What I’m struggling to say is this:

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There have been some very important conversations about punishment this week in my blog reader. I’ve been trying to write an eloquent response, like Pamela and Lara did, but instead I’m flailing, struggling to say something that is further from the science and closer to the heart.

I have a dog who cannot be punished without long-term behavioral repercussions. Silas is a sweet, fragile guy, with an excellent memory. I am extremely careful to avoid even accidental punishments, like praising him too loudly.

That is, I spend considerable time, energy, and sometimes even money, making sure that the world is the least aversive it can possibly be for him. I do this because I want him to improve. I also do it because if his behavior deteriorates his life will be at risk.

Silas is obviously an extreme case, but I wouldn’t change my basic philosophy even for a different, more robust dog.

Because here’s what I’ve learned, from treating my sensitive dog as sympathetically and gently as I possibly can:

Love.

By “love,” I don’t mean affection. Lots of dogs adore people who treat them quite badly, and most of those same people feel quite warmly toward their dogs.

I mean the big, challenging, messy stuff. I mean feeling sad and happy, hopeless and excited, exhausted and exhilarated, on behalf of a creature who quite possibly has no idea what most of those feelings even are. I mean putting someone else first, finding that difficult, having to do it anyway, and coming out the other side into a joy like no other, and then doing it again, and again, and again.

It is a tremendous reward, with a tremendous price.

You cannot get to that kind love by a shortcut (like following the advice of well-intentioned bloggers), or by being “the boss,” or by “just doing what needs to be done,” or by “knowing what’s best.”

Not every soul has identical needs, which means that compassion doesn’t always look exactly the same. It is, however, the only path to real love.

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You’re Going to Make Mistakes

While I let Silas off the hook of being “perfect” years ago, I have a little harder time with myself.

Which is why I’m here to remind you that you are going to make mistakes with your dog. It’s not a question of “if,” it’s a question of “when” and “what do I do now?”

Every dog trainer makes mistakes. For those of us with less well-balanced dogs, it’s painfully obvious when we screw something up. Anxious dogs have long memories, and they seldom “get over it” no matter how much time you let pass. Overestimate their abilities to handle a situation, and you can undo a lot of hard work.

It’s easy to say “be more careful,” and then beat yourself up when something goes wrong, but that doesn’t help you or your dog.

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Here’s my example from today:

Silas and I were playing a retrieving game. It was going great.

Then it went off the rails. First, I got greedy. He was having so much fun! It was our best retrieving in months! So I thought “Let’s do just one more!” (Pro tip: train yourself to say, in response to that little voice, “Nah, we’re good.”) Except the one more was really slow and kind of bad. “I don’t want to end on that! I’ll do one more, so we can stop on one of the great ones.” DANGER. ABORT MISSION. The last retrieve was perfect! I was so excited! I threw a big excited party, like all those trainers tell you to!

Except noise-sensitive Silas, focused on the second ball I was holding, wasn’t expecting a big party. He dropped his poor ball like it was a hot coal and cowered in terror.

Now, despite my best efforts at damage control in the moment, he is apparently terrified both of his ball and of bringing me things. (Yeah, this is really going to be a big setback on the retrieve front.)

And here’s where letting go of perfection is useful.

Instead of wallowing in self pity (although I might have, for just a minute, and that’s okay too), I am making a plan. When Silas wakes up from his nap, we’re going to do some hand-touches with high-value rewards. The absolutely most important thing is to make sure that he doesn’t get skittish about running up to me, so I’m going to go back and re-invest heavily in that step.

I’m also going to do some free-shaping games with the offending ball. (Depending on how this goes, I may change over to a different ball, but I don’t think he’s quite that frightened.) We’ll progress from there back to the retrieve game only once he’s comfortable with the toy again.

In a completely different context (probably with his favorite tug) I am going to work on his tolerance for sudden noise while he plays, just in case I forget myself in the moment again.

You’re going to make mistakes. Accept it, let it go, get on with a plan.

Be The Change for Animals: Heal Yourself

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I didn’t have a Blog the Change/Be the Change post lined up for today. Then the Universe kicked me in a not-subtle way, when a friend of a friend shared something on Facebook. That blog post, from a blog I don’t read and know nothing about, seemed so stunningly appropriate that I couldn’t keep it to myself.

Go read it. It’s short.

To allow oneself to be carried away by a multitude of conflicting concerns, to surrender to too many demands, to commit oneself to too many projects, to want to help everyone in everything is to succumb to violence.–Thomas Merton

Compassion fatigue is a real thing. It’s especially pernicious in people who work with animals.

We can wear ourselves so thin trying to save the world that, ironically, we are unable to act. We perpetuate the violence of the world on our own selves, in ways both small and tragically, devastatingly large.

If all you can do today is to take care of your own animals, do that. Do it without punishing yourself. Do it with love. Let yourself find joy in it.

The bigger fight will still be there when you come back.

 

Five Things We Couldn’t Do Before

Today’s trip to the park was nothing short of miraculous. At least five things happened that would never have happened this time last year.

1. Voluntary checking in. What happened to Mr. I Can’t Look At You I Have To Constantly Scan For Danger?!

Autumnal Equinox at the park

2. Sniffing a tree. No, wait, that one has always happened. How about continuing to calmly sniff the tree even after a strange man (in a hat!) walked up out of the bushes? Not the trail. The bushes.

Autumnal Equinox at the park

3. Eating some cookies.

Autumnal Equinox at the park

4. Loose-leash walking. He’s always had terrible leash manners at this park, because there’s no clearly defined trail.

Autumnal Equinox at the park

5. Sitting down, hanging out, watching the cars go by. (!!!)

Autumnal Equinox at the park

 

A very good day.

I used our first good car trip to go to the vet

In April Silas started refusing to get in the car. All summer, my husband and I have been working with him. We went on dozens of “happy” trips as a family, because Silas was more comfortable with both of us. A few weeks ago, I took him to the park solo, and it was just a little premature. He started off happy to go, then balked at the last minute and had to be really encouraged to get on in the car. So I haven’t taken him again. Instead, we’ve done a few more happy family trips.

At the same time, Silas’s stomach has been pretty bad for the last few weeks. He has a vaguely diagnosed underlying stomach problem, separate from his food allergies. His vet thinks it’s acid reflux, and she seems confident enough in this diagnosis that we’ve never done additional tests. He wakes up and doesn’t want to eat, then he feels bad because he didn’t eat. Some days, but not often, he’ll throw up.

It comes and goes in phases. For some reason, it seems to pick up whenever we’re doing more training. I don’t know if the connection is my imagination, if having too many rich training treats upsets his stomach, or if Silas is just naturally regulating his calorie intake and upsetting his stomach in the process.

When I looked back at my records this morning, I realized that he’s eaten breakfast two times in the last two weeks. He’s also been basically sleeping 23.5 hours a day. His Whistle reported 12 minutes of activity yesterday, and 15 the day before.

I’ve been really, really hesitant to take him to the vet, because I didn’t want to “ruin” the car. But, enough was enough, and he had to go.

He leapt into that car like he’s never even thought of being terrified by it. I, on the other hand, felt like the biggest jerk in the history of jerks.


It was a good vet visit. Silas was nervous, but all things considered he’s a champ at the vet. He walked into the exam room and tried to jump up on the table. Lots of stress signals during his exam (lip licking, ears down, panting), but he was a good patient. No barking or teeth showing or anything. Then he jumped all over the vet, licked her face, and tried to make her hold him. (Seriously? He doesn’t even try to make me hold him.)

He also ate his weight in hypoallergenic veterinary diet cookies. According to the vet, no dog has ever liked those cookies, and here’s my picky eater with the nausea problem chowing down. Oh, Silas.

The verdict is that his acid reflux is, indeed, all that’s wrong. He’s not losing weight, he’s very rarely throwing up, his teeth are “amazing,” and his physical exam didn’t seem off in any way.

We’re going to try to give his Pepcid last thing at night, since he won’t take it in the morning, and see if that gets him through the morning blerghs. I’m also going to change up his training cookies to something a little easier on his stomach.

And maybe, if I’m very lucky, he’ll get in the car with me again one day.

Lifetime Goals

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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.