I am very fortunate to have the privilege of working with very eager learners at home who love their training time and spring to life when I invite them to work with me.
So yesterday I walked over to my lurcher who was on his bed, keeping a lazy eye on the goings-on in the kitchen, and I cued a sustained nose target to my hand. I was holding a piece of frozen meat behind my back, ready to give it to him the minute he plasters his muzzle into my cupped hand. It’s a behaviour he loves and it has always paid out for him.
But he didn’t do it. He stared at my outstretched hand and, in no uncertain terms, put his head back down and took his eyes away. It reminded me of that awkward scene they use in films where one person offers an enthusiastic high-five and the other just leaves the first hanging with their arm in the air, just to show the viewer who is and isn’t the cool kid in the movie.
At that instant, rest was worth more than a potential treat to my dog. It wasn’t a sign of disrespect. It wasn’t a sign of him taking over leadership in the house. It wasn’t because he didn’t know what that cue meant. It wasn’t because I was a lousy trainer (which I am but that’s a different topic!). I had simply asked for more than he was willing to offer right then and there.
It doesn’t matter if I think meat is the most important thing he should be interested in. It only matters what he thinks and that can change from one instant to the next, depending on what else is happening. It’s easy to forget that the perceived value of a reward depends on the receiver and not the giver.
Then I started thinking about instances in my own life when I wished I’d said no as clearly as he did. How about when I agreed to take on some extra work despite everything else on my plate, resulting in immense stress and sleepless nights for me? Or when I had nervously laughed at a joke about me because I didn’t know how to say it wasn’t funny? Or when I had agreed to a social evening out even though all I wanted to do was stay at home in jammies?
All those moments in retrospect were not worth my while either but I was too afraid or didn’t know how to say no. That is not a position I would ever wish for those in my power if I can help it.
I want to be more like my animals. Brutally honest. Clear on what is worth their while and what isn’t. And able to communicate that in a nonviolent manner to whoever is asking.
I would not want to change that about them. I want my lurcher to tell me I’m asking too much of him. I want my cat to look away when I try to pet her to tell me to stop. I want to create as much opportunity for a genuine two-way communication in that partnership. No false promises. Just a good deal of offers and opt-ins peppered with the odd no-thank-you in both directions.
So I laughed at my lurcher’s desire for rest and walked away last evening. He gave me that sustained nose touch without thinking twice today when I didn’t even carry a treat on me. I went and got him one anyway because who wants to do something for someone else without it being worth their while?