When I got Leelah Bean in 2010, I chose her based on temperament. To date, I had worked through my dogs’ human based aggression, dog-dog aggression, separation anxiety, thunderphobia, canine compulsive disorder, marking, osteochondrosis dessicans…oh my, I was so ready for a normal puppy. [Of course, when I told my friends that, their immediate reply was, “well, then, why are you getting a border collie?” Ha. Ha.]
Leelah and her sibs were whelped in rescue and you can’t begin to imagine the perfect puppy-raising experience they all had! From day one, they had Excel sheets tracking their social exposure, handling practice, and enrichment. Almost every week I would drive six hours round-trip to see them, to hold them and, eventually, temperament test them. The day I brought Leelah Bean home, I was filled with joy over this fluffy nugget of a pup filled with sweetness and comfortable curiosity.
Cradling her in my arms, I got out of the car to head inside my house and get her situated in her ex-pen. I promptly tripped and, to avoid landing on her, turned over and landed flat on my back with her kerplunking on my chest. My other two dogs raced over, instantly over-stimulated and freaked out. I’m pretty sure someone bit her on the face. I don’t know, I was barely conscious. She seemed to recover (certainly better than me) but I should have known it was a message of things to come.
Fast forward through three years, 389 training classes, 4300 structured play-dates and countless hours of agility & obedience training. My little bomb-proof girl made me proud. She handled everything with grace and skill.
But then, suddenly, she didn’t. It was like one day she woke up and decided that sanity wasn’t much fun and perhaps she’d give being totally cracked out a try. Clearly, cracked out won. Soon, bomb-proof was a distant memory and instead I had a growing list of bullets to dodge every day.
Don’t use the Soda stream. Do not open the second drawer by the silverware. Do NOT tear aluminum foil. Do not allow boarding dogs out of their crates first. Do not get out of bed after the sun is up and open the bedroom door. Do not shut off the computer. Do not have the volume on while taking phone pictures. As a matter of fact, don’t even point the camera at her while thinking about taking a picture.
That’s a completely real list. To do any of the things listed above resulted in her letting out some primal shrieking bark while racing around at top speed, grabbing anything in her path and viciously shaking it while managing to growl and shriek all at once.
What?? WHO WAS THIS DOG? Ugh. Just…ugh. It was like I had spent all this time training her and I didn’t even see the crazy slowly cracking through. Then, it finally burst open and erupted into full-on, all consuming CRAZY.
I remembered one of my mentors who told me, “every time you get a new dog, it’s a new opportunity to find a way to screw them up”. I had been so cocky, so careful to cover my bases with her. Again, U.G.H.
So, there we were. Me and my well-socialized, well-trained FREAK of a dog who blew me off, ran away from me, triggered everyone else with her outbursts and generally made me want to cry. I devised training plans that I never implemented because they were plain inconvenient. Who wants to leash their dog first thing in the morning and try to heel her downstairs while groggy and in dire need of coffee? I fell into a pattern where I procrastinated training her because it was a miserable experience for both of us, then got upset about feeling that way, avowed to start fresh the next day, andddd repeat. I developed a certain level of apathy about her behavior. “That’s just who she is” became my mantra – in part to help me accept and love this new side of her and in part because I felt helpless about changing her.
I’m telling you, the weirdest dynamics creep into our relationships with our pets. Here I was, an incredibly skilled, reputable trainer – specializing in extreme phobias and aggression – and I became a wet noodle when it came to the Bean spazzing out. It wasn’t a THING. Instead, it was all the time and space in-between things. Like, just my plain every day living was driving her insane. I felt like she didn’t like me anymore. I offended her in the simplest of gestures like trying to make myself a seltzer or put leftovers away. I took it personally (without realizing it) and that, my friends, is the Achilles heel of successful training.
Oy. It gets worse.
I was taking another one of my dogs, Tally, to competition obedience lessons. So, we’re doing our thing but making slow progress. Why? Because, I couldn’t really practice at home. That was another item on Leelah’s list of Do NOTs. Do NOT attempt to train another dog. I literally could not put her anywhere on my property where her screaming would stop. It ruined training for everyone. Elise – 0, Leelah Bean – 1 [thousand].
So, one day, I took Leelah Bean to my lesson with Tally, introducing her with the same enthusiasm as a pimple on my face. My instructor was oohing and ahhing over her, I was trying to hush the applause so I could explain how my flirty little girl dog is messing.everything.up.
I’m going to fast forward again, this time one year. My incredibly patient instructor listened to my excuses and whining regarding Leelah. She gave me advice when I was ready to hear it. At times, she pushed me outside my comfort zone enough to really challenge how I thought about my dogs. One of the cool things about working with an instructor you trust is when you try something they tell you…AND IT WORKS! That’s the best. It still feels like magic to me.
But just like Leelah didn’t magically go bonkers, she and I did not magically become a flawless team, either. In the end, it was the same principles that guide all training and behavior modification. I’m not one to blame the owner [seriously, this stuff gets complicated!] but I was a lot of the problem. I failed to adapt when presented with a different set of variables. I temporarily failed her.
Today is her 5th birthday. I’m not gonna lie and say we’re perfect. But…BUT…I adore this dog as much, if not more, than I did the day I brought her home. This sassy creature keeps me on my toes like no other. I don’t get the blind adoration that comes with my border collie boys, I get PROVE IT from her…EARN it.
And I’m totally up for the challenge. I’m so excited to see what we can accomplish together!
Happy Birthday, Leelah Bean. Thank you to NEBCR for bringing her into my life, Lynn Dunster and Amy Hershberger for raising her so well, Brenda Aloff for helping me build her foundation and Lara Dudzic Avery for helping me find my way back from cray-cray land.