Holiday Celebrations and Dog Training

My son's school has begun preparations for their their annual holiday pageant.

Each year, dozens of smiling children sing a variety of holiday tunes for their adoring parents.  Except for my son.  He stands, frozen, no movement visible in his lips.

Each year I ask him the same question. "Why didn't you sing?"

Each year, I get the same answer. "Dunno".

"Dunno" is a pretty crappy answer coming from an articulate, intelligent child who is rarely at a loss for words or conversation.

Last year, I pledged to make it better.  I spent hours learning songs and singing with him.  I made sure he knew the words and all of the cute little hand gestures.  He was Prepared.

I attended the pageant with high hopes.  This time he would sing his little heart out and wiggle his hands in all the right places.

You probably see it coming....

He did not sing.  He did not wiggle.

After those many many hours, cheerfully working right along side of him, he did not participate.

When the pageant was over, I could not find my son.  Later that evening when he re-emerged, I asked him where he had gone.  He said he didn't want to talk to me, because I would ask him why he didn't sing.


Let's call this a  "Shameful Parenting Moment".

My son knew I was not asking the question expecting a logical answer.  It was a rebuke; my way of pointing out that I knew he hadn't participated.  It was criticism couched as a question, and ten years of age is plenty old enough to figure that out.

Never mind that we actually had fun practicing together.  That we sang and were silly, and we had a really good time.

The issue was never the singing or the hand motions; the issue was his discomfort performing in front of groups.  He gets scared and anxious.  He can't help that, and I'm sure if he had a choice, he'd have been born with the personality of a natural performer.

If it were important to me, I could have introduced him to very small and manageable doses of performance.  Instead of singing for hundreds, we'd do family.  Then family and friends.  And then maybe a few neighbors.  It's possible that with time and maturity, he'd have the confidence and desire to perform for large groups. Or not.  Either way he is my son.   He is who he is; not always who I want him to be.

I abhor those soccer dads that scream and coach from the sidelines - but was I any different?  More subtle, yes, but the expression of dissaproval and "you should be able to do this" was the same.

A few of you are probably making the connection....

On occasion, I'll have a dog training student attend a trial with a well prepared dog, and it doesn't go very well.  We might express our dissapointment and wish it were different, but in the end it's the dog who must feel able to perform.

We can make the dog work for our goals because we are bigger and stronger.  The dog cannot speak, so we can ignore her opinion.  We can ignore even the most extreme non-verbal expressions of unhappiness.

Or we can accept the dog that we have.

We can set a basic floor of comfort for the dog and abide by it.

We can have an agreeement, "I will do what I can to make this sport enjoyable.  I will not put you in  a position where you are unreasonably stressed or unhappy."

We can take responsibility for making the dog ring ready by exposing her in small doses, over time, to those aspects of dog shows that are difficult.  We can go to training classes and work at appropriate distances.  We can learn about stress and fear, and create a plan that allows the dog to build confidence in herself and in her handler.  We can improve our relationship.

We can enter the ring with a dog that is clear on each exercise and as well prepared for the work and the environment as we can master.

What we can learn with our dogs, working through the journey that is competitive obedience, is pretty darned cool and interesting, regardless of the outcome.

In a week, the annual pageant will come around again.  My son knows the songs and the hand motions.  I enjoyed the hours spent practicing with him.  I also know that soon he will be a teenager, and there will be fewer opportunities.

I'm fortunate that last year he was able to speak to me, because this time, I was able to hear him.


Kathie R

Great post Denise, and boy did it hit home! I especially love the comment, “He is who he is; not always who I want him to be.” I always thought I could make my dog what I wanted him to be through training and persistence. I’ve come to realize that he just isn’t – and never will be a happy, natural performer. I no longer feel like a ‘failure,’ I’ve just learned to accept and love him for what he is : )

linda vartanian

I always knew you were a wonderful dog trainer, Denise, but now I also know that you are an excellent mother! Very important insight. Wish I had been as insightful when my kids were little, tho they all grew into fine people anyway!!

Madeline Gabriel

Wow, this is a sad and happy post at the same time. My older son is 10, too, and had a period of several years where he was a bit afraid of dogs. As a dog trainer who works with kids and dogs, this was, frankly, sort of embarrassing to me. I hear people say to their kids, “That dog’s not going to hurt you! What are you afraid of?” or some variation that belittles the child’s concern.

I more than made peace with his concerns when I realized that he’s not me and he is, in fact, correct that other people’s dogs running up to him or jumping on him is not “his” problem to “get over” at six years old. Yes, there are plenty of things to do to help a child be more comfortable in any situation and I’m not saying to leave them with their fear, but, wow, no need to turn on your child.

I love your part about “I’m sure if he had a choice, he’d have been born with the personality of a natural performer” – wouldn’t we all, right?

suzi bluford

Really profound Denise! Thanks for sharing this!


How true and I’m sure this post hit home for a lot of us. Thanks for your insights……very well written and I hope you son will read this when he gets older and wiser.

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