Lifetime Goals


It’s hard to set goals when you have an anxious dog. Their progress moves in such unpredictable fits and starts, forward and backward, that setting up a timeline will make you crazy. SMART goals don’t work well for us.

Still, somedays their training feels like a hydra–what should I counter condition today? The nail clippers? The sidewalk? The car? Strangers? The doorbell? How about our other training? Silas loves learning new behaviors, but it’s easy to get stuck on just practicing the half dozen tricks he already knows. How do you organize those without the pressure of a dog sport?

Last week, in the hopes of giving myself some kind of structure, I made a list of what I’m calling our “lifetime” goals. When I sit down and make our training plans every month, these are the things that I want to be working toward.

I would like Silas to:

  • Walk happily in a variety of environments
  • Tolerate strangers, even if he doesn’t ever love them, including inside of our house
  • Get adequate physical exercise to stay healthy and prevent injuries
  • Get adequate mental exercise to stay excited and engaged
  • Have a great recall, so that I don’t live in quite so much terror of accidental equipment failure
  • Be comfortable with the amount of physical handling required to live a healthy life

In the great spirit of back-to-school time goals, I’ll pass this along to all of you as a challenge, either to blog about yourselves or just to mull over. What are your “big picture” goals?

Sometimes Being Bad is Being Good

I told this story to someone the other day, and I realized I should tell it to you.

For those of you who are newer to the blog and only used to the much-improved Silas, his car phobia used to be much, much worse. If he could see a glimpse of metal through the trees at the park, he wanted to leave immediately. Since we’re in an urban area, this was a challenge, and for a long time we had exactly one “safe” park.

Even at the “safe” park, we struggled when it was time to leave. Given the choice between staying in the forest and crossing the parking lot, Silas picked the forest. No matter how hot, tired, and ready to go home he was, he just couldn’t get across the parking lot. When he was small enough, I would carry him, but as he got older he got both less interested in being carried and much heavier. I can lift him, but carrying him over a distance wears me down pretty quickly.

Eventually, Silas learned that he could get through the parking lot on his own, if he bolted. This was sheer, blind panic. I went along with it because it was better than the alternative, and in a perverse way it was actually progress. We would step to the edge of the parking lot, I would get a good grip on his leash and check for traffic, and then we would run flat-out, directly to the car.

One day he balked on me and I couldn’t get him back to the trail entrance closest to the car. Instead of our sprint being 30 feet, it was a hundred yards.

As we approached the car, we bolted past a lady with a beautifully well-behaved border collie. She had a waist bag of treats and the general attitude of effective training. There is Silas, pulling like mad at the end of his leash because I can’t keep up with him, and me, running well over my fastest natural pace and one false move from being on my face. No treat bag–I kept them in my backpack just in case, but he wouldn’t ever eat them–no attempt to rein him in.

Border Collie lady passed our car as I was putting Silas in, and gave me a withering look of superiority. How dare my “bad” dog and I exist? Didn’t I know anything about dog training? For a few minutes I felt really bad. It had taken me almost a year to get this “terrible” behavior.

Then I realized that she was a miserable human being who had no authority to judge me or my dog. “Minding” and “behaving” are not the only goal, and sometimes “being bad” is still progress.

My Dog is a Sloth

Sleepy dog

I bought Silas one of those Whistle dog activity trackers. If you haven’t heard of these, they’re like a dog Fit Bit. They use an accelerometer mounted on your dog’s collar to tell you how much time per day your dog spends moving. (I paid for this myself. Why does nobody ever ask me to review things I actually want?) I think this makes me the biggest yuppie in the history of the world, but whatever.

Any day now, I’m expecting the founders to e-mail me and say “Umm, did you really install that correctly?”

Because Silas doesn’t go on walks of any duration (his grand sidewalk excursions, of which we are mega-proud, last about two minutes, and we’re just now making real headway on the car thing), I set his goal at thirty minutes a day.

In almost a week, he’s hit this goal one time, although in my defense he’s gotten close on a few other days. The app suggested that most dogs his size get at least an hour.

I have a few theories kicking around about what’s going on:

1) Because we’ve been virtually housebound for months now, Silas is out of shape and lazy (like me). Or, he’s just adapted to our easy-does-it lifestyle.

2) When I trained him not to pester me with a toy all the time, I did it too thoroughly. Because he’s not pestering us, we assume he doesn’t want to play. Evidence for this one: he’s quite happy to engage if I get up and grab a toy.

3) Age and wisdom. I think three is a little young to slow down quite this much.

4) Boredom.

5) Summer is brutal.

6) Over-medication. I’m hesitant to blame his medication, not only because he’s been at this dose for a while but also because he is quite perky when he’s not asleep.

7) Last week was atypical. Which it was–I trimmed his nails twice and he went on two car rides, both of which are the kind of mental stress that disproportionately wears him down.

8) Our indoor play is a lot more vigorous than a leisurely trot around the neighborhood. Since, unlike the people trackers, the dog tracker only measures moving time, short bursts of intense exercise aren’t rewarded. I’m not sure what the appropriate conversion metric would be.

I’m going to keep an eye on him for a little longer before I start to get really worried. In the meantime, how active is your dog?

I go out of town for five days, and this is what I get

Every year in August I go back home to take my nephew out for a fun day before school starts. This year I went slightly early, and I didn’t take Silas.

The whole thing was a little last minute, for complicated but very mundane reasons.

Silas was, ostensibly, fine. Separation anxiety is not one of his many problems, for which I am deeply thankful. He greeted my husband happily every evening, they played, the usual stuff.

Nothing seemed the least bit off when I got home on Friday. Then, Silas was outside alone when my neighbor came home on Monday night. He barked a few times. He almost always barks a few times at this. Our last neighbors left the house vacant for a few months, and he’s never forgiven the new neighbor for moving in. I went out an collected him, as I always do, because I don’t want to be “those people.”

That’s when I noticed that something was different. Silas has always settled right back down after these sessions. Unless there’s a cat or a squirrel, as soon we we’re back indoors he’s normal again. This time he paced, and whined, and barked. He would calm down for a minute, and then he would gradually work himself back up to full-on barking. I would move him away from the door, he would seem okay, and then he would start barking again. In desperation, after ten minutes of this, I put him in his crate, where he finally settled down. This whole thing had me deeply confused. He hadn’t even been really upset outside; just garden-variety alert barking.

What's going on?

Then the same thing happened Tuesday morning, except Silas wasn’t outside. He saw something, probably a bird, started to bark at it, and then he barked off and on for at least twenty minutes. Even when he was finished barking, he wanted to lie down facing the patio door, where he could see out.

Finally, I realized what had happened. My other neighbor has a huge Crepe Myrtle tree that’s right against our fence. (I am not complaining. Without her tree, our patio would be like the surface of the sun.) Every year, she has to have it trimmed back, because the branches rest on our garage roof. I let Silas out, happened to look up, and realized that all the low-hanging branches were gone. We have a perfect view of these branches. If the picture above were from Silas’s perspective, that’s what you would see.

Less than one week, people. I leave town for less than one week, and my neighbor has her trees trimmed and now we have a new phobia. I can only hope that this is one of those fixations that will fade in a few days; you never can tell with Silas.

Are dog people saps?

Or am I just broken?

I’ve had to start putting my beverage down before I read Pinterest, after I almost choked myself laughing over sentimental dog memes.

Don’t get me wrong; I love Silas. I also love my husband, even while he’s slamming cabinet doors and leaving the toilet seat up. Real love is not endless adoration.

Here’s a sampling of some of the recent offenders. (I tried my best to find attributions for these. No dice. Note to bloggers: if you want credit, you’d better start watermarking your images, because pinning a permanent link seems to be too complicated for people.)

And if I had to pay someone a dollar every time I wanted aliens to come and take him away, we’d be about even.


How about one from the “dog virtues” genre?

When I’m in a bad mood, Silas avoids me. If that counts as patience, I am a zen master.


How about this one:

No, when someone says they don’t like my dog, I’m usually sympathetic. Must be the barking and lunging?


I could go on all day, but we’ll end with the one that inspired this whole post:

I’m a bad person for laughing at this, aren’t I?

Biggest Challenge

I recently filled out a dog training survey that asked what my biggest training challenge was. My first response was to laugh. Given the context of the survey, I think the other answers were probably things like “my dog breaks his start line stay in agility.” I don’t mean to mock anybody else’s challenges, because I know that dog sports people have invested significant time and money into training their agility dogs, but I would love for that to be my biggest problem.

I don’t remember what I actually wrote. I think it might have been about how we’re basically housebound, now that Silas is afraid of both the car and the sidewalk. (They’re both getting better, but at a glacial pace. On Monday, Silas sniffed the middle of the bush past the gate, instead of just the closest corner.)

The question keeps kicking around in my brain, though. What is my biggest dog training challenge?

It’s me.

Silas is a fragile dog. On Monday’s walk, fortunately after we were back inside our gate, he stepped on a water meter cover that shifted under his weight. He jumped, and I said to my husband “Well, I’ll never get him out here again.” I was only partly joking. Silas remembers everything.

Last time he was doing any real sidewalk walking, I got cocky and took him out in a gentle rain. It took six months to a year for me to get to set foot out of our garage again.

That kind of thing has made me fiercely protective of him. I’m afraid–not without reason–that any bad experience is going to ruin the tiny scraps of regular life that we have left. If he meets a snarky dog in the pet store, will he ever go again? If I take him to the park and we run into a group of children, will he be too scared to go back? If I encourage him to take one more step, or to get in the car, will that be enough pressure to ruin our progress? If I drive him home from the park with the windows down, will he stop getting in the car?

I have become the dog equivalent of a helicopter parent. If you aren’t familiar with the phrase, it’s the word my teacher friends use for those parents who are always hovering, waiting to swoop in and save their kid from whatever real or imaginary problem he or she faces. Kids with helicopter parents tend to not turn out well, because they never learn any real life skills.

That’s my biggest dog training challenge. I’m so protective of my anxious dog that I don’t give him a chance to grow.