My new client had obviously had a tiring day with her rescue dog. We had been working on some reactivity issues with visitors, and unfortunately Thanksgiving got in the way of our teaching plan. While the day wasn’t a failure, both POG and dog tried hard but also made mistakes throughout the day. By the time her relatives left, my client was burnt to a crisp.

She emailed a report to me, and she ended with a question: “…have you ever worked with a family who isn’t able to turn this behavior around?”
I knew this was a bad-day/exhaustion-based question, so I gave her my usual responses (yes, but: rarely; you didn’t fail, nothing bad happened so something good happened; this is expected; you did fine; she did fine; you can do it; back to work!). My answer satisfied her; in fact, she reported she had since had a great session with her dog. We were back on track.

Yet, for some reason, her question niggled at me. Of course, I had clients who couldn’t reach their goals for their dog. The reasons varied from life changes to “I am afraid she’ll hurt someone.” The common thread comes down to the POG being physically and/or emotionally unable to continue. Essentially, they give up.

It happens to all of us, DLSIs/trainers and POGs alike: We get that challenging dog, and/or we have a spectacularly bad day, and/or a series of bad days/events, and we run out of coping juice. We go into meltdown mode, selecting from the despair menu of crumpled crying, primal screaming, boisterous swearing, redirected anger, manic cleaning and/or yard work, and extreme self-doubt (that’s my list anyway). Generally, after a while, we pick ourselves up, shake ourselves off and get back to work.

But not always. And that got me to wondering: What if I had given up? 

The Tawny Test

My darling girl Tawny was a challenging dog. And that is putting it mildly. She had a lot of issss-ues, if you will, and she was stuck with someone who had her own issss-ues plus, unfortunately, a similar personality–quick-reacting, impatient, intolerant. We were gasoline and a match. Bad combo! Add in the fact that I was wet behind the ears as a trainer, just starting out and with a lot to learn about what “dog training” really was, and oh my, what a recipe for disaster. 

In my group glasses, I would hold up a piece of paper with stuff written on both sides. This was Tawny’s “bad dog” list–all the behaviors we had fixed, from jumping and digging to separation anxiety and reactivity (“aggression”). I stated I had to write it down so I wouldn’t forget any of it because the problems were all gone, but emphasized that it didn’t happen overnight.

In fact, it was often a slow, hard slog for both of us as we worked to understand each other and learned how to communicate. I was slower on the uptake most of the time, and amazingly Tawny for some reason was very tolerant of my flailings and failings then. And still is, I might add. There were times when I blew it, she blew it, and we both blew it. There were times when something would work for awhile and then suddenly stop working. There were times when I questioned whether I should even have a dog, much less try to teach one anything.

But each time, after the ceremonial wailing and rending of garments, in fairly short order, I slid back into the driver’s seat and eased back onto the course. It was unthinkable to me to do anything else. Tawny was depending on me to sort this out with her. Had I given up, I would have let her down, and also let down all the other dogs who needed my help. I would have let myself down too. I couldn’t let that happen. Quite simply, failure was not an option. 

What I didn’t know then but know now is that arduous, tortuous journey produced marvelous, far-reaching results. I have the dog I always wanted–safe, reliable, well-mannered, a joy most of the time–an achievement I could barely have imagined at the beginning. Even more unimaginable is how much she changed me, pushing me to be a better trainer, better POG, and better human being. Had I not kept trying, neither of us would be the beings we are now. We both hung in there, and today we both are reaping the rewards. 

This is especially meaningful to me now, because I am in a personal situation that allows me little time to manage anything in my life, especially an ill-behaved dog. But she is performing majestically, and I thank her every day for it.

Learning resilience

In trainer circles, we talk about the resilience of dogs, how some bounce back better than others. My dog taught me how to be resilient, and I will be forever grateful I didn’t give up on her, or me. I judge no one who makes a different decision. This is simply my story. I hope it helps someone else struggling to hang on in a bad moment.

More help can be found on my Trained With Kindness (TWiKi) site (“Frustration Emergency?“) [http://www.trainedwithkindness.com/take-action-now-heres-how/frustration-emergency-read-now/] and my CP-HIP site (Problem-Solving Formula e-booklet on my Store page). [http://cp-hipdogs.com/train/shop/]

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