“Dog Workshops- Why do it?“

Love love love my people. 

Love love love my people. 

What mental image comes to mind when you think of your favourite dog workshop, or watching talented people train their dog? Is it perhaps your favourite trainer? Or an awesome dog? Or is it a special task? Or maybe it’s a recent trial that you attended with your dog? Or were you an auditor at a dog workshop?

The first thing that comes to my mind, when I think of dog workshops is the human-canine team having a dog spot. I just got back from an amazing dog workshop hosted by my local dog community. I'm really lucky, as I truly love my dog nerding community (Pet Resorts Dural - thank you for hosting so many awesome events). It makes such a difference when there is a good, positive vibe at trials or workshops. To be honest, I don't think people attending the famous Woodstock Music Festival in the 60s could have been much happier. I was on cloud 9 without taking any drugs all weekend. Unless you count lots of dog slobber and hugs as a drug. Then I had lots. LOL. In short, the seminar was just bliss and the trainers were amazing (thank you so much Josh Moran and Forrest Micke!), the people attending it were just beautiful and the dogs were unreal.

To be honest, I always admire people who have the courage and dedication to work on being a better team in front of others. Have you noticed, that often after the human-canine team has finished a task with the trainer at the workshop, the human and dog have very expressive faces and body language? When everything goes well for the human-canine team in an exercise, they appear as a beautiful unit, high from a perfectly mixed cocktail of happy hormones, such as Oxytocin (aka “The Bonding Molecule”), Dopamine (aka “The Reward Molecule”), Serotonin (aka “The Confidence Molecule”) and Endorphin (aka “The Pain-Killing Molecule”).  Watching a human-dog team being in total sync is in my opinion one of the most beautiful things to watch. And, who wouldn’t want to feel like them and have some of that happy drug-like cocktail? The truth is that this exquisite cocktail of scrumptious happy hormones was hard earned. No one sells it. You have to earn it. The amount of effort, dedication, resources, time, and a fair share of blood, sweat and tears is part of every dedicated dog sport or teaching your dog a complex skill with the aid of an expert. And it makes you wonder, why do people do something that requires so much effort? What gives people so much stamina, drive, dedication and resilience to overcome obstacles in their training to pursue it?

Let’s have a closer look.  

A Canadian team of researchers lead by Jocelyn Farrell collected data from 85 individuals participating in a broad spectrum of dog-sports. A part of the study, covered in Psychology Today, looked at what motivates people to participate in dog-sports. The researchers differentiated between "external motivation" versus "internal motivation".  For example, external motivation is based on the possibility of winning a competition, demonstrating to others how good they are at the sport or how great the character and constitution of their dog is, and primarily to win titles and trophies. On the other hand, internally motivated competitors would agree with statements such as, "I compete for the pleasure of discovering new training techniques," or "the satisfaction I experience as I am perfecting my abilities," or "because I like the feeling of being totally immersed in the activity." Internal motivators are the values you chose to have in your life. No values, no purpose and drive in life. The vast amount of research participants reported that they compete for internal motivators and values (e.g. improving connection with the dog, the social aspects, enjoying the team environment, the opportunity for physical activity). Only 13% percent highlighted that it was the external motivators, such as competition and accomplishment that influenced them.

These results and insights do not come as a surprise, especially if you consider that according to self psychology, a dog can be a "self-object" that gives a sense of cohesion, support, or sustenance to a person's sense of self.  So one could argue against the point that training with your dog enhances self-development, is very nurturing and provides self-development, given that you are the type of person that is mainly driven by internal motivators. There is nothing wrong to be also driven by external motivators. I mean, who doesn’t want to win or smash a complex tax such a heeling?!?  However, it is not advisable to only pursue external motivators, as it doesn’t give you as much resilience and meaningfulness when you have to overcome an obstacle in your training (e.g. your dog is injured, you missed a trial, etc.) as external motivators are usually outcome focussed, rather than process focussed.

In summary, even if your training session/trial with your dog does not go according to plan, you still receive a high-value reward out from it, if you assess it from the perspective of your internal values and motives.  For instance, you might have had a good laugh with your colleagues over your failed attempt of an exercise (I’m a clumsy person and without wanting to, always offer entertainment for my colleagues, lol) or your curiosity was sparked by how to attempt a certain exercise from a different angle. Maybe you feel challenged to troubleshoot a problem, maybe you finally found a sense of belonging to a group, or maybe you were so hyper-focussed and immersed in training that you forgot about your worries for a few moments.  Aren’t these great rewards, despite might not having nailed your training goal or competition that day?

So the next time you are training with your dog or attending a dog seminar remember, you are not “just” training your dog. In fact, you are working on yourself and whatever you find internally valuable and rewarding. So don’t be discouraged when you have had a bad training session and just switch your focus from the outcome (external motivators) to the process (internal motivators). And when you feel like that delicious cocktail of happy hormones is out of reach for that day, enjoy the company with your training mates and maybe have a drink or two.  And if you are finding ourselves in an auditor position, please be supportive, encouraging and motivating. It takes a lot of guts to work your dog in front of others and it is usually quite a vulnerable place to be in. Can’t wait for more seminars to come. Love you all! 

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About the Author

Birdy O’Sheedy is a clinical psychologist, coach and professional dog nerd and founder of Paws In Life Coaching. Her work focuses on what psychology can offer to strengthen the human-canine relationship and in her past time she loves training and engaging with her dog Luna.