Sunday, July 22, 2012

Great Expectations

Why do we get dogs?  Whether it is for companionship, to save an animal from a situation, or because we've always grown up with them and our lives feel somewhat empty without them, dogs play a major role in our lives.  Each dog leaves a paw print in our hearts, and whether intentional or not we sometimes think about things we'd do differently or change with respect to such things as socialization or training.  It isn't that your dog is bad, but your dog can make you realize strengths and weaknesses that you didn't know you had, and consequently may make you change the way you think about the role your dog will play in your life.  Maybe you realize that you're more of a couch potato and your dog requires more exercise than you first thought.  Perhaps you realize that living in an apartment isn't conducive to your dogs size or need for mental and physical stimulation. 

Lately I see a wide variety of people getting dogs to fit a lifestyle.  Some people want dogs they can show, or dogs that will do agility.  Whatever the reason, people have certain expectations of how a dog will adapt to their lifestyle.  But what if your dog doesn't, or more importantly can't, adapt? 

The idea of this hit home a few months ago when I met someone who had a beautiful Tervuren Shepherd.  The dog truly was show quality, and the owner intended to show this dog.  The dog for all its credit started off on a good path, until a rogue teeter in the agility class slammed on the ground and triggered a high level of anxiety in the dog.  The dog wanted no part of any classroom situation.  Shaking and panting were the norm, and often times the dog simply wouldn't enter a new space that was designed for her to work.  And while the owner worked on the anxiety and the things that made her nervous, she certainly lamented the fact that her dog would never be a show dog.  For as beautiful as she was, her current problems with anxiety made it impossible for her to work towards showing. 

Most recently I bumped into someone who adopted a rescue from the South a little more than a year ago.  They previously had a wonderful Golden Retriever who had gotten on in years and inevitably needed to be put down.  Their most recent dog is a rescue, and is a sweet boy.  A few weeks after they got him, they started to notice that he didn't like to walk outside.  If he was with other dogs, it was as if he had enough of a distraction where he didn't notice he was outside, and he was able to walk on sidewalks or in the neighborhood.  But he largely felt more comfortable walking in the woods, and certainly preferred a night walk.  Our neighbors tried everything to try to encourage him to walk outside.  Each time I would speak with the wife about how the dog was doing she would say how he was progressing or regressing, and inevitably in speaking about this problem say, "I got a dog so I could walk."  After nearly a year of working on this largely on their own with some direction from a trainer, they decided to consult with the behaviorist that we see.  Their dog was no longer able to be distracted by walking with other dogs.  If they stopped to speak with people, after merely a few moments the dog would take off bolting towards home.  Our behaviorist suggested a very light dosage of Prozac while giving them things to work on, with the hope that Prozac would be enough to enable the dog to relax and be receptive to the training. 

I haven't seen these people in awhile, but had an opportunity to bump into the wife who was rather upset by the events of July 4th.  The fireworks that had been set off in our neighborhood had completely negated any forward progress the dog had been making, and now he only wanted to be outside to go to the bathroom and that was it.  On several occasions she expressed that she felt so frustrated by the situation, particularly because she wasn't able to enjoy time outside with her dog as she had hoped.  She kept saying that she wanted for him to be happy outside, not realizing that he was at his happiest when he was inside. 

At the very least we have ideas of things we want to work on with our dogs.  It would be nice if they didn't jump on guests that came over the house, or we'd like to be able to have our dogs not counter surf.  Whatever it is, we know what we'd like to see.  Many things are attainable.  But what if you can't change or shape a fear that the dog has?  What if our desires and their abilities can't match up?  If their dog is not able to offer any progression beyond the point they're at now, would that be OK? 

I think about Abby and some of the fears and reactivity that she has.  There are times that I wish I had taped her training classes, if for no other reason than to serve as a reminder of how far she has come.  But most importantly I think it would be interesting to look at the moment when I felt like her training had progressed.  When Abby first started training classes, to say it was a disaster would be an understatement.  Abby might work on something for 5 minutes if you were lucky, and she spent the rest of the time trying to engage other dogs in play, or being completely unfocused on me.  Group classes were a blessing and a curse all at once in my mind.  It was nice to see how other people worked with their dogs and see their progress measured.  But there was a part of me that often looked at how some dogs latched onto concepts so easily and I wondered why Abby couldn't do that.  Week after week we would go to class and Abby would spend a majority of time not listening or not focusing on me.  One week I even left in tears over my inability to engage my dog.  In addition to this, her ability to truly relax while we worked on her separation and crate anxiety was rather limited.  The idea of a snail's pace comes to mind as it took weeks for her belly to full touch the ground, or her chin to drop, or her back leg to kick out.  All I could think was that surely this should go faster. 

Then I noticed something one week.  Although our girl wasn't able to offer me much in class, she would give me so much more outside of class if I did small mini sessions in the week.  We would work in small quantities on the things we learned in class from the prior week and then show up armed with her new tool set.  Now I will tell you that there wasn't an immediate change.  Certainly Abby went through the same habits of disengaging and being the puppy that looked everywhere but me.  But when I started to feel like this was OK because I knew she would work outside of class, her training took off.  When I let go of the expectations that I had about her - how she should act/react, how fast her training should go, whether she was keeping up with the other dogs in class - then and only then did she begin to excel.  What used to be 5 minutes of engaged learning grew to be 10, 15, etc.  Now our girl knows when we're proud of her work and she celebrates with giving us hugs and kisses in class.  It is completely different than the early days. 

I think about these people who I've encountered recently who set such high goals of what their dogs will give them and do for them.  So often we welcome dogs into a strange world with the idea that no matter what the expectation is, the dog will adapt.  So often we think the things that make us happy will make them happy.  After all what dog wouldn't want to go outside?  Sure there are loud scary noises and strange people walking around.  Wouldn't you just want to go outside, too? 

So when I think about the things that Abby has taught me in the brief time we've had her, it is this:  to be accepting and trust my pet to learn on her terms and at her pace.  To provide her with a safe environments where she can learn at her pace.  And no matter what, to communicate to myself and to my dog that if she will only be able to give me the behavior that she does currently because of her anxieties and fears, that I will love her and accept her for them.  But most importantly she has taught me about the true meaning of unconditional love. 

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