What the H…. does neurosurgery have to do with dog training?

This blog post is going to be a little bit long form. I’m sorry about that but sometimes the connections that I make in my work require it.

I’ve been a New Yorker subscriber for years and years and years and every once in a while a little item pops up that just amazes me. In this week’s New Yorker there was an article about Dr. Henry Marsh from England. Dr. Marsh is a very well-known and respected neurosurgeon. The article is discussing his latest book which is more or less a biography. The thing that makes it interesting is that he delves into his failures as a neurosurgeon. He dwells in the dark region of failures and traces those back to his own human faults pride, hubris, overwhelming desire to help, and others.

Now granted, being a dog trainer is nothing compared to the responsibilities of being a neurosurgeon, but as I’ve gotten older I’ve looked back and I’ve seen my own failings with clients and with dogs over the years. Perhaps that is what my clients pay for, this experience, this knowledge that comes with doing something so many thousands of times. Still, the successes don’t ring out nearly as clearly as the failures over the years and that is grist for the mill.

As I get older, there are things that I no longer feel myself capable of. Dr. Marsh’s book, recants a line that is said when he, as a younger man,  consults an older surgeon about a case. The older surgeon says “It’s a young man’s operation,I’ve told them you should do it”. Needless to say, things do not turn out in the best form for either the Dr. or the patient, but this is a valuable lesson that all of us must learn. This is the way I feel now days when I’m confronted with a client desperately in need of help with an aggressive dog that is a biter. Over the years I’ve lost feelings in one of my fingers, I have nerve damage in the other hand, and I’ve developed arthritis in my hands from handling the leash for so long. None of this stops me from doing my day-to-day training activities with clients, but it does prevent me from doing the most difficult things which I previously loved working on and which made the workaday life of a dog trainer interesting.

That phrase “It’s a young man’s operation” has been stuck in my head the last few days and it’s definitely making me think about my career. Without consciously realizing it for the past year, I’ve been referring these very difficult cases off to “younger men”. It’s been difficult. The intellectual component alone of dealing with those cases was always very stimulating not to mention the adrenaline issues that came with face-to-face work with those dogs. I regret that I’ve passed the phase where I must give them to “younger men and women” but here I have arrived.

Dog training, high-level dog training anyway, which we’ve always specialized in, is a highly intellectual activity. Very rarely is it simply getting the dog to do what you needed to do, but far more often it is getting the Person to do what you need. Figuring out how to explain things to people in a way that they will understand, how to show them the mechanical skills that they need to work with the dog, and then figuring out how to get the dog to understand that person involves far more brainpower than brawn. And as I said, after thousands and thousands and thousands of clients at this point I can think back on every turning point where I learn something valuable and failed a client or their dog. Hopefully, and I truly hope this, all of this experience is valuable to the next client whose front door I walk through.

For those of you that wish to learn a little bit more about Dr. Henry Marsh here is a link to a documentary that he was in several years ago. Although it has absolutely nothing to do directly with dog training it has everything to do with dog training. I highly recommend its viewing.

The English Surgeon:

Steve Haynes

Austin Dog Trainer