My oldest and "middlest" sons couldn't be more different from each other. Max, the 17-year-old headed to college next year, works hard. He stays up late to study for exams, holds a summer job in a hospital lab to learn more about cell biology—and to increase his star appeal in his college applications. For Max, working hard enables him to learn, so that he may work harder to learn even more. As his parent, I applaud his approach.
Still, I can't help but admire his younger brother's attitude. For 13-year-old Wylie, life is about having fun. If learning is fun, he's all for it. If learning enables him to do something else that's fun, bring it on. But if learning is dull, leads only to more hard work, or is done for the sake of an A on a piece of paper, this boy asks, then why bother?
Sometimes I ask myself the same questions when it comes to training my dogs. Despite having a dog with champion lines and limitless potential, I'm not currently competing in agility or freestyle or sheepdog trials. I have no plans to teach Phoebe to be a search-and-rescue hero. We won't be entering obedience trials anytime soon. So if we're not set on collecting trophies and titles, what's the point of spending hours training my bright and beautiful dog, learning the finer points of communicating with her, and teaching her? Because when we're training, just me and my dog, we're having fun, of course.
And yet, the opposing question also vexes me: Does my lack of ambition for objective recognition of her ability and my training skills prevent my dog from reaching her full potential?
Last month, my family and I took our annual week on Martha's Vineyard, an island off the coast of Massachusetts. We rent a barebones cottage and spend all day, every day at the beach. Our favorite stretch of shore has a big sign at the gate that says No Dogs, just above the sign that says No Nude Bathing. Both rules are enthusiastically ignored. Phoebe immediately made friends, human and canine, up and down the beach for a half-mile. Soon our daily arrival was greeted with calls of "Phoebe! Here, Phoebe!" from other families already settled under their umbrellas.
While she had a wonderful time socializing and digging and chasing seagulls, Phoebe fretted when we left her on the sand and headed out into the surf. Thanks to the time we have spent clicker training, however, we could fix that. Her "jump" cue is rock solid; she'll jump any obstacle immediately and repeatedly. That meant we could guide her out past the breakers by giving her "jump" cues timed to get over each wave. The familiarity of the cue alone was reinforcing, and helped her feel calm and directed in the strange element of rolling white water. When she reached a depth where she had to swim, and could not jump the next wave, she did a U-turn, was lifted by the wave and rode it all the way back to shore. Phoebe was bodysurfing. Was it fun for her? You bet; she turned around and, tail madly wagging, came right back out again, as my husband gave her well-timed "jump" cues until another good riding wave came along.
This is the point of training, I thought, as I ran to get the camera. It gives our dogs and us more choices, more opportunities, more ways to have fun. Training for competition is just one opportunity to have fun in that it offers, as Kay Laurence says, "The challenge of teaching toward a goal, linking the learning together to make a whole, seeing the pleasure the dog gets from the partnership, and sharing ideas with other like-minded folks." Winning is beside the point.
Working with Phoebe, I've been able to perfect a few cues, including "Jump." Our training on the agility field hasn't led to agility titles, but it did create an opportunity for my dog to go surfing. How cool is that? Who knew Phoebe's potential encompassed bodysurfing?
So while you'll catch me bragging about my oldest son's grades and certificates of honor, and you'll see me cringe if asked when I plan to compete with Phoebe in agility or sheep trials, I try to remember that there's a middle ground, a place where ambition meets contentment, where the doing is more important than the success. You'll know you're there when you're having fun.