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The Master Becomes the Student


December 3, 2014 by Julia

Over the summer I was in physical therapy for my hip. While I was being shown what healthy tension feels like (hint: not the way my hip has ever felt), I was struck by how much I am still learning about my body. I’m 34 and I feel like I’ve only started to truly understand it in the last 5 years. You would think that 3 decades would be plenty of time to learn about something that you’re inside of 24/7, but self-discovery has been a slow process. People and experiences have opened my eyes to new perspectives and I’ve had to shift when things have changed. The same concept applies to dog training.

Most people have heard the old cliche, usually associated with cheesy martial arts movies, “The student has become the master.”  I think in dog training or any similar pursuit, we should flip that idea around. The teacher (“master”) should become, or always be, the student. To paraphrase one of my favorite teachers: Training is a journey, not a destination. I say if you aren’t learning, you’re doing it wrong.

Two days and so many ideas later.

Two days and so many ideas later.

In the past year I’ve had an incredible number of opportunities to learn from a wide variety of teachers. I attended two seminars with nationally renown obedience trainers and one with an amazing behavior modification trainer. In between those, there have been semi-private sessions or group classes with other excellent trainers. I’ve seen techniques I loved, techniques I hated, and everything in between. Regardless of how much I agreed with the presenter, I’ve always come away with something new.

I’ve talked – frequently and passionately – with other dog people about training. Sometimes it has just been a casual ringside chat, sharing like experiences or offering encouragement. Other times have been tearful asides to mentors when I’ve found myself feeling lost or uncertain. On occasion, a quick check-in with distant friends has offered an aha moment.  Or even typing out my thoughts to trusted ear, allowing me to vent and sort through the ideas swirling in my own head so I can tease out a solution.

Teaching my club’s Beginners class has been a great experience because each evening has taught me something new. I gained exposure to a large variety of dogs and owners and each 6-week session has its own unique set of challenges and lessons for me to learn. I’ve had to experiment with ways to reach a nervous mixed breed or reasonably reel in boisterous Retrievers. In a group of owners ranging from experienced to overwhelmed, I’ve needed to make the material compelling and relevant to their lives and relationships with their dogs.

My dogs continue to be my greatest teachers. I spend a good deal of time trying to get into my dogs’ heads, attempting to suss out what is going on in the other side of our partnership. I want to know what is motivating them and what is getting in their way. Most of all I want to know what they are trying to teach me.

A lesson in Zen.

A lesson in Zen.

Dash’s lessons have acted as a real-life serenity prayer. Knowing the difference between what I can and cannot change has been an 8 year journey. The lists have shifted back and forth as my knowledge, understanding, or skill as a trainer has changed. Things that were “can” had to be moved into “can’t” when I began to understand his limitations and mine. Things that were once in the “can’t” column have amazingly slid over to the “can” column in the last six months. Those goals will still require a lot of work to accomplish, but I know that they are possible.

Serene looks can be deceiving.

Serene looks can be deceiving.

Delta is more “Serenity Now!” than serenity prayer, challenging me to be a more active, more engaging trainer. She doesn’t need me to be her cheerleader the way my first girl did, but she does need the right motivator to get her full effort. She needs to be clear on what gets paid and what nets her nothing. Some would call this stubborn (my husband says obstinate) but I see it as smart and determined. She wouldn’t offer the unrewarded behavior if she really thought she’d get nothing out of it.

My friend Renee once told me “The body gets old when it stops moving.” I think anyone with a desk job can attest to that. It applies to your mind as well. The mind ages if it isn’t learning and your training stagnates if you aren’t seeking new information.

Don’t let yourself get stiff or stuck. Get out there and move.

This post also featured on DABAD under the theme "Continuing Education"
http://dogagilityblogevents. education/
& in the December print issue of the Boxer Daily.


  1. Kayce Cover says:

    Well done Julia! I enjoy reading about your experiences and insights AND I am jazzed to read about your progress. Thanks so much for the heads up. You rock! Best wishes to you and Dash.

  2. Penny says:

    Another inspirational post, both in terms of the value of an open and humble approach to learning from life, and a remarkable ability to express it with clarity and humor. Should be required reading!

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