Social media is always a-buzz with:
Triple Q weekend! My dog is the best!
Look at my amazing national/regional/seminar/whatever video set to cool music!
Check out this training session in which I made zero mistakes and my dog learned long division!
Listen, I get it. I post that stuff, too. It’s important. We should celebrate the goodness in our dogs. We should do it all the time. I make a habit of it; I do it every day.
But the idea that these great things (the Qs, the events, the perfect training sessions) can’t exist alongside really hard things (behavior concerns, personal incompatibilities, training struggles, and even illness) is hurting us. I know it hurts me. So here’s my stuff; the stuff I am ready to share:
Kelso was a MACH, OTCH-pointed, lovely Novice-A dog. He adored every human he ever met. He was drop dead gorgeous, charming, and ideal in more ways than not. I loved him with my entire heart; when I lost him it was like losing a limb. For almost half of my life he was my guide, my angel, my anchor.
And: he was severely and pathologically dog-aggressive from a young age. He had so little interest in play that I stuffed chicken in a sock and tried to get him to play with it to no avail. He was five years old before he and I truly connected because I was ravaged by grief when I got him and much of our first few years was not much more than my hideous mistakes and his disturbing behavior problems. I did things to him–in an effort to help him–that I can never reconcile. I cried over him as much as I smiled or laughed. He hurt me as much as not.
And: I was a severely depressed teenager when he entered my life. His problems were a gift because as screwed up as he was I was much worse. When I focused on his training and his problems I could forget mine. When I could speak about his issues it gave me a platform on which to do hard things; something I would have to do repeatedly to heal myself. Watching your beloved dog sink his teeth into another person’s beloved dog is a gut-wrenching experience: watching your own hand cause the same kind of harm to yourself is another thing entirely. I don’t think I have completely uncovered what Kelso did for me; but I know that had he been the joyous problem-free golden retriever my teachers wanted for me I might not be where I am today.
Idgie is a dream come true. MACH, ADCH, CD, RE, and SO MUCH MORE. She is smarter than I am on my best days, she is braver than me on my worst. I am not sure if she is my spirit animal or if I am hers; but we are a pair and a team each second of each day. Anything I want to teach her she learns, and she learns it quickly. All trainers should be blessed with such a willing and intelligent pupil.
And: her separation anxiety is a daily challenge for us both. My shame surrounding it can be crippling; I know it is my fault. Her inability to cope with sudden changes to her environment can be quite challenging, and I have worked so hard to help her feel safe when a new dog or person appears on the trail we thought we had to ourselves. She struggles immensely with my partner’s oldest dog; she has from day one. When she decides she doesn’t like someone there really is no changing her mind; be they dog, person, cat, horse, or otherwise. The opposite is also true: once her friend, you can do a lot and still be given a pass.
And: She is me. And I am her. She’d not have separation anxiety if I didn’t. She is my superhero cape; without her I may not have survived the countless doctor appointments and surgeries I had to have a couple of years ago because of a rare unexpected malignancy in my body. I have traveled the world with her help. I have become a brave person because she has the same kind of anxiety and she overcomes it. When there is a scary thing, we huddle together, we hold each other, we chant our battle cry. I am scared all the time, every day, and yet I carry on. I only know how to do that because I watched a little farm dog do the same.
Felix. Oh, my sweet Felix. He is love embodied. He is the squishiest, loveliest, mushiest creature there is. He is pressed against me right now, I am typing around him. He is enthused, smart, and sweet. He is what people want when they get a dog to be active with.
And: There are no grey areas with Felix. Every single second of his day is black or white. He is either ecstatically in love or terribly afraid. He is either leaping, all four feet off the ground, with utter zest for life or hiding under the bed; unable to cope with our changing household. (A house full of moving boxes, falling items, and stressed dogs and humans is a lot for us all). He is either full-on hugging a new friend; licking their face and whining with joy or he is barking: STAY BACK. He is the most impressionable dog I have ever had; my fears (particularly, my fear of strange men in strange places) become his fears. My other dogs’ behaviors become his behaviors. What an enormous neon sign: be brave, Felix is watching. I continue to take a deep breath, tell myself I am safe, and “fake it till I make it” each time I come across something that I fear, so that he doesn’t have to live like I do. While Idgie showed me how to be brave, Felix reminds me why it is important to be.
And: When I flew to Florida to get Felix I was suffering. Kelso had just died months prior and my body was still responding as if it had a gaping abdominal wound. I was still crying myself to sleep on the regular, I still couldn’t hear certain songs on the radio without pulling over to sob, and I still had sudden flashes of his last moments like disturbing movie flashbacks. A little voice inside me feared I’d be unable to love Felix the way I already thought I did because of the overwhelming grief I felt. But when I sat down in the airport at my gate and unzipped my sherpa bag he came out, crawled onto my chest, rested his head on my neck, and I cried the tears of a homecoming; the tears only belonging brings. He and I have been connected by a deep thread ever since. I have never before or since loved anything or anyone so fully, so quickly. What an amazing lesson for a person to learn.
So know this, dog people: it’s all a catch-22. Nothing is one way if not the other. We get to love dogs that are problematic. We get to hate behavior problems we are faced with while we enjoy training ease. We can enjoy a cushy home life while we struggle in training class. The idea that all things must be one way and not the other is a fallacy; it is never actually true. So post your amazing trial video. Instagram your hiking shots. It does not undo or discount the fight you had on the start line or the incident you had with the strange dog on the trail. And guess what? That is actually ok.