Putting your dog’s needs ahead of your dreams…

Hi, I’m Shelley, a small time dog trainer from the UK, and I’m honoured to be allowed to write for this blog, so many thanks to Kevin! I wasn’t sure where to start, but decided in the end that for my first post I’d look at something very personal to me, so am writing from the heart.

Let me set the background to this story a bit. I’ve been involved in dog training, and agility in particular, since I was pretty young. But by the start of the ‘noughties’ I’d fallen out of that world as my collie at the time had gotten old and I wasn’t able to have another. After years of waiting, in 2007 I finally decided the time was right to get a pup, and had a vision of this bouncing, handsome Collie dog who was going to come with me everywhere, and who was going to do agility, a bit of flyball, some obedience, and maybe even a bit of showing. I spent a while investigating breeders and lines, and in the end decided on a pup. Enter Fantastic Mr. Finn, my gorgeous new bundle of joy and hope.

In April of this year I had to make the very hard decision to retire Mr. Finn from his competitive agility career, all before the age of 4 years old. Since adolescence he has been a bit ‘reactive’ and easily stressed, but his anxiety levels have been steadily becoming worse and worse, and he is now finding life increasingly hard to cope with, and it seems despite LOVING agility, the competitive agility environment is just too much for him to deal with.

So my plans for summers full of shows have gone, my aspirations for my handsome boy have crumbled away, and he has had to pretty much retire from life for now. Deciding that ‘enough is enough’ was one of the hardest and most upsetting decisions I’ve had to make.

So what do you do when it becomes obvious your performance partner isn’t up to the task? When that puppy that was full of promise is not suited to the goals you have chosen for it? When the dog you bought for a specific purpose such as agility, obedience, flyball, showing or any other sport isn’t suitable for that purpose (be it physically, temperamentally, or motivationally)? Well, this is where you have to start asking yourself some hard questions and make some hard decisions. And this is where I know this becomes a highly charged topic for others as well, because it can be hard to know what the ‘right’ thing to do is, and opinions differ on what the ‘right’ thing is.

Personally, I think the first thing we need to realise is that not every dog is cut out for the competition environment or group classes, just as not all of us are cut out for the pressures of performing on the stage or coping with people in our personal space, and we need to respect our dogs for who they are and what their limits are. Finn is not able to cope with the stresses of the competition environment, and I need to respect that. This does not mean that I’ve ‘given up’ on him or ‘discarded’ him to the reject pile, but I have chosen not to push him past what is fair, kind or reasonable to expect, and I feel this is the right thing to do by him. At the end of the day, competitive agility is my goal, not his; dogs don’t care about winning rosettes and trophies, only people do. If Finn loves agility but can’t cope with the shows or classes, then he can still do what he loves in our field but without having a mental meltdown about it, and this is obviously the best option for him. I have to put my goals aside and focus on what he needs to make his life as stress-free as possible. It can, however, be incredibly hard to let go of your own ambitions. And if I’m perfectly honest I know I should have retired him much sooner, but I just wasn’t strong enough to let go of my own ambitions and put his needs first.

So what does the future hold for Mr Finn? Hopefully a more stress-free life! Quiet walks, calm and private training sessions in our field, naps on the sofa, and lots of love from his Mummy. Time to start putting his needs ahead of my own desires. Not easy to do, and I’m hoping I can be strong enough to be the Mummy he deserves. If I’m not looking out for his best interests, who is?!


Four Paws One Direction

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About Shelley Jennings

I've been involved in dog training since I was very small, and competitive agility is my particular sport of choice. I run my own small dog training business near the city of Bath in the UK, and my personal area of interest is improving the quality of puppy education in my local area as prevention is definitely better than cure! My doggy heroes include Canadian agility champ Susan Garrett, Lauren Langman of Devon Dogs, the finest agility trainer in the UK, and clicker expert Kay Laurence.

16 thoughts on “Putting your dog’s needs ahead of your dreams…

  1. Thanks for sharing your experience with us Shelley hope Mr Finn is finding his new life less stressful , sending hugs to you both xxx

    • Thanks Katie, Mr. Finn is indeed finding life a bit more relaxing now that I’ve stopped asking so much of him. Definitely the right choice for us both x

  2. Terrific insights, Shelley. Lilly is my first performance dog, but I only got into the sport of agility because I thought she wanted / needed the outlet. When it became clear early on (long before she was ready to compete) that this wasn’t our path, SO MANY people told me to retire her … even possibly rehome her … and get another dog more suited. But, here is the thing: Lilly came; the sport second.

    So, essentially I’ve failed spectacularly in many things, and we’ll never have the championships we’d hoped, but that’s why I gave her my own “title” of Champion of My Heart … because that’s what’s most important. She is my best, best girl, and she fills the role she was intended to fill perfectly.

  3. I am from San Diego. One trainer here got a therapy dog who didn’t pass and she was heartbroken. Somehow she discovered surfing, the dog loved it and was great about riding waves with disabled kids. Now a whole new sport of dog surfing is all the rage in Southern California. Broken dreams equals new pawsibilities!! Thanks for the article that reminds so many handlers that unless you’re both having fun, time to let it go.
    PS It’s a Heartwarming story, read more about it here:
    Sally, who was crushed to give up herding and discovered Brady liked flyball and agility

  4. Shelley and Finn, welcome to the back yard champions club! I experienced a bit of a role reversal with my dog…he tried his best to tell me that I was too stressed to make a good agility trial partner, and eventually I got the message and retired to the back yard and the occassional club run-thru. Maybe by the time a new pup comes along I’ll have learned mental management. Bless your heart for recognizing that Finn is not sports equipment,

    • Thanks, Karla. And bless your heart too for recognising that you’re not ready yet – I’m sure that must have been a hard decision to make. Here’s to the Back Yard Champions club! We deserve our own special rosettes!

  5. I used to walk my high-strung schnauzer-whippet-poodlyish dog to a park every day and have her follow commands on playground equipment, benches, etc. It built up her trust in me and made the walk more than about peeing and sniffing squirrel tracks for her. She could never be trusted off-leash because of her prey drive, so this was as much as we could do together.

    I hope you can find some way for Finn to excercise his mind and body without taxing his spirit.

    • That sounds like a great strategy, Amy. If the dogs are below threshold enough to focus, asking them to do physical skills is a great way of keeping them calm and focused – if they’re worrying about where to put their feet, they can’t be reacting to something else. Sounds fab! Mr Finn does a lot of body awareness and confidence building work in our field, but he’s not ready to take it ‘out on the road’ yet, but maybe one day! Thanks for reading 🙂

  6. Hi Shelley,

    You did the right thing by putting your dreams aside and understanding Mr. Finn’s limitations. Congratulations for being a responsible dog owner.

    As parent to dogs (and children) we have hopes and aspiration for them to accomplish certain goals so that we might live vicariously through them. It is very easy to lose sight of the fact that those are our needs and/or desires and not theirs.

    So if they “fail” to live up to expectation which had been set up without consulting them, so be it. We all need to step back and let them (dogs and kids) be who THEY are and who THEY want to be.

    Our job is to to stand back and LOVE them unconditionally.

    • Hi Hanna, thanks for your comments. And you’re right, there is definitely a parallel with children too – we might have set ideas of who they’re going to grow up to be, but that’s not how life works, and we have to respect our dogs (and children) as individuals with their own needs, goals and ambitions. And there’s an abundance of unconditional love going on in my house right now!!

  7. Some are just not cut out to be “ballerinas” no matter how hard they try or relatives try to make them be something they are not. Thanks for sharing Shelley. My own Chancellor “told me” very early on he would not be cut out for show life (my beautiful co-owned Belgian Tervuren) and at 4.5 years old health issues surfaced (seizures, hypothyroid, osteochodritis discans) and not just in my beautiful terv but throughout the litter – genetic. Genetics plays a role in what our dogs can and cannot do. And in the scheme of things is it really all that important our dogs comply to OUR goals.

    Chancellor prefers for non-confrontational sports and we’ve begun Treibball which both tervs seem to embrace. Other things would include tracking, RallyO, nosework – all which do not require the dog to be “touched” or “confronted”, although RallyO is still a big show setting. Absolutely know what you went through and admire the way you are handling it!!


    • Hi Diane, thanks for your lovely comments, and for sharing your experiences with Chancellor. I’ve been looking at a bit of nosework and treibball with Finn, although unfortunately there isn’t a huge amount of info available on either here in the UK, and Rally-O is only in its infancy. But we’re having a little play with each!

  8. Thank you for sharing this Shelley. It’s a great example of the type of responsibility we accept when we decide to bring a dog into our homes.

    Although we have never wanted to compete at a high level in agility, we did have agility in mind as a great activity for both us and our Aussie Gavin when we brought him home from the breeder. Although his parents were both OFA certified (one excellent, one good), his hips began rebelling at a very young age and so our plans changed. He has been the most amazing out of all the dogs we have ever had in terms of personality.

    Dogs are as individual as we are and sometimes, because of physical or mental limitations, they don’t quite fit into the hole we planed for them. But by changing our views of what the hole is, we often find an even better fit than we intended.

    • Thanks Kevin. Not only do we sometimes find a better fit than we intended, but often I think these dogs can teach us more than we ever thought possible if we just pay attention; through trying to help Finn with his anxieties, I went out of my way to look up new information and to try working with new trainers, and along our way I met some incredibly inspirational people who have massively helped me with Finn but who have also influenced and changed my own training and my classes and my general attitude. So I’m incredibly grateful to those people and to Finn for opening my mind, and without him I wouldn’t be where I am today!

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