Sunday, October 30, 2011

Maisy's Weekend

While my husband and I went to a Patricia McConnell seminar this weekend, Maisy stayed with our aunt and uncle. Although I always hate being separated from my sweet dog, I am thankful that we have such lovely family to take care of her. I never worry when she's with them.

When she's at their house, Maisy gets to go on lovely walks with Uncle Jim every morning. To be honest, I'm not sure who enjoys it more. Maisy's a good girl though- when Aunt Rosanne sent me the pictures, I was pleased to see that every one featured a loose leash.

I also love that Uncle Jim and Aunt Rosanne don't seem in the least bit bothered by our unusual dog-care instructions. Maisy needs medication twice a day, and I know she gets it. They're willing to feed her raw meals, and they invite the neighbors over to watch Maisy use her kibble toys. The Tug-a-Jug was apparently a hit last time!

Most importantly, Maisy loves Uncle Jim and Aunt Rosanne, and the feeling seems to be mutual. When I dropped Maisy off on Friday morning, she was on their front steps, wagging up a storm, before I could even get her crate out of the car. For their part, Uncle Jim and Aunt Rosanne delight in having her there. They allow her on all the furniture, and even let her sleep in bed with them! I am thankful for my family.

Thursday, October 27, 2011

Labels vs. Descriptions: How You Should Talk About Your Dog's Behavior

My dog is reactive. Yours might be, too. But when we say this, are we describing their behavior, or are we labeling it? And does it make a difference?

As I have said before, labels are great because they allow us to easily discuss complicated concepts. When I tell another dog person that my dog is reactive, they immediately understand what I mean. Unfortunately, what labels aren’t so good at is describing exactly what we mean. Yes, that person might have a general picture in their mind of what my dog does, but what if their definition of “reactive” is different than mine? Are we really talking about the same behavior?

After discussing it with others, I have discovered that there are a wide variety of things that dogs can do and still be called reactive. I hold the classic view: lunging, barking, growling. Others include more assertive behaviors, such as snapping or biting. Still others include overt displays of fear, such as cowering or running away. Are all these things reactivity?

This is one of the major problems with labels. While they make for great shorthand, they aren’t terribly clear. Everyone has a slightly different idea of what that label means. As a result, there are times when I think we would be better off describing the behavior, not labeling it.

So what does it mean to describe a behavior? It’s the process of using words to explain what a dog did in such a way that another person can form an accurate mental picture. It’s like writing stage directions in a script: the words tell you exactly what the movie will show you. Consider these two examples:
I took Maisy for a walk today and she had a reactive outburst.
…as opposed to…
I took Maisy for a walk today. When she saw a bicyclist go past, she quickly rushed towards him while growling. Once she got to the end of her leash, she strained against it and barked repeatedly. She didn’t respond to her name or any verbal commands until the bike was out of sight, at which point she returned to my side. She didn’t really pay attention to me, though, and instead continued to stare towards where she last saw the bike.
The first statement is a label. It is quick and easy to say, and most people will have a pretty good idea of what I mean, especially if we’ve talked about it before. The second statement is a description of her behavior. It gives a very clear picture of what happened, including the circumstances around it. There are even clues about her general arousal level.

But does this distinction matter? In many contexts, probably not. Casual conversation doesn’t require the precision and details inherent in a description- thank goodness, because boy is it a mouthful! However, there are times when we want clarity about what happened.

Perhaps the most important time to describe instead of label is when we’re seeking help. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve seen someone ask for help on the internet using a label, only for them to receive tons of questions instead of a response. While this usually just slows down the answers, I have seen well-meaning people give inappropriate advice because they were envisioning something different than what actually happened.

Another difficulty is that if we think in terms of labels, we won’t notice or remember the details. When designing a behavior modification plan, those details are important. Without them, it is very difficult to determine the severity of the behavior, the dog’s underlying emotional state, even the triggers! Sometimes several different behaviors get lumped together under the same label. All of this makes it much more difficult to create a plan that will be successful.

Using labels instead of descriptions makes it difficult to measure progress as well. I have called Maisy reactive for several years now. However, her actual behavior has changed over time. Take the example above, about Maisy’s reaction to a child on rollerblades. That description was accurate two years ago, however today, the same situation would probably be described like this:
I took Maisy for a walk today. When she saw a bicyclist go past, she wuffed softly, but stood in place. She watched the bike go past, and then looked back at me. I called her, and her body visibly relaxed as she came to me.
Although I label both of those examples as “reactive,” they are very, very different behaviors. The second one shows a great deal of improvement, but if I simply used the label, no one would ever realize how much better she is these days.

So… is my dog reactive? I think so, but now that you know more about what she does, you might disagree. That’s okay. While labeling the behavior is more convenient, the true goal of communication is for both of us to understand what the other one means. If that understanding can happen with labels, great. But sometimes, describing behavior will have better results.

Tuesday, October 25, 2011

Training Tuesday: Jumping is Fun!

This week's training Tuesday is a bit different. Instead of heeling, we have jumping!

I am actually pretty amused with how much Maisy seems to enjoy jumping. When I first got out the jump set, she was just as likely to go around it as she was to go over it. That's all changed, though, because these days she'll often try to jump it while I'm still setting up. Silly dog.

You'll also notice that at one point, I make her heel past the jump (and that she struggled to do so). This is important because she will need to be able to control herself when there's a jump in the ring. I never thought I'd need to worry about that, but it's kind of a nice problem to have! I love that she's so enthusiastic about the whole thing.

Sunday, October 23, 2011

What is Reactivity?

Reactivity is a strong reaction demonstrated by a dog in response to a relatively mild trigger. This trigger can be another dog, a person, a specific object, or a sudden change in the environment. Each dog's reactive behavior will look different, however it usually involves some element of barking, growling, or lunging towards the trigger, and occurs on a regular and somewhat predictable basis.

Reactivity cannot be determined based on a single event, nor is it based on a dog's reaction to an overwhelming event or item. Barking, growling, and lunging are normal behaviors, and should be expected in response to truly intense situations.

Reactivity is typically the result of anxiety or fear, although some dogs will behave in a reactive manner for other reasons; frustration or over-excitement often results in a dog that cannot control itself. This is often seen when on leash or behind fences or other barriers.

Reactivity should not be confused with aggression because the reactive dog is not intending to cause harm. It is generally assumed that the reactive dog is “all bark and no bite,” and that his behavior is used to scare away whatever is worrying him or causing him concern. Despite this, one should use care when working with a reactive dog as the heightened arousal and out-of-control nature of his behavior increases the risk accidental harm.

Reactivity can be reduced, and many reactive dogs will improve with the use of a well-developed, well-implemented behavior modification program. If you think your dog might be reactive, I encourage you to consult with a trainer experienced in working with behavior problems.

Thursday, October 20, 2011

I am not a perfect trainer.

I am not a perfect trainer.

I make a lot of mistakes. My criteria is often inconsistent. Sometimes I push her too hard, and sometimes I don't ask enough. My body language can be confusing; I lean over her, I keep treats in my hands. I really suck at getting things on cue, and I often reward bad responses. Sometimes I even laugh when she's naughty.

And oh, how I laugh.

My skills may be nothing to write home about, but my enthusiasm more than makes up for it. I laugh and smile and cheer my dog on when she gets it right, and I encourage her when she gets it wrong. I enjoy learning. Training brings me joy, and serves to deepen our relationship. I love spending time with my dog.

No, I am not a perfect trainer. But I'm pretty good at the stuff that matters.

Tuesday, October 18, 2011

Training Tuesday: Adding Sits

Our heeling task this time around was to add sits to the heeling sequence. I thought this would be pretty easy, as Maisy has always had a pretty awesome auto-sit, even when I stop suddenly and without warning. I forgot to take into account that she's used to RUNNING AFTER THE BALL at the end of a heeling sequence. Yeah, all the sits were broken.

I should have broken the criteria down. I should have worked on just getting the sits back, without worrying about if they were close or straight. Instead, I sort of nagged her to do way too much. The end result? Well, we're getting there, but I bet it would have been a lot faster and prettier if I'd worked on one criteria at a time.

See for yourself:

I will say that the pivot into position at 2:28 is gorgeous. I'm really pleased with that! I'm also happy with how animated and happy she looks most of the time, and despite her distraction, she's got some great attention developing. What a great little dog!

Sunday, October 16, 2011

Can I Pet Your Dog? How to Say No Without Sounding Like a Jerk

The last time I heard this question I was at a pet store. I turned to see a smiling employee, looking at Maisy expectantly. Shoot, I thought. I really hate this question; it gets tiring to be the “mean lady” who always says no, but... this woman looked very nice. What to do, what to do?

Every dog owner has probably experienced a similar moment of indecision, or worse, not had a choice at all. I have had toddlers suddenly lay on top of my dog in order to “hug the doggy,” children sneak in and touch her butt, and even adults who have trouble understanding that not every dog is a social butterfly. This is frustrating even when your dog is stable, but for those of us with temperamentally unsound dogs, it's a nightmare. Being continually put on the spot is difficult, and no one wants to be rude. But I've seen how uncomfortable Maisy looks when being touched by strangers, so saying no is often part of the deal. So how are we to balance politeness with protection?

I have a three pronged approach that I use the vast majority of the time. Sometimes I follow these approaches sequentially, and sometimes I skip a step. No matter how it plays out, though, I have had a lot of success using these three steps:

Step 1: Management
My first line of defense is management; I always attempt to manipulate the environment so that the question never even comes up. One of the easiest ways to do this is to avoid the situation entirely. If you see someone headed your way, turn and walk away. Cross to the other side of the street. Duck into a different aisle in the pet store. Find some way to prevent the question from being asked.

If you can't leave, sometimes using nonverbals will communicate that you aren't interested. Avoiding eye contact and turning your attention elsewhere works for the socially savvy. If a verbal interation impossible to avoid, keep things brief. Nod politely, give the shortest response possible, and move away.

Finally, it is very important to be aware of your surroundings. Avoiding someone is no good if it means you don't see the other person behind you. You need to pay attention to what's going on around you and be ready to step in if need be, which leads me to...

Step 2: Be Direct
Can't prevent contact? Then it's time to be direct. If the person asks if they can pet your dog, say no. You don't have to explain yourself- a simple no will do- but if you want to give a reason, do it after you've said no so that the first thing they hear is that they can't touch your dog. A good way to phrase this is, “No, I'm sorry, but she's shy.”

Body blocking in action. (Maisy looks happy because Dobby is her friend.)
Of course, this doesn't work when people don't wait to hear the answer. For this reason, I often perform a body block to prevent a person (or their dog) from approaching mine. To do this, shorten your leash and move your dog behind your back as you step forward into the approaching party's space. Most people (and dogs) will take a step back. This move not only serves to emphasize your response, but also provides a visual barrier.

I'm less polite with people who don't ask. I will augment my body blocks by holding up a hand like a traffic cop and say, “Stop!” The sheer forthrightness of my statement usually startles people into compliance. I then try to soften the blow by saying, “Sorry, but she doesn't like to be touched.”

I highly recommend practicing what you will say and do before you're put in the situation. Most people have a hard time saying no to start with, and there is definitely a cultural expectation that all dogs should enjoy interacting with strangers. Have a family member or friend pretend to be a stranger, and practice different ways of saying no. Find the one that feels most natural to you.

Step 3: Redirection
I have the hardest time saying no to children, especially the polite ones who ask. If there's enough space, I'll say, “No, I'm sorry, you can't touch her. But would you like to throw her ball?” Most kids are thrilled with this offer. I always tell them the rules: no touching, no chasing, and that I will hand them the ball instead of having Maisy bring it directly to them. Then I let them play. The kids are generally satisfied with this interaction, and Maisy gets some valuable counter-conditioning. It's a win/win situation for everyone.

When I don't have the room needed, or if it's an adult that asked (they're usually less impressed with ball play), I ask if they'd like to see her do some tricks. Obviously, it's helpful if your dog knows a show-stopping trick, but in my experience, most people are impressed if your dog will sit and lay down when asked. Amp up this simple obedience by telling them your dog knows sign language, and use hand signals instead. You'll knock their socks off.

These three things are what I do most of the time, but sometimes- like that day in the pet store- I get tired of saying no. If the person seems willing to follow directions, I'll let Maisy decide. I looked at the employee. I'm not sure why, but I thought I could trust her, so I replied with a maybe.

“She's a little shy, so you can pet her only if she comes up to you. Crouch down, turn sideways, and hold out your hand.”

The woman did as I said, so I told Maisy, “Go say hi.” Maisy walked about halfway to the woman, then stopped. She looked back at me at me, the hesitation clear in her face. I called her back and gave her a treat.

“Sorry,” I said, shrugging. “I guess you can't pet her today. Thank you for asking, though.”

I felt a little bad, especially since the employee was willing to follow my directions, but as I looked down at Maisy, the relieved expression on her face made it worth it. I was glad that I could respect her wishes and say no. And I didn't even have to sound like a jerk to do it.

Thursday, October 13, 2011

Tail Tales

Last week, it was sunny and warm. The leaves were bright and vibrant, and there was a light breeze in the air. Such perfect fall days are rare in Minnesota, so Maisy and I took full advantage of the beckoning lakeside trail. Of course, we weren't alone- many other people and dogs were out, too. Although I used to avoid the popular lakes when the weather was nice, these days, I don't worry so much about Maisy's behavior. Still, I do use caution- no sense in tempting fate after all- so when I saw a large, dark-colored dog heading our way, Maisy and I stepped off the path.

The man holding the dog's leash noticed this. “Your dog's not friendly?” he asked me as he approached.

“No, she doesn't really like other dogs.”

“My dog just loves other dogs!” he said, stopping in front of us, effectively trapping us in a small square of shorter grass. Maisy was sitting quietly by my side; the man looked at her, clearly hoping that I'd relent and let her greet his dog. Just then, his dog rushed to the end of his leash and barked. Maisy jumped up, her tail curled tightly over her back, moving tensely back and forth.

“Oh look!” the man crowed, as if he'd just caught me in a lie. “Your dog likes mine! She's wagging her tail!”

Ah, the Myth of the Wagging Tail rears its ugly head yet again.

Most people think that if a dog is wagging his tail, it means he is happy and friendly. This is not necessarily true. Yes, a dog wags his tail when he's happy, but dogs also wag their tails when they're feeling stressed, anxious, angry, aggressive, excited, anticipatory, and just about every emotion in between. A wagging tail doesn't tell you much other than the fact that the dog is alive.

Well, that's not entirely true. When Maisy wags her tail, it does give me some information. The height of the tail, the speed at which it's wagging, and the width of the tail's sweep as it moves back and forth all give me some insight into Maisy's emotional state. Let's look at each of these factors in turn.

First, the tail's height. Most people know that a tail tucked between the dog's legs means he's scared, but once the tail starts moving, they seem to quit paying attention. In general, the higher the tail, the higher the arousal level. The problem is that normal tailset varies widely from dog to dog. For example, Maisy's tail is naturally curled up and over her back, so her low tailset looks very similar to a greyhound's high tail. Maisy's relaxed tail is therefore physically identical in height to the greyhound's excited tail.

So we move on to look at the speed at which the tail wags for more information. Just as people breathe quicker when they're excited, so does the dog's tail move faster. Slow, deep breaths are common among relaxed people, and likewise, slow wags usually indicate more relaxed dogs. Of course, that doesn't tell you anything about why the person (or dog) is excited. Did they just win the Super Bowl? Have sex? Kill a person? Who knows!

For another clue, though, we can look to see how wide the sweep of the wag is. By this, I mean how far the tail moves back and forth. A tight wag may only move an inch or so, and generally happens when the dog is feeling tense or stressed. Meanwhile a loose one can go so wide that the tip of the tail touches both hips. Sometimes a tail will be so relaxed it moves in a giant circle (we call that “helicopter tail” around my house).

The height, speed, and sweep can come together in many ways, creating a large range of possible combinations. For example, a high, fast, short wag indicates high arousal. This was what Maisy's tail looked like when the dog at the lake barked at her. She was very stressed, and part of how I knew that was because of the way her tail was wagging. But I've seen this same combo of tail features in other situations, too- while playing with another dog or when anticipating a ball toss- all of which are high arousal times too, just for very different reasons.

So while a dog's tail can tell you a lot about his feelings, you still need to look at the context. When the tail is read as part of a whole, it makes far more sense. A high, fast wag looks very different when the rest of the body is very still as opposed to being wiggly. Pinned ears makes a low tail look nothing like the same tail paired with perky, alert ears. And of course, I happen to have enough history with Maisy to know that a tightly wagging tail when a large, black dog is around is very different than the one that happens when she's playing with her kitty.

The man we met at the lake didn't have that benefit. He had no way of knowing that Maisy detests dogs that look like his, and it's a fair bet that he didn't notice her stiff posture. It would have been nice if he'd believed me, of course, but given her still body (which is easy to mistake for calmness), I guess I can understand why he thought Maisy's wag was friendly.

I knew it wasn't, though, so I very deliberately stepped between my dog and his, and repeated, “My dog does not like other dogs. I'm sorry, but she cannot say hello to yours.”

The man looked crestfallen, and maybe a bit confused, but he did leave. I breathed a huge sigh of relief, and Maisy and I continued on our walk, too. As we put distance between man and dog, Maisy's tail began to loosen, her body softened, and her ears relaxed. She looked up at me with sparkling eyes and a big smile, and I knew that now her wag was happy.

Tuesday, October 11, 2011

Training Tuesday: Real Retrieves!

I haven't worked with Maisy much in the last two weeks. I had a migraine that lasted over a week, and on top of that, the crazy train very suddenly arrived at my job. Seriously- it's been a tough two weeks. So much so that I'm not quite ready to show you where we're at with our heeling. In fact, I had just been planning to skip Training Tuesday entirely. Then this happened out of the blue:

My dog is so smart, you guys.

Okay, this is obviously far from a perfect training session. I make a number of mistakes, and there are definitely things to work on, but check out how awesome she is! She's going out, picking up a dumbbell, coming back, and offering a sit at front!

Here are the things I see in the video:

At :22, Maisy dropped the dumbbell when I reached for it. When I make her pick it up, she resets the sit and ends up all kinds of crooked. I decided to reward it anyway, because this is literally only the fourth time she's offered a sit with the dumbbell. (She did two reps before this video was taken; I was so blown away by it that I made The Husband record the rest of the session. PS- Big shout out to The Husband for tearing himself away from his computer game to do this for me. I love you, honey!)

She drops the dumbbell again at :40 when I ask her to sit. I'm not quite sure why- it doesn't look like I'm reaching for it, but maybe I shifted my weight? Or maybe she was just confused about what I wanted. This is a very new behavior after all.

At :44, I dropped a treat. The resulting 15 seconds of food seeking really slows us down. To make matters worse, I do the exact same thing again at 1:18. I need to put the treats in a pocket or on a nearby shelf instead of holding them in my hand. It's a rookie clicker mistake, and not only do my poor treat handling/delivery skills cause a significant distraction, but they also cause Maisy to start fronting off-center. You can't really tell because of the angle of this video, but she was fronting to the hand holding the cookies. Sigh. I know better.

Maisy drops the dumbbell again at 1:50. Initially, I thought she was doing it in response to me saying “nice”- you can hear me saying that to her in the video. My reasoning for this was that Maisy used to react to praise as if it was a marker signal, like the clicker. (It doesn't help that the word “nice” sounds somewhat like the verbal marker I use with her- “yes.”) I actually had to work pretty hard to help her understand that praise is just praise, and not a predictor of a food treat.

However, upon reviewing the video, I really think that she dropped the dumbbell because I reached for it. I don't think she understands that she's supposed to hold it until my hands are actually on it. Then again, that's some pretty fuzzy criteria, so I need to help provide her with some clarity by introducing a cue like “give” to indicate when she should let go of it, and when she shouldn't

The final two reps- at 2:09 and 2:19- are absolutely beautiful. She's centered and straight. The last one is even fairly close to me! None of her fronts are terrible, but she could definitely be closer overall.

All in all, I'm very happy with this training session. While there are definitely some things to work on, things are coming together nicely- and she even seems to be enjoying it! I hope that she'll continue to see this as a fun game that we play together. I know I do!

More experienced trainers- I'd love to hear your take on this video. Do you agree with my assessments? Do you have any advice? I'm shamelessly looking for suggestions!

Sunday, October 9, 2011

Reasonable Expectations

Okay, so I can't expect my dog to be perfect. Instead, she's going to be a normal dog, and as I wrote in my last post, that means that she's going to notice environmental stimuli, she's going to react to it, and she will even vocalize at it from time to time. That's just how dogs are.

So what is reasonable to expect? I've actually been thinking about this for a couple of days, and I have some ideas. This list is far from perfect (and dear readers, might I point out that it would be unreasonable of you to expect your blogger to have all the answers?), but it seems like a good starting point.

First and foremost, it is reasonable to expect progress. This is true for all dogs, but especially for our reactive ones. Their behavior can improve. However, it takes a great deal of work, and it definitely takes time. This is the kind of training that is measured in terms of months, not days.

It is reasonable to expect setbacks along the way. I know, I know- this isn't the kind of expectation we want to have, but anyone who has worked with a reactive dog recognizes the truth in this statement. Regression in skills will happen along the way, so you might as well expect it.

Expecting the dog to relax in a new place is also reasonable, although it has taken us three years to get to that point. Maisy used to wander around the room when I took her somewhere new. If I prompted her to hold still, she would sit tensely, alerting to everything around her. These days, though, she can settle down and even nap.

 Maisy napping under my desk at work. My office has a large, open design, 
with about 10 cubicles in the immediate area- in other words, pretty busy.

Although it would be unreasonable to think that reactive episodes will never happen, it is reasonable to expect they will be relatively infrequent. Of course, this expectation carries a lot of responsbility. I must pay attention to what Maisy tells me through her body language. If I do, I have a much better chance of intervening early enough to prevent reactivity. More importantly, I must use good judgement when deciding if I should take Maisy somewhere or expose her to something, because overfacing her will result in reactivity.

These days, it is reasonable to expect Maisy to recover from stress pretty quickly. I have to very careful to reduce my demands on her following an exciting or stressful event, though. If I do, she can usually recover within 24 hours, a length of time that I think has more to do with her medications than any training I've done with her; you may have a different experience with your dog.

Another Maisy-specific expectation is quite exciting: I think it will be reasonable to expect her to go to trials- and be comfortable! It even seems reasonable to expect her to be quite successful in a ring. This still needs to be tested, of course, but as long as I define success in terms of the experience and not the result (forget Qs and placements, I am hoping she will be happy in the ring), I think it will be proven true.

These are just some of the reasonable expectations that I have. I think that all but the last two are probably true for most reactive dogs, but let me know what you think. What is a reasonable expectation for your dog? What's not? Comment below with your ideas!

Thursday, October 6, 2011

Unreasonable Expectations

It's been about a year since Maisy and I embarked on the medication journey, and almost three since we began working on her reactivity. In that time, she has made tons of progress. I am very pleased with her current abilities to deal with and recover from stress. And yet, there are still times when I'm disappointed with her behavior.

For example, lately we have been heading over to a local obedience club once a week or so just to hang out. We do some mat work, and I reward calm behavior. Basically, I'm recreating our old reactive dog class in a new environment. She's doing quite well overall, especially when you consider that this club can get quite busy and chaotic, but she still has the occasional outburst.

The most recent one happened at the end of an otherwise excellent session. We were on our way out when she suddenly lunged and barked at two dogs. The handler had her back to us, checking in for her class, and her boxers were standing at the end of taut leashes, staring. Their appearance had already put Maisy on edge (she doesn't like dogs with cropped ears), and on top of that, their behavior was rude. No wonder she reacted.

Even though I understood why she behaved the way she did, I was still disappointed. I don't know about you, but for me, there is something particularly disheartening about a really great training session ending on such sour note. But I also think there might be something deeper at play. I think I might be suffering from unreasonable expectations.

It is unreasonable to expect that a dog will not notice things in her environment. She is a living, breathing individual whose senses not only work, but have been keenly honed to allow her to see a squirrel cautiously moving across an open field, to hear the grass rustling when a bunny moves, or to sniff out a rodent den. A dog can- and should- take in everything around her.

Likewise, it is unreasonable to expect that a dog will not respond to things in her environment. To do so is to expect her to disregard instincts that have evolved over the course of thousands of years. All animals, dogs included, naturally orient to signs of both potential food and potential danger.

It is also unreasonable to expect that a dog will never bark or growl. These are normal, natural forms of communication that allow dogs to mediate disputes and prevent them from becoming bloody fights. To believe that a dog will never vocalize her displeasure is to betray one's ignorance of what a dog is.

It is, in short, unreasonable to expect a dog to be perfect. So why has that been my goal?

While it's true that I personally have a perfectionistic streak about a mile wide, I think that societal beliefs about dogs may have contributed to my foolish quest. Movies and television programs tell us that all dogs should be friendly and outgoing. They should love everyone, all the time. They should be long-suffering and endlessly patient, putting up with ear-pulling and tail-tugging without protest. They should be willing to work for no more than a pat on the head and maybe a kind word. They should definitely be selfless and courageous and loyal- I grew up watching Lassie save Timmy's butt every week, after all.

Now, I'm not dumb. I know there's a huge difference between our real-life dogs and the ones on the silver screen. Still, cultural ideals run deep, and they are what I naively believed when I brought a puppy home almost five years ago. When Maisy failed to live up to my unrealistic expectations, I learned there was a word for that- reactive- and I set out to fix her.

I don't think that was wrong; several highly educated and extremely experienced professionals saw the same anxiety and overreactions that I did. Of course, their expectations were far more reasonable than my own. I clung to the hope that after a bit of training, Maisy would become a “normal” dog, which was really code for “perfect.”

I didn't realize that's what I was expecting, however, until I saw some of my friends' so-called perfect dogs act... well, normal. They barked. They growled. They sometimes even lunged at things when excited (but then, what do you expect a retired racing greyhound to do when he sees a bunny lure?).

In other words, those dogs that I thought were perfect? They're just like Maisy. Well, maybe not just like Maisy- she needs daily medication to achieve the same effect, after all- but the point stands: she is more or less a normal dog these days. The only thing holding her back at this point are my own unreasonable expectations.

While I have always loved Maisy, flaws and all, I have also struggled to accept her inherent dogginess. I need to relax, to stop worrying what others think about me and her both, and most of all, to stop trying to achieve the impossible. It's clear this is the next step in our journey. Well, if I'm honest, it's actually my journey- Maisy doesn't seem to have any unreasonable expectations for me. I guess I'm lucky that way. My dog may not be perfect, but she is pretty tolerant of my mistakes, and she definitely accepts my human nature.

I only hope I can give her the same gift.

Monday, October 3, 2011

Happy Birthday, Maisy!

Maisy is the big F-I-V-E today. I can't believe she went from this:

 Maisy at 18 weeks.
 To this:

 Maisy on Saturday. Photo courtesy of Megan.

Happy birthday, little Muppet dog. I love you more than you'll ever know.