The dog I've been working with is very cute. He loves to play, and he's pretty smart. However, he is not without his issues. He is fearful of new people, and while he has great bite inhibition, he's not afraid to use his mouth to get his point across. He also has an incredibly short attention span, and he's very environmentally aware, tipping quickly into reactivity.
He reminds me a lot of Maisy, to be honest. From the way he whips his head around, checking for threats, to his eagerness to earn a click, he shares many traits with her (though, thankfully, she's never been a biter). You'd think that this would endear him to me. You'd think that I'd be brimming with understanding and compassion. Instead, I find him frustrating. Despite his small size, he's a lot of dog. Like the old days with Maisy, it takes a ton of energy to manage him in order to prevent reactive outbursts, and even so, he goes over threshold quickly and frequently.
So what's the difference? My only explanation can be summed up in one word: relationship.
Photo by Sara Reusche
Maisy has always been my dog. From that first inexplicable moment when I laid eyes on her, I've known that. I didn't even really like dogs, yet I was ready to sacrifice my home in order to have her in my life, and I've never looked back. Oh, sure, we struggled during those early months. After the third time she peed on my carpet in as many hours on the day she came home, I'll admit to wondering if I'd made a mistake. But as the months went on, I learned how to potty-train a puppy, and she learned how to go outside.
Time only seems to strengthen our bond. By the time I realized that Maisy's temperament left something to be desired, I was so completely in love with her that I knew the only option was to get through it together. Our relationship meant that I wouldn't give up on her. It gave me the ability to empathize with her anxiety. It allowed me to see her as more than just her bad behavior. It somehow gave me the strength to continue on despite the embarrassment and the exhaustion.
And let's be honest: working with a reactive dog is exhausting. The constant management, vigilance, and training takes a toll on the human trainer. Although I can handle it for the hour that I'm working with my Sunday shelter dog, I'm left feeling much more tired than I ever remember feeling with Maisy. I can't even imagine fostering- let alone living with this dog.
Perhaps things would change as I got to know him better. Perhaps the benefit of proximity and time would help abate some of that fatigue. But the one thing I've learned is that- for me anyway- relationship matters.