There’s a very common saying in working dogs: Train the dog in front of you. Not the one you wish you had.
Everyone knows it. Every new handler hear it constantly from their training directors, from their fellow handlers.
It’s a real temptation, this “next dog.” The mystery K9 you will pluck from the pound, or drop $2,000 on from a well-known working line breeder, the dog that will achieve certification in like two months, never have a bad day, never take a dump in the middle of a search problem, and probably won’t even shed.
We dream of this dog. We see this dog elsewhere on our teams, handled by those who clearly don’t appreciate these magnificent animals as well as we would if we had them. We know that the next dog will be amazing.
Meanwhile, our hardworking K9 sits dutifully at our side, waiting for whatever command we are going to give them, hoping we get the timing better on this next reward and that we don’t miss their cues and leave them out there too long by our misdirection.
There’s another problem new handlers face, and that is that they are new handlers. This is also news to us, er, them. So as new handlers, our timing is always off. We don’t understand enough to really get the training done we need. We know this, deep down inside. And it makes us grumpy. We are anxious. We are angry. We misplace our frustration and put it where it doesn’t belong: our partners.
The only thing harder than taking a pet dog and turning it into a working K9 is taking an inexperienced pet dog owner and turning her into a working K9 handler, a person with confidence, patience, wisdom, strength and humility.
It’s hard to be that inexperienced pet dog owner. It’s harder to make the journey.
My first few years as a SAR K9 handler have been unbelievably difficult, a Sisyphean exercise on the hill of my own ego. We have failed more than we’ve succeeded, and much of our struggle has been because I am very, very slow on the uptake. Did you know that you have to let go of control to work a SAR dog? Yes. It’s true.
SAR and training a dog for SAR works for my salvation. I say this a lot, because it is true. All those things that make good handlers good handlers are good traits for humans, godly traits even.
I’m hopeful that we are getting there. I think the photos below are proof.
The above photograph was taken on a cold day in March. I was really distracted and angry at where we found ourselves, progress-wise. Helo knew it. Even though he found what we were looking for, the look on his face tells me that he does not trust me, he does not know how I will react and he’s really not sure he wants to be there right now.
When I first saw this photograph, I was embarrassed. There it was, in living color, for me to see: my strained relationship with my partner, my ego in the way of our work, my desire to work another dog, any other dog, was clearly felt by him on this day.
It broke my heart.
So for the past couple months, I stopped worrying about Helo and nagging him about the work he was doing. All of our training sessions were spent working on me, my attitude, my focus, putting my heart in the right place. I needed to control my emotions, my passions, in order to give him the space to succeed.
Fast forward to a couple of weeks ago. Same place in the search problem, right before the final indication.
Different dog. Different team. This picture brought tears to my eyes for completely different reasons.
For the past two years, I’ve been looking past the dog I had, and yet at the same time depending on his performance to validate me as a handler. How unfair is that to such a loyal, attentive and gifted creature!?
It has taken a lot of work. And like all journeys and trips worth taking, it’s going to take a lot more to get to where we need to be.
I share this tonight, a departure from my usual musings on the human condition, to share this bit of my condition. I ask for your continued prayers, your support as I work to be the handler Helo needs me to be, the wife my husband needs me to be, the human being that the world needs me to be.
For just like you shouldn’t look past your dog to the next one, we can’t look past the life we have right now to live the one we don’t have. This is our day. These are our choices, our moments. Live in them, fully.