Picture perfect dogs
Scout turns eight years old this fall. He is my wolfdog, my light, my love, my life. Over the years, he has acquired many names. Pants is one of those, because he was a scardy pants when I first met him. Everything spooked him. From people to a leaf swirling in a soft Arizona breeze. Pantalones, because he was raised close to Mexico. Jorge, for the fun of it. And on early morning walks, I call him mr. Fuss.
As mellow and cool Scout may seem to be, he turns into a whirlwind of excitement and fur when he meets the scents that rise with evaporating dew. He tugs the leash, jumps from this spot to the next, whines when I'm not catching up quickly enough, and if at this unfortunate time another dog should pass, he barks at him. He doesn't really lunge for the dog. Instead, he does what I call the 'Jack Sparrow', when he gets up on his back legs and swirves a bit. It is impossible for me to take his attempt to spook the other dog serious, as he rather makes a fool of himself. My lack of angry anticipation at this point causes him to calm down rather fast. After about a kilometer or so, he's done being mr. Fuss. His pace slows down, he lowers his tail, and the rest of the walk, he trots meekly by my side. Almost like the picture perfect dog that is so much bragged about at dog schools. Ha! If only they knew.
In fact, mr. Fuss more or less resembles myself at a bookstore. Without any clue about social ettiquette, I reach for those covers that attract me the most. I run from one shelf to the other, grab a book, put it down and lunge for another. And if some unfortunate person hovers over the book I was just about to grab, I'll probably push him aside or mumble 'Hey, I've put my scent on this aisle. Get lost.'
If I were a dog and someone put me on a leash, annoyingly trying to get me to 'heel', I would lose it. Let's face it. I'd be that dog that needs a chain leash because I'd chew through any other. This is why I'm such a great match with odd-behaving dogs. We get each other.
Throughout the training, my excitement would reach an overload because it wouldn't be satisfying, and that very last book at the very end of the aisle, would always seem to be the most interesting to me.
But, no one puts a leash on me. And because my mother socialized me well, I do have social ettiquette. Whenever I step into a bookstore, I still get ridiculously excited. I still walk from one cover to the other, until I've satisfied my most immediate craze. After that, I calm down. My tail goes down, I lower my ears, and I gently trot through one aisle after the other, and walk out with about ten books I might not ever read.
See, after a few years of frustration and hopeless training attempts, I came to the point most humans with wolfdogs will recognize. I decided to compromise.
Scout guided me through much of my course in becoming a dog trainer, even though he was never fully a dog. He taught me many things, and one of his most important lessons, was to let go of this picture perfect idea on how a dog should behave at any given time or place. Us humans have made it to be more about ourselves than about our dogs. It's us who feel ridiculous when our dogs pull the leash, it's us who are embarrassed when our dog barks at other dogs.
What I've learned from Scout, is that training techniques are often futile when it comes to this point. Instead, try to find out exactly why your dog is showing this behavior. In case of mr. Fuss, it is purely about excitement. But maybe your dog is actually nervous on walks. Maybe he's a little scared of anything that might come at him in the big lawless world. Or maybe he's frustrated about something entirely different, and he brings that energy along when he takes you out for your walk. The best way to find out, is to stop flipping through dog training manuals, stop listening to trainers contradicting eachother on television, and to start looking at your dog. Listen to your dog. How does he feel? And how can you help him feel more relaxed?
Back when Scout was Mr. Scardy Pants, I decided to show him that the world was an allright place. That I would have his back in case he needed it. I took him to all sorts of places. Into the desert, into the woods, into the pet store, into the home supplies store, and much later, when he was officially my emotional support animal, I pretty much took him everywhere. I introduced him to men with and without beards, tall men, short men, women, African American people, Asian people, Mexican people, kids, bunnies, parrots, cacti, trees, rain, thunder and cats. And we did all this together, slowly and relaxed, at his pace. Mostly, we sat on a bench and just watched life. Or browsed through stores where we didn't buy anything, except for the occasional cookie that dissapeared into his mouth at Petco. After about a year, Mr. Pants bloomed into a dependable, gentle giant who accompanied me to work at doggie day care every day. This is where he turned into the Pantalones he still is today.
I guess what I am trying to say, is that it's ok. It's ok if your dog doesn't fit into the picture perfect profile. How boring would that be anyway. It's ok if your dog gets a little excited sometimes. It's even ok if your dog uses his voice towards other dogs.
What it comes down to, is clear communication. When your understanding of dog is as good as your dogs understanding of human, you arrive at a solemn place that's called mutual understanding. And when you achieve this, you are both in control of every situation. You are then able to anticipate, avoid escalation and restore peace and calm. Your dog will be more in touch with you, and you will enhance your safety.
Here's what it's all about: safety. Not performance, not reputation. Safety.
Socialisation and mutual understanding is so much more important than obedience training. Tell your dog Jorge said that. I'm sure he will understand.
(Published originally in September 2016.)