Progress, not perfection. – Anon.
I had a session with the cutest Golden Retriever named Ivy a few weeks ago. Like most other 10-month old Golden Retrievers, she was a bundle of energy. I gave her owners some ideas on how to manage all that, uh…let’s call it “enthusiasm for life”, which included Ivy wearing a backpack. Ivy’s owner loved the idea, and mentioned that she’s seen a dog walking around the neighborhood with a backpack on. I told her it was probably one of the dogs I’d worked with, since I love dogs wearing backpacks like a Kardashian loves to pimp a scandal.
She described the dog as a smaller shepherd with a petite woman walking it. I knew immediately who she was talking about. I asked my client how they looked while walking. “Amazingly composed”, she said. “They pass by other dogs or people, and the dog is just completely focused on his owner.”
This thrilled me beyond all belief, because after getting a few more details, I became convinced I knew who it was. A dog named Oscar who I had the pleasure of working with a few times. Oscar was adopted as a puppy by the most wonderful, caring owners you can imagine. He was raised in a loving household, where he was never hit nor yelled at, but was treated with respect.
He unfortunately developed dog reactivity.
There’s that myth circulating that it’s all about “how the dog is raised”. I have experienced first-hand, puppies who were “raised properly”, who were socialized young, who were given love, affection and respectful boundaries, but still developed food aggression, dog reactivity, separation anxiety…the list goes on. Yes, it is completely realistic to expect that a dog who was abused might become aggressive. It’s understandable that a dog who never had boundaries set as a puppy might take to bing food reactive or have resource guarding issues. But the majority of dogs who develop these scary issues weren’t abused. They weren’t bait dogs. They are dogs who have their own distinct personalities, and who have determined that their behavior is correct. And they are right.
Dogs are great at being dogs. The problem is that they really suck at being human.
So back to Oscar and his owner, Lynn. Knowing that Lynn had worked so hard with Oscar on his dog-reactivity issues, I was thrilled to hear Ivy’s mom talking about how well he was traveling all around Lakewood with his little backpack on, ignoring other dogs. I sent Oscar’s mom a message that night, passing along what had been said about her walking skills with Oscar.
“Oh, that wasn’t us”, she replied. ”We don’t walk him anymore. His reactivity got too stressful to deal with.”
I was crushed. Lynn had been doing so well last time I talked with her! Oscar had a few extra one-on-one sessions to work specifically with his dog-reactivity, and Lynn had absolutely nailed it. Yes, he required copious amounts of Piloting when passing by another dog, but they were able to do it. Together. I was devastated to hear that they didn’t do those walks anymore.
But then I had a horseback riding lesson today, and my perspective changed. As I’ve mentioned previously, I took up riding originally to learn how to learn again, it being a very, very long time since I took up dog training. I needed to feel how my clients felt, learning a new concept. For me, horses. For them, dogs.
During my last lesson, Jessica (my riding instructor) mentioned that my lesson horse, Bounce, was having some difficulty accepting the bit. Usually, Bounce was so eager to get to riding that she would just crank her neck forward and eagerly snap at the bit.
Recently, though, Bounce had been refusing the bit. She wouldn’t take it for me at all, and Jessica was having a somewhat of a problem as well. Finally, Jessica decided to do something different. There’s a “right” way and a “wrong” way to have a horse take a bit. Usually, you get them into what looks like almost a headlock, with a hand over their ears, and slip the bit right into their mouth. That’s The Accepted Way Of Doing Things (“AWODT”).
But Bounce wasn’t accepting it.
Jessica took the bridle. ”Hang on, let me try something”, she suggested. Jessica offered the bridle to Bounce in what she referred to as the lazy way. Bounce immediately Hungry Hippo-ed the bit. I asked Jessica to take the bridle off and let me try. Again, Bounce was eager to have the thing on so we could start our lesson. It wasn’t the AWODT, but apparently the lazy way worked. Rather than a long, drawn out battle of wills, by simply changing direction, we got to the same place we originally tried to go: the bit was in Bounce’s mouth.
Having AWODT is always a good thing. Always mounting a horse on the left, always making sure your dog is calm before setting down food, etc., creates a ritual, and helps keep things normalized when sometimes they aren’t. But horses and dogs aren’t one size fits all, just as humans aren’t. It’s important to know when to deviate from a set path, even if that path is the AWODT.
Jessica realized that with Bounce. Lynn realized that with Oscar.
Lynn wasn’t saying she gave up on Oscar. She decided that the “We’re going to have fun whether we like it or not” walks just weren’t working. Yes, she was able to Pilot Oscar past other dogs. Yes, Oscar trusted her to do it, but each and every dog was considered such a threat to Oscar that the amount of Piloting necessary was a tremendous stress to Lynn. In other words, she did it, and then knew when to stop.
Oscar is still getting plenty of exercise (with an older canine sister and a dog “cousin”, if you will). Oscar isn’t a youngster anymore himself, and is well into middle-aged for a dog, so he doesn’t require a huge amount of activity anymore. He was never going to be that dog who relished walking through a crowd on the busy streets of Lakewood. Yes, he could do it, but why? Fundamentalists will be extremely up-in-arms over a dog who isn’t walked regularly, just as I was initially. How dare she stop walking her dog! But no living being should be boxed into doing something just because that’s how it’s always been done. Oscar is still getting the Piloting, Activity and Work that he needs. He’s getting the love and affection he wants. So where was my problem?
In the future, I will always bridle a horse in the correct way: pseudo headlock style. But if for some reason, the horse won’t accept the bit, I will think of Bounce and remember that the Accepted Way Of Doing Things isn’t about a regimen of uniformity and correctness. It’s about looking out for an animal’s best interest and making them feel safe, secure and Piloted, which usually looks the same way each time. But sometimes it just looks a little different than the AWODT.
Thank you, Bounce and Oscar, for teaching me that lesson.
Dog Training in Cleveland, Ohio