I am not a perfectionist. I think perfection is an unrealistic and burdensome outlook. Not everything can be perfect, and priorities need to be set. However, as a general rule, I think higher priority items need more defined standards of quality and performance.
I remember my dad preparing his saxophones and clarinet reeds prior to a gig. He’d purchase many boxes of reeds and carefully examine each one, breaking any reed that wasn’t in excellent condition. He was a professional musician, and he knew what that needed to sound like. If you’ve ever played a reed instrument, you know how much difference there is between a very good reed and one that has imperfections. Good reeds sound best and last longest, bad reeds often are already cracked and sound horrible when played.
I remember, in high school, I’d have my clarinet reeds sorted from very good to poor. I’d take every reed out of a box, examine and play it. The very best ones were saved for concerts, and I’d put them in protective containers so they would remain in pristine condition. I’d then take good care of the better than average ones, but still I wouldn’t play on them until we were getting closer to the time of doing live performances. The average, but playable ones, I’d use for daily band or orchestra practice, at home or in class. You could go through 100 reeds and find, maybe, one really good reed. It might not be concert quality, but it would do if you had to use it. The rest were of average quality, and a few you threw away without even playing them. Dad taught me how to examine a reed, first holding it up to a light to examine the grain and to see any physical external flaws. There was never a perfect reed, however. Even the plastic reeds weren’t perfect, not having the same sound, and even some of them were flawed in some way from the manufacturer.
It’s interesting how some of the things you can learn as a kid can translate into important lessons for being an adult. In this case, training dogs. Some people are novices, so their early work is going to be sloppy. Some people are by nature careless or unorganized, so they are going to be sloppy from beginning to end. I’ve met people whose philosophy in life is that good enough is good enough. I just don’t jive with that kind of outlook. Sometimes important things are involved and good enough isn’t good enough.
For example, my standard of training isn’t as high for a puppy to complete basic puppy lessons as it would be for a Therapy Dog. For puppies, and novice dog owners, they first need some basic foundation in things like house training, puppy manners, and how to manage their puppies. Therapy dogs, on the other hand, have more difficult work in potentially dangerous situations and require higher standards. This is why I ask a lot of questions before training any dog. I want to know what the owner is going to be doing with their dog. Are there children? Anyone with disabilities? What is the social dynamic of the home? What kind of dog and its history? And so forth. Even with therapy dogs, it isn’t sufficient to say that the dog has passed an evaluation. That is a good starting benchmark, yet I’ve had to work with therapy dogs which had issues that weren’t sufficiently evaluated and measured in the standardized testing, or ones that had deteriorated since their last evaluation. It is possible for a dog to get a certification and still not be qualified for certain environments. Even police dog and hunting dog trainers and handlers know this. They might have a dog which seems to be a promising candidate, but when put on the street or in the field with a particular handler, it becomes apparent over time that something needs fixed or changed, otherwise the dog will be a liability. The same is true of the people involved. I’ve seen many people who got in over their heads with a particular dog. Either they can be trained to deal with the issues or dog, or the dog needs to be rehomed. I’ve seen this with the elderly, getting a working dog puppy, but the owner isn’t healthy, fast, patient or strong enough to handle that “race car” of a dog. Good enough isn’t good enough.
The way to fix sloppy work starts with the right diagnosis. What is the relative importance and performance standard? What is the dog capable of? What is the handler capable of? Then, what is the appropriate plan to clean up the slop?
Slop is more of an issue if the dog owner is willing to accept slop, or doesn’t know any better, with a situation that could be potentially dangerous.
For example, if a potential student has a rambunctious puppy living with a fragile elder relative with dementia, and they don’t consider that this is going to be a higher priority training problem, then they are taking unnecessary risks by not taking their homework seriously. I am a serious animal welfare advocate, so I try my best to head off problems, but that doesn’t always happen.
I had a student with a son who had brain damage. Their son would carelessly leave outside doors open, lead the dog outside, and then let the dog run away throughout the neighborhood. The parents weren’t willing to do what it took to secure the property because it was a rental or do a better job of supervising their son. I couldn’t fix this situation with training alone. In another case, I worked with a live-in therapy dog at a retirement facility. Similar situation, the dog would be encouraged by the residents to do many things that weren’t safe for the residents, management wasn’t supervising either the dog or the interactions with the residents, and the dog often escaped the property or got into trouble on the property. They did a minimal job of improving conditions, but it wasn’t enough. Good enough wasn’t good enough. It wasn’t enough at all. I also worked with a fearful therapy dog in a medical office. This dog wasn’t suited to that environment, and while the dog had passed its evaluation, it kept deteriorating in that situation. It became more and more challenging of any new patients that came into the lobby. Good enough wasn’t good enough. I also remember working with a student who had suffered with more than one stroke. She had a big dog, and instead of doing the lessons as described, she would be very rough on her dog when I wasn’t around. Her dog became increasingly stubborn, and her dog eventually started biting her hands. The lessons I taught weren’t retained from session to session. I had to eventually walk away, I couldn’t help her or save the dog. She was competent enough to do 95% of life, but she was deteriorating a bit at a time, and she often didn’t remember what we discussed in the previous lesson. Her default was to hit her dog and jerk him around on the leash. Good enough wasn’t good enough, and there wasn’t anything I could do to make it better.
In these no win scenarios, the best I can do is either get the owners to tighten up the training and supervision, or I have to walk away. I know that good work takes time, there are no quick fixes for quality results. Some people are diligent and exercise good judgment and character. Some are sloppy, and no amount of logic or risk is enough to get them to stop being sloppy. It is so discouraging sometimes. You can’t change people.
The sloppy stuff isn’t a frequent problem. A lot of sloppiness is a choice by the owner. If they are wanting the best, we can usually get them the best. Those are the ones I’m looking for. I feel sorry for the dogs living with sloppy owners, however. It isn’t fair to the dogs. No good dog trainer gets into this profession in order to do a sloppy job. Fortunately, I’ve been blessed with very good students, both dogs and humans.