Years ago, as in the late 1980’s, when I was on the Park City Ski Patrol, I was fortunate enough to be put on the K9 search and rescue team during my rookie year. I didn’t volunteer for it, raise my hand, or jump up and down and say pick me pick me. What ever their reasons were, I am still grateful to this day.
At that time I believe there were forty seven or so full time patroler’s, seven were women. We were put on teams of four for each season, and rotated around the mountain weekly. Sometimes the areas where we were stationed were like a paid vacation. Beautiful skiing, low volume of skiers, and lots of hang time. Other stations were like working in a big city ER room from sunrise to sunset.
The unique part of my team was our Team Leader and the dogs. Lyn was a quiet, hard working, and unassuming man. While he wasn’t particularly chatty, he did take notice of everything. Great sense of humor once you got to know him, or if he cared to let you get to know him. It was my first experience with training silent.
Training silent is something he did naturally, I don’t think he actually had a word for it. It isn’t ignoring your dog or hoping they just catch on, in fact it’s quite the opposite. It’s spending a great deal of time with your dog, working, teaching, watching, observing, and playing, in a structured and managed environment. Building trust. Silent doesn’t actually mean no words, although it can, but more of a minimal use, or rather a quiet use. Having our dogs understand words is important, building great body language so we stop confusing our dogs is even more important. When we stop jabbering on, we have to become better with our other languages, as in body language!
Lyn made me a better skier by dragging my ass all around the mountain while working. He was shaping me into a good dog handler, and he also taught me a great deal about listening. It wasn’t just about hearing words and paying attention, it was about listening to everything around me. Listening with all of my senses.
Because I was young and hungry to learn, Lyn included me in most of the dog work. All of the games, drills, and pit work. I’ll be honest, I was buried in deep pits a lot my rookie year. But I knew there was good work going on, I was learning, and was thrilled to be Lyn’s apprentice so to speak. Playing with the dogs had a purpose. Touch, massage, attention to health, work, directed play, etc. I still use this in my own training program, 24+ years later.
One thing that kept repeating itself over and over was the relationship he had with his dog. Never a heavy hand, never a loud voice, never a command, never any gear that caused harm or discomfort. It appeared to be through their relationship that great work happened. They had a true working relationship. They spent so much time together that their communication was seamless, their mutual respect was tangible. With the other K9 handlers on the mountain it was the same. Lyn was a gentle but effective teacher and was training other handlers well.
After the ski season was over I started a summer conditioning program with one of the other dogs. Thrilled to be asked, and again, not a bad job to have! We hiked the Wasatch and Uinta mountain ranges all summer long. And I kept learning.
Years later when I moved on and started competing in agility and other sports, training silent was something that many of the top competitors were doing, it was awesome to see. Agility classes were offering silent night sequence work, it was awesome. It taught handlers how to work on better body language, directionals and distance, encouraged true team work, and it took the whole command thing out of the picture. It’s kind of like checking the ego at the door.
Talk to anyone that has been involved in a dog sport, 99% of the mistakes are called handler errors. You learn quickly how amazing your dog is, and how much work you need to do as the handler! I can’t tell you the number of times my dogs have covered my mistakes. If there is one thing I value most, its the trust my dogs and I have in each other. It keeps me humble, and it keeps all of us in the right place to move forward.
So here is to training silent, being a good listener, and observing … And here is to my daughter who is the most natural handler I know. She takes my breath away when she is out working our dogs. She reminds me that all of us can do better.