Friday, June 5, 2015

My Opal

Today I had to say goodbye to my Opal. 

It is difficult to express the impact that she has had on my life, because it is exponential. 
Opal came into my life when I was 16. I had been in contact with rescues about finding a border collie who would enjoy doing activities with me, especially agility. I was called when they found this wonderful girl, because she had high energy, high drive, and would do best in a home that took advantage of those elements. I fell in love right away. She jumped out of the foster mom's car and immediately started chasing a ball. She barely recognized my existence, and yet I was still enamored with her. She was intense, driven, and somewhat hard to handle, but I was head over heels in love. 
After a few months we noticed some issues with her gait, and after a vet exam discovered that she had severe hip dysplasia. After two surgeries and weeks of recovery, Opal acted as if nothing had ever changed. She was just as excited and driven as ever. She had limited mobility, but loved doing tricks, and training in agility, as long as we kept in low impact and easy on her joints. 
She loved doing ANYTHING I asked her to, and always wanted to work.
She taught me how to perfect my training, and how to teach just about anything. However, after a bad experience at a dog park she developed a very severe reactive issue with other dogs, and I had a hard time at first figuring out how to deal with it.
This is how Opal became my "cross-over" dog. I had been using a clicker and treats, but also more traditional correction based methods with her, especially when it came to her reactivity. After trying different corrections, as extreme as I could come up with, I came to a realization; she wasn't trying to defy my training, or show that she was "in charge" or "dominant", she was trying to protect both of us from imminent danger (as she saw it, other dogs). When I came to this realization, I had a shift in my understanding of her, and I shifted how I trained her.
I started rewarding her for looking to me rather than reacting to dogs. I started utilizing my clicker to communicate when she was acting the way I wanted her to. The change I saw in her was fast and dramatic. She began to not only "do" what I wanted her to, but to UNDERSTAND what I wanted from her.
I began to see a difference in her behavior so intense that I felt guilty for ever having punished her for what she had thought she was doing right. It became very clear to me that my punishment had been created by misunderstanding, and my methods of training immediately took a dramatic change. Opal became the best demo dog I could ever have. She loved coming to work, being in class, showing off, and being an example of what positive reinforcement training can accomplish. To this day, she is still the reason that I am the trainer that I am, and I could never thank her enough for being such a wonderful teacher. 
We got to experience agility, sheep herding, obedience, and trick training together, and I honestly cannot say that I have ever seen or experienced a more willing, faithful, reliable dog at my side than Opal. She always tried to do right by me, and in that she taught me to be humble, to LISTEN to what a dog tells me about THEIR experience, and to have compassion for another being's emotions. 
I cannot possibly express the gratitude that I have for what she has taught me. I am so lucky to have had such a wonderful teacher come into my life, and to have put up with all of my shortcomings in my learning experience.
I hope that everyone is as lucky to have experienced a soul like this, and I know that all of those who met her felt just as touched and impressed by her as I have been. 
Thank you Opal, for your patience, your beauty, your exuberance for life, and your teaching skills. I am forever in your debt.

Your ever grateful Kate.