Dee was all but unhandleable when I first took the leash from her breeders hand. I was told her name was Hope, but that they called her Hopeless. That most definitely didn't set well with me. She was so shaken and afraid, while she bonded with me and Art the Husband almost immediately nobody else could get near her. She would cower and sink to the ground when approached. She slunk at the end of the leash. Our first conformation class was a nightmare, our first show a disaster. She wouldn't remain standing for the judge to go over. She would fall into me, jump and cower, tuck her head to the ground and her eyes would glaze over. She was so terrified she couldn't hear my voice, she was a rock on the end of the lead. Abject fear. This was our starting point. With me she was silly and loving, with the outside world she was a ghost inside a beautiful package. My greatest fear at this point was that I had taken on a true Spook of a greyhound. It happens, don't let anyone tell you it doesn't. But several things about her told me no, this was most definitely not the case. And as you'll see, I was right.
We started with a lot of advice. Advice is usually worth what you pay for it, although some of it (and the people behind it) was key to our eventual success. PGBurnham advised I teach her to 'touch', and eventually teach her to 'touch' strangers. That was step one. T. Franzen showed me the 'Around the World' stack. You practice stacking in random settings (in the house, in the yard, in the driveway, at the park, etc.) and in 4 different directions per practice set. The minute they hold it to the north, abundance of praise and treats and a momentary break, then stack to the east, repeat praise and reward, then south, then west, then done. The idea is to keep the direction random. It worked better than any other stacking advice. H.Hamilton advised teaching her to 'high five' to take her mind off of her fears. Once we learned touch, high five was a great distraction and helped loosen her up when she would start to glaze over. H was always ringside to give me on the fly advice, which was, and still is, worth it's weight in gold. Recently P.Knoll reminded me to 'just slow down', good point, I listened to her and was very successful that day. Advice along the lines of 'don't let her get away with it' and 'make her do it' and anything that started out with "if that bitch belonged to me....."were dusted with disgust and tossed out the window. These were all great lessons (even the discarded ones, especially the discarded ones) and helped us get to our conformation goal.
It took me 4 years to finish her. The first 3 were spent dealing with her fears, the last year it all came together and she became a dual champion (she finished her Field Championship easily, years before her conformation, she's a fantastic runner).
Out of all the advice we received, the best advice I got was from Dee herself. She taught me everything I needed to know about handling a dog. She gave me a foundation to build on.
- She taught me patience. The moment I would lose my patience, she would fall apart, and we were further behind than where we had started that day.
- She taught me to listen, to the exclusion of everything else going on around us. If I could hear her, she would listen to me. She showed me it's all about the dog; not the judge or the people watching or what anyone expected of us. Not about how much money you spent on entries, or how far you drove to get there. Not about what you have planned for her in the next circuit of shows, or what you overheard moments before entering the ring. The moment I stopped listening to her, she would fall apart and quit me and the moment would be over. Better luck next time, lady. So I learned to stop listening to them. Good plan.
- She taught me the value of a gentle hand and kind words. Forcing an issue resulted in absolute and certain disaster. The minute I started strong-handing her, she would fragment and again, we were further behind than where we started. I let her give me what she felt she could, then work with it as unobtrusively as possible.
- She taught me to breathe. I learned not to sweat it in the ring. RELAX, and mean it! If I was anxious, it was all over. Dee absorbs whatever I'm exuding. She needed me to be relaxed and confident, REQUIRED me to be. I learned quickly that it's nothing, don't sweat it, go in and just enjoy yourself. If you can't relax and even slightly enjoy it, you shouldn't be doing it. (that goes for obedience too, btw, but that's a complete other blog!) That was a particularly hard lesson to learn because you can't fake happy, and you absolutely cannot fake relaxed, not in a dog's eyes.
- She taught me not to take small accomplishments for granted. Baby-steps; let the little accomplishments in the ring outweigh any disappointments. If she held her stack, I was all grins. If she gaited on a loose lead, for even half a down and back, I was thrilled. She could place dead last and we had still won that day.
She showed (well!) for a 10 year old little girl who'd never been to a dog show, little less in the ring.
Dee's personality is golden. You see, she never was a spook. She just needed to be socialized and worked with. She needed to teach me. Now days you would never know she had issues with strangers. She's in everyone's face wanting to be pet, wagging her tail and generally fulfilling the role of social-butterfly. She knows the request "Go say hi, Dee" and sees it more as "Oh, gee, I didn't see them over there, I'm going to go say Hi, be right back" People don't completely believe me when I tell them that not so many years ago she was all but untouchable, but I'll never forget it. Or the lessons she's taught me.
So when someone tells me I'm a good handler, it means more to me than they can imagine. It's one of the bigger accomplishments in my life. I know that sounds like an overstatement, but it's not really. I've learned to recognize my shortcomings (impatience, heavy handed pushiness, a tendency to not absorb what's being told to me and an especially annoying habit of ignoring the obvious) and overcome them if only for a small moment in time.* I try, to varying degrees of success, to apply that recognition to other areas in my life. That's a work in progress. ;) However, being able to handle a dog successfully, whether it's my dog or someone else's, is a hard learned talent. I suppose especially if it's someone else's dog, bonus points if that dog has issues. ;) I will always owner-handle, if only because I can. And I will forever be honored when asked to handle someone elses dog, because if they trust me to do well by their dog, it means I made good use of D-Squares lessons.