Open Hearted

When Silas was a puppy, I was determined that he should be a model dog. I started teaching him “sit” and “down” when he was six weeks old. Not long after that, I printed out the AKC’s Canine Good Citizen requirements. I read all the books. I made all the spreadsheets. We went to all the classes. We were going to be a beacon of good dog-ness. Not to put too fine a point on it, I was going to be better than all those other dog owners.

It took me a long time to realize that Silas wasn’t a high-functioning, naturally social dog. It took me even longer to realize that, while we could work on his coping skills, I couldn’t really, truly change his basic personality. Not only that, but because of the particular ways and means of his dysfunction, I couldn’t even try again with another dog. Resentful brain said, “I’m stuck with this neurotic dog who can’t even go for a walk for the next fifteen years. I wanted a dog who could do things.”

What can I say? I love rules. I love following rules. I love for other people to follow the rules. Silas doesn’t work that way. Learning to accept that has been really, really hard for me. As is true for most people who love rules and have had fairly successful lives, making allowances for others, even dogs, doesn’t come easily to me.

Over time, I’ve let go of it being all about me. (Mostly.) Sometimes I look at Silas, panicking over something that doesn’t exist, and I am broken hearted for him. I’m reminded of how brave he has to be just to live his very narrow little life. The world is so hard for him.

I don’t see myself, anymore, as a vehicle for teaching him THE RULES. We aren’t paragons. I don’t get to flaunt how I’m better than other dog owners. My role in his life is to intercede between him and the world. To do what needs to be done, whether that’s giving up on walks, hiding from strangers at the park, never EVER having people over, or letting go of that Good Citizen award. He’s not a lump of clay that I can shape however I want; he is a creature who desperately needs my care. I won’t lie and say that it’s always easy, or that some days I don’t still resent it. Learning important lessons is hard and gross and progress is uneven.

I love my little broken, high-strung dog more than I ever thought possible. I don’t want to reduce him to something that he has taught me. But he is certainly teaching it.

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18 thoughts on “Open Hearted

  1. This is such a sweet, wise post, and I empathize with you so much. I had the same aspirations for Pyrrha, and we’ve come to learn that she isn’t a normal dog, and she will never be truly comfortable with as many things as a stable dog. She has come a long way since we adopted her, but I’ve also found peace in her weird personality and am learning to accept that this is just the way she is. And that’s OK. Silas is lucky to have you!

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    1. “My dog is weird, and that’s okay.” We should get T-shirts. I almost bought a car magnet that said, “I love my crazy dog,” but I’m not really a car-magnet person.

      Truth be told, I find happy-go-lucky dogs to be a little boring, after living with very smart, very quirky Silas.

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  2. “He’s not a lump of clay that I can shape however I want; he is a creature who desperately needs my care.”

    I love this post and can relate so much, as you know. I lucked out with my first dog, Lasya, who was self-assured and socially well-adjusted. She /was/ the take-anywhere dog, and then I adopted my second dog, Freya, who made things a bit more challenging.

    When I adopted Ruby I envisioned All the Dog Things! She was going to lie at my feet at the local coffee shop, wander the aisles of PetCo, maybe even compete in agility…

    Obviously I’ve had to let go of those aspirations, and realize as you said that it isn’t about me. I committed to adopting a dog and caring for her, not checking off selfish accomplishments.

    Of my previous two dogs, it’s Freya I think of more often. Lasya was independent and self-sufficient, she was my protector, but Freya /needed/ me. These dogs are such complicated creatures, and it’s an honor to have them in our lives.

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    1. One of the things I noticed, once I let go of taking Silas a lot of places, is that a lot of those coffee shop/pet store dogs aren’t happy to be there, either. A few of them are. You’ll see a lot of anxiety, though. I went to PetExpo and there was SO MUCH completely unrecognized dog anxiety that I wanted to shake people.

      Silas adores PetCo and accepts things there that would make him crazy elsewhere. Dogs are weird.

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  3. Oh, I love this post. I could’ve written it almost word-for-word about my little pooch. She’s around 18 months old, and highly reactive. I read Ian Dunbar, Karen Pryor and Jean Donaldson. We went to puppy class and adolescent class. I even started a local puppy socialisation/playgroup. Unfortunately, she lives more or less in constant fear of every other human being, and a lot of other dogs. Taking her on a walk is a daily mission and training session. There are about 5 people I can invite over to my place…… I think, lately, I’m just beginning to accept that she is the way she is, and instead of trying to ‘fix’ her, I have to help her live with as little anxiety and fear as possible. I love her more than I ever imagined I could love another sentient being. What bothers me the most is the complete lack of understanding from other dog owners/walkers who either insist on approaching her (because they ‘know’ dogs) or look at me like I’m a bad doggy parent. I’m thinking of starting a support group now! πŸ™‚

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    1. One of the hardest things for me is knowing when to train and when to just accept what is. If you (the universal you) can do something that will help the dog’s quality of life, even if that thing is a slow and hard process, then you have to do it. It’s just a matter of expectations. Can you get a fearful dog to not quake in terror every time Scary Thing X happens? Yes, and you should. Can you make a fearful dog into a social butterfly? Probably not, no matter how many cookies you hand out, and trying will just hurt both of you.

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      1. Absolutely – we work on it on every walk. It’s always an adventure πŸ™‚ I don’t think she’s ever going to completely lose her reactivity though, and I’m coming to realise that it’s more a case of managing it. She’s worth it!

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  4. Jenny (and anyone else who is interested) – there is a new group on FB called WOOF Support on FB started by another blogger: https://www.facebook.com/groups/WOOFSupport/ – I think it is going to be a great resource.

    I’m lucky that Ruby loves anyone who comes in the house: stranger, friend or family – as long as she can lick their face off and convince them to play tug or throw her ball. I had to be so careful with my elkhound, Freya, who took forever to warm up to people and snapped at a few (always after I’d already warned them to leave her alone).

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    1. It’s so funny to me that dogs seem to pick one neurosis or the other. Silas is selective about people outside, but there is a portion of them that he really likes. He tried to crawl in some poor lady’s lap at the vet’s office one day. But he’s so bad when anyone comes in the house that I have to leave him in his crate. (Admittedly, these people are all strangers to him. I need to go to the trouble of introducing him to some of our friends on neutral ground.) My neighbor has an elderly and very cranky dog who barks at every person she sees, including me. Went in her house one day, and cranky dog was brining me her ball to throw.

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  5. I feel the same way about Delilah, although it’s hard to remember when I catch her snarfing sh*t. πŸ™‚

    The thing about progress is we don’t always realize it until we look back. Delilah is wild and crazy but when I look back I can see how truly far she has come. Besides, she’s my wild and crazy and she’s got a huge piece of my heart.

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  6. Elli is my take-anywhere dog but I really prefer not to take her most places because she’s still very high maintenance. She’s curious about everything; most new environments mean that she’s gonna be doing nosework so her sniffer is going a million miles an hour.

    I have little experience with the hardships that come along with “needy” dogs – Elli could get along with anyone, but she favors her people if she has the choice.

    What this post made me think of is the “blank slate” theory with puppies – it’s complete nonsense. Silas may have been predisposed to what you’ve experienced with him. In the same way that I never expected Elli to be diagnosed with panosteitis when she was younger (and got over it at 18 months as her prognosis explained), Silas may have had other influences that no amount of training or socialization could have overcome. I’m really pleased to hear that you’ve accepted it. I had to undergo a similar “acceptance” period with Elli, too, though much different. It ended with me training the dog that I had and not the dog that I wanted. πŸ™‚

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  7. I love this post. When we adopted Bruce nearly three years ago, I eventually learned that I had to change my expectations of him. Once I did this, we were both happier, and things became easier.

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  8. Love this. Been there. I’m a perfectionist myself, and letting go and embracing the dogs’ imperfections rather than obsessing over them was relieving to say the least. I don’t always remember it and sometimes can still get frustrated, but I’m getting better at it myself.

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  9. You have done a wonderful job with Silas. Don’t give up on that Canine Good Citizen test. No one says there is a time limit on when it can be tested and it would be a fun long term goal. You could train toward it whether you ever take the test or not. πŸ™‚

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  10. Wow, I can really relate to this. I also assumed when I adopted Kaya as a puppy that I could turn her into that ideal, go everywhere with me dog. I spent a lot of time being frustrated that she was too high strung to do many things. Yet I somehow managed to turn her unruly hyperactivity into diligent obedience so we can enjoy so many off leash things together but I very rarely bring her shopping or out to eat. It also pains me to see those people who take out anxious dogs and those ones who aggressively defend their table when out to eat. The owners always giggle and tell the dog to stop it half-heartedly.

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