Last night in agility class I watched a dog named Belle run the course, her body language expressing joy and a sense of freedom. Belle is a young female black tri-color Shetland Sheepdog. When I first met her over a year ago, she was withdrawn and scared. Her first owner, a high-level obedience competitor, had given Belle to a friend of mine, labeling her as ‘untrainable.’ Another top obedience trainer had told my friend not to bother training Belle, as she was ‘brain-damaged.’

Gili is a female border collie, also labeled untrainable by her former owner. Turns out that person was trying to train her using a clicker – and Gili is extremely sound-sensitive. She was so traumatized by the repeated use of the clicker that she was physically ill. She was turned in to rescue, fostered and then adopted by my trainer, and is now actively competing in agility and clearly loves it.

These ‘untrainable’ dogs weren’t successful simply because the sport changed. They’re successful because their new handlers took care to discover the real problem, and put in the time, effort, and patience to help the dogs learn how to learn. They were considered lost causes because their previous owners would only take one approach; when that didn’t work, the dog was blamed.

While I’ve never considered any of my dogs untrainable, I’ve often been challenged by them. I had trouble motivating Gryphon to participate in agility. I eventually decided to stop doing agility with him; he became my hiking dog. When I started working with my current trainer with Seelie, I decided to see what she thought of Gryph… and now Gryph is in an intermediate level class and we’re having a great time.

Someone asked me last night whether Merlin, my rescue border collie I’ve had since December, would be a good obedience or agility dog. I don’t have an answer to that yet, as Merlin is only now starting to really get comfortable at home. We’ve gone to a few beginner classes that focus on the relationship between dog and handler, but I don’t know how he learns. I do know that it’s going to take time for him to feel confident enough to be able to think and be willing to make mistakes. I’m looking forward to the day when I can see him running an agility course or catching a frisbee in a disc dog competition; I want to see that same joy in him that Belle and Gili experience now.


6 thoughts on “Untrainable

  1. I couldn’t help but think of students who were labeled as “unteachable” just because someone didn’t take the time to get the know the student and find out what would work for him/her. Thanks for pointing out this important lesson as it applies to all.


  2. Spiffygryphy, thanks so much for sharing this, I enjoyed it so much. I used to place so much value on puppies, but as my dog ages to a lovely 14 years old, I see the unique grace and beauty only an older dog has. If only every dog found such love and affection.


    • I’m glad you liked this post. About half my dogs came into my life as puppies… the rest at various ages. Merlin is the oldest dog I’ve adopted. I’d like to give a senior dog in need a home someday… but I also want another puppy. 🙂


  3. Interesting the connection made above with “unteachable.” When I read your piece, I was thinking about my son, who was labeled “unadoptable.” We attach these labels before we understand what kids (and dogs!) need and what will work for them. Your post is a wonderful reminder about what can happen when we take the time to be quiet and observe before we make judgments.


    • I agree – the labels are so easy to attach, because they absolve us of responsibility in our own minds. Sad to think of all the dogs and kids who fall through the cracks because of this.


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