Life with dogs is a constantly evolving blend of management and training. As trainers, we have a profound assessment of our dog’s view on everything in their life. We mould our dog’s life around everything they love and minimise everything they do not. If we cannot eliminate the things they can’t cope with, we work on changing how they feel towards those things, step by step, day by day. It takes weeks, months or years. It’s a marathon, not a sprint. We sometimes think about giving up.
I’ve always thought I had a profound understanding of what makes my dog tick and what will tip him overboard. Dogs running 10 metres away? Beanie goes back on a lead or he’d run over to torment the other dog to play with him. Evening out with work friends at a non-dog-friendly restaurant? Beanie stays with a dog sitter or neither of us have a good time. My boy cat storms into the lounge, fixated on giving Beanie all the rubs and rather-painful-but-playful nibbles? I call my cat away within seconds to give Beanie space before he loses it at Moo. Moving something that looks like a stick from one room to another? Show Beanie where to wait before walking past him at a distance. Every dog is different. I have a database of knowledge of specific procedures for specific circumstances for every single dog or cat I work with from the RSPCA to my own home. Our lives work like clockwork because we know exactly how the other behaves.
But I lose sight of the changes over time.
“Train the dog in front of you.”
This is such a profound statement that has taken new meaning for me lately. It has always meant that I must meet the dog where they are at their skill and emotional level in that context. In reality, it has typically meant lowering or letting go of my expectations and starting afresh. Recently it has meant recalibration and letting go of a dog that I used to expect in order to create a richer world for the dog I now have.
I forget that there was a time when Beanie had to go back on a lead about 100 metres away from a running dog before he’d teleport to that dog. When I couldn’t leave him alone for 3 minutes, no matter who stayed with him, to run a supermarket errand. When the mere sight of one of my cats walking towards him metres away was enough to make him growl and stand up. When he would freeze in the middle of the corridor in an impasse because I was carrying the vacuum cleaner from one room to another.
I used to focus so much on management and slow, structured training at his pace that outside of minute attention paid to criteria and very technical deconstructions of antecedents, I lost sight of the big picture. I spent all my effort in keeping him in the spectrum of “normal” and not over-threshold that I have no clue when he actually became increasingly normal in increasingly challenging situations. Maybe he’s ageing. Maybe it was the training. Maybe he’s just settling down. Maybe it’s just sheer luck. It’s probably a combination of all four.
Life has been very different lately with lots of travel, change, long working hours, unexpected vet visits, planned workshops and new environments. Lots of things intentional or otherwise that would not have been OK for the dog I adopted three years ago. I have prepared for the worst in all those situations but my dog has been stellar in every single situation, much to my surprise and that of those who see him through my eyes. I realise there is less need for management now, less cocooning, less stress for me. I can move the goalposts and let go of the dog whose life was so carefully structured. I am learning to live with the dog I now have and redefine our boundaries.
It has opened up whole new experiences – enjoyable, memorable and filled with learning for both of us. His world is now bigger, as is mine. It’s still not the world of the most sociable, well-adjusted, confident dog. He is still changing his views about many things, some for the better and some not.
I suppose this is why we put days, weeks and months into changing behaviour. Why we keep logs in notebooks and in our heads. Why we don’t just avoid all triggers and cocoon ourselves, as tempting as it might be. It is to grow the world for our dogs and for ourselves. It is to make more of the world more enjoyable. I am never going to stop being that hovering, over-worried, over-planning guardian but I can finally change my opinion of what is normal for Beanie and expand our bubble wider. I can sign up to more workshops, volunteer at my vets and my local rescue, walk through a sudden herd of sheep and not worry about whether Beanie will cope. I have enabled him to learn and he has done the same for me.