Hard Lessons from a Heart Dog

We all have high and low points with our dogs. Things don’t always go as planned and many of us are left feeling downhearted, frustrated, and disappointed when our dog doesn’t act or behave like they’re ‘supposed’ to.

I’ve had a lifelong love affair with animals and many of you who have been following me for years and are loyal listeners of my podcast, Enlightened By Dogs, will know that it hasn’t always been rainbows and unicorns. I’ve had my fair share of struggles and failed attempts but instead of looking at them as ‘failures’ or ‘mistakes’ – I changed my perspective and now I see them as important lessons.

I’ve learned through experience that some of our most important life lessons come from our hardest dogs. If it wasn’t for those challenges, I would never have the experience, insight, and determination to become the person I am today.

Although I’ve helped thousands of devoted dog parents gain trust and confidence with their dogs so that they can have share an incredible partnership lifestyle with them, it hasn’t always been this way.

I think it’s easy to look at dog trainers and think, they’re experts and that’s why their dog(s) listen and obey them. Well, let me tell you this – all dog trainers, whether they’ll admit it or not, started in the same place as you – at the beginning.

Everyone has a story and mine is nowhere near perfect, but I grew from my experiences and it was these challenges that led me to become an expert in dog behaviour, positive training, and how to develop a real, meaningful relationship with our dogs.

So, lets jump in my metaphorical time machine as I bring it back to some of my early experiences with dogs and share some hard lessons from a heart dog…(let me just grab some tissues before we get started).

 

A time of struggle…

Around 17 years ago, I was on the verge of throwing in the towel and giving up on all of my dreams. I found myself sobbing on the floor, clutching my beautiful Border Collie, and feeling like a complete failure.

She was a super smart and clever dog. She picked up tricks fast and knew all of the basic stuff including sit, down, stay, and so on. That’s not all, she mastered the art of opening doors and could even get gate latches open. I mean, she was a genius dog and so athletic…yet, when it came to sheepdog herding training, everything went south real fast.

She couldn’t stop at balance, which is something that’s pretty basic. Instead of pausing like she’s supposed to at the point of balance, she would explode in a frustrated frenzy. I didn’t know what to do. What was I doing wrong? Maybe I wasn’t the great dog trainer I thought I was? Maybe it was time to quit? These are the type of things I told myself and it was an awful place to be in. So, I decided to seek help.

 

Trying (and failing) to find a solution

I reached out to the ‘big leagues’ in dog training. I got advice like, “she’s just not listening,” “she’s out of control,” “she’s impossible to train,” and things like that. Many of them told me to re-home her and find myself a replacement dog. A ‘good’ herding dog that knew how to herd.

Of course, I didn’t listen to any of them. That wasn’t me. I wasn’t going to give up on this dog who I came to love and care for. I just needed to change my tactics. So, I got louder and firmer with her. I thought that might get her to listen to me but that didn’t work either. It seemed like nothing was working.

One day, I was out training Phoenix to herd the sheep…or at least, I was trying to train her to herd the sheep. What ensued was a brush with death (to be dramatic). There I was, in the field, looking straight ahead as my herd of sheep were running towards me with my blissfully unaware puppy chasing behind them.

I tried to get her to stop and at the last second before I was almost trampled to death, I lurched to the side. I was almost run over by my own sheep, with my own dog being the one responsible for it. I was mad, really mad. I lost sight of what I wanted, and I had to chase my dog away from the sheep. To say it was a low point is an understatement.

I found myself thinking maybe everyone was right, maybe I should give up on this dog and my dreams of becoming a great dog trainer. I mean, how could I teach anyone else to train their dogs when I couldn’t even train my own?

 

My enlightened epiphany

There I was, at the brink of self-destruction and I felt like giving up. I sat under a tree with Phoenix and then it hit me. It was like a sudden realization or an epiphany and I recalled the story of Helen Keller. She couldn’t communicate and became so frustrated that she would act out and I realized that my young dog was doing the same thing.

My dog needed leadership. Not the alpha type of leadership, but the loving kind. That’s what dogs crave and it’s what they need. They need a leader they can trust and depend on and at that time, I wasn’t being the loving leader that my dog needed me to be.

“Dogs are desperate for loving leadership.”

Dogs need to know what the rules are, what the boundaries are, and they need to be understood in a deep and meaningful way. They need a partner who they can communicate with and be loved for not what they can do, but for who they are – a perfect being full of heart and soul.

With Phoenix, I focused on being a masterful and positive trainer, not a loving, leading dance partner like I usually was. Then, remarkably, Phoenix trotted over to me and licked my tears away as if she knew we had that ‘aha’ moment together and things were going to get a lot better for both of us.

 

Hard Lessons from a Heart Dog

 

What Phoenix taught me

My true dream was realized, and I knew what I wanted to do with my life. I wanted to help other dog moms live a joy-filled partnership lifestyle with the dogs they love so much. That was my true calling, and I was going to follow it with Phoenix and my other beloved dogs by my side.

It was so ironic that Phoenix, the dog that was so hard to train, was the one who inspired me to step beyond unconscious competency towards enlightened competency. There, I could dissect, explore, and experiment with partnership skills and teach others to do the same.

Phoenix taught me so many of the core principles that I teach others in the Brilliant Partners Academy. She taught me things like how to be a loving leader for your dog, how your emotional responses inform your dog and how to communicate with your dog the right way.

Here’s a quote that I share a lot because it’s so important that we, as dog moms, understand it:

“Trust is awarded by our dogs to someone that they trust to keep them safe, that will give them good guidance, and who was calm and clear, even in the most difficult circumstances.”

 

Saying goodbye isn’t forever…

A few years ago, we lost Phoenix. She was 16 years old when she passed away and it left so much sadness and grief because she was more than ‘just a dog’ to me – she was my life partner.

One of our Dancing Hearts Partnership coaches, Marianne Megan, also happens to be a very talented artist and she was so kind to paint a stunning portrait of Phoenix for me. While she was painting, she received a message from Phoenix in the form of the song – Walk Beside Me by Celtic Woman.

Don’t walk in front of me, I was not born to follow.

Don’t walk behind me, we were all born to lead.

Don’t walk without me, I might need you tomorrow.

Walk right beside me and be the real friend I need.

I know this was a little deep…but I hope it helps you to see that we’re not all perfect. It takes time to build trust and for our dogs to trust that we can keep them safe, but it’s worth every second of it.

 

You can listen to everything I talked about in this blog post over on my podcast – Enlightened By Dogs. It’s episode 91, which you can listen to here.

If you’d like to work with me and learn how to create a partnership lifestyle for you and your dog, you can request an invitation to join us in the Brilliant Partners Academy when the doors open for the next enrolment!

Watch a short video trailer of the episode below:

2 responses to “Hard Lessons from a Heart Dog”

  1. Melanie says:

    Beautiful written, thank you! May I ask you- just how you trained with Phoenix after the tear-y day?
    She knew at that moment that you were sad and the two of you connected emotionally, but how did the training go afterwards, how did you communicate with Phoenix?

    • Kathy Kawalec says:

      I went back to the foundation lessons that she brought to me. I listened more deeply, and provided more clarity. For example, with the herding training I soon understood that she wouldn’t stop at balance because she wasn’t exactly at balance, in her opinion. If one sheep nose was off-center, she felt it was out of control. Once I understood the high level of her sensitivity, and the extreme accuracy of what ‘balance’ meant to her, I helped ensure all sheep noses were pointing at my belly button…and then she relaxed and stopped.

      My understanding of her needs and her experience grew … I adjusted accordingly … and we became trusting partners. 🙂

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