A recent post from The Unexpected Pit Bull on their Facebook page about a dog named Brodie made me so happy, I literally jumped for joy. Here was someone who had taken the time to get to know her dog and really got it. Really got what is okay for him and what is not. Not only does she get it- she respects it and made it her mission to help him feel more comfortable and safe. And, in the process, it made her a better person.
We all (well, most of us, anyway) have challenges with our dogs, or have had dogs that were challenging for one reason or another. Maybe they are reactive on-leash towards other dogs, maybe they have fear and anxiety issues, maybe teaching them a solid recall seems virtually impossible. The post I mentioned above reminded me just how important it is to celebrate the victories and to acknowledge what our dogs do well or how far they have come.
In thinking about the dogs that Paul and I currently share our lives with, I am often amazed at their resilience and joy. Hazel has come so far in the 2 years she has been with us and I often refer to her as my “do-over dog”, she’s the one I get to do things right with. Is she perfect? No, but neither am I and that’s okay. Hazel loves training and excels at it. In short, she makes me look good. She is “soft” and easily upset by loud noises, so we make an effort to be careful with things like pots and pans, as it’s truly heartbreaking to watch her back away, hunched up and ears back. She has a kick butt recall but has a tendency to bark like a fool and this is something we are working on constantly. Whenever we find ourselves really frustrated, we remind ourselves of where we might have been inconsistent and gotten off track. We don’t blame her for being a dog and doing something that dogs do. Hazel is the light of our lives and the dog who has made us most aware of how our actions as humans play into her behavior. She also makes us aware that we’ll never know what came before us to help shape who she is today. And, that’s okay. We don’t go hunting for reasons. We look at the dog in front of us, whose smile and sense of mischief is unparalleled and ask ourselves what we can do differently. She loves when the “good” camera comes out and will willingly go along with just about anything in the name of silliness and treats.
Savannah is about 11 years old. She came to live with me when she was about 4, after life didn’t turn out quite the way her previous owner had planned. Best guess is Savannah is a beagle/cocker spaniel mix and I often joke that she is made up of used car parts because she is built all wrong. Savannah does not have such a great recall and is prone to digging for bugs. Those things are on me. I never really focused on training Savannah because she is just generally so good. Savannah is my helper dog. She puts other dogs at ease and is a dream to walk. She’s the one who can go anywhere and gladly participates in desensitization and counterconditioning with other dogs.
And then there’s Tello. Also about 11 years old and recently inherited from a petsitting client. Tello hadn’t had the most exciting life for the past few years and revels in human attention. He came to us with some resource guarding issues, particularly towards women. I have to be honest and say that we probably didn’t trust each other all that much at first. Most of his interactions when he was a client dog were with Paul. But, if he was gonna live here (he’s really my brother’s dog, but we do have to interact) then we had to build a relationship. We have done that through training and play. I’m the one who he reliably comes for when called and he trusts me enough at this point to curl up with me and relax. We also play some wicked good frisbee together.
My point is: there is a lot to be said for enjoying our dogs for who they are. For not looking at them as having “issues.” As I was typing this, all sorts of wonderful things about my dogs popped into my head: Hazel’s focus when training and naughtiness with things like plastic bags that must be destroyed, Savannah’s joy at a car ride and Tello’s rolling in the grass as if it was Heaven on Earth. And, I suppose to him it is. When I focus on the things that they enjoy and what they can do well, the other things seem small by comparison.
When I think about how far Hazel has come and how my relationship with Tello has improved, I am grateful for all that I have learned. I am grateful that I know that sometimes we get the dogs we need and that sometimes we get the dogs that need us. As a dog trainer, I am grateful for people like Brodie’s person, who recognizes that our dogs, like us, are works in progress. That, like us, they have their quirks and sometimes baggage. I am grateful for people who recognize that our dogs deserve for us to see them for who they are and not who we want them to be. I am also grateful to know that because of reward-based training, we can help our dogs get “better” and feel safer and learn to do things we may not have thought them capable of. That is truly a gift.