Love the dog you’re with

It’s been a while since I’ve posted and I’ve been trying (and failing!) to find my writing mojo. One of my goals when starting the blog was to write a series of ‘Sisco’s lessons for life’ posts and lately I’ve been reminded often of one of his best lessons for me. So, this week I’m going on a trip down memory lane to when I first learned what it meant to truly love my dog enough to respect his wishes about his own life.

Sisco was maybe 2 years old at the time and I was a baby trainer, learning about doing fun stuff with dogs. Sisco, Pancho, and I had started formal training when they were about 11 months old because of Sisco’s reactivity towards other dogs. Well, mostly one dog in particular – that is a Life Lesson for another post though!

Looking back, we had a much better relationship than I realised at the time. This was mostly because Sisco was a great observer and keen learner. Sisco’s intelligence and willingness became evident quickly, when he spent just one half of his first ever basic obedience class, before our trainer bumped him up to advanced obedience and dog sports classes.

Then, in our first agility class, we came into a group with more experienced dogs and handlers and promptly won first prize in the fun race at the end of class. Sisco was one of those dogs who made whoever was handling him look good, regardless of their skill level. He was a dream dog for a budding baby trainer, even with his big personal space bubble around unfamiliar dogs. As a result, I was soon determined to turn him into an agility demo dog and myself into a dog trainer.

When I started teaching my own classes, the boys would often hang out in the car while I taught and then come out for their respective classes, or to help as ‘stooge dogs’ for a dog who was learning to stay calm with distractions, or to demo something if I needed them.

One Saturday, my private consult didn’t arrive so I took the opportunity to grab Sisco and have some fun in the advanced agility class that was running. As usual, our trainer (also my mentor and friend) let the class know that Sisco was uncomfortable with unfamiliar dogs and needed a bit of space. So, in we went and like all handlers of reactive dogs, I immediately spotted our ‘training challenge’ for the day.

Our challenge was a kind owner who spent most of his time looking around the class and not paying much attention to his dog. His clever and overtly friendly dog entertained herself by playing ‘space invader’ to all the other dogs in class – young, fun, and entirely clueless about just how rude her behaviour was (Note: Suzanne Clothier has a fantastic article on this exact situation called ‘He Just Wants To Say Hi’, which helped me enormously to understand Sisco as a young dog – if you own dogs and have never read it, you should!).

So, the owner of FBC (Fun But Clueless) watched Sisco and I work, throwing in the odd comment that Sisco looked like a great dog and didn’t seem aggressive, while ever slowly creeping closer to us. Baby trainer me just smiled politely, approached the situation as a learning opportunity and got on with using every FBC invader moment as practice for Sisco and I.

Sisco’s tolerance for FBC’s antics dropped as the class went on, but I just keep rewarding each and every return to focus, working the distance between us to ensure that Sisco could be ‘successful’.

Our turn to run the course came and FBC was standing right jump 1 and 2. So, off we went and a moment later FBC decided to push Sisco’s buttons by reaching her nose towards him as he landed between the jumps. Sisco turned, lunged, and let rip in canine language even a casual observer would recognise as forceful profanity. FBC promptly jumped back (or was jerked backwards by her owner who was shocked back into paying attention by the noise) and Sisco returned to the course and finished it beautifully.

After finishing, I rewarded Sisco (no doubt half-heartedly) while I internally squirmed with embarrassment about my dog’s behaviour, and frustration about his ‘lost’ potential as a sports dog because we couldn’t handle working around dogs like FBC.

As I tried to get myself focused and Sisco to relax, I overheard FBC’s owner exclaim that he hadn’t realised how tightly I ‘controlled my very aggressive dog’. I looked up to see several class members with varying degrees of concern on their faces about my ‘aggressive dog’, while our trainer tried to explain that Sisco was not aggressive, but he needed space around unfamiliar dogs and FBC invaded that space, repeatedly.

While listening on, I looked down and for the first time I really noticed just how stressed my extremely willing and loving, little brown dog looked. It’s not that I wasn’t looking for signs that he was uncomfortable before this, or that I didn’t understand what his stress signals meant, I was simply caught up in the idea that Sisco’s discomfort around rude, unfamiliar dogs was something that needed fixing – that it meant he was broken in some way.

As the idea that Sisco was well within his rights to choose who he spent time with was dawning on me, I realised that Sisco had tried so many times to tell me that this was not a situation he enjoyed. Yet here we were in class, just as we were multiple times a week… I had ignored what he was telling me the whole time, for no other reason than because I wanted to have fun doing agility with my dog.

Right there, I gave him the option to go back to the car without finishing the lesson. He stood up and walked straight past FBC without so much as sideways glance.

The moment we stepped out of the gate, his body tension visibly dropped. When we got back to the car, he sat, then dropped and calmed right down, no relaxation practice required. It was a clear message about his feelings towards group classes.

I had witnessed this precipitous drop in his stress levels as we went back to the car after class many times. In fact, I couldn’t think of a single instance of Sisco ever looking anything other than relieved when class was over, despite his obvious love for our trainer, her dogs, and his absolute willingness and enjoyment at working together with me on our own. He loved agility, training and everything about it other than the other dogs!

It had taken me far too long to stop and listen to what Sisco was trying to tell me, but I finally began to understand that ‘working on our relationship’ should never involve repeatedly putting my dog in situations that he simply didn’t enjoy.

Fun with my dog means fun for both me and my dog.

It took a whole lot of humble pie and some soul searching, but I gave up on the idea of Sisco ever being a competition or demo dog. He often came along for the car ride just to hang out with the gang and play on the agility equipment, or to help as a stooge dog on the odd occasion (for which he was amply rewarded). He loved that so much that when visited and he saw his favourite trainer and dog friend years later as an old dog, his smile beamed across the whole yard as he trotted up to greet them!

Sisco’s lesson for me was fundamentally important for great human-dog relationships, and one that all of my dogs since have benefitted from:

Love the dog in front of you for who he is, not the dog you want him to be.

This week’s picture is of the three of us back in the days when I was a baby trainer and we spent many afternoons and evenings in the agility arena. I hate photos, so it’s one of only a few of us together and I cherish it despite that time of my life having a few challenges for me.

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