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What It Really Means To Work The Dog In Front Of You

"Work the dog in front of you." Anyone actively involved in the world of dog training is probably familiar with the phrase. It's regurgitated constantly; drilled into our heads by fellow trainers, competitors, and veterans in our field. At face value, the concept is pretty self explanatory: treat each dog as an individual and alter your training methods to help that particular dog succeed. But I think there's an aspect of the phrase that is consistently overlooked, and that at it's core, "working the dog in front of you" is more just than an adjustment of your training; it's a reflection of your character.

Today's version of dog training is, quite honestly, a bit overwhelming. Not only do we have our own dogs to focus on, but social media ensures that we are simultaneously reminded of what everyone else is doing as well. While platforms like Facebook and Instagram are perfect for showcasing and documenting your training, they're also a stark reminder of the progress that other people are making with their dogs while you may be struggling with yours. It's certainly happened to me before: I end a training session with my dog feeling a little frustrated with where we're at- our engagement needs work. My timing was off. We struggled with correct positioning. After putting my dog up, I grab my phone and log onto Instagram as I head inside, and the first thing I see is someone else's progress video with their pup. It's gorgeous, of course. Beautiful focused heeling in perfect position. The dog naturally re-engaging with her handler after being rewarded. Flashy obedience and flawless handling. It's wonderful content and great training, but watching it somehow leaves me feeling worse than I felt before I opened up the app.

Why? Because it's hard to watch someone else effortlessly succeed when you're struggling.

Because we are not in the right mindset when we're watching other people's content.

Because as much as we love to preach about it, we do not always "work the dog in front of us."

There's a phrase that I think perfectly encompasses the way a lot of us feel after spending too much time on social media: "comparison is the thief of joy."

It truly is. All too often when we watch other teams work, we spend that time comparing our dog or our training to their's, whether it's intentional or not, and it is the fastest way to suck all the joy out of training. We allow one minute videos on social media to dictate the way we feel about ourselves, our dogs, and our training, with no real context as to what that person's session actually looked like outside the confines of that video. Of course, it happens outside of social media too. It's just as easy to watch a team work at club training or at a trial and feel the same twinge of jealousy you feel when watching an Instagram highlight reel.

Do I think that there's an inherent issue with social media and the way it affects our mindset during training? No, I truly don't. In fact, I think it's become a bit of an excuse. I do, however, think that a lot of us need to be honest with ourselves about how we're approaching other people's content, both online and in person.

How many of us watch other teams work with the intention of learning from what we see? It is so easy, and often times seems like the default, for us to harbor resentment when we see good training. Why? Because it looks better than our own, and that's not always the easiest pill to swallow. I know I cannot be the only one who has watched another handler working with their dog and immediately thought to myself "my dog doesn't do that."

I think this is where a little inner reflection becomes necessary. If we're in this for the right reasons (and I think most of us are), our first step should be analyzing why our dogs don't do that. We should be recognizing first and foremost that our dogs are all very different. They all have different genetics, they were raised in different environments, and they have received different training and handling. It is okay to want your dog to look like "that person's" dog does- there is nothing wrong with seeing something that you like and wanting it for yourself. But the critical part of that is moving beyond envy of someone else's work and actually taking the steps to make those improvements with your own dog. It's wanting to improve and be better for our dogs, not in spite of the struggle we feel when working with them. We should be looking at these moments as opportunities for growth and improvement rather than allowing them to make us doubt our capabilities.

It would be so easy instead to take note of what that person is doing. To message them or pull them aside after their session and ask questions. To make a genuine effort to learn and grow from what we're watching instead of instantly submitting to a negative experience. How much better off would our dogs be if we chose education over resentment in these moments?

In these cases, "working the dog in front of you" means doing everything in your power to prioritize your dog and your training over everyone else's. It's learning from others, but applying that newfound knowledge in a way that fits your dog, rather than simply expecting them to be something that they're not, or becoming bitter when they don't live up to the standard that someone else's dog has set. It means being transparent enough to reflect on whether you're pushing a certain method during training because that's how you like to operate, or because that's how your dog actually learns best. It's seeing and appreciating your dog for what they are, and doing all that you can to tailor your training to bring out the best in them.

Watch other people's sessions and view Instagram training videos to your heart's content- but do it intentionally, without allowing space for negativity or comparison.

Learn from others, absolutely. Soak up all of the knowledge and experience you can and apply it to your dog.

Train your dog.

Know your dog.

Love your dog.

And both ourselves and our dogs will be better for it.

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