Overcoming Perceived “Baggage”

Thursday, December 18, 2008

None of my dogs are rescue dogs.  Even DeCaff, my Jack Russell Terrier mix, whose grandmother is a border collie, is not a rescue dog, but rather the result of a planned breeding.  However, I do think there are tons of great dogs out in rescue.  There was a time when John and I used to bring one into our home every now and again.  We would house them, train them and keep them long enough to turn them into dogs people were tripping over to own. Mostly, it was when I was in the Veterinary Pharmaceutical trade.  I would be doing calls in a Vet clinic and see a dog that was in for euthanasia and talk the owners into letting the dog come home with me. Over the years we took in and re-homed several very nice dogs. All of them lived well into their teens in their new homes, some may still be kicking! I remember one Jack Russell terrier we had (lets call him Shadow)  that came to us at 13 months old.  He was, on paper, a highly desired flyball prospect, as he had a pedigree that flyballers drooled over (at the time Jack Russells were the preferred height dog in the sport).  Shadow had 3 other homes before us,  two of them were potential flyball homes.  I was told, by the people that pasted him on, that he would “never be a flyball dog” as he had no ball drive and would not tug. Oh, and he wasn’t house trained and preferred to pee on furniture to bushes. So few wanted to ‘waste their time’ on a dog that showed no ‘sporting potential’ and was a crappy house pet to boot! He came to me in January and by June there were only two height dogs in the entire sport of flyball that could post faster times. Why was that? Was it because I have witch-like-dog-training-qualities and can accomplish what others can not? Ah no. The truth is, that I ignore baggage in a dog. I look for what is great, not what is lacking. The more people I meet through dog-training, the more I realize that this, very important quality, is also a very rare one. I made the statement many years ago, that “your dog is a reflection of your ability as a dog trainer.”  What I meant is, that regardless of where your dog started out, what he becomes is a reflection of your ability to train. People would lament to me ‘but my rescue-dog is different, he had baggage!’  Wow, do I detest that word “baggage.” To me, using that word  is giving yourself an excuse to fail (I say that with only kindness in my heart.)  Am I saying that one dog is as straight forward to train as the next? Nope, my own Buzzy and DeCaff left little doubt of that fact for me.  Nor am I  suggesting that all rescue dogs have had the same rosy upbringing. What I am saying is that your “rescue dog,” is a reflection of your ability to train a “rescue dog.”  Are you able to keep your eyes looking forward to the future or do you keep glancing back at your dog’s past life (either real or what you imagine it to be?) Don’t allow yourself to be the kind of person that is constantly looking for what may or may not be there.  Stop trying to find a reason why this dog isn’t “normal” but rather look beyond what may seem to be a limitation now, to the great potential within the dog. I am talking about those qualities that ARE there but they may need some loving polish from you in order to help make them shine. Does this mean a one-eye-rescue-border-collie can go on to be amongst the best in the USA in agility, making it to the podium at a national event?  Ah…..yeah, that is exactly what I mean. Alicia Nicholas and her great BC Pickle did just that.  Clearly Alicia has the ability to look for the good  and not the baggage in a dog.

My friend and training guru Bob Bailey says, “look at what you have, now evaluate what you want- the difference is just training.”  Maybe you are unsure how to connect point A to point B, in what Bob is saying, that my friend, is your dog training journey.

DeCaff, Buzzy (looking handsome as ever), Feature & Encore.

My current educators out on our morning walk: DeCaff, Buzzy (looking handsome as ever), Feature & Encore.

I am not directing this exclusively towards people that have rescue dogs either. So often the limitations put on any dog are put there by their owners that are constantly saying things like “he is too stubborn,” or “he has no drive.”  I remember when Encore was not quite two years old, a friend of mine would say to me (more than once) “oh, it is obvious, she is going to be a bar-knocker.” I finally told her who Encore becomes is my responsibility and I refuse to label a two year dog as anything other than brilliant. I made her a promise right there (both to my friend and Encore) that there will come a day when Encore is considered amongst the most talented jumping dogs in the sport of agility. Does this mean that everyone that owns a dog is responsible for turning it into a world champion? Of course not, but you do owe it to your dog to stop making excuses, labeling faults or looking at your dog like he is less than the dog on the end of someone else’s leash.   Regardless of how talent he is or he isn’t, he is only a product of what you have known about dog training up to this point in your life and that is okay!  They don’t all have to be the best. However, if you want more, then seek out the trainer that can guide your path in a new direction.  Don’t listen to anyone that tells you it is not possible, doing so is allowing someone else’s limited vision to become yours. There are answers out there for all of us. Finding these answers may be the reason why this dog is in your life in the first place. I don’t mean to sound all-knowing or prophet-like, I only mean to share some of what my amazing dogs have shared with me over the years of them giving me an education in dog training.

I am so grateful that I get it.  This doesn’t require any special skill, nor any special training. All it takes from you is the patience to see what your dog is trying to teach you.


  1. I love this post! I love the empowerment and the attitude it reflects. Next time I get frustrated with something in life or training I will be re-reading it 🙂

  2. I couldn’t agree with this more. I had a rescue that took over 3 years to train in flyball and when everyone else said give up already I continued she now has over 10000 points and going strong!!

    Very awesome post that reminds of us of the attitude we all should have!!

  3. My first two dogs were rescues, and I’m very thankful that at the time I knew so little about dogs and dog training, and had no knowledge of the idea that rescue dogs must come with baggage. I had no idea what baggage was, and so of course my rescue dogs had none 😉 Seems like most of the time, the only baggage that rescue dogs have are the suitcases their rescuers choose to weigh them down with.

  4. This is a very powerful post – as someone who is currently showing a rescued dog – this is exactly true. The only difference between my rescue dog and any other dog is that I don’t have a pedigree on him. Any baggage he has is the baggage *I* give him. He has just as much potential, the only thing that holds him back is me.

    Thank you for this – I just posted something similar – that what holds our dogs back is US – in my own blog. I’m going to share this with many others!

  5. Wow. That’s an awesome piece of writing. Andrea, your comment, you put it perfectly.

  6. To me your dog is not only a reflection of your abilities as a trainer as there are other factors that come into play. For example we can’t all afford to take classes, we don’t all have access to resources like an indoor winter training area, a group of dog savvy people and a group of dog savvy dogs. We may have the ability to train our dogs but our progress is very much inhibited. Personally I would love to take my dogs to your camps as I do love you but I like many other people just can’t afford it. So my point is the difference isn’t just training other things factor in as well.

  7. Wonderful! And not just for rescue dogs. This will be a new favorite quote of mine: “Look beyond what may seem to be a limitation now, to the great potential within the dog. I am talking about those qualities that ARE there but they may need some loving polish from you in order to help make them shine.”

  8. “Stop trying to find a reason why this dog isn’t “normal” but rather look beyond what may seem to be a limitation now, to the great potential within the dog.”

    Thank you. I’ve been obsessing a bit lately over why one of my dogs, in particular is not normal. It’s time to stop that now and get back to the business of moving forward.

  9. This is a great post! Can I link to in on my store’s page? i own a sporting goods store for dogs in Sherwood, Oregon and i think thise would be a good read to many of my customers. thanks!

  10. I always loved it when you said this at a seminar I went to of yours ” your dog is a reflection of you as a dog trainer” and I do think about this when I train my own dogs or when I see others blame their dog for things that go wrong on an agility course due to the poor dogs lack of training by said handler. I want to run up to them and say it to their face but I guess that wouldn’t be kosher……

  11. Thank you for such a wonderful post. Your articles, blogs, books, and DVDs are all so wonderful, and have had a profound impact not only on my training, but more importantly, on my relationship with my dogs. Keep up the great work…and the blog too! 🙂

  12. My boy who came with serious issues is perfect for me for two reasons:

    1) I am always thrilled with him and that is a great feeling. It is absolutely a reflection of the fact that I have low expectations for him, but for some reason I love it (and to be honest, I don’t think this attitude has held him back from any greatness, it just means that I get excited when he doesn’t try to run away from his own shadow).

    2) When things don’t quite go as I would like, I am neither upset at myself nor frustrated at my buddy. It is a lot easier for me to accept when things don’t quite go as planned because of his fears than if he were a well-bred dog who had a great start to life. I don’t think I’m a failure of a trainer or that I messed up somehow just because he is afraid of the dark. Rather, I just accept that we’re not quite there… yet.

    Basically, his issues have resulted in a lot of blood (oops), sweat (yup), and tears (definitely), but as a result I am a really enthusiastic trainer with him and he has become a good dog and a spectacular agility dog. I would never flaunt his “baggage” but it is absolutely the most important dynamic in our relationship.

  13. I love this post 🙂

  14. This blog post really hit home with me and I was only saying my older girls problem with her training of late is my attitude. Its also one of the reasons why my 8 month old BC baby has done very little in the way of training – a fear of failure on my part. She has already been “labelled” as a shy dog who probably won’t be able to trial in obedience. Both were from breeders but they are only dog 1 and dog 2 that I have trained. Funny thing is its easier to dismiss what people have to say about dog 2 whereas I get very frustrated with my older dog when she throws in the towel.

    Any way great blog post and I will print it out and place it into my training journal for times when I am feeling overly negative about my girls.

  15. Not a single one of my dogs is “normal” – thankfully! Boy, that would be so boring. Each has brought a different set of lessons for me to learn, and I am grateful to each of them for it. 2 of my 5 dogs are rescues, and, actually, they were the easiest ones to train! My youngest dog is already taking me on a different journey – how cool is that! And no, I don’t mean the journey down the to the pet store to buy all the cute pink girlie puppy outfits 😉 Happy Holidays!

  16. This blog posting is thoroughly inspiring! My wee Papillon has taught me so much and I am grateful for the personality traits some might consider “issues.” These things make her the wonderful, dynamic dog she is. Yes, there are challenges, but it is the challenges that provide the learning opportunities. Afer all, perfect would be, well, boring! I have been told that Papillons can’t be trained for agility (nonsense!) and that my brilliant girl is just too small (4 lbs of drive). It would be so simple to make excuses as to why she can’t do something; however, it is our excuses that cause “baggage” for us and our dogs.

  17. Susan, this post has been a great conversation starter within our local group of instructors and even with people outside of our training community.

    The interesting thing about this – is that you can easily expand these concepts further. How many times do we do this to ourselves? Do we focus on our limitations and not move forward because we focus on what we “know” is wrong with ourselves?

    And for those with children, do they risk setting the same expectations for their kids based on perceived limitiations?

    Can we let those perceptions go and realize that the future can be whatever we want to make of it? Our dogs can be anything, our kids can be anything, we can be anything. We just need to allow ourselves to imagine it!!

    My two dogs are rescues and I’m forced to recognize that my little one is subject to my training frustrations with her. I have been making excuses for her and I’m going to stop immediately.

    Thanks so much for this post.

  18. Wonderful post!! My eldest would not play with toys and did not have a lot of drive. She is not a rescue but was very independent minded. She has placed high in several events and now is the fastest of my 4. None of my dogs I would consider normal. I still have things to overcome but they are all my bad training in the beginning and not her fault (you get to see firsthand at an upcoming seminar, lol..). She has a ton of drive now.
    What an inspiring entry into your blog! Thank you for this.

  19. Yay!! Here here! Gives me some more good ammo to share with people when they look at my newest agility dog (the deaf, screaming, incontinent great dane who has lovely toy drive) and ask me why on earth I would go from border collies to *that*?!

  20. Actually, Susan, you’ve brilliantly honed in on a hot new research topic in positive psychology and that is the notion of “the fixed mindset.” All sorts of research has come out recently showing that when we eliminate “fixed mindsets,” (that we, our kids, or in the agility context, our dogs, are “set” or “fixed” due to some trait at birth or due to some traumatizing event or series of events), when we eliminate that thinking, we open up all sorts of potential for us, our loved ones and even for our happiness! I blogged about some of the research and included links today if you’re interested. Thanks for your great post!

  21. Thanks. I needed to hear that today.

  22. Susan, I think there is a legitimate feeling on the part of those who have rescue dogs — and I’m coming off my own set of issues with a very unfocused, herding-obsessed BC who came to me after 3 other home — that maybe because of the issues of their dog, they can’t train exactly the way others train. My boy loses focus when stressed, and one of the things that stresses him a lot is long leadouts with strange dogs barking behind him when he first goes into a new place. I can accomodate that inexperience and have great rounds and do a three jump leadout by round 3/4 when he will have settled, or I can insist he not break his stay with a long leadout right at the beginning and find that his focus disappears and we have an off-course shortly after. Maybe this is a fixed mind-set or maybe its my experience with my dog. I think there is a difference in saying my dog can’t do that right now and saying he’ll never be able to do that, but I do think that respecting limitations and working through issues at a pace the dog determines is legitimate.

  23. I think its the mindset of assuming that a rescue dog has had trauma in its past (and I know many of them have) that leads some (not all) people to spend more time justifying/feeding into a dogs behavior based on its past verses focussing on a training plan to change it.

    I have a what I consider to be well bred border collie who I have had from 8 weeks and has only ever lived in my home, a loving, pets are our family kind of home. She is very noise sensitive in the house and will hide in the corner shaking at the sound of the vaccuum, blender etc, etc. She is afraid to go into one of the bedrooms, if I raise my voice at all she cowers like she was beaten and she is afraid of some men. Personally I think if I had gotten her as a rescue I would be thinking all kinds of terrible things must have happened to her and I wonder if that would change the way I train her, if I would accept less in terms of criteria from her because of her “past”. Instead I am focussed on the positives and how to train through these issues and alter some of the behaviours. And I must say for a dog with confidence issues she is a fiend at agility and will slam the teeter down with gusto AND I would not trade her for the world:)

    I know many rescues have not had a nice past and do come with “issues” and I commend all those who take in a rescue dog. I think they are truly amazing people! What I love about this post is that it acknowledges the need to know where you are with your dog (all dogs, not just rescue dogs), to focus on the positives and to have a plan to get you where you want to be.

  24. Great post. I was priveledged to have participated in a seminar with yourself and LOH this summer and was so impressed when you mentioned that you didn’t want history you just wanted to watch us work and you would learn everything you needed to know.

    I keep this moment close to my heart and will always remember that we shouldn’t make or look for excuses but search for the assistance and the tools we need to help us grow and become better trainers.

    I’ll always remember having a tearful moment in my tent that week when realizing what I had put my dogs through. I could have been so much more for them bringing them to their greatest potential if I would have had the proper assistance and resources earlier on. In a way my rescued BC rescued me that week and I swore to myself that we would look at training issues as challenges just waiting for a solution.

  25. Hi Susan, I was very inspired by this post and I wonder if you would mind letting me quote parts of it on my website? I feel there are lots of dog owners that can benifit from hearing your words.


    • Sure Kenny, as long as you site the source and give a link back to this blog that would be fine.

  26. Loved this article, focussing on the many possibilities a new partnership can bring. Far too many people and dogs are written off by assumptions.

  27. Very good post! Great to have someone so respected in the dog training realm speak positively on behalf of rescue dogs. I know many people in Flyball and Agility that feel in order to have a top performing dog they must go the purebred route. I have one of each (rescue & breeder dog) and frankly my rescue is the better agility dog. She has reactive issues not related to her being a rescue and it is my job to discover the best way for her to overcome it. My breeder dog has agility performance issues that are due to my inexperience with handling a high drive dog – but he is the go anywhere meet anyone guy of my dreams.
    I also loved the blog about you being the ‘dog person’ in the family – that is me to a T – very large family that mostly all enjoy animals but I was always the one that was really connected to all the pets. Home just isn’t home without at least one dog and one cat – and more is even better. The best stress relief around is petting your best friend.

  28. Susan, you never fail to inspire me. So many trainers tend to label a dog’s abilities by their breed,perceived inherent problems,etc instead of looking at it all as training challenges and a wonderful journey of deepening the bond with their dogs and expanding one’s knowledge of canine behaviour.
    I train and compete Siberians and whilst they are not “champions” (yet), I do not use their breed as an excuse – it is not a compliment when others commend me for doing well “even though” I have siberians.
    They may not be as driven as some dogs but then that means their traning program needs to be designed to incorporate training drive and to increase their attention span. This I learnt from attending Susan’s seminar at Canberra a couple of years ago, reading her srticles & books and DVDS. The journey continues and my dogs will be champions,they do not need to win over others but as long as they continue to want to “play with Mama” they are winners in my eyes.

    • Wow, what a beautiful post, and an awesome attitude towards your dogs, they are lucky to have you. Thank you for sharing your thoughts with us.

  29. Wonderful wonderful wonderful post. It really is all about the journey isn’t it? I just love this whole mindset. Thank you for your beautiful thoughts. =)

  30. I love this post too, I was just back for a second time to read it. love it. love it.

    I think more people should approach training (and perhaps life in general) this way.

    Sarah 🙂

  31. Thank You.

  32. What a great post! I was thinking about that these days, someone I know said that if you do something wrong in your dog agility training you can give up on him and start over with another one. I couldn’t disagree more. Great post, I’ll be linking it at my blog 🙂

  33. Thank you. An eye opener.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: