I remember trying to trim Juno’s nails. She was struggling, and unsure about what was happening. I was following the rules I’d learned in my introductory dog training class. When she resisted I rolled her on her side and growled. Juno, bless her sweet soul, looked at me like I was an idiot. She wiggled her way away from me. When I caught her, I gave her a scruff shake and growled once more. We struggled again; she got away again. After a couple more rounds of that I was both exhausted and defeated. Juno sneezed and shook it off. She came up to me, and gently placed her paw on my leg. Slowly and gingerly I trimmed the four nails.
That was so many years ago, and Juno is now just a flurry of sweet memories and training parables. Good training, she taught me, is about give and take, push and yield, you and me. It’s less about where you are going or what you’re trying to achieve than about who you are with. It’s about the relationship. Juno and I found our way, together. The path was not always clear, but she was by my side and I by hers.
My sidekick now is Stella and we are both better because of those who came before us. We live by a few training rules, and share them with our clients. The most important of these is the simplest. Everything we share should lead us to a closer relationship with each other. I sometimes call it, the Juno rule. Yelling and sulking on my part draws us apart (I never hit). For her part, yelling (barking) and jumping are also nonstarters. We avoid those things. Sitting and gazing at each other draw us closer. We both do that shamelessly. Pulling on leash is not relationship building. I’m as careful not to do it as she is. Learning to communicate with my words and her actions is bonding. We do that a lot. As is the case with my human friends, the sharing of play and food factor mightily into our relationship. We cuddle, and kiss, and nap together. All these things draw us closer.
Stella and I are always building things. We’re building a faster recall now. We put together a little comedy routine that makes it look like she “speaks” several languages. We’re building some agility skills (she’s much better than I am). We’ve also built a work partnership, and she’s begun helping me with mildly reactive and under-socialized dogs (not bad for a 20 month old). We’re using some of the same techniques we use in that work to help Stella build confidence when people visit our home. She’s not too sure of visitors, especially if they’re wearing a hat.
I think these building projects help draw us closer too. They fall under the Juno rule, but they also have two general rules of their own. 1) No matter what we’re working on, I have Stella’s back. It’s my job to make sure she’s safe and that she feels safe. Most of the time that means I’m cheering her on and keeping the mood light, without pushing her too far on any given project. 2) I’m responsible for clearly and gently showing Stella what I want, and then joyfully letting her knows when she got it right. Timing is everything, so I don’t dawdle. My deal with Stella is this: when you do something I want I will let you know immediately. So it all boils down to this – we set up some fun times which aren’t at all scary or too difficult. Then we figure out things we can do to make each other happy. How’s that for a cool relationship?
Oh, on the subject of nail trimming, Stella and I have a deal too. We do it just the way Juno used to like it. Go figure. Her spirit is always with us.