Training – The discipline of habitual excellence

A while ago a saying became vogue in certain parenting circles.  “Quality time, not Quantity time.”


While the notion seems on the outset, to be valid and make logical sense, there are a couple flaws in this little axiom.


I had trained a number of dogs before I owned the first one that was MINE.  And I apologize for the analogies to dog training because I cannot claim any training of my horses, which I purchased already broke to ride and drive.  I did none of it.  So my only frame of reference, flawed though it may be, is dog training.


Like many people, well intentioned and filled with excitement and grandiose visions, I attacked the training of my dog with gusto and dedication.  I committed that all of the time I spent with him would be of the highest quality.  I would waste no moments and we would grow together in talent and ability.


All of you who are wiser and more experienced are smirking and saying, “Aww, that’s adorable isn’t it?  Look at that trained monkey spin!”


… And yes, that’s really what happened on a few occasions.  Don’t get me wrong, we did quality work and I think that’s imperative!  But we also did a lot of really sub-par, hot mess work too.  My dog came out of a few training sessions more confused than I, which was saying quite a bit!


Fortunately, for both of us, I determined early on to lighten up and enjoy him.  I spent countless hours throwing a ball to him, brushing him, and playing “hide and seek” which turned out to be a genius move on my part (totally by accident I assure you.  I have no other genius moves in my bag of monkey tricks).   There were moments, mostly during “formal” training that I became frustrated, not because of Jacco’s lack of understanding, but because of my lack of ability to communicate across the gap of human to canine “language.”  While we did have quality training moments, they were not long spans of time.  They were moments.  A short burst of time where I happened to give him feedback that he was able to clearly understand and respond to in the way that I was then able to reward.  But to be clear, the greatest part of our “training”  happened in the life we lived together.


It was in life that our foundation was set.  Sitting on the couch or walking in the woods, chasing rabbits and on way too many occasions skunks, which left me running away from my dog yelling over my shoulder, “No, stay, no no, down Jacco, PLATZ Jacco!”  All the while, my elated dog chased me, caught me, danced around me, rubbed against me and thought that I had created skunks just for him and this delightful game.


Our training was not the result of all quality and a little quantity.  It was the result of a natural life of a little quality and a lot of quantity.  I learned that the more quantity I spent, the more we gradually grew to have quality as well.   I learned how to more effectively separate my emotional “feelings” about both his responses and my cues.  But being a relatively average trained monkey… that took me a lot of time to learn.  Quantity.


A lot of people in the dog training club felt that you needed to channel your inner canine to really develop them into the finest sporting dog they could become.  Admittedly a lot of those people had great sport dogs and I respected that skill and their achievements.  But I did not covet it.  Many of those trainers had dogs that while on the sporting field, were outstanding to watch and won high prizes, but when off the field were completely incapable of being good family members.  Why?  Quantity.  They had no quantity.  They went from kennel to field to kennel.  I watched on more than one occasion the reponse to a dog refusing a cue.  There would be sudden shock and then an almost apoplectic fit from the handler who seemed to think that the dog’s refusal was a personal and intentional insult.  I walked away from those experiences confused and embarassed for those handlers who clearly were no longer enjoying the sport.  I wanted a dog that I could live with, which included tolerance of quirks and failings, mostly mine.


At the other side of the training isle were the people who baby-talked their dog to the point of a diabetic sugar coma.  “Oh good booboo, such a goody woody doggy woggy.”  I think on more than one occasion I might have muttered something about needing to pukey wookey…  Just Ugg.  I believe praise is important, but many of the trainers praised their dogs so exuberantly and vociferously that the dog lost all focus and the training session that was going so well skidded to an awkward halt.


In a more real-world setting, in search and rescue training, the trainers were entirely different.  If the dog tracked with a classically deep nose and never lifted his head, they were fine with that, but if he lifted his head and cast about, air scenting, they were fine with that too.  Because the goal was not “pretty” the goal was… “find them!”  That is your ONLY goal, if it’s a little messy and you still find them, you’ve won.  If it’s pretty and classy and you miss your find, I promise you that the look on the loved ones faces waiting at HQ will or certainly should, humble you.  There were a few amazing trainers who managed to get an unbelievable mix of both esthetics and practical skill.  I will also tell you that I am not one of those trainers, though I admire and aspire to that standard.  How did those SAR trainers get dogs with such seemingly subtle understanding of their body language and cues?  They worked hard and tried to do a very specific and quality job when they were training in the field, but JUST as importantly, they spent time with their canine partner.  Every day, they lived with the dog.  They spent quantity time.


Now perhaps not all of these little analogies work well when transferred to the training of equines and I get that.  And I am making no judgements on any equine event Western, English or anything in the middle whatsoever.  I have no skill and pretend no history or talent in the training of horses.  I have been around them all my life, I have feared them for a good portion of that time.  Perhaps for that very reason, I decided when my daughter became more and more interested, that she should learn respect, but not fear.  I wanted her to learn to take care, but not become debilitated or paralyzed by fear.  I believe fear can become a far more dangerous thing that masquerades as “caution.”  Let me assure you that is not the case.  Fear is not a rational emotion.  It will cause you to react instead of respond, which, in so many situations can be a design for disaster.  In almost every situation that I can bring to mind, education and knowlege will help to counteract and interrupt irrational fear.  But I needed that knowledge.  That’s where Mark and Miranda came in.


As a completely honest bit of shameful confession, I have not entirely conquered that fear.  As shameful as it sounds and is, I have the ability to come up with nice sounding words that make me appear quite a bit more courageous and all in all, better than I really am.  I am a small work in slow progress, nothing more.


This act of creating excellence is not a one day proposition.  It is habitual.  And even once habituated, the maintenance of excellence is a life-long endeavor.  It is not natural and it is not easy.  It requires concentrated effort and an almost daily, sometimes hourly (quantity) commitment.  It is a staunch refusal to give up.  There have recently been times that I have dearly wanted to give up.  Feeling as though I am plodding through waist deep mud that is intent on swallowing me.  Every forward step is a monumental effort only to find myself sliding slowly backward.  It’s nice to think that the goal is there in front of us, that shining object on which we hang our hopes and focus, but sometimes, the goal is right there in the middle of the mud.  Every step is a goal.


Often one of our most priceless tools is the talent and expertise of someone who has travelled the road before.  Who has paid the price of quantity spent, through both good and bad.  Who has endured the trials, experienced and persevered through the mud and mire and come out on the other side.  Who has through quantity spent, removed the dross and been refined.  Those people who through repeated practice make excellence a habit.  We call them by many names; trainers, mentors, parents, friends.  I call them Mark and Miranda.


If you have ever gotten to spend an hour watching Mark and Miranda train, you have seen that excellence in practice.  It is not a one time performance that you are witness to, it is a lifelong commitment.  It is the habitual practice of excellence.


Excellence is an art won by training and habituation.  We do not act rightly because we have virtue or excellence, but we rather have those because we have acted rightly.  We are what we repeatedly do.  Excellence, then, is not an act but a habit.  –  Aristotle.



I want it always made clear that the opinions herein are not necessarily Mark and Miranda’s.  You know the saying, “A little knowledge is a dangerous thing”… well… if that is true…. I’m deadly!  My goal is not to teach but to point you to the teacher.  I can’t begin to tell you how many times I write, delete, rewrite and think about how those words sound and the impact they may or may not have.  I do not ever want to misrepresent Mark and Miranda.


It is also a dangerous and unfair thing to put someone on a pedestal.  When we train our horses we are careful to set them up to succeed.  However, we often dig a pit and set up our fellow man to fall, for whatever reasons, both innocent and sinister.  I want to be extremely careful in how I portray Mark and Miranda.  They are not “just” trainers.  They are my friends.  They are not perfect, but they are priceless.


Any areas where I have failed or fallen short, please forgive me and place the responsibility with me and me alone.


One thought on “Training – The discipline of habitual excellence

  1. This is a great post and I think there are a lot of similarities between the dog training and horse training that you have connected. I frequently say…just show up and things will start to fall into place. Great Read!



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