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Letting Down Our Dogs?

One of my loveliest clients from Westfield texted me this today. I’ve edited out identifying information to protect the client’s privacy.

Hey Elise. Have you ever once, in your many years of experience being a doggie mother, been in a funk and kinda felt like you should be doing more with your dogs but you don’t seem to have the energy? I feel so bad that [my dog] isn’t getting all the attention he needs constantly. I’ve been struggling quite a bit this past year. When I got a dog, I knew it’d be a lot of work..but I kinda feel like I have a “special needs dog” and it can be tough. I feel like a bad parent 🙁

Here was my response…

Of course I get in funks. I got Tally during a huge breakup followed by me spending almost six months in Pittsburgh caring for my dying grandmother…so he basically raised himself…and you can tell! Life happens and if you have a difficult dog it’s even trickier. The beautiful thing about dogs is that they live in the moment. So, when you’re ready, he will be right there with you, ready to learn and get back on track. Until then, don’t forgot he’s still very very lucky to have someone that understands him and loves him and his special needs. A lot of people would’ve given up and just thrown him in the back yard or given him away. Be kind to yourself about [your dog].

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Here is Tally looking deceptively sleepy. Notice the wide eyes. He’s always looking for the next big thing.

Tally is my youngest border collie, for those of you new to my blog. My next post should be about the trials and tribulations of trying to keep up with him in our training. But, that’s for another day. Today, I was left thinking about how many of my clients feel that they have somehow failed their dogs by a lack of trying or a lack of training.

I tell my clients every day that, most often, people do NOT get dogs so that they can spend hundreds of dollars on behavior modification and training. People do NOT get dogs so that their lives can be thrown into a state of complete upheaval and they find that, one day, every doorway in their house has a baby gate and they have more Kongs than dishes in the dishwasher. This is not why we get dogs. We do not get them so that we can ration out food during training or…worse, ration out affection for good behavior.

We get dogs for companionship, to snuggle with, to love. My client’s text today also made me think of my mother, who recently had her little King Charles Cavalier die in her arms (old age). Yesterday, my mom was telling me the joy he brought to her life. How, for the past few years, their routine had become one where between 9-10pm he decided it was bedtime. He would kick his feet back and motion to her as if to say, come on, let’s go! She felt he was saying that another day with the outside world was finally done and now cuddle time could start. This was a little dog with his priorities straight.

THAT is why we get dogs. For that unconditional love, the ease of being together, the consistency of the attachment, the simplicity and total lack of judgment. Why else would we sacrifice so much time and money dedicating ourselves to an animal we KNOW will die in about a decade?

So, when we get a lemon, it’s a game-changer. A lemon literally changed my life and his name was Kai. My fearful, sick border collie took me from Boston to the country and changed my career from program director to dog trainer/behavior consultant. My lemon challenged how I thought about everything. Like the choice so many of my clients face, he was a dog that I could either fix or euthanize. He wasn’t rehomeable. There was no ‘farm with lots of room to run’ that wanted him.

My lemon, Kai. I miss him every day.

My lemon, Kai. I miss him every day.

So, were there days I just didn’t feel up for the challenge? Absolutely! I remember one day walking him when I lived in Amherst and he jumped, then landed wrong and started limping. I sat down in the middle of the road and just started bawling. I could not take one.more.thing. Oh, that dog. Well, as you know, I stuck with him and don’t regret it for a second.

But with him, as well as my other three, there are always days – and sometimes months – where I am so burned out on training that I simply can’t bring myself to spend that five minutes working on a skill. I manage their crazy behavior, crate them when guests are over, and I’ll tell you…I don’t feel guilty about it. One of the things those lemons teach you is that there is no practical purpose for guilt. It’s useless with dogs. They don’t benefit from it and neither do you. When I tell my guys, hey, this is how it’s gonna be for a while because I am exhausted and burnt, they’re like, whatever, chica, we’re dogs. They continue to put toys in my lap and casually walk across my coffee table to get from point A to point B. It’s not ideal but it’s fine. Because, like my mom’s experience with her Cav, when it comes to be nighttime there’s a point where they are waiting for me to go to bed. I never really thought about it before she said it to me but there IS something really special about this.

At the end of the day, when all is said and done, we crawl in bed. Maybe with our dogs, maybe just in the same room with them. We might be thinking about the day that’s ending or perhaps the one coming up. For me, my mom, and so many other dog lovers out there, it’s the time when we have a very sweet and simple routine of doing some talking, some cuddling and even laughing. Every night without fail, Rowan accidentally stands on my hair. I laugh and tell him to move (by the way, this is where the command of hand targeting is exceedingly helpful) and he happily trots to a different spot on the bed to spend the next 8 hours.

I would posit that whether you have an all-star competitor or a lemon, you still have the opportunity for these moments of connectedness. I’m not saying that

No kidding! ON THE TABLE!

No kidding! ON THE TABLE!

these moments null the need for training (seriously, as I am typing this I can see Leelah Bean outside on the porch table. Yes, ON the table). It’s the ability for training (or exercise or discipline) to wax and wane while that wonderful connection remains intact. Without the connection, no one would be fretting about the training because why would it really matter? So, the very fact that someone is worrying that they aren’t doing enough for their dog is a sign, to me, that plenty is being done.

And with that being said, goodnight all. It’s time to wrap up another day and see what the rest of the week has in store for us! Enjoy the night and the beautiful (and/or sometimes challenging) connection you have with your dog or cat.

This is the bedtime positioning on the staircase, as demonstrated by Rowan

This is the bedtime positioning on the staircase, as demonstrated by Rowan