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.