There’s always tomorrow, right? And tomorrow has a tomorrow, too! – My Cousin Becky
Sparta and I had a huge challenge this morning. I took Orion for his usual hike separately because he can go for about 5 miles. Sparta’s good for about two and that’s it. (I’ve lost a lot of weight since getting two dogs, needless to say.) Today I had a late start, and Sparta and I didn’t hit the trail until close to 11:00 this morning. So Sparta and I went to the Metroparks where there is a 1/4 mile track at the top of a hill. One of my favorite places, actually. Peaceful, quiet, and nobody around. Just as Sparta and I got started, a car pulls up. Out pops a German Shepherd (offl-leash) and her two owners. They headed right for the center of the track.
Now, if this had been Orion with me, I’d have been annoyed, but not concerned. Sparta, though, is extremely dog-reactive. Sparta went on red alert immediately, but I was able to Pilot her right back down to calm. The Shepherd and her owners may have had their dog off-leash, but I don’t think the dog realized it. The dog was focused on everything the owners said and did. It soon became obvious that they were training heavily with her, because they immediately went into practice mode: calling the Shepherd (Amber) and then having Amber stop and sit halfway to the human calling her. I’d like to say it was fun to watch them work with her. I’d like to say I could have shared in the exhilaration of watching Amber succeed.
Unfortunately, I had to be ultra-focused on Sparta. She was rapid firing questions at me, and if I missed answering one, she would enter her panic mode, which some people refer to as “red zone”. You know it. I’m sure you’ve seen dogs do it before. On two legs, lunging, snapping, growling at what they deem a threat. Not a big deal if you have a Chihuahua, but Sparta is 100 lbs of muscle. I had just finished a death march with Orion. I was tired!
I focused on Sparta and answered her most pressing question: Is that other dog a threat?
Some people get angry or frustrated when their dog asks the same question more than once, but I want you to look at it through your dog’s eyes. Sparta is a Rottie/Shep. Her parents both came from prime European stock (and both owners were ignorant enough not to have their dogs fixed, or at least under lock and key when the female went into heat). Thus I have Sparta. Each of her parents were worth thousands of dollars because of their pedigree. She was worth an adoption fee because she’s a mutt. But I digress. Stupid dog owners have that effect on me.
Sparta’s parents were both bred for protection (*eye roll*). That was it. Sparta, being true to her nature, sees a potential threat (another predator). That’s like a Border Collie seeing sheep but being told it’s never supposed to herd them. A Lab being told it’s never ever supposed to go in the water. In other words, I’m asking her to travel outside of who she is. What she was meant to do. What every fiber in her body is telling her: that the other dog is a potential threat that must be investigated.
To put it in human terms, imagine being thrust into a haunted house. You know, the kind you pay a lot of money for so you can prove to your friends that you didn’t wet your pants. Now imagine nobody told you it was a charade. You just suddenly ended up in one, and you’d never even heard of such a thing as a haunted house before! You would be terrified. Your friend who came with you keeps trying to tell you that’s it’s okay. You’re trying to calm down, and listen to what they have to say, but OMG WHAT THE #$&!#&@!!! IS THAT THING OVER THERE?!!!!!!
Would you stop asking if you were safe after you were answered the first time? Probably not. What about the second? How many times would you need to be reassured while going through the house? Some of us may take quite a little while (*raising my hand*). I would need constant reassurance from whomever I deemed the human “pilot” of this encounter. I’d have to have a lot of faith in my friend that they were right.
That’s what your dog is going through if they’re dog-reactive. It isn’t just another dog to them…it’s a potential threat. Another predator. They are truly terrified, for your safety, for theirs…it’s a stressful situation. They aren’t trying to be bad, just as you weren’t trying to be difficult through the haunted house.
I’m not saying that you can’t get frustrated. I sure get frustrated with Sparta. I call her some very impressive names (I had inmates in the prison dog program keeping track of my swear words, as they were deemed “excessively creative”). But here’s the thing: yes, I’ll call her names, but in a calm, bored voice. I feel a release of stress, and she just sees me as speaking in my normal voice. My body language doesn’t look stressed or angry. I fake calm if I have to, but I will be Sparta’s Pilot. If in order to fake calm I need to take a step back, then fine. Rather than continuing to walk the track, I could have walked the parking lot. I decided to go for the gold instead.
Today was trying at first. But we did it. We continued our walk. It took us almost an hour to go 1 mile. The first lap alone took us almost 30 minutes. But I kept answering her questions. I let her know that no matter what crazy things that dog was doing, it didn’t involve us. The 4th and final lap took 6 minutes.
It can be hard to see outside of the present situation. But compare. Just because she isn’t perfect in a situation such as that doesn’t mean she isn’t making tremendous progress. Yes, she’ll still be a $#&@*(!!!, but that’s a step down from what I was calling her 6 months ago. And 2 years ago I could have been arrested in some countries for the names I was calling her.
Sparta is a work in progress, and always will be, just like me. And every tomorrow is a chance to be better than yesterday. Sparta and I will work on tomorrow together, because I love that little $#&#*!!!, despite her flaws. The same way she loves me.