realized it was actually me who was out of my depth. Five minutes into the class, I was already making foolish mistakes as we learned the basics of clicker training. For some reason, I could not grasp the very simple concept of “click then treat.” Instead, I would treat then click, or treat and click at the same time. It took both my husband and the trainer to explain to me what I was doing wrong. I was seriously shocked at how bad I was.

While I was failing at training, GhostBuster was excelling, showing off how great he was at “sit” and “down.” His successes made me so happy that I didn’t dwell on my own failures. I should have been ashamed that I couldn’t grasp a simple two-step concept (seriously, it’s just “click then treat”), but instead I was just so pleased and proud to see my dog focusing in a new and distracting environment.

Focusing on his finishes.
Focusing on his finishes (or maybe on the treats in my hand).

In the classes that followed, GhostBuster continued to shine, while I continued to flounder. As the commands and exercises we were practicing got more complicated, I frequently messed up simple things (like my left from my right). Meanwhile, GhostBuster was quickly catching on to new ideas — just as long as I wasn’t the one showing him.

Learning something new usually went something like this: Our trainer would demonstrate an exercise for the class, and I would nod along, thinking I understood. Then, when I would turn to GhostBuster, suddenly I would feel like I needed an extra hand. How can I hold the clicker, a treat, and the leash at the same time and still do the hand signal? I would fumble around, get tangled in my leash, and drop either the treats, my clicker, or both while GhostBuster looked up at me, all furrowed brows and puzzled head tilts.

Here we are chatting about my inadequacies as a handler.
Here we are chatting about my inadequacies as a handler.

Luckily for both GhostBuster and myself, the trainer who taught our class has the patience of a saint. She would come over and correct me, and show me how to walk GhostBuster though the exercises. The most frustrating thing was that as soon as she took the lead in the exercise, GhostBuster would go from confused to cooperative, and would be following along like he’d been practicing for months. It was very, very clear which half our our duo was the problem.

Sometimes our trainer would use GhostBuster as the demo dog, so he would go to the center of the classroom with her and learn something while the rest of us looked on. I remember watching as my boy walked alongside the trainer during an exercise called “sit and step,” meant to train the dog to sit when the human stops walking. I watched as our trainer lured GhostBuster to take a step forward, and as she clicked him for having a loose leash. When it was my turn, I couldn’t even get past step one: “Hold the leash correctly.”  As our trainer pointed out, the length of leash clumsily (and dangerously) wrapped around my wrist, I felt like GhostBuster was a dog genius and I was a fumbling dunce.

Working with target sticks was the one thing we both sucked at equally. GhostBuster always wants to eat it.
Working with target sticks was the one thing we both sucked at. GhostBuster always wants to eat it.

Slowly though, over several more classes, I improved as a handler, and we moved on to more advanced exercises. I always looked forward to going to dog school, and the classes put me and GhostBuster in a great mood. We did our homework daily, and as it turns out, GhostBuster easily learned to heel and be awesome at recall — he just needed me to learn how to ask for it. I may have felt dumb at times, but going to school with my genius dog was one of the smartest things I ever did.

Read more about life with Ghostbuster by Heather Marcoux:

About the Author: Heather Marcoux is a freelance writer in Alberta, Canada. Her beloved Ghost Cat was once her only animal, but the addition of a second cat, Specter, and the dog duo of GhostBuster and Marshmallow make her fur family complete. Sixteen paws is definitely enough. Heather is also a wife, a bad cook, and a former TV journalist. Some of her friends have hidden her feed because of an excess of cat pictures. If you don’t mind cat pictures, you can follow her on Twitter; she also posts pet GIFs on Google+.

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