Sunday, December 20, 2009

Emotional Exhaustion

I cried in the car on the way home from dog training class on Thursday.

It was the third week of level 3 obedience, and Maisy had been doing really well. The first week, I could tell that she was a bit uncertain, but she hung in there. She and I worked together, and though she had a few stressful moments, she managed to express that without going over-threshold. The second week was even better. Again, she had a few stressful moments, but was largely calm and relaxed- she was even able to watch dogs do restrained recalls!

Oh, but the third week.

When we got there, there were several things different. First, our regular instructor wasn't there. Second, the ring was set up slightly different (usually our instructor puts her dog in a crate behind a barrier; a slight difference, but we both noticed). Finally, a new dog was present, a large poodley-dog that I hadn't seen before.

Maisy doesn't like change. She was stressed from the beginning, so I did my best to keep her sub-threshold by playing Look At That, and rewarding calm behaviors heavily. She held in there okay, so I decided we could try the group heeling warm up.

It didn't go well. She pulled and lunged and barked and growled. I quickly realized that she needed a break, so I took her outside the ring to the other side of the opaque ring barriers. The first week, that was enough to help her remain calm, and while it helped on Thursday, it didn't help enough. She kept standing on her hind legs, trying to see over the barriers, and continued to bark and growl. I finally gave up on heeling entirely and just played Look At That ring barrier. In retrospect, I should have tried moving even further away.

We did eventually make it back in the ring, but it took almost half an hour for her to calm down enough to concentrate, and it was only once I made a box out of the ring barriers that she truly calmed down enough to work. She did wonderfully then, and after five or ten minutes of calm, contained behavior, I decided to leave class early so that we could end on a good note.

And then, I cried in the car.

I don't cry often with Maisy. She's a wonderful dog- reactive, yes, but she tries so hard for me, and she's made a lot of progress. But sometimes, I just find it so emotionally exhausting to work with her. Sometimes I wonder if I should just scrap my plans of doing obedience trials with her, and start fresh with a new dog.

But I don't want a new dog. I want Maisy.

Maisy is amazing. She's very cute. She's smart, but she's also very biddable. She wants please, or at least she wants to earn that piece of hot dog. She's enthusiastic and loves to train. She's playful and friendly and absolutely hilarious at times. She's also a cuddler, and I absolute adore the way she curls up next to me. She's up for anything, and she'll try anything for me. Simply put, I love her.

Even with reactivity, Maisy is a dog with a lot of potential. She already has titles, and she's never gone to a trial without placing in the ribbons at least once over the weekend. It will take longer than it might if she weren't reactive, but I know that she and I will go far together. Still, I mourn the potential she has that's been lost to her reactivity.

I mourn the normal dog that she'll never be. I want a dog that can go to class without freaking out. I want one that makes me look brilliant, not like the idiot who can't control her dog. More than that, though, I want Maisy to feel normal. It breaks my heart that she feels so stressed that she feels she needs to react like that in order to stay safe. And I hate that I put her in those situations to achieve goals that she doesn't care about. And I wonder if that's fair.

It's a heartbreaking thing, sometimes, to live with a reactive dog. Which is why I cried in the car last Thursday night.


Laura, Lance, and Vito said...

I just want to say that I really do feel like you're doing a great job with her. You know how much work it is and know that there is ups and downs, but you also know how far she has come. I wouldn't worry about going out into the hallway or setting up a little box, no one else even notices or cares. And someday you WILL get to the point where you won't need any of that because you are a great trainer and you two make a great team. But you already know all that.

Unfortunately I won't be able to witness Maisy's improvements since Vito's schedule is changing and will be going to Mon night obedience instead...

Crystal said...

Thank you so much for the kind words. I do know, rationally, that we're a good team, and I do believe we'll meet our/my goals. It's just hard some days, and those are the days where comments like yours really are appreciated.

I'm so sorry your guys' schedule is changing though! I've really enjoyed watching you and Vito. He's so cute!

Anonymous said...

Oh, that feeling is the worst. I've cried so many times with Layla (and I couldn't always make it to the car before the tears came). Maisy loves and trusts you, she almost GLOWS when she's working with you, and she keeps making progress. Everyone has bad days, including our dogs, and setbacks are normal. Give yourself a break, and come back refreshed next week. You two are awesome!

Crystal said...

Thank you, Sara. Both for letting me know I'm not alone in the crying (although I knew I probably wasn't), and for the kind words about our relationship. I can't really see us working, so the glowing is news to me! :)

It's better this week. We've had a few really nice training sessions, and an excellent CU class with very little snarfing.

I'm working on a "year in review" post right now- expect it tomorrowish- and I'm pretty amazed by how far we've come. :)

Susan DeMar said...

Crystal, I just found your blog and am reading it from the beginning. I too have a reactive dog and it is heartbreaking. I have cried so many tears for my sweet dog. I've been working with him for over two years now and it's getting better, but it's not fixed yet.

Crystal said...

Susan, thanks for the comment. One of the best things about this blog has been learning that I'm not alone.

Vicky White said...

Hi Crystal. I've just found, and subscribed, to your blog too- I'm going through exactly the same thing with my gorgeous 15 month old collie, Maggie. I can't begin to tell you how much the stuff I've read here so far echoes the experiences I've had with her- it doesn't happen often with me either but I was in tears myself last night after a difficult obedience class earlier in the day (I'd managed to bite my lip all afternoon but by bedtime just couldn't hold it in any longer). But she's amazing too- I wouldn't swap her for the world! We've been clicker training since day one (she's incredible at obedience class when I manage to keep her under threshold, she passed her Bronze Canine Good Citizen award with flying colours, and we've even put a little tricks video up on youtube), and she's the sweetest, most affectionate girl imaginable. I'd love to compete with her (either at obedience, rally, agility, freestyle- whatever she could handle). Some days she IS the kind of dog that makes me look brilliant, and others I'm 'the idiot that can't control her dog' too. It always breaks my heart when she does react because I know it means I took my eye off the ball, yet having to keep your eye on the ball (and in the back of your head!) all the time isn't always easy, and whilst I'm surrounded by supportive, well meaning people, I'm kinda on my own in terms of having a clue about d&c, cu, thresholds etc. Anyway, I'm so glad I've found your blog- it was a candle in the dark last night.

Crystal said...

Hi, Vicky- I'm sorry you've had the same experience. This post is over a year old, and when I reread it, it brought tears to my eyes all over again. It is so hard to love a dog so much, and to see them so stressed out. Good luck to you and Maggie.