Thursday, June 17, 2010

In Praise of the Abnormal Dog

During the first year after I learned that Maisy was reactive, I wished for a miracle. I wished she could be normal. Having a reactive dog can be exhausting, and I cannot tell you how many times I’ve enviously looked at the calm dog sitting at his owner’s feet, both of them completely relaxed in the face of the scary, scary world.

When no miracle occurred, I spent the second year badgering every trainer I could find, wanting to know if it’s possible for a reactive dog to become normal, and if so, asking them to look at Maisy and then tell me when, exactly, I could expect it to happen, and if not, how close to normal she might get.

Now, two years into dietary supplements and chiropractic care and counter-conditioning and specialized training classes, I’ve accepted that no, this is not a dog who will ever be normal. Don’t get me wrong- she’s come a very long way, and I have no reason to doubt that she won’t continue to improve, but normal? Not likely.

And you know what? I’m okay with that. No, wait, I’m glad for that. That might sound odd, but it seems like what people consider “normal” for dogs falls in two groups: the kind of dog that pretty much everyone has, and the kind that pretty much everyone wants.

The first group of dogs are the average dogs who belong to the average owner. You know, the good but under-trained dogs that pull on the leash, fail to come when called, and that regularly “blow off” their owner’s commands. They might have a bad habit or two- nothing serious or dangerous, but something simply annoying instead, like chewing on shoes or stealing food off the counter. These dogs could be great with a bit of training, but are just fine without.

I could never have one of these dogs. Plain and simple, I’m a training junkie, and I’ll always have a well-trained dog simply because I enjoy the process so much. My dog might make an error or two, but she’s good enough that most people are impressed by her.

Then there’s the other category- the kind of dog everyone wants, the “perfect” dog. These are the dogs that are described as loving everyone- children, dogs, men, cats, whatever- but they aren’t over-the-top about it. They are perfectly content to lie around the house with you, and while they’re willing to go for a walk or fetch a ball, they won’t pester you when you’re not in the mood. They do everything you tell them, and do nothing they shouldn’t.

In theory, I should want that dog, but honestly, it sounds kind of boring. Look, I get that my dog isn’t perfect. I get that she’s kind of quirky, and even sort of a pain in the butt sometimes. But I love her anyway, and not in spite of her faults… because of them.

They might seem awesome, but those “perfect” dogs seem kind of robotic to me. I love that Maisy has a mind of her own, even though she might be smarter than me. She’s definitely the better trainer between the two of us, anyway- she’s a master at getting me to do her bidding. But I love that she knows what she wants, and that she can find ways to communicate that to me. Thinking dogs might get into mischief from time to time, and they might embarrass you at the worst possible moment, but they’re also super-fun to train. I never know what kind of crazy behavior Maisy’s going to offer me next, and I swear, I probably have the only dog in the world that can pivot on a perch while simultaneously play-bowing.

Having a reactive dog isn’t always easy, it’s true. Sometimes her brain falls out of her head and she acts poorly. Sometimes we lose points in competition, sometimes we NQ, and sometimes she’s so stressed at trials that I have to scratch a run entirely. But she tries so hard for me! She gives me everything she’s got, even if it’s not much. When it comes right down to it, if she never wins another ribbon, it won’t matter.

You see, her reactivity has challenged me to become a better dog trainer. It has forced me to learn more, both theoretically and practically. It’s forced me to seek out better trainers to work with, which has, in turn, provided me with opportunities I wouldn’t have had otherwise. I’ve joined clubs and met people and made awesome new friends. It has also challenged me to think more critically about my training methods, and has brought me to a truly dog-friendly way of living. The end result has been a better relationship with my dog, one built upon mutual respect and love.

Her flaws might make me cry, but her strengths make me laugh. She’s a funny little dog, and has brought so much joy into my life. She celebrates with me when I’m happy and she licks my tears away when I’m sad. She’s taught me to slow down and smell… well, we’ve agreed to smell different things, but she’s taught me to enjoy every moment we have together. Simply put, she’s made my life so much better just by being who she is. I’m glad she’s not normal.


Laura, Lance, and Vito said...

what a sweet post :) Lance is closer to that perfect dog and I love him to death but I absolutely love Vito's craziness as it makes life so much more fun!

Crystal said...

Honestly, there's nothing wrong with a "perfect" dog... it probably says something about me that I love having a crazy dog! (Let's not talk about what, exactly, that something might be, lol.)

Lindsay said...

:o) I love this post!!! It puts a big smile on my face. I completely agree with everything that you said. Having a reactive dog can be trying and sometimes ridiculously frustrating, but in many ways we're stronger because of it.

katie said...

I also have a reactive Maizey, and have been following your journey for a while now. I appreciate what you said so much! I have the "perfect dog" in my big girl, the calm, serene, obedient one who never reacts to anyone. I have learned much from her serenity.

But as I start on this journey to help Maizey calm her reactivity I am learning to be a better trainer than Meeka could ever have taught me. I am learning new skills and to access old skills that I have not used. I learn patience and humility. Thanks for sharing your journey!

katie said...

one more thing-would it be ok if I quote or link to this post in a post of my own, you captured so much of what I want to say and would love my readers to benefit from your wisdom. You can email me privately if you would like. Thanks,

Crystal said...

Hi Katie!

I really appreciate your comment. As much as I love my dog and her crazy ways, I certainly can see how much there is to learn from the "perfect" dog, too. I suspect that the dogs we have in our lives are there to teach us the lessons we need now.

And, yes, you can definitely quote me. I would appreciate a link back to my blog to go with that quote, of course, but anyone who's asking permission to quote was going to do that anyway. :)

I look forward to reading about your Maizey (an d Dare and Layla).

KayakMedia said...

I just found your blog! I'm so excited! You write about your dog's journey so beautifully. It will take me a while to work through all your posts but I'm so enjoying the ones I read this morning. My best-dog-ever Kenny the Corgi and I are recovering-reactives. I'm loving every step of the journey. Cheers, Claire

Crystal said...

Hi Claire! Thanks for commenting. I love when lurkers do that because they so often have really cool blogs, too! I skimmed through yours, and I really like it. I'm looking forward to reading more about you and Kenny.

janaARIES said...

I just came across your blog and am LOVING it.

I have a Cairn Terrier who probably could be considered reactive. Amazingly, she passed the test to become a certified therapy dog and I am so proud of her. We're also training for agility.

I am enjoying reading your accomplishments with Maisy, I want to go back into your archives now and read your journey start to finish. :)

- Jana (

KayakMedia said...

Squee! Thank you! I haven't shared my blog with many people IRL because...well, I bet you understand. Kenny's reactivity is mild and managed but part of our journey to CGC & APDT Rally-O. We are ON OUR WAY and we WILL get there.

Lauren said...

Awesome, awesome post! *applauds*

So much of what you wrote rings true with Frodo and my realization that despite his reactivity and the fact that some days I could probably wring his little neck, he is a pretty darn good little dog. There are still days where I want that perfect dog that is just all-around easy, that I can take to any class or any outing and know they will be fine. But the lessons and level of information that Frodo has forced me to seek out are invaluable.

Again, great post. Thanks for writing such an awesome blog!

Crystal said...

Hi Jana! Thanks so much for commenting. Can I just say that your Eva is absolutely ADORABLE?? I look forward to reading more about you two- I think it's super cool Eva's a therapy dog. I'm a social worker, and I really wish Maisy had the temperment/desire to be a therapy dog.

janaARIES said...

Thanks, Crystal. Eva lllooves people, it's other dogs usually that are tricky...but that people loving factor makes doing therapy with her manageable. :)

Robin Sallie said...

The Muppet is going to get you back for posting a photo of her with a dirty face.

I too am glad that we both have reactive dogs. I never would have become a dog trainer who specializes in reactive dogs AND I never would have gotten to know and love you and Ms. Maisy.

You can turn Maisy in to a therapy dog - as long as no one touches her or leans over her or stares at her or talks to her or...

I got it! You can just get everyone she visits to throw her tennis ball for her and drop chicken wings on the floor for her.

Crystal said...

Robin, she was so freakin proud of that muddy face that I don't have an ounce of regret for posting it, lol.

Maisy could be a therapy dog helping the people who are in physical rehab, and need motivation to pick up/throw balls.

M.T. said...

Bless this post!!!!!!! :)

Dawn said...

So she has a few minor flaws, we all do. But more importantly she has so very many virtues. She just needed the right person(you) to bring those out for her. I would never label Maisey as abnormal. Nope she is herself and that is wonderful. It may be challenging at times, but its still just wonderful.

Crystal said...

Dawn, she TOTALLY has a ton of virtues. She's just the greatest little dog.

Still... abnormal or not, she's not exactly normal, either.

ddbb said...

Love this post!
Thank you!

Crystal said...

Thanks, Daisy. This remains one of my favorite posts to date.