It’s All a Matter of Perspective

I just got back from teaching in northern California. Although the seminar itself was fun and well received, the weather wasn’t quite as wonderful. In fact, my flight home Sunday evening was cancelled due to heavy storms, so I was stranded until Monday. Fortunately, my friend Lisa Spector of Through a Dog’s Ear, with whom I’d spent the day Sunday, was kind enough to rescue me from the airport and let me stay overnight at her place.

Lisa has two fabulous dogs. Gina is a smallish, young black Lab with a sweet disposition and plenty of energy. Sanchez is a seven-year-old mellow yellow Lab with white around his muzzle and a knowing, soulful look in his eyes. I loved Sanchez on sight and I dare say the feeling was mutual. Lisa and I had been chatting quite a bit about our dogs throughout our visit (shocking, eh?), and I’d gotten a glimpse of their lifestyle. It’s interesting how the things one dog owner takes for granted can be completely alien to another. For example, we’d spent some time at a quaint shopping area where restaurants and shops lined crowded, narrow sidewalks. The location was, like much of northern California, very dog-friendly. Gina and Sanchez kicked back under our small outdoor table (the sun had momentarily peeked out) as Lisa and I ate dinner at a small Greek restaurant. It was still cold outside, but it warmed me to watch Lisa relaxing with her dogs without having to worry that another dog might pass, possibly causing lunging, barking, and flying fur.

Back at the car, Sanchez sat quite calmly, his leash having been removed, until Lisa cued him to hop up into his crate. I thought about how I would never have been able to do that with Sierra. Sierra has one of the strongest prey drives of any dog I’ve known, and it only takes one brief glimpse of movement for her to be off like a flash, regardless of how many recalls and hours of practice have been spent. Car-hopping on a busy street? Probably not in her future.

At Lisa’s house, I asked whether I should put my suitcase and other belongings somewhere the dogs couldn’t get to them. Lisa looked a bit puzzled as she answered that her dogs wouldn’t bother my things, and that they really never get into anything that’s left lying around. Okay, on what planet would that ever happen with my dogs? If it’s on the floor—or a counter, or higher up where they can figure out how to climb up—it’s fair game. So…really? People live like this, where it’s second-nature to bring their dogs around other dogs, allow them off-leash, and don’t have to worry that they’ll destroy the house? Okay, okay. Training and management help. I’ve done both in spades, and the quest continues. But some dogs are just naturally easier.

Lisa is an all-around fabulous dog owner who has gotten involved in agility, dancing with dogs, and is very invested in meeting her dogs’ needs. But she does admit that Sanchez was somewhat of a handful when he was younger. Even allowing for age (Sierra and Bodhi are both around two), I have to say mine are probably still much more difficult. I say this not with any sort of ill-placed pride, but with a sigh and a sense of resignation. Lisa’s dogs were bred to be Guide Dogs (she adopted them after they were “career changed”), which probably translates to a more mellow gene pool than that of a who-knows-how-she was-bred husky-keeshond-something-wild mix and a malamute-German shepherd-who- knows-what mix. I adopted both dogs from the shelter, and with all the existing issues, teenage destructiveness, and stress that came along with them, there have been times I’ve wished I’d just started with a puppy. Of course, there are plenty of great shelter dogs; it’s just that the breeds I’m attracted to aren’t “easy,” and sometimes taking on a dog who has been dumped—in Sierra’s case, she was a four-time shelter dog—can be a challenge. I’ve almost gotten used to the amount of daily exertion it takes to meet their exercise needs, the time and effort I continually put into working with their behavior issues, and the constant management required to keep my house and belongings intact. But I have to admit that glimpse into a more relaxed lifestyle with one’s dogs made me a bit wistful.

I have hope that as my dogs’ behavior improves over time, things will become easier. Looking back to when we first got Bodhi, he destroyed something almost each and every night. We couldn’t crate him due to a urinary incontinence issue, and tethering him in any way caused panic; but that’s another story. He now sleeps calmly through the night, unless of course he and Sierra are out exchanging howls with the coyotes. At least there are no longer any unpleasant surprises when I wake up in the morning. And at first, Bodhi jumped on us constantly, and mouthed hard and incessantly. Now, although his mind still seems to take a leave of absence from his body if he’s extremely aroused, and teeth do still end up on my skin now and then, it’s much better than it was. His pushiness, in the form of inserting his body into any tiny crevice left between Sierra and me when I’m petting her, has dialed back a few degrees. I’ve taught him that if he wants attention he must be lying down, and that works more and more of the time.

Bodhi is also behaving better around other dogs on leash, although it’s a work in progress. Whereas he used to automatically lunge and bark, he will now walk “with me” (my words for “heel”) and take treats, albeit sometimes with a whine and a gleam in his eye that says he’d still really like to go show that other dog what a tough dog he is. Both dogs have learned tricks, and of course, basic obedience. Bodhi is no longer afraid of my husband and, in fact, seems to adore him. Bodhi and Sierra’s relationship has also grown. They play well together, and are well-matched wrestling buddies. I no longer worry that the jaw sparring, up-on-hind-legs rough play is going to boil over into aggression, as they have become adept at reading each other’s signals and knowing when to back off.

And so, although my dogs are not the off-leash, laid back, dog-friendly dogs that I’d love for them to be—and they may never be—they have come quite a way in the time we’ve had them. Are they good dogs? It’s all a matter of perspective. From where I sit, they’ve got potential.

NOTE: I’ve now got a Facebook Author page. Be sure to click on “like” if you’d like to hear the latest from me. I’ve just posted a seriously silly outtake from the PR photo shoot Sierra and I did together.

5 Responses to It’s All a Matter of Perspective

  1. Thank you for posting this! My dog is a handful, and as a professional trainer, I often encounter owners who are quick to say ‘but you’re a dog trainer!’ and wonder why my dog isn’t perfect. So many people don’t understand that training is a process for everyone, pros included. Also that it takes time, and that who the dog is has to be considered and accepted.

  2. Kristine says:

    You know, I know a lot more dog trainers who own dogs with similar issues, than I do with perfect dogs. I think it is part of being a trainer, you are a lot more willing, even energized, to take on the tougher cases. You’ll save the easier dogs for less experienced owners and won’t back down from a challenge. I think, personally, that this is a good thing. I would much rather a “problem” dog be with someone who will recognize where their struggles are and be willing to take the time to work with them. Even when it gets really hard.

    Yay for dogs with so much potential and the trainers strong enough to help them fulfill it!

  3. Dave Lukosik says:

    Thanks Nicole for your Wolfdog books and dvd, they help in understanding my two brother/sister husky/GSD rescue mixes that look and behave like the ones in your books! I am also getting they involved in dryland mushing. Are you familiar with the and has a section on urban mushing clinics offered by Barb and Liz who are both dog mushers. Bodhi and Sierra make a great team for your scooter adventures! Happy trails! Dave in North Carolina

  4. Stephanie Kaplan says:

    Oh my gosh, thank you for this…you literally took my words/feelings about our dog Leigha and threw it on a page. It’s SO nice to know that there is someone out there that is going through what we’re going through. Leigha IS Bodhi to a T…wow. Sometimes I wish I could just put Leigha in the dog run, or walk her down the street without fear…but I think after reading this I am definitely going to enroll her in a Reactive Dog class and try and work a bit more formally on her issues. With Sierra’s issues, how did you introduce her and Bodhi to one another and ensure that they didn’t get aggressive when left alone? We’ve been thinking of getting Leigha a companion. THANKS!

    • wildewmn says:

      Hi Stephanie,

      Nice to know we have the same dog! LOL. I was lucky when we introduced Sierra and Bodhi. We drove Sierra to the shelter Bodhi was at (it was over 3 hours away), and they met at an indoor getting-to-know you area. It became clear quickly that they were getting along, so we dropped the leashes and let them check each other out, and they ended up playing. Of course, once they got home, they fought for the first ten days. So much for clear indicators. But now they play very well (if roughly!) together. I’m not sure I ever left them alone together until I was sure they got along.

      That’s a great idea about the Reactive Dog class, if you have a good instructor in your area. It’s easy to get frustrated and feel helpless with these problems, and knowing there are others in the class with the same issue can help a lot, plus having the trainer there to supervise makes you feel that it’s doable. Good luck with it., and I would suggest that if you get Leigha a companion, that it’s a male. 😉

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