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Demo Dogs, A and B

Melanie + Tank photo signature 4.30.16 rev 4


I love teaching dog obedience classes, especially teaching pet dog owners how to train their dogs. I enjoy working with beginner competition handlers to help prepare them and their dogs for the first-step competition classes of Obedience Beginner Novice and Novice, and Rally Novice. I also love teaching Puppy Kindergarten and Family Pet classes.

For classes, I’m always armed with a curriculum, homework, experience, and a sense of humor. But I have an additional ace up my sleeve: my demo dog. Or dogs, since I have mischievous Melanie, my 10-year-old mixie shelter dog, and Tank, my sincere, nearly 5-year-old yellow Labrador retriever. For the most part, I’ll only have one at a time as my demo partner, and I generally split the time evenly between them. When I was showing them both in ringsports, each would get to go with me to dog club, arriving early so we could have some training time in a member ring.

Melanie is my “A” dog, which, in American Kennel Club parlance, means that she was the first dog that I showed to an AKC title. Everyone who competes in dog sports has stories to tell about their “A” dogs. The main thing that we handlers share in common is a lament: wishing that we knew then what we’ve learned from our subsequent “B” dogs. For the most part, the “A” dogs have “suffered” from having “A” handlers. In dog training, there’s no time or need for recriminations; rather, it’s important to integrate each lesson learned and move on.

There are many lessons to be learned from each dog, arguably the most important being that each one has her or his own very distinct personality. And while canines share many traits—including between members of the same breed—each dog is a unmistakable individual. This is very important when it comes to training dogs, so I always encourage my students to be sure to take time to learn their dogs’ temperaments. It makes a difference in how each dog learns and how each owner can be successful in teaching their pups. Learning theory is not just for people.

In my classes, I always try to learn the dogs’ personalities, as this is vital in order for me to be able to help their owners. The vast majority of puppies and dogs are very biddable to the foundation exercises of name recognition and attention, but there’s always one or two who seem to have attention deficits, distracted by anything that moves—or doesn’t move!—ready to pounce on or bark at everything they see. These are the pups who try men’s—and women’s—souls! I feel that “pain”, because I have one of them: Melanie. From the time I brought her home at 8 weeks, she has always been a high-energy, go-her-own-way girl. (If it’s any indication of baby Melanie’s temperament, the first nickname I came up with, only moments as we settled into the car to take her home, was “Monkey Dog.”)

But having a dog with a wild, independent personality has not only led me to dedicate myself to dog training, but also, I think, made me a better instructor. The idiom is true: experience really is the best teacher. Having lived life with a dog who always wants to sniff the ground, who gets bored with the mundane, or who insists on attention on her own terms gives me better insight into not only this kind of dog, but also the owner of such. And this makes having a demo dog very important.

As learners, dogs are much more visual than verbal, but I think people are, too, despite our tendency towards verbal burble. The obedience class demo dog is a vital aid for the human students…and maybe a few of the canines as well. When I introduce my dogs, I’m always clear about the differences in Melanie and Tank’s personalities: Tank is the “yes ma’am” boy, while Melanie is the “Wait, I’m busy sniffing this thing over here” girl. So as demo dogs, Tank usually makes me look great, but Melanie always makes me look human.

Tank embodies the attitude of the puppies of the average temperament, but also those with the shyer—or as I prefer—the more thoughtful personalities. Melanie, on the other paw, epitomizes both the puppy with the newbie owner and the distracted adult with the more experienced handler. And in between, she’s a perfect example of how a high-energy, easily-distracted, super-intelligent puppy will keep that very same personality all her life. And, she’s proof that even the least experienced person has the potential to teach her puppy to be well-behaved.

Between the two of them, my dogs help me teach, but more importantly, they help my human students learn that they, too, can be successful, especially those with the more “Melanie-like” dogs. The proof is right in front of them.