Holiday Celebrations and Dog Training

This story is a couple of years old now, but tis the season, so here it is again....

My son's school has begun preparations for their their annual holiday pageant.

Each year, dozens of smiling children sing a variety of holiday tunes for their adoring parents.  Except for my son.  He stands, frozen, no movement visible in his lips.

Each year I ask him the same question. "Why didn't you sing?"

Each year, I get the same answer. "Dunno".

"Dunno" is a pretty crappy answer coming from an articulate, intelligent child who is rarely at a loss for words or conversation.

Last year, I pledged to make it better.  I spent hours learning songs and singing with him.  I made sure he knew the words and all of the cute little hand gestures.  He was Prepared.

I attended the pageant with high hopes.  This time he would sing his little heart out and wiggle his hands in all the right places.

You probably see it coming....

He did not sing.  He did not wiggle.

After those many many hours, cheerfully working right along side of him, he did not participate.

When the pageant was over, I could not find my son.  Later that evening when he re-emerged, I asked him where he had gone.  He said he didn't want to talk to me, because I would ask him why he didn't sing.


Let's call this a  "Shameful Parenting Moment".

My son knew I was not asking the question expecting a logical answer.  It was a rebuke; my way of pointing out that I knew he hadn't participated.  It was criticism couched as a question, and ten years of age is plenty old enough to figure that out.

Never mind that we actually had fun practicing together.  That we sang and were silly, and we had a really good time.

The issue was never the singing or the hand motions; the issue was his discomfort performing in front of groups.  He gets scared and anxious.  He can't help that, and I'm sure if he had a choice, he'd have been born with the personality of a natural performer.

If it were important to me, I could have introduced him to very small and manageable doses of performance.  Instead of singing for hundreds, we'd do family.  Then family and friends.  And then maybe a few neighbors.  It's possible that with time and maturity, he'd have the confidence and desire to perform for large groups. Or not.  Either way he is my son.   He is who he is; not always who I want him to be.

I abhor those soccer dads that scream and coach from the sidelines - but was I any different?  More subtle, yes, but the expression of dissaproval and "you should be able to do this" was the same.

A few of you are probably making the connection....

On occasion, I'll have a dog training student attend a trial with a well prepared dog, and it doesn't go very well.  We might express our dissapointment and wish it were different, but in the end it's the dog who must feel able to perform.

We can make the dog work for our goals because we are bigger and stronger.  The dog cannot speak, so we can ignore her opinion.  We can ignore even the most extreme non-verbal expressions of unhappiness.

Or we can accept the dog that we have.

We can set a basic floor of comfort for the dog and abide by it.

We can have an agreeement, "I will do what I can to make this sport enjoyable.  I will not put you in  a position where you are unreasonably stressed or unhappy."

We can take responsibility for making the dog ring ready by exposing her in small doses, over time, to those aspects of dog shows that are difficult.  We can go to training classes and work at appropriate distances.  We can learn about stress and fear, and create a plan that allows the dog to build confidence in herself and in her handler.  We can improve our relationship.

We can enter the ring with a dog that is clear on each exercise and as well prepared for the work and the environment as we can master.

What we can learn with our dogs, working through the journey that is competitive obedience, is pretty darned cool and interesting, regardless of the outcome.

In a week, the annual pageant will come around again.  My son knows the songs and the hand motions.  I enjoyed the hours spent practicing with him.  I also know that soon he will be a teenager, and there will be fewer opportunities.

I'm fortunate that last year he was able to speak to me, because this time, I was able to hear him.


Marcia Barkley

Kristen, I’d have to say that technique is only part of being a “good” dog trainer. “Heart” is surely just as important. I think that the heart — that part of us that is sensitive to the needs of others — is what allows us to appreciate a dog (or another person!!) for what they are, and to make the effort to bring out the best in the dog (or person!). If we keep our eyes open to those needs, and keep our minds open to finding the most appropriate and effective training techniques, I suspect that sooner or later that “mediocrity” will melt away. My own dog is nearing 16 now, and I’ve always known that the only obstacle that stood between her and championships was me. But when she crosses that rainbow bridge, I will at least be comforted by the fact that we tried all sorts of things — agility, rally, canine freestyle, treiball — in our quest for new adventure and new learning. Have I been a good dog trainer? I’m not sure. I’ve been good to the dog that trained ME, and I will always believe that was more important. And you’re right: it’s the most rewarding hobby I can imagine (although “hobby” seems like a pretty inadequate word!).

Marcia Barkley

Enjoy the dog we have … yes indeed. Sometimes we stumble onto a dog that enjoys a crowd, or perhaps enjoys the performance in spite of the crowd — maybe the adrenaline rush of an agility run overcomes the anxiety. Or maybe we are in the sport just for the fun of working with the dog, and thus WE do not develop the anxiety that will stress the dog. I make an effort to help my students understand that if it is fun for them, it will be fun for the dog; and if training is a game, the dog will learn faster, and success will come. The trick, I think, is in how you define success. Let us train and teach and do everything we can to build our dog’s confidence and skill; but just as I applaud you, Denise, for recognizing what was most important with your son, so too we should cheer the dog owner for whom the challenge and the experience are rewards more important than any ribbon or title: enjoy the ribbons and titles, but for the sake of the dog, don’t let them be the highest priority. Thanks, Denise, for the reminder of what’s important.


I am always struggling to focus on what my dog has, and how to leverage her strength and to quiet that voice that feels compelled to say “I wish she was _______.” My commitment to her is to do what I can to bring out her best and to ensure that we both have fun at it. Any part of me that rues her weaknesses dishonors us both.

And as for having choices made for us, my primary hobby is dog training, not trap shooting. My dad thinks I’d be a great trap shooter and could help me find a top instructor to work with. No thank you. I played with guns for a day to humor him in his own passion; period. I find being a mediocre dog trainer more rewarding than any other hobby I’ve tried.

Lynn U.

What a great piece. Dogs are SO much easier than children. Says the woman with a 14-year-old daughter.

Amy Randle

Thank you. Guilt is a close relative of mine, and my sons assure me I was/am a great mom. And they ARE okay- awesome, in fact. That goes for my dogs, as well- wonderful, happy dogs with great senses of humor. Thanks Denise. Have a very happy holiday season.

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