In a few weeks, it will officially be one whole year since I have shared my life with a dog.
“Wait…but you’re a professional dog trainer…”
Yup, a dog-less dog trainer. Great selling point, right?!
During this time, I have become obsessive with work. Working all hours, day and night, building a whole new business from scratch, launching said business, creating new dog training content, running on all cylinders.
Until I inevitably burn out and am unable to even get out of bed or do the most mundane of daily tasks such as eating a full meal or taking a shower. With the endless work building up, I drag myself out of the funk to once again burn the candle at both ends. Rinse and repeat.
In case it wasn’t obvious, this is not how anyone should live. It is unhealthy. It is harmful. It is self-destructive.
Keeping myself this busy helps to ward off my darkest and most negative of thoughts. Left to my own devices, to stew in my thoughts, is not a good thing. Interrupting the decline is a survival technique. But there used to be someone else that would do that for me: my sweet Doberboy, Valor. As I would start to spiral, he would lovingly nose poke me and urge me to go outside to play with him. Within a few short moments, the dark fog was lifted as I was laughing at his antics. How could you not, he was ridiculously cute and hilarious. He was the epitome of living in the moment. Of making life fun and worth living.
I would give anything to spend another moment with my little dog. To cuddle with him. To watch him run in his sleep or slide across our living room floor as he “rode” one of his toys. To see him pull out all the begging stops to share in something I was eating. To have his face light up when I would ask if he wanted to chase the “light bug” or if he wanted to go to the beach.
To play. To train. To just have fun with him again.
I would trade every trial we ever went to, every long night I worked to have one of those moments with him again.
Being so utterly without the warmth a dog adds to your life for so long has granted me a better perspective for what is truly important. Chasing titles, ribbons, accolades or keeping up with the Jones’ isn’t it.
LESSON ONE: LISTEN TO THE DOG
People would often comment on the wonderful relationship I had with Valor. Those who knew us best saw how much I adored him but also how I was his absolute everything. His moon and stars. The center of his universe. It was an honor to hold that title, but it came with a great deal of responsibility.
It was my job to ensure he was safe, healthy, and happy. At all times. Even if that meant tabling something I personally wanted to do.
For instance, I played around with the idea of doing competitive agility with him. But being a big, powerful, and FAST dog with little-to-no self-preservation, he would quite literally throw himself around a course. I could foresee him injuring himself. But he still liked to play to game.
I had to listen to my dog. This meant doing short and safe sequences at home and tabling the thought of eventually trialing with him. Allow him to tell me when he wanted to play…and I mean that literally. We would be working on something else, such as recalls, targeting or obedience behaviors and at the end of the session I would let him choose what he wanted to do. He would run over to the agility jumps that were set-up by the side of the house. In case I didn’t get the message, he would run back to me, catch my eye, run back to the side of the house and then peer around the corner at me. “Let’s do the jumping and weaving now, human woman lady!”
If I had forced us to do this to prep for trial, it is very likely he would have hurt himself. Or, I could have stressed myself out so much, being the uncoordinated mess that I am, I could have sucked all the fun out of the game. Do you honestly think he would have kept asking to play the game then?
Being a pure observer now, I see a whole lot of dogs who are desperately trying to talk to their people only to be ignored or not listened to. They are tired. They are confused. They are sore. They are worried. They are scared. They are not having fun. They so want to do this other thing their person will not let them do.
When I can add a dog back into my life, I vow to listen to what they are saying. To video our sessions and look for what is really going on. To take my ego out of the equation, to be objective and put their happiness and quality of life front and center. It is the least I can do for all they will be giving back to me.
LESSON TWO: ENJOY THE DOG
Honestly, all my trialing experiences had very little to do with Valor or us as a pair. He was either waiting or asleep in his crate as I was trying to catch up on work on my phone or working the trial itself as a staff member. Our turn to run was the only time we spent with one another! Then he was quickly ushered back to his crate as I went back to work. If that routine was every-single-weekend, the grand total of quality time I spent with Valor would have been substantially reduced and I never would have forgiven myself.
Whenever I am lonely and need a “Valor pick me up”, I find myself looking for a video of us playing a game in the backyard, of him doing some ridiculous antic in the living room or being the best nurse ever as I was laid up in bed. Those memories mean the most to me. The memories at trial were nice, but they were only a small sliver of the totality of the time we spent with one another.
My next dog will be granted plenty of opportunities to simply be a dog. They will dictate what that means. You want to lounge on the couch? No problem. Feel like going for a hike, sniffing, and chasing lizards? Sounds like a plan. Does just sunning yourself outside in the backyard, watching the world go by, sound appealing? Let’s make it happen. Interested in doing some training? We’ll keep it fun and lighthearted. Need to take a break from training or trialing to just hang out, rest and have fun? Will do!
The whole time the focus will be on enjoying the dog. Being with them. Experiencing them. Building meaningful memories with them. Strengthening our relationship. Now, all this may very well include training and trialing, but it will not ONLY be training and trialing. It may include filming for my online dog training, but it will not be the sole thing we do.
There will be times when we simply spend time together. Where I observe every little thing they do, trying to better understand them and burn their image into their mind. Because I know all too well there will come a time when they are no longer here. I am not going to squander the time I have with them.
LESSON THREE: CELEBRATE THE DOG
All I have left of my boy are photos, videos, and memories. These are precious to me beyond measure. Truly, they have helped me off the ledge more than once these past few months.
That is odd, since I am not an overly sentimental person. I do not hold onto items or objects. My house is quite empty, not filled with knickknacks or mementos. But the photos and videos of Valor are priceless to me.
A common theme among those photos or videos where we are together is just how incredibly happy I am. Smiling and laughing in almost every single one. Trust me, that is NOT the norm.
It is not merely smiling and laughing. I am celebrating him doing something. Whether it be successfully finding a hide, doing a trick, or chasing the squirrel away, I was his number one cheerleader and he absolutely loved it.
To the point he would come and get me to give him his cheering if he did something, such as retrieve a toy that was stuck behind something. It was as if he said, “Hey human woman lady, look what I did!”.
One constant piece of advice I give to my clients is to party with their dogs when they have finished any exercise. Celebrate what the dog just did! But apply Lesson One: Listen to the Dog. Ensure your dog considers your party something they enjoy and a fun time! I cannot tell you how much it makes my heart sing when I see clients taking this advice and running with it. The way their dogs light up, the joy is palpable! The person, when they get into it, enjoy themselves too. Win-win!
I miss celebrating a dog’s accomplishments. I find myself cheering for the wildlife that visits our yard. "Great job getting that worm little bird!" Looking for an accomplishment and being genuinely proud of it makes ME feel better. I vow to celebrate with my next dog at every opportunity I can.
Coming up to a whole year without sharing my life with a dog has been painful to put it lightly but it has also taught me a great deal. Taking a step back, I have a better perspective of what is important and what is not. There will never be another Valor, not even close. However, I will take and apply everything he taught me. This will allow me to be the best partner possible to the next dog I am privileged enough to share my life with.
It is thanks to Valor that I understand the value of keeping things fun, not taking this "dog training thing" too seriously, how to make everything a fun game and how “living in the moment” is not merely some sappy catchphrase.
I can never thank you enough little dog. Mama misses and loves you so much.
Author: Dianna L. Santos, KPA-CTP, CPDT-KA, CNWI
Dianna has been training dogs professionally since 2011. She has done everything from teaching group training classes and private lessons, to specializing in working with fearful, reactive and aggressive dogs, to being a trial official and competition organization staff member.
Following a serious neck and back injury, Dianna was forced to retire from in-person dog training. But she was not ready to give up her passion! So, she created Pet Dog U, Dog Sport University and Scent Work University to provide outstanding online dog training to as many dog handlers, owners and trainers possible…regardless of where they live! Dianna is incredibly grateful to the amazingly talented group of instructors who have joined PDU, DSU and SWU and she looks forward to the continued growth of PDU, DSU and SWU and increased learning opportunities all of these online dog training platforms can provide.
In June 2021, Dianna and her business partner, Sean McMurray launched Cyber Scent Work, Inc., an organization that operates in the gray space between training and trialing in Scent Work. With Cyber Scent Work, Inc., handlers have the opportunity to earn Qs, titles and ribbons while also receiving helpful training advice regardless of whether they qualify or not! Be sure to check out Cyber Scent Work, Inc., you will be happy you did!