At a recent agility trial I was helplessly drawn towards a group of people who were oohing and awing over a joyously friendly puppy, attached to an equally happy human. Who wouldn’t love bringing a well adjusted happy puppy out for socialization? Loads of positive reinforcement for everyone.
As I knelt down and cuddled and petted the pup, the usual puppy training talk was going on over my head. I tuned in when I heard…
“With Brutus (her other dog who was easily pushed to aggression) I really have to watch my energy! When I call them out of play that’s getting too rough, I have to use my ‘happy voice’ all the way.”
There was lots to like about that.
Monitoring play? YES! Calling them in and out of play? YES!
Using happy voice, making the experience joyful? YES!
Using your energy? Not so much.
Energy is another one of those words that comes loaded with different nuances depending on context and the user. The petroleum industry has a defined meaning for energy, but when you hear it applied to humans, super natural phenomenon and invisible forces it can get complicated.
As a person who practiced martial arts for over two decades and submitted to the healing powers of an accupressure and acupuncture, I’ve been heavily exposed to the concepts of chi and subtle energies in the physical body that can be manipulated and redirected. Can you see them or scientifically prove their existence? Not so far. Have I personally experienced healing through those methods? I have. Do I believe in their existence? Maybe.
So why am I unhappy with this person’s use of the word “energy’ when working with her dogs?
Because it makes it easy to blame people for not having the ‘right energy’ And because it’s very easy to blame yourself for not ‘projecting calm energy’ when you’re afraid and just want to get things right.
The word ‘energy ‘ is so open to interpretation and judgement. It can discourage people who are new to dogs or just facing a new challenge with their dogs because it’s so vague.
It’s easy for certain dog trainers, who purport to have control over this ‘energy’ to seem more powerful, more magical, than ordinary mortals. Watch how they ‘project their energy’, causing your usually difficult dog to follow them angelically. You, poor soul, lack that access to power. That’s why you need them. Ka Ching!
What would I prefer instead? I remember listening to the amazing Dr. Susan Friedman last summer. Specifics, Bob, she’d say. Just exactly what do you mean, in terms of observable behaviors, when you use the term “energy?” What postures, movements, speed and direction go into the basket of behaviors which you are naming as ‘energy?” Rather than asking me to project concepts like ‘confidence, calm energy, leadership” let’s talk about what those things look like in observable body language, voice tone, breathing patterns or demeanor.
Behaviours are both learnable and teachable. But if a trainer says “you have to project your calm energy”, especially when you have a lunging and screaming dog at the end of your leash, it’s nearly impossible. Projecting ‘calm energy’ is like catching a moonbeam.
So the next time someone says, oh, you’re not projecting the right kind of energy…maybe, just for fun, ask them a few questions. Ask them what body language behaviors they are looking for. If they can’t specify the behaviors you need to teach yourself, consider moving on to someone who can.
Training dogs is learning to communicate with them. It’s about careful observation of both yourself and your dog, over time, and noticing and adjusting your communication to get the best understanding and relationship with your dog that is possible at that moment in time.
Pour your energy into that.