The Discomfort of Learning

Ashley is taking out a selfie with Uni, whose head is resting over her shoulder. Uni's face is white and his nose is close to the camera. Ashley is smiling.

By Guide Dog Mobility Instructor Ashley Nunnelly

We all want to be successful, and most of us like to be successful immediately. Often, if something is “too hard” or “not working,” we are quick to abandon it. I know I’ve been guilty of watching an expert performing and thinking to myself, “I could never do that.” I know there are people out there who think, “I could never work a guide dog.”

If you’re like me, you like being good at things. I like to see the results I want in training or instructing quickly. And now, after a lot of practice with dogs and training a specific skill set, I can be quickly successful! I find it natural to give a leash cue, to click, to praise, to encourage, to intervene—all with a very specific type of learner: a Leader Dog.

If you have been reading my blogs, then you have probably figured out a few things about me. I love to talk training theory, I know a good bit about learners and dogs, and I can readily dole out advice to work on a dog-specific problem. I hope I have helped each of you readers to think a little more like your dog thinks and to understand their point of view.

Ashley crouches in the grass, appearing to be gesturing and speaking toward the small Pyrenean shepherd in front of her. The dog is running.I have spent countless hours studying dogs—body language, listening to behaviorists, taking courses, attending seminars and practicing hands-on for thousands of hours. Lately though, I have challenged myself to use those skills for a different type of learner: a 1,000-lb prey animal. A horse.

I obviously grew up loving dogs, but I also grew up loving horses. My childhood room was covered in cutouts of all the horses I dreamed of owning. However, as you know, horses are EXPENSIVE. It was a hobby that my parents simply could not afford to support. Every Christmas and birthday the only thing that I would ask for is a pony from Santa and riding lessons.

While I dreamed of the show circuit and a horse of my own, my education was spotty. Here and there for a couple of weeks I would take lessons. I spent some summers staying with some dear family friends in South Georgia while adoring several Tennessee Walking Horses that took fantastic care of my fearless and skill-less self. Over the years I learned some techniques and fell in love with some horses that were never mine. But what I missed out on was someone teaching me how to communicate, teaching me the whys and the hows and the skill set needed to be a good partner to a horse.

A few months ago, I decided that I was done saying, “I want to take lessons eventually,” and that the time was now. During the middle of Leader Dog class (when my schedule is, of course, the craziest), I announced that I was taking my first lesson. I changed into my breeches, squeezed into the half chaps that I hadn’t put on since I was 20, walked out of the Leader Dog residence and drove to the barn.

There I met some incredible friends. Courtney and her mustang Unico (which means “unique” in Spanish). Courtney is a professional rider/trainer who owns a barn called Full Circle Farm in Holly, Michigan. Two years ago, she worked with a rescue group to bring home a feral American mustang. Unico was 7 at the time and had been a stallion living in the wild for seven years before Courtney met him. Uni quickly decided that farm life was way easier than having to worry about the safety of a bunch of mares, and his old soul personality made Courtney fall in love with him.

Two years ago, he was a feral stallion and today he has me, a beginner for all intents and purposes, on top of him.

That change and the training behind it is equal to, if not more astounding, than when we take a goofy puppy and turn it into a Leader Dog.

I watch Courtney with her Unico and I see true beauty in a deep connection. The two of them can feel each other. She breathes and his body moves. She talks to me across the arena and he responds to her verbal cues even when she isn’t speaking to him. He vaguely thinks about rolling over and she knows before it happens.

Photo of Uni, a white-gray horse with a gray mane. He is looking toward the camera and standing in a stall.

When you’re working with horses, there is a technique called “lunging.” The horse is on a long rope and you work the horse around you at the end of the rope in a circle. This allows you to practice communication strategies and cue response from the ground before you are on top of the horse. The horse learns to respond to your gaze, your breathing, your voice and your movement.

So, back to me on Full Circle Farm: Courtney shows me something to do on the lunge line, talks me through it, I say “Yeah! Makes sense! I got it!” and then I pick up the lunge rope and I am BUTTERFINGERS. I’m slow. I mess it up. I have literally dropped the rope. My timing is off. My cue was wrong. EVERYTHING goes wrong! It’s CRAZY.

I am so good at dogs! I don’t have to think at all about handling my leash, I can feel my timing, I can read my dog while they’re even just thinking about maybe chasing that squirrel!

A horse? HA!

Truly, I understand that the same theories of training apply to dogs and horses, but I JUST CAN’T MAKE MY BODY DO IT! And then by the time I have the one thing right, we’re onto the next thing! Courtney does her best to coach me through it. “Try again! It’s okay! Wait, wait! He did good! Praise him! Don’t make him feel wrong!” Meanwhile, my brain is still focusing on what I was doing seven steps ago and I haven’t even processed THAT, much less what on earth I just missed!

And that is the LEARNING PROCESS. It is often uncomfortable!

The worst thing about my learning process is that I am often aware of how my bumbling ineffectiveness is affecting Uni, and it makes me so grateful for how patient he is being with me. I spend a lot of time apologizing to him every lesson (and I try to make up for my mistakes with peppermints and scratches at the end).

The very next day after the first lesson where I left from Leader Dog class. I told my lovely clients: “Taking lessons is going to make me a much more empathetic instructor for you guys.”

And it will! Because I am reminding myself what it’s like to learn something new! It is HARD!

I am not going to be immediately as graceful and effective as Courtney, and my ability to communicate with Uni is going to be lacking during my learning process. I am going to make mistakes and I am going to accidentally be unfair to him. But my muscles are going to get stronger and reflexes faster and eventually, it’ll start to become second nature to work with Uni, just like handling a Leader Dog’s leash is now.

When in class at Leader Dog, clients are often hard on themselves when mistakes happen. When they aren’t perfect at something on the first or second try, people can often get frustrated at themselves and, I’m sure, frustrated at me when my advice changes because the dog has changed or I start saying, “Oh, you missed that one. Try again! It’s okay! Wait, wait! He did good! Praise him! Don’t make him feel wrong!”

So, for all of you who have taken or will take the brave step to come to Leader Dog to meet a dog who will change your life, this is my message to you.

Ashley is smiling while taking a selfie with an adolescent black lab in a blue Future Leader Dog vest.I UNDERSTAND! I watch Courtney and Unico and I am amazed. It looks like magic and I don’t understand how I will ever get there. And I want to be hard on myself and get frustrated.

But it is okay! Learning something new takes time and practice and sometimes discomfort. It is scary to be uncomfortable and it may be easier to give up when things don’t work out right away. But then you won’t reach the magic. I have to tell you, when I leave the barn, I am so completely happy. Learning to communicate with a 1000-lb creature that was feral two years ago brings me utter and complete joy. And that is how it will be for you when you finally reach that point of partnership with your Leader Dog.

For all of us who love a dog—whether a Leader Dog or a pet dog—and want to build a deep connection and communication, we have to allow ourselves time, failure and discomfort. It’s easy to give up when it “didn’t work.” But in order to grow and learn together, we have to be willing to try together and to take into account the how the other half of our partnership—whether a dog or a horse—is learning and feeling as well.

Here are my learning tips for working with your dog:

  • Practice without your dog. It seems silly to go through the motions when your dog isn’t around, but building that muscle memory is valuable! We know that we couldn’t dance in the Nutcracker without rehearsals—same thing for training! Once your body knows and feels comfortable with the motions, things are going to get much easier.
  • Take plenty of breaks. Breaks are important both for you and your dog. It takes time for your brain to process all that it is learning—same for your dog!
  • BREATHE! This is such a funny thing to remind people, but it is so true. Oftentimes, when we are concentrating really hard, we are holding our breath. For dogs, that’s a BAD SIGN. If a dog holds its breath and is very still, it is VERY stressed out and something bad is about to happen. So, if you are concentrating and accidentally holding your breath, you are freaking your dog out (same for a horse!).
  • Learn the theory. There is a lot of value to watching videos and reading books and blogs like these. If your mind feels comfortable with the “why,” then you will be more mindful of checking in with yourself to make sure that your body is following what your mind says. 😊

I know that all of you who take the time to read this blog are striving to be better partners and communicators with your dogs. We all want a deep connection and a strong relationship. Please know that I am striving right there with you! Not only with my dogs, but also with a horse. I know how hard it is to learn the foreign language of dog and horse. My hope for all of us is that we don’t give into the discomfort of learning and instead push ourselves to learn the magic of teams like Courtney and Unico!

P.S. Here’s a video of Courtney and Uni performing their finals freestyle at a competition!


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