Dancing Hearts Blog

Miscommunication and Training Failures Transformed

Robie walking up on sheepThe Long and Winding Road to Partnership…it’s a beautiful ride!

(This is a guest blog by Debra Smilie Blomgren)

I was born wanting a dog. Thanks to my beloved Grandma, whose family raised Boxers in Germany, my gift for my 12th birthday was a dog. My wish was for a German Shepherd. Instead, a wrinkled Pug puppy was placed in my waiting arms. I loved him instantly and named him Bonzo.

Bonzo would be the first of decades of dogs that I would train in obedience. I had an excellent instructor with Bonzo who taught me foundations of obedience training. There were no treats or clickers or special collars. I took a training class from him with many of my dogs.

Throughout my life, all of my dogs have been successful in obedience training. Occasionally, I dabbled in competitive obedience. Ten years ago, I started doing therapy work with my rescued Sheltie, Sam. My now 5 year old Border Collie, Kai, followed in Sam’s paw prints. In 2009, I brought home my second Border Collie, Robie. All of my training methods and techniques first learned with Bonzo and tweaked and readjusted as I trained my German Shorthair, German Shepherd, Great Dane, Shelties, Belgian Tervuren and Kai, exploded into pieces when I started to train Robie.

I knew then that Robie was telling me that my training methods needed some drastic changes if he and I were going to be successful partners.

Debra's first childhood dog, Bonzo

I set off to find a new trainer and a new way to train.

I quickly learned at our first obedience class that always inquisitive Robie found no value in the word “stay”. An ant crawling along the floor or a hawk circling in the sky demanded Robie’s immediate attention. The trainer, upset with what she saw as my ineptness in reigning in Robie, ordered that I use a prong collar on him, a command that I disregarded as I searched for another instructor. The second trainer, who demanded that young Robie learn to stay, was also convinced that Robie and I were just total failures. One day we got to her class early and the jumps from the Open class were still set up. With my guidance, Robie sailed over all of them. I knew then that Robie was telling me that my training methods needed some drastic changes if he and I were going to be successful partners. I set off to find a new way to train.

Starting our new adventure.

On a cold winter day in January 2011, Robie and I traveled to meet Kathy at Dancing Hearts to see if Robie had instinct for herding. Robie calmly keened in on the sheep and with instructions from Kathy, we moved the sheep around the pen. I liked what Kathy explained to me on that first lesson. Instead of wanting us to resort to different collars or more treats, Kathy described how success begins in clearly understanding my goals and finding the road I must travel to reach them so I can communicate that vision and that pathway to Robie. It made sense to me. This was where I wanted to train and Robie and I returned for more lessons.

Work obligations and another dream I was chasing with Robie kept us away from herding lessons for awhile. Kathy’s words, though, stayed with me and I saw how they worked in all aspects of training with both of my Border Collies. Last Fall, Robie and I returned to herding lessons, committed to building a successful partnership in the field.

Understanding what my dog is telling me.

While Robie has his natural instincts, Kathy taught me that I have to learn to develop the clear vision so I can assist Robie in learning how, when and where to use his instincts. Once I can define the vision, it is up to me to communicate that information to Robie. I have learned that when Robie focuses on sniffing grass rather than watching sheep, it is because I have not clearly communicated to him what to do at that time.

Robie and I have begun to take monumental baby steps forward in our quest to become successful herding partners. I have started to feel the flow of our steps together. My confidence is increasing as I learn to train in this new venue.

Kathy’s lessons don’t stop at the pasture gate. Every day is a training day. Learning to clearly communicate has meant that always impatient Robie now sits at the door and waits for his collar rather than endless circling. I now understand why Kai or Robie do not follow through with something I am trying to teach them.

Instead of repeating the frustration of failure, I embrace the challenge of finding a better way to communicate.

Debra with Kai (l) and Robie (r)Building any partnership in life on a solid foundation takes time. There are no shortcuts if you want to do it right. Robie and I have embarked on a new journey of learning. I know with Kathy’s guidance, my commitment to succeed and to develop clear, concise communication skills, Robie and I will achieve our goal of becoming a solid working partnership, in and out of the pasture.

Debra enjoys life with her two border collies and husband in northern Illinois. For the past 10 plus years, she has been involved in training therapy dogs. Sheltie Sam, and now her Border Collie, Kai, work in a large hospital-based animal assisted therapy dog program. Debra is also a Therapy Dog Inc. evaluator. Her Border Collie, Robie, has taken her into new ventures, including herding, agility and earning his Grand Championship in conformation.


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