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Progress Happens One Tiny Step at a Time
- Adopting this dog was the worst idea in your life - my brother said when she started barking for no reason again.
- Well, at least we go outside every day together…
- Yes, but you could do it with another dog who isn’t mentally ill.
Well, I guess he has a point.
It’s true, living with my dog isn’t easy
She barks almost every time someone enters or leaves the house. She has a hard time staying alone at home and used to make a scene whenever we left her. She’s extremely sensitive to bad vibes, and gets upset as soon as anyone is upset. She stole all kinds of food from bell peppers to cheesecake when we left it unattended for a minute or two, and scratched our beautiful wooden table while she was doing that. But the most difficult thing is trying to get her and the baby dressed for a walk at the same time, especially now in winter when baby and I have to put on several layers of clothes before leaving. Any time one of them starts crying for some reason the other one will cry even louder in a self-reinforcing loop.
I can’t say I didn’t know what I was signing up for. We were explicitly told that she’s a difficult dog, and that for the 6 months she spent in the dog shelter nobody showed any interest in her. She looks pretty on the photos, but after spending just 5 minutes with her you begin to understand why nobody wanted her before.
Before Lorna landed in the shelter, she lived with a homeless guy on other people’s recreational plots. Her job was to scare other people and animals away - something she still does instinctively - and feeding herself, which must have included scavenging through trash and hunting small animals like squirrels, pigeons, or cats. Then the homeless guy died, and she was found next to his dead body several days later. It’s hard to tell if her fear of being abandoned started then or possibly even earlier, but in the beginning she was terrified of being alone and cried in her shelter cage literally all the time.
Why did I choose her, out of all the possible dogs in the world?
Sometimes I’m asking myself the same question. We always wanted to have a dog, but travelled too much by air. Then the pandemic happened and we were grounded at home anyway, so I started browsing shelter dog photos online and feeling overwhelmed by how many of them there were. Eventually one of our neighbors posted Lorna’s photos on our apartment block group, and her story moved me deeply. I knew that with both of us working online regardless of the pandemic we’ll be in the best position to give her as much time as she needs to learn how to live a civilized life.
And then I found out I was pregnant, and since our baby was born training the dog became much less of a priority. She’s doing her best, most of the time, but there are moments where she adds a lot of extra stress that we wouldn’t have otherwise.
People sometimes tell me I should hire a dog trainer
This is one of the most polite things I hear when she randomly barks at someone on the street. I don’t know how to tell them that we’ve seen one, many times, but a trainer won’t magically fix the dog overnight. The best they can do is prescribe a set of exercises that we’ll need to repeat every single day. We’ve completed hundreds of hours of such repetitions already, and our dog is already much calmer and more polite than she was a year or two ago. For every person or dog she’s barking at, there are now other 10 or 50 that she will calmly pass even if she’s a little bit nervous. But when she eventually does bark at a stranger, all they will see is a rude and unruly dog.
On a good day we might score a whole walk where she’s polite all the time. This requires my full undivided attention to her surroundings so that I can guide her, reward for the right behavior, and calm her down whenever needed. But good days don’t happen every day, and sometimes we might do everything right until suddenly there are two huge puppies running around her without a leash. How can I explain to their owners that due to her past experiences she doesn’t see this as an invitation to play but rather as a brutal attack? People who raised their own puppies from the beginning can’t usually imagine how much work it takes to undo old patterns like this.
But eventually these patterns get slowly undone
It’s just too slow to notice it day by day. If my dog does everything right 50 times in a row then snaps on the 51th, I will still only remember the last situation. It takes conscious effort to recognize all the things that would have thrown her off balance in the past and which she successfully managed to navigate this time.
That’s the best value I get out of our dog trainer, even when she doesn’t have any more exercises for us to share. Every time she comes back after several months, she will point out all the things our dog has learned since the last time she saw her. And every time I’m surprised. Are you telling me she wasn’t always like this? When I’m training my dog, I mostly focus on all the things that still require improvement. It takes conscious effort to recognize all the progress we’ve made.
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