When Lucy – my beloved Dane and the dog I still think of when my eyes open in the morning – died, I got a lovely e-mail from her breeder, mostly full of all the things we say when a dog dies. But one line that Sterling sent then has stuck with me in all the years since.
She said, "I was a great fan of hers."
Ever since, I have thought that was just about a perfect way to describe the relationship we should have with our dogs. Not that we just love them, but that we LIKE them. That we think of each other as being on the same team. That we respect and admire their doggishness, maybe even envy it a little, while constantly pulling for their success.
Just recently I got another e-mail. This time it was someone who e-mailed me a behavior question about their dog, and asked me if I'd address it on the blog.
I immediately said to myself, "Not a chance," and then sat back to think about why my reaction had instantly been so negative.
Remember that I'm not a trainer, not even a bad one. So questions involving how you backchain a weave entrance or how to get a perfect heel are NOT for me. I am neither qualified enough nor foolish enough to answer them.
However, in this case it was not a training but a behavior problem – let's say it was the dog being destructive – and something I've dealt with over and over again in my own dogs. I actually was, in this very limited scenario, qualified to answer it. But the idea of it turned that little wheel in my stomach where "no" lives.
Why? Because the real reason, the root of the problem, was not that the person wanted to solve a dog's destructive behavior. It was that a person wanted someone who they thought was experienced in dogs to tell them that their dog was as bad as they thought he was.
I am sure every (real) trainer who reads this knows those questions. They use a lot of pronouns and the word "that."
I can't handle that dog for one more second.
That dog is getting on my last nerve!
When I got home, that dog had peed all over my purse.
If I knew he was going to be like that as a puppy, I'd never have gotten him.
By the time an owner is using statements like the above, they're not asking for ways to change the dog's behavior. They're asking for permission to get rid of the dog. If you said to them "Wow, you're right. I've never seen anything this bad; let me take him right now and find him a new home," their reaction would be about five seconds of objection and then the light of relief would show in their eyes. They'd start to think about arriving home and not smelling pee. They think about going on vacation without having to board a dog that has to go in the "special kennel." They imagine going to buy a couch that will last longer than six months.
When, on the other hand, you say to them "This is a very common issue, and very easy to fix! All you have to do is…" their faces get hard and their eyes turn off. They'll try to tell you that the way THIS dog does it is not easy to fix, and that their neighbor says they've never seen behavior THAT bad, and how they already tried doing that and it didn't work.
Even people who haven't gotten to the really terrible stage of looking for a reason to get rid of a dog or put it down are pretty inexorably heading that way. Why?
Because they see the relationship between themselves and their dogs as being adversarial. It's them against the dog. It's me against the chaos. It's my job to make this bad dog good.
They are not fans of their dog.
Because they see their entire relationship as one of adversity, when the dog REALLY disobeys – eats the couch or kills the neighbor's cat – it is not just a bad behavior but a personal affront. They start to use language like "The dog doesn't like me anymore" or "I guess he doesn't like his life here enough to behave properly."
I have seen this in myself with my own dogs. If Clue disobeys, it makes sense to me. I trust her enough, and like her enough, and feel that we are connected enough, to be willing to take her word for it that something is wrong and she feels she can't do that right now. It doesn't mean I don't make her come in or make her get off the couch or make her do whatever, but it goes "I'm sorry, hun, i believe you; but I really do need you to do that now." When Bramble refuses to come in, my instant reaction is "Oh, one MORE TIME. He KNOWS this command; what is wrong with him?!"
I've been working very hard lately to be Bramble's fan, to spend enough time with him and to see things from his standpoint so that I like who he is, not who I think he should be. My actions don't change – I still march out there barefoot and walk down whichever dog isn't responding to a recall – but my attitude needs to change. I need to root for him, to be proud of the small changes that are a big deal to him. He was pretty much completely screwed up by being kenneled for ten months, so the improvements are not exactly by leaps and bounds. For example, I realized today that he hadn't bitten anybody in a couple of months. He is still occasionally losing control and threat-barking, but he's pulling back and not connecting. And when I tested him off-leash this week, he only ran away for five minutes, and when he came back he high-fived me because he knew he'd done something good. By most definitions both statements are complete failures (he DOES panic and bark; he DOES run away), but honestly improvement to that point is a pretty dang big deal for him. Maybe a year from now I'll say that he's no longer threat-barking. Maybe a year after that we'll be able to let him off-leash when we're hiking.
No matter which dog you're dealing with, and no matter which problem or training challenge or goal you're trying to tackle, you're missing so much if you go into it convinced that it's you against the dog. And how much joy there is in acting like it's the two of you against the world, both of you braced together for whatever comes. To genuinely enjoy your dog, to not just love but like them, means that any challenge is just a bump in the road. It's not going to change your relationship and it's not going to change how much you groove on each other.
My final little story: Yesterday we took Juno out solo for the first time in a long time; we're always trying to exercise as many dogs as we can so she usually comes along with Ginny and Friday. Once Juno finished her solo socialization we slotted her in to the regular rotation and haven't had her out alone. But yesterday Ginny was having tummy troubles and we were going to the rock beach (the hardest place in the world to clean up the result of tummy troubles) and Friday is going into heat, so it was just Juno by herself.
A couple of hours into it, with this puppy who is such a thinker, so herdy, so funny, I turned to Honour (who is her real owner) and I said, "Wow, I really like your dog." Which, of course, is the death knell for any possibility of placing her if she doesn't turn out, because I really LIKE that puppy. I can enumerate every conformation flaw and the things I think are good, and maybe she'll finish and maybe she won't, but yesterday I bought a jersey with her name on the back of it.
So, my question is – are you a fan? Whose name is on your jersey?