Dog Training: Progress, Not Perfection
“Rivers know this: there is no hurry. We shall get there some day.” -Winnie the Pooh
My clients' biggest problem, according to them, is their lack of perfection. They didn’t do such-and-such perfectly (first try, nonetheless) so therefore they are awful dog owners. Perfection is over rated and somewhat silly. Why would you burden yourself with such a load? Focus on progress, not perfection. And being wrong, or making mistakes? Well without those mistakes, we’d be like hamsters on a wheel, going fast, always facing the same direction, but getting nowhere.
But I digress from the purpose of this post. A story from a few years ago. Essentially, I fucked up. I’m not only unashamed to say this, but proud, because making mistakes and recognizing that I have made a mistake, leads me to growth.
I know I’m not perfect. Actually, I’m glad I’m not perfect, because that’s such a high expectation to live up to. A pretty big job that I certainly don’t want. However, that doesn’t mean I can’t do the best with what I have. Sometimes I don’t have a lot, either. So let’s start with my frame of mind when I first started to go for a walk with Sparta, my dog reactive dog, on the evening of The Incident:
My daughter (River, then aged 8) decided she wanted to be vegetarian. River has problems eating to begin with, as she has some sensory issues, and it can be a struggle to get her to eat. I informed her that if she was going to be vegetarian, she had to eat everything we made, because she could get sick, and possibly end up on the hospital. She promised she would eat.
Everything was going very well, until that fateful day. I had made something that she usually likes, but she was only picking at it. I told her that she had made a promise to eat everything, other wise she could end up very sick and in the hospital. I told her that people who don't eat properly could even die.
River looked me squarely in the eye, shoved her plate away, and announced “I choose death”.
Actual footage of my brainwaves at that moment.
Apparently part of “being the adult” includes not getting to smash things when you’re angry. So I used the PAW Method (as I so often do) on my darling little child. In other words, I followed the three most important steps to Piloting your demon child:
1) Control yourself.
I didn’t immediately respond to River’s demand for death (which she was this close to getting). Instead, I took a deep breath and controlled myself.
Because, like, “adulting” and stuff…
2) Control the situation.
There was no way I was going to be able to make her eat her food without a long, drawn out battle. I knew she was going to try to push my buttons, so rather than fight with her, I moved the fight to my desired location. Meaning, I told River I loved her, but that if she chose death, there was nothing I could do about it, as I already tried to feed her. I then told her to starve to death quietly in her room. She went upstairs as she was told. In other words, I diffused the situation. I didn’t fuel it. Gasoline and Fire went to their respective corners.
3) Answer the question/correct the behavior.
I wasn’t there yet; remember, I had to send River to her room to keep from squishing her like a grape. It’s okay to get angry, but you are responsible for how you act upon your anger. In other words, I had control of the present situation (with River in her room)…but if I had added even an ounce of stimulation (say…an eye roll), I knew I could lose it. And once words are said, they can never be taken back. So I left River to stew in her room.
Now. Back to Sparta and The Incident.
Sparta, as you may already know, is very dog reactive. That’s why I choose to walk her at night if I’d had a rough day already.
We mostly come out at night. Mostly.
So we went for our walk. I was not paying attention to how keyed up I still was about River trying to commit hari kari by not eating dinner. Sparta obviously felt the tension and energy I had.
We usually go for about 2 miles, and she did mostly well during those two miles, without a lot of Piloting needed. However, the wind was blowing pretty badly, and of course it’s garbage day tomorrow, and debris was blowing everywhere, including right at us. So now Sparta was on her toes, getting a little jumpy (to be honest, so was I – it was pretty bad).
When I was young, I used to think this was my 3rd grade teacher.
Now I know better. It was.
Now for the dramatic twist. Another dog. I spotted the dog before Sparta sensed it. It was about 1/4 block away from us, headed in our direction. The owner seemed to be doing well with the dog, who appeared to have already caught a whiff of Sparta. The owner was taking their time, and just looked calm and relaxed, helping their dog relax. I answered Sparta’s question (“Is that dog a threat?”) about the dog when she spotted it, and once she accepted my answer (“No”), I took her across the street so as to control the situation better. Considering the high energy we both had going into the situation, she did pretty well. When she’d ask the question again, I’d answer, and because I was too keyed up myself to go right back to walking, I’d turn her around the other way to calmly take a few steps, almost like getting a running start before hitting the gauntlet, before starting again. She was doing fine, until…..I tugged on the leash, which suddenly wasn’t attached to my dog anymore. The clasp had completely come undone, broken from the main part of the leash. Sparta immediately went running across the street after the dog.
Now, I had a few choices: I could either panic and start yelling and shouting frantically at my dog, but that would only add energy to a situation I didn’t have control of. So I chose a different path.
Thanks for the reminder, Liz.
I took a deep breath, and speed walked my way across the street. I called Sparta’s name repeatedly, but not in a panicked fashion. At this point, she had already gotten to the other dog, where she had started to bark at it, and essentially try to chase it away. I grabbed Sparta, looped what’s left of the leash around her neck, and controlled the situation as best I could given the circumstances. In other words, she calmed down, and the other owner (#OhMyGodImSoSorryAboutThat), was able to safely take their dog away.
Now, a word about the other owner. He never lost his cool. He was calm, and looked almost bored, He was essentially an amazing Pilot, especially given the circumstances. Quite frankly, he was the reason the situation was resolved so quickly: he added no energy, and just diffused his dog, and ignored mine. To make matters worse, he didn’t lob (deserved) blame on me, nor did he verbally try to berate me. He just took it as a situation that passed, and moved the fuck on. Which made me feel even worse somehow.
So, he continued on his way, and I took Sparta back home. I sat down in a chair, whereupon Sparta curled up at my feet, just like she always does. The incident already out of her mind. Yeah, it was scary, but either we could dwell upon it, or move on. And honestly, part of Step 2 (control the situation) is knowing when the situation is over. Just let it go. Nobody was hurt. Nobody got hit by a car. I was able to Pilot Sparta pretty quickly, and we got home safely with 1/2 a leash. I couldn’t be angry for Sparta for being who she was (fearful of other dogs), but I could be proud of her for trying so hard to move past her fears. She’s an incredible dog who had come a very long way. She’s not perfect, but I don’t want her to be. That’s such a difficult thing to be: perfect. She did the best she could with what she had.
As I was sitting there, my daughter came back downstairs. She said she decided she wanted to live, and that she loved me. I told her I was very proud of her, and that no matter what, she’s always My Favorite Little Girl in the Whole Wide World. We hugged it out, and I knew that I needed to control the previous situation: by letting it go. I didn’t lob blame at her for the situation (just as the dog’s owner never berated me for The Incident). We just let it go.
So there I was. Another No Good, Very Bad (Rotten) Day that ended with my two girls, Sparta and River, both doing the best they could with what they had, just as I had tried to do. Not perfect, but who wants to be perfect anyway. After all, it’s about progress, not perfection.
Dog Training in Cleveland, Ohio