Trust Your Dog

Early in this endless journey of learning about sheepdog training, I attended a clinic given by a respected trainer. Something they said resonated with me not necessarily in a good way.

“Trust your dog.”

Trust my dog? My dog was Delia, bless her heart. I bought her from an ad in the Little Nickel. She was about $50, and … she was a very clever and engaging family member. Sheepdog? Not so much. I knew nothing about the inherent qualities of a good sheepdog at the time, but I can say this: the inherent qualities of Delia were not helping me.

Let me tell you how much of a struggle it was for me to wrap my mind around every part of this sheepdog training thing. I had no clue what the short term goals looked like how to accomplish them, and least of all how to communicate to my dog what I wanted from her. How could I when I had no picture in my own mind of what that was?  If you could only see the extravagant messes she and I created together. 

Trust my dog? Hahaha. No way.

I did not come to understand the concept behind the idea of trusting our dogs until much later. As I worked with more dogs who usually had some amount of natural talent (unlike Delia, may she rest in peace!) I began to see: The trust we are talking about is often given in tiny increments. We are putting pressure on our dog to correct it or to shape its actions into what we want them to be. The release of that pressure creates the moments of trust. It happens when we take a step or two back, quiet our voice, put down our training aid, turn our back to the dog and walk, let the dog flank to balance on its own. “Trust your dog” does not mean to stand passively and let it run amok. It happens incrementally throughout the give and take that is dog training.

These are the pieces of time, perhaps just seconds long, when we show our dogs that we are willing to give them our trust at any moment that they’ve earned it. Even if the dog appears to be a maniac, there must be times when we step back and allow it to have that release. We can usually only give it for moments at a time to young and / or difficult dogs, but I strongly believe that we cannot attain what we are striving for if we are unwilling, or unable to trust our dogs. Training is a balance between pressure and release. The release, and the trust we are giving that is inherent in that, are crucial.

When we’re new it’s often difficult to recognize the moments when trust is appropriate, especially when the dog is a bit of a handful. The dog’s wrong behavior seems all encompassing, and the slivers of “giving” to us are so minute that they slip right by between the numerous misdeeds. Emotion makes it even harder to perceive them and to respond with trust. Any release at all seems to us to be tantamount to giving our dog free rein to wreak havoc. So, we keep the pressure on full time.

When this happens, I encourage you to get some help. If your dog truly never gives enough to earn any trust at all, it might be that it’s not cut out for this line of work. More than likely, dog does deserve some but you’re not quite experienced enough to see it, or confident enough to “reward” him for it. If you’re open and willing to learn, this can be a turning point in your own journey.

We often are taught that we need to “let the dog have its sheep.” That’s not all they are working for. They are also working for us. Receiving our trust is a meaningful building block of the partnership we are striving to achieve. Even dear Delia was entitled to some of my trust during her brief career as a sheepdog in training. Bless her heart!

Laura Vishot