Dancing Hearts Blog

One of my most painful mistakes and what I learned

If you’re anything like me and most of my students and clients, your dog is a core part of your life…and you do, or would like to do, lots of fun things with your dog.

You dream of enjoying the benefits of having a happy, friendly dog in your life…a dog that you can take anywhere!

Maybe you dream of competing in a dog sport like agility, herding, or obedience…and of being successful … bringing home ribbons and titles … or even national championships.

And for you, the process of getting that good as a team is the enjoyable part…the ribbons are a bonus to all the fun and adventure you would love to have with your dog as you train and compete.

But, like most of us, you’ve also been in that place where your dreams seem out of reach because a challenge or struggle with your dog stops you dead in your tracks.

So, You reached out for help and what you found were methods that you didn’t like and wouldn’t use…or techniques that seemed too hard or just took too long to get results.

You’ve probably tried so many things, but nothing sticks and you end up in the same or worse place than before.

It can be so frustrating. I know, I’ve been there.

For the past 15 years or so, you might know that my passion has been sheep herding. When I first set out to learn about sheep herding with my first border collie, Dallas, I already knew about positive and natural training methods and I KNEW that I needed to find someone who could help me learn this new and really challenging ‘hobby’ in a fun way.

I knew this because of a really hard lesson. Really hard. This is a story that is still hard to share, 20 years later.

Here’s my story

I brought home my beautiful sheltie, Haley, when she was about 16 weeks old. You may have already read some of Haley’s story on my blog, but there was one part I left out. It was just too painful to write about. Still is, but I’m gonna cowgirl up. <gulp>

Haley enjoying a visit at a friends farm.

Right before I officially dropped out of competitive obedience, there was an incident that blew a hole into my world as I knew it.

Sometimes ‘having great potential’ is a curse, not a blessing. It can cause us to make decisions that we later regret. We can put pressure on ourselves and our dogs that blows things up in our face.

Haley and I had a stellar obedience beginning, in spite of our many challenges. She being really shy and timid with people. Me, inexperienced, with my first ‘obedience’ dog.

Our CD came easy. Three tries, scores in the mid to high nineties. Stressful in many ways for both of us, but still fun.

“Potential: The Curse” Could be the name of my next book. Or a movie.

My obedience trainer said I “had” to put a pinch collar on Haley, my beautiful and sensitive sheltie, in order to get snappy heeling and I “had’ to pinch her ear until she cried out so that I could shove the dumbbell into her open mouth. That was the ONLY way to go on, working towards our CDX. That if I didn’t do these things, I would be a loser. Yes, they said that I might get a Q if I was lucky, but there would be no chance of winning or being really successful.

I was firm about the ear pinch. But, my friends were so convincing as they told me that the collar would not hurt Haley, but that it would provide more clear communication. One of my friends had a collar with tiny little prongs that she assured me would not even penetrate my dog’s thick fur.

So, I tried the collar once.

Up to then, Haley had only worn a plain flat buckle collar because I had refused to use a metal slip collar. (aka choke chain) Everyone I knew thought I was a freak because of my beliefs. At the time, there was NO other way, or so everyone thought.

We fitted the prong collar on her and I heeled with her up the side of the ring.

That went ok, until Haley moved a tiny bit ahead of me and the trainer said now, just give her a tiny little quick pop. I did.

Haley cried out, shocked and scared.

“She’ll be ok, it didn’t hurt her, it just scared her”, they told me. “She needs to learn how to take a correction”, they assured me.

I decided to call it a night and take Haley home, rather than continue with the class.

I went home that night, confused, frustrated, angry at myself. Not sure what to do next. We practiced with our normal buckle collar and had fun during the week.

The next week at training class, when I reached into my training bag, and Haley saw that borrowed collar, she shrank away from me with a look on her face I will never forget.

So, right then and there, I quit obedience. That was 20 years ago. I cried as I wrote this today. And I cried again when I read it for edits.

That decision changed my life. For me, for the dogs I will have the rest of my life, and for so many that I have shared my hard-earned philosophies and methods with…


The lesson that really stands out for me is this:

Positive Reinforcement isn’t an end to the evolution of dog training, it’s a beginning.

Partnership-driven training for dogs and their people is on the horizon. I’m on a mission from DOG … to make the world a better place for dogs and for people too!

Love your dogs today,

Kathy xoxo


2 Responses

  1. Im glad you choose your relationship with Haley in the end. It’s always funny to me how people are always in the know about how we should train. If we could just remember they are individuals with their own personalites. They are furry children with different learning abilities and sometimes disabilties. Keep your bond strong and be a good teamate to your furry children.

  2. Thank-you for allowing us to experience the Beginner Class over this Memorial Day Weekend! Kodiak Bear aka Kodi seemed to love working! When he got in the car he came up to me in the front seat and gave me extended puppy kisses…even tho he’s 4-1/2! Would love to get a scholarship or at least be considered. I am working towards Kodi being such a satisfied dog, calm and relaxed that I will be able to bring him into any situation where he will not barrel in and jump up on young, old, or other animals, that he would be observant and respectful. Wow, sounds like I am training my children! Changing my life? Learning to respect him and his pace of learning, ability, as well as encouraging him while keeping it fun and interesting to Kodi. I also believe he is training me and getting me ready to move to another level with him. Thanks for letting me blather on, and on! Well time to go, thanks again! Hope to see you again in one of your classes or workshops!

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