Put A Cushion Around Your Dog
February 22, 2017
Simple Questions, Simple Answers
February 22, 2017

Reality Check

Norman Mailer was a well known philanderer. He loved women, or at least loved loving them. He worked his way through five marriages and countless affairs by time he married Norris Church. According to her in her memoir, "A Ticket to the Circus" Mailer actually wished to give fidelity and monogamy a try, wanted to see what intimacy and depth might be possible in a faithful relationship. That lasted about six years before he had an affair. But he did try...When people asked Norris which wife she was, she answered, "The last one." Which she was. I love that answer.

What on earth does Norman Mailer and his lifelong series of affairs and his last wife Norris Church Mailer have to do with dog training? It's about behavior and expectations.

Who knows (or particularly cares) why Mailer lived his life as he did. Sufficient to note that he could be a poster child for past behavior being the best predictor of future behavior. Or, put more colloquially and offering a far more lovely visual, "a leopard cannot change its spots." Whether you prefer the OC lingo or the folk wisdom, both are true --- but also inaccurate. People (and animals) can and do change.

Not easily, perhaps not permanently, perhaps pressure causes a reversion (falling off the wagon, if you will), but altering behavior is possible and successful. Within limits. But what are the limits? How far can you push an animal (or anyone) to be something other than what they are? How malleable is "personality"? temperament? How ethical is it for us to decide what is "right" and what needs to be "fixed"?

For me, I'm interested in the animal being as functional and comfortable in their life as they can possibly be. That means minimizing or eliminating sources of fear, anxiety and/or pain/discomfort. That means giving them the skills as well as the limits and the freedom that help them achieve a sense of security in their world. That often means accepting that it's a big world out there, and for many dogs, they'd just as soon not have to deal with most of it -- a small, safe, predictable chunk of life is good for them, thanks.

WIsh I had a dollar for every person I've dealt with who asked me how to help a fearful, anxious, terrified, unsocialized and/or disinterested dog learn to "enjoy themselves more" or "be less afraid at agility trials" or "not shut down at the Rally ring because the judge is in there too" or "love car rides and be able go everywhere with me!" There is a part of me that understands for many people, the message they get from all around them is that really loving a dog means providing this class and that activity and "building confidence!" through this or that and pushing the dog to do more, more, more.

But there is another part of me that wonders in sad amazement, "Why are you doing this to this dog?" I know people who have spent years (no exaggeration - some as much as three to five years) getting a terrified dog to the point where the dog can actually move, breathe and eat in a class setting. Why? I try to imagine taking these people to some activity that terrified and gobsmacked them -- and doing it for years, every week, sometimes several times a week. Spider & Snake Hugging classes, anyone?

Sometimes, allowing an animal a safe, predictable life that is sized to suit his needs is the kindest approach, provided you've given him the skills to cope with that which cannot be avoided -- dealing with being kenneled, restrained, examined/handled by someone other than the main handler(s), treated by a vet.

Wish I had just a nickel for every person I've worked with who had wildly unrealistic expectations for their dogs. The bloodhound handler annoyed by her dog's constant sniffing. The countless retriever owners furious with their young Lab or Golden's insistence on putting everything in their mouth and carrying it around! The herding breed owners upset by their dog's nipping at people's heels, reactions to moving objects, bicycle and jogger chasing behavior. The Greyhound owner who called me in tears because her darling had grabbed and killed a rabbit while on leash walking down a park path. The Sheltie and Collie owners who inform me that they had "no choice" but to debark their barky dogs. The Old English owners who kept their dogs clipped in short coats. The German Shepherd and Dobe and Rottie owners exasperated by their dogs' alarm barking and sometimes suspicious nature towards strangers. And for owners of every stripe with dogs of every color, disbelief and impatience and frustration with dogs who are being, well, dogs.

Norris Church Mailer sums it all up in one lovely & memorable phrase: "I bought a ticket to the circus. I don't know why I was surprised to see elephants."

Some days, I think my work as a trainer is largely that of explaining the circus to the ticket holders. Circus peanuts, anyone?


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"Reality Check" by Suzanne Clothier

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