Thursday, October 6, 2011
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.