Confession time… sometimes I forget that my dogs are dogs, and not humans. Other than sounding completely crazy, it also means I inadvertently put completely unrealistic expectations on them. Anyone else guilty of this?
Let me give you an example...
We have been retraining Pickle's recall and loose lead walking for about 5 months now. We've been doing this by ditching our routine (every day is slightly different), by ditching the bowl (none of our girls have eaten out of a bowl since sometime in March), by ditching the walks for several months (to avoid rehearsal and training in the situation), and by introducing games-based training. Why was Pickle struggling with recall and loose lead walking? Well it’s quite simple really, I started training her when she was young, got it pretty good but never 100%, then did nothing as it dwindled away to almost non-existent. Totally my fault.
Now some humans will tell you their dog doesn’t come back when called because they are stubborn, a slave to their nose, just love everyone and want to say hello etc. But what they are actually struggling with is seeing that you, the owner, are more valuable, more interesting, more exciting than whatever they are engaging with in the environment – be it a lovely smell, another human, a dog, a bouncing rabbit. It’s a punch to the guts for sure when you realise your dog prefers just about anything out there over being within close proximity to you. More often than not, dogs just like our Pickle, are not only struggling with proximity, but they are also struggling to disengage from these fabulously exciting things in the environment, and they struggle to think when their brain is in a high state of arousal when faced with these exciting things. Now for some dogs you can replace excitement with scary or frustrating, but if they are struggling, the result will be the same.
Previous to starting this training, if Pickle was off lead and caught a scent or saw something fun to chase, she was off. On a couple of occasions she did this right on dusk and was gone for almost 2 hours. Insert an image of me trudging through misty rain and mud with a torch searching for her through farmland. It got that bad that we got her a GPS tracker that she had on all the time. Being the ridiculously flawed humans that we are, we still let her off the lead. Yep, we were those people. Literally the definition of insanity doing the same thing and expecting a different outcome. Idiots.
Now flash back to just a few weeks ago and insert my overachieving, stage mother thought process when we were on a walk and we came across a couple of dogs. Keeping in mind that this was at the end of our walk and up until this point, her focus had been on point even when faced with multiple dogs, cows, delicious poop etc. She was checking in with me regularly when on her short and long lead, walked beautifully next to me with a loose lead, basically gave me all of her attention over everything else - until we came across these dogs.
She just could not disengage from them. She pulled to the end of her lead and just stood there like I was nothing. Really, I was just a bit hurt because I'd been made to feel so special for the entire walk and now, I was dead to her. I stood silent and just waited for her to give me an indication that she was disengaging from them, just a small movement of her head, a step back of the paw... nothing came. The dogs continued to walk off in the opposite direction and at some point, they hit that magic distance where Pickle was once again able to disengage from that exciting thing and I was once again alive in her mind. Over dramatized? Completely. But this is how I felt. Upset and completely deflated (me not her) we finished the last portion of our walk, Pickle checking in and walking on a lovely loose lead. But, that one incident had left a dark thunder cloud hovering above my head.
Now it took me until I got home to shake that nonsense off. And it really was nonsense. Why was I letting one 'hiccup' on the walk, ruin what was otherwise a great walk? And when I took the time to break it down, it wasn't a failure at all. A few months ago, faced with the same situation, Pickle would have been pulling and jumping at the end of the lead. On this day she pulled the lead tight and stopped. The old Pickle would have been barking and screaming with frustration that she couldn't get to that super fun experience. On this day she stood there quietly. All massive improvements. This was also at the end of a walk where her 'bucket' was already full from all the fun she had had on her walk and she simply couldn't make the choice to disengage because her arousal levels were too high. She wasn’t ignoring me, it was simply too hard for her to make that choice in that moment.
So, after this reflection, it turns out it wasn't a terrible failing. I was simply expecting too much. But not only that, I had completely forgotten where we started just a few short months ago. Pickle has had three years of rehearsing this unwanted behaviour. Three. Whole. Years. Think about that. What is something that you have been doing as part of your daily routine for the last few years? Now give yourself the mental capacity of a 5-year-old, and consider how easy would it be to train you to stop doing it? Not a fast process that’s for sure! So why do we always expect our dogs to change their behaviour so quickly? Reshaping your dog's brain is not a speedy process, and yes, even I forget that sometimes and get frustrated.
I suppose what I really want to say is - be forgiving during the learning process. Forgiving of yourself and your dog. Don't compare yourself (or your dog) to that owner or dog you saw on your walk that was behaving perfectly. One dog's strength is another dog's struggle and what your dog nails every time, another dog won't - it's just that you don't necessarily see that. Comparison and judgement help no-one. So, take a breath and remember we are simply aiming for better, not perfect.
Until next time, enjoy the journey of becoming a mindful pet owner.