365 Days Later: Bigger, Not Badder.

goofy Kainan

It has officially been one year since the day a scrawny, malnourished, exhausted stray wolfdog stepped foot into our home.

He did not huff and puff to gain access. He did not stalk us in the woods while we were on any sort of journey to visit aged relatives. He simply looked into our eyes and we threw the door wide open.

If you have not read my early posts about Kainan the wolfdog, I’ll give you the Reader’s Digest version. Kainan was found stray in Tulsa, OK (where wolfdogs are not legal to own/house/wander) by friends of a friend. Said friend somehow thought (not a huge stretch) to contact me, my most significant other, Jim, and our equally-bleeding-heart veterinarian/friend, Lauren. That put the wheels in motion to get the young wolfdog quick care and boarding at the animal hospital while we all worked on the “what’s next” portion of this tale.

I went to visit this boy while he was boarding. Past experience in working with wolfdogs at our city animal shelter told me that he might be very stressed, fearful, and filled with mistrust. Wolfdogs don’t do well in kennel situations; wolfdogs often don’t warm to strangers very quickly.

20140901_103907What I found, when I approached his kennel run in the hospital ward of the clinic, was a calm, tired, pup with sores on all of his paws and a soft, trusting glow in his eyes.

Little did conscious Nancy know, but subconscious Nancy was already head over heels in love.

Fast-forwarding through the ensuing events, a local group, Freedom’s Song Wolf Rescue, had seen photos of this boy, agreed he was a dog with wolf content, and were making arrangements to take him into their foster program. He would need to board for about a week before they could take him.

Jim and I agreed we would sponsor his boarding at the vet where he could also rest and recover from his days trying to survive on his own.

We agreed on that until Jim had a better idea.

10628313_10204848789243189_794661893457081233_n“I’m going to pick the wolfdog up and bring him home for a few days until he leaves for the rescue.”

It was that simple. We were going to temporarily foster a wolfdog that we knew little to nothing about. Well, sure. Count me in.

So the young wolfdog came home and moved into one of the indoor runs we have in our house. This house was built for our serious dog habit, so we were well equipped to keep him comfortable, safe, and separated from our own herd of dogs. Because we should keep him separated, right? Big, bad wolf?

We agreed on that until Jim and a better idea.

“I’ll just bring him out on leash to see how he does with everyone. He’ll be more comfortable on the couch.”

2014-09-01 10.42.34And he was. And we all were quite comfortable. And that’s when subconscious Nancy peeked out from the depths of my brain to suggest that maybe this could work out. Then she skittered right back into hiding.

Seed planted.

We were to meet the fine folks from Freedom’s Song (say that three times fast!), on a Sunday afternoon to turn the wolfdog over to them. In talking with them on Saturday to plan a place and time for the next day’s transfer, I learned that our boy…um…the boy…would be going to a very good foster home near Oklahoma City. He would be housed in an outdoor pen and introduced to another wolfdog buddy. There he would gain weight and strength while awaiting adoption.

“Outdoor pen?” subconscious Nancy queried. “This boy has been lounging on your couch in air-conditioned comfort. He melts in the heat. It’s in the 100s right now.”

“But I’m sure he’ll be fine…” and with that she disappeared back into the nether regions of my cranium once again.

JIm and I talked about it extensively, for like, oh maybe five seconds.

10551488_10204877036749359_4110038824873177390_oSend our…um…this boy to live outside while he is still recovering from severe malnutrition? Oh hell…um…I mean…oh, maybe no.

Definitely no.

So I called the lovely representative at Freedom’s Song back and suggested that instead of him moving to another foster home right away, Jim and I could foster him until he was a healthy weight and ready to acclimate to the heat.

I heard a long pause on the other end of the conversation. And I knew what she was thinking.

Her inside voice was saying that these people have no idea what they are getting themselves into. And as any good rescue person does, she was running through a mental checklist of reasons why we might not be suited to keep a wolfdog and working to say the words as nicely as possible.

We talked about containment. We talked about our other dogs. We talked about the fact that we had no idea how he would behave once he was no longer weak and starving.

10678831_745359785524595_8164635533662719818_nThe Freedom’s Song folks are good at their work. Not once did they tell us we couldn’t do this. They simply told us all of the “what ifs” and the potential truths of life with a wolfdog…even just a temporary one.

“Temporary?” Oh shut up, subconscious Nancy.

We met with them, we listened to them, and we promised them we would not let them – or the wolfdog – down.

After a couple of agonizing weeks of debate and just referring to our boy as Big-Bad, Jim and I finally named our new foster friend Kainan. Don’t ask me how or why…it’s an entire story. You can read it here if you want to know the painful truth of how hard we find it to name something. Human parents, how do you do this? What a responsibility.

During the same time the great name debate was raging, Kainan gained weight, and strength, and increased energy. Whereas initially he could only sit and watch the other dogs race around him in the yard, after a few weeks of care, he slowly started joining in the games.

Kain and BernieFrom that point forward he has done nothing but thrive. At eight months of age and a frightening 38 pounds in August, Kainan blossomed into a regal wolfdog of 100+ pounds by the following January. From a tired, lethargic boy with sore paws and no stamina, he became the instigator in rowdy games of dog tag.

And through it all, that calm, steady glow in his eyes never shifted.

Did we say temporary? No. He was not to be a temporary guest. Kainan was home to stay. Our home was to be his home forever.

Subconscious Nancy emerges victorious into the light to high five conscious Nancy.

What we have learned in 365 days with a wolfdog in the house:

  1. Guard your television remotes. Your shoes. Your couches. Anything and everything he might be able to reach needs to be locked down or moved out of his reach. Mischief and thievery abound with a wolfdog in the mix.
  2. There is no such thing as “out of his reach” when you have a wolfdog in the house. Maintain a good sense of humor. Scold yourself for not supervising closer. Always remember he is far more important than any “thing” could ever be.
  3. The landscape of your yard will change. If you thought dogs could dig impressive holes, you ain’t seen nothing yet. We now have the potential for a multi-chamber, multi-level storm shelter in the back yard should we decide to finish it out.
  4. If your rather large wolfdog decides he wants to sleep on the bed, you will find yourself on the couch. Unless he has already chewed the couch.
  5. Duct tape can repair couches. Sort of.
  6. Wolfdogs are not brave, aggressive, or one bit scary. When our dogs charge into the night, racing to the darkest corners of our yard in full baying alarm, Kainan stands in the safety of the porch light, ready to head back into the house if there really is a boogie man out there.
  7. Wolfdogs apparently don’t bark. Kainan does not have a “bark” but he has lots of other ways of talking. He wuffs, he mumbles, he woo-woo-woos, and he howls. OH how he howls. It’s a more hauntingly mellifluous vocalization than any of our other canines can begin to muster and one that brings the resident coyote choir to a respectful silence.
  8. Wolfdogs are affectionate. They love tummy rubs. They love to have their backs stroked. They love to have their ears rubbed.
  9. Wolfdogs can be very independent. A bit of a split personality? At times, yes.
  10. Wolfdogs love to play. They love to pounce their dog friends. They love to chase and be chased. They love toys. Toys might be your couch…be warned and be aware. Learn from our mistakes, Grasshopper.
  11. Wolfdogs are smart and learn quickly. What you help them learn is important. It is as easy to accidentally teach bad things as it is to intentionally teach good things. I’ll let you mull on that very loaded sentence. (My example would be the people who turn a very wild, excited dog loose at the dog park and only call it to them when they are ready to snap the leash back on to head to the car. Get ready for a grand, 30 minute game of keep-away. They just taught their dog that “come” means “game over.”)
  12. Wolfdogs are amazing, mystical, loving, woolly, gentle, clever beings that are certainly not the right fit for every household, but one of them is very much a grand fit in our household.

Of course I do not speak for every wolfdog here. Obviously, my experience is limited to living with this one very special boy. The grand prize in the wolfdog lottery, in my opinion. Not all wolfdogs adapt to living in a home with other dogs so beautifully. A chewed television remote or two…or five…can be the least of your concerns with some wolfdogs. They are not for everyone, some do not easily adapt to domestic life.

BW Kainan

A wagging tail, a happy wolfdog.

But we have Kainan. Our special wolfdog. Every day I bury my face in the thick ruff of fur around Kainan’s neck and inhale. It’s cathartic and uplifting. There is no musky dog smell. Kainan smells of earth, of fresh grass, of warmth. He looks straight into my eyes with a steady gaze that melts my heart again and again. He gently grabs my hand with his powerful jaws in the role of the playful predator. He’s never left a mark.

There is a connection with this animal that is quite profound and eludes description, but I sure hope every animal lover finds something like it, whether with a dog, a cat, a horse, or…in the right circumstance (Don’t worry fine folks at Freedom’s Song, I listened!)…a wolfdog.

In the meantime, I think it may be appropriate to rethink the fairy tales of my childhood. In my story, the wolfdog is not bad at all. In my story, the three little piggies, the giant wolfdog, and the girl wearing the hoodie all become dear friends who go share some porridge with a blonde girl and some bears.

Kaine and meAnd they…we…live happily ever after.

Happy one year Kainan. Jim and I look forward to continuing this real-life fairy tale for years and years to come.

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I Dare Me.

candles1_PREVIEW

Today is my Birthday. Number nifty-four. Happy to me!

A Monday birthday and I didn’t even take it as a bad sign that my special day started with a record-breaking stock market crash and four buzzards (I kid you not!) lurking on the road just outside our gate. Nope…Monday, stock market, death birds…you cannot, will not, did not ruin my day.

Fiddle-dee-dee.

Now, back to ME.

Years, and years, and more years ago, I made a vow that on each birthday I should do something I’ve never done before.  It was my own little dare to myself to help keep things interesting, adventurous, and a bit on the are-you-out-of-your-mind side.

I’m happy to report that it has been mission accomplished, again, and again, and yet again. I have Jim, my very significant other, and many friends to thank for helping me stay on this thrilling and potentially destructive track.

My “dare me” initiative has resulted in some pretty exciting birthdays.

There was this…

5112_1173686145981_2397323_nWhy yes, I did step out of a perfectly good airplane at 12,000 feet. (Thanks for the gentle shove, Jim.(Not really! I jumped right out!))

It was FANTASTIC! That was a forty-something birthday.

I also had the great privilege of celebrating one of my birthdays, another forty-something event, in this venue…

Africa 3

Oh don’t get me started on this trip or I’ll fill the whole blog with nothing but amazing memories and photos of our time in South Africa. When you have had an adult male lion pass so close to you that you could reach out to tickle his ears (if you were to completely lose your mind and wanted to freak out your ranger), well, it’s an experience you never forget.

Some birthdays are more tame than others. One birthday the “new thing” was simply smoking a cigar while relaxing at a lake resort. Not a habit that stuck with me, thankfully.

Another year, a group of amazing friends and that Jim guy took me to Worlds of Fun in Kansas City so I could ride rides I’ve never ridden before. There is not a roller coaster on this earth that I won’t ride. Dare me, go ahead.

This was me on a giant crane/rip-cord/swing thing with Jim and a friend (with a death grip on Jim’s arm) who shall remain nameless, but BOY can she scream…

Worlds of fun

So this year, I honestly wasn’t sure what the new thing would be. I mean really, we might be running out of new stuff after nifty-four years, right?

Wrong.

Jim found something new. So this happened…

flyboarding

It’s called a flyboard and basically, there’s a hose that takes all of the power from the attached jet ski and funnels it at great force through a special contraption attached very firmly to your feet. If all goes well, you fly up out of the water. I think the photo above makes it appear I’m doing a fancy stunt. Pretty sure the next frame was a fancy crash-landing.

But fear not! This also happened…

Fly Nan

And some more of this looks-like-a-stunt-but-was-a-crash-in-progress stuff…

Fly Nan 2

And finally this…

Fly nan 3

And lots of this…

fly nan 4

Jim was able to do THIS…

Jim fly 2

Really high, right? He also did this…

Jim fly

I’ll let him tell you if that was on purpose or not, but let’s just say his eardrum was ruptured somewhere in this process (the entering the water sideways and really hard part). He’ll be good as new after minor surgery and several months of healing. No biggie.

Plus now he only hears half of the stuff I say to him. I’m pretty sure he’s good with that. Nancy, “Blah, blah, blah, blah.” Jim, “Huh?” Repeat, repeat.

Back to flyboarding. So then I did this…

Steven fly

Ok…not me. This is our instructor, Steven, showing us how it’s done.

Showoff.

I guess the back flip will be my “new thing” for my nifty-fifth birthday. Yeah.

Probably not.

But there will be a new challenge for number nifty-five, and for all the birthdays to come. You only go around once, you might as well do it with lake water up your nose, or elephants charging around you, or the ground rushing up to meet you.

So what will be next? Who knows. I’m sure we’ll think of something. The “what” is not as important as the “new” and the “with.”

Careful. If you hang out with me on a future birthday, my friends and I may drag you into something “new” too.

How do you feel about hang gliding? Hmmmm.

I’ll Find You.

20150718_145536“I’ll find you again someday, buddy. I promise.”

The old dog looked intently into the man’s eyes, silently returning the promise. With that, the man gave the old dog a final hug as the veterinarian quietly administered a final injection. And then everything just faded away.

Within what seemed like just a moment, or it could have been hours, the dog’s eyes blinked open. The fluorescent lights of the veterinary hospital had been replaced by the glow of a beautiful early morning sun.

The blanket on the floor of the exam room had been replaced by a soft bed of fragrant green grass.

The old dog sat up, feeling no confusion despite the unfamiliar surroundings.  Everything should have felt new, and the dog knew he should feel lost, but instead he had the same feeling in his heart as he felt when he was at home, the place where he lived with the man.

Nearby he saw a gathering of dogs, humans, cats, horses, and other animals all waiting together, facing a stand of tall trees. The foliage was so dense that he couldn’t see what secret attraction drew man and beast to the small path that parted the formidable stand.

“You’re here!” a cheerful voice exclaimed. “We’ve been expecting you. You’ll want to head straight over to that line to be restored. You’re in for quite a treat.”

The old dog looked up into the face of a kind woman who reached out to stroke one of his silky ears. She seemed somehow familiar to him, but at the same time he was sure they had never met before.

With a long, lazy stretch, the old dog got up and joined the others in line. After a time, it could have been a minute, it could have been an hour, the dog emerged from the trees.

A treat, indeed. The dog was old no more. He was restored to peak physical condition, with a spring in his step, muscles strong and firm, eyes clear and sharp. His coat was a field of pure white adorned with glossy black spots. He shook his body from nose to tail tip in delight.

“Ahhhh, look at you, boy. You’re so handsome.” The dog glanced around to find the kind woman, who knew exactly how to rub his ears, admiring him with a delighted smile on her face. “Oh, but wait,” she said, “you missed one thing…your foot.”

The dog glanced down at his right front foot. The woman was right, this foot had only three toes instead of four. One of his middle toes had become swollen and painful years ago in his life and it had been removed. “Don’t you want your foot restored?” the kind voice questioned.

Looking directly into her eyes, the dog dropped into a playful bow and wagged his tail in the crazy circle wag reserved by dogs for only the happiest of moments. He trotted over to plant his paw into the soft dirt of a nearby trail as he looked back at the woman one last time, and then loped effortlessly down the path toward a new horizon.

The woman watched the dog as he quickly became a speck in the distance. “Well done, boy,” she whispered, nodding in unspoken agreement. “Well done.”

Sometime in the future, it could have been just a few minutes, but it was really many decades, a tall man emerged from the dense forest on a slender, shaded path. He took a deep breath, reveling in how wonderful he felt. “I think I could run a marathon right now,” he said aloud to himself.

“I believe you can too,” a woman with a kind face laughed as she approached the man. “Is that what you’d like to do? It’s completely up to you now.”

The man returned her smile, feeling that he should know this woman, but unsure how. He stretched his long arms, once again firm with muscle as he looked around at this place that was new to him, but at the same time so oddly familiar.

Toby sand-paw-printsJust as he was about to respond to the woman, the morning sun rose just enough to shine beams of gentle light on a nearby path. The man stared down at the soft dirt and saw a set of paw prints – four toes, four toes, four toes, three toes.

With a grin of realization spreading across his face, the man’s eyes locked onto the prints and without hesitation he started down the path, following the mismatched paw prints at a strong, steady jog. “I know exactly what I want to do and where I need to go,” the man called out over his shoulder.

“I have a promise to keep.”

The woman watched in the warmth of the dawning light until the man became a speck on a distant, new horizon.

‘Tis the Season.

IMG_3208No, I’m not one of those people.

Christmas-countdownThis post is not an exclamation of growing excitement over the fact that Christmas is just over 138 days away. I freaked you out a little there didn’t I? Only 17 more Fridays until THE Friday.

But no. We are not going down that path strewn with twinkle lights and elfin magic. Far, far from it.

And, before you dare to read on, this is the point where I must give a TMI warning. This post will be filled with too, too much information about animal husbandry. Actually, more appropriately, this post will be filled with information about avoiding animal husbandry.

If you follow along, or if you care to glance back even one post, you realize that Jim and I rescue animals. Yes, bring us your broken, your old, your castaways. At Tails You Win Farm, we love them all the same.

But damn it, don’t bring us your “in season.”

Yes, for today’s slam-my-head-against-a-wall purposes, the word “season” refers to that lovely period (pun intended?) when a female dog is in heat, estrus, oestrus, “a delicate way.” Call it what you will, it means she’s feeling frisky (wink, wink, nudge, nudge, boom-chicka-wow-wow) and any boy dogs within a five mile radius will be feeling even friskier.

The “lady in waiting” is our foster puppy, Hannah. She is now about eight months old and is experiencing her first heat cycle, therefore we are all experiencing her first heat cycle.

Why, you ask, did I allow enough weeks to pass to allow THIS to happen?

Yeah. I messed up.

I had fully planned to have her spayed well before we had to experience the joy of Hannah’s maturing sexuality. It appears I planned it about a week too late.

You know, things got busy. I lost track of how old she was. She’s just a cute, playful little puppy. I had no idea I should be reading the canine version of Are You There God? It’s Me, Margaret to her.

While we are not in immanent danger of creating little Hannahs – all potential male suitors in our home are neutered – we still have to keep a close eye on our little Lolita in dog’s clothing in the event that her siren scent carries on the wind to any passing stray dogs. Oh yes, they will show up, and they will try to breach our fortress.

To add to that fun, our resident neutered boys seem, well, quite interested. In fact, I’d describe them as willing and apparently able to introduce Hannah to the world of safe sex. Yes boys and girls, neutered male dogs CAN still perform the act of breeding. I found that out the hard way once upon a time.

I’ll give you a quick mental picture of my champion Dalmatian show dog out in the middle of my yard “tied” in a compromising position (Yes, tied. Dogs get stuck for a bit, for lack of a more charming way to explain that.) with our neutered, smiling mutt of a foster dog. This was back when I lived in a neighborhood. With other houses in sight. And families. Did I mention that this is the vision that greeted the neighbor kids as the school bus dropped them off on the corner?

Yeah. I was the popular neighbor. The red-faced one standing out in the yard with my naughty, naughty “we just need a few minutes to calm down” dogs while impressionable, wide-eyed children passed by. You see once they are tied…well…you just have to wait it out. “Ummm…hi kids…the doggies are fine! No, they can’t play right now. Scoot on home!”

(WARNING: Do not Google “tied dogs.” Just don’t.)

Hey, the parents of those kids should have thanked me. I opened that awkward “we need to have a talk” door that so many parents dread. You. Are. Welcome.

The point is that I thought it was safe to let my in-season girl out in the yard for a quick potty break with a neutered boy. He wouldn’t have any interest. He shouldn’t have had any interest. Oh, but he did. And he did. (Boom chicka-wow-wow)

IMG_0732So now, back in the lovely present, we are in the middle of three weeks (yes, THREE weeks…it lasts 1, 2, 3 weeks) of joy, rotating Hannah and our neutered, though quite amorous boys in and out of crates and runs.

Howie, our senior ranking male Dalmatian, has taken the high road. He seems to understand that it’s pointless and is not interested in Hannah. But the younger guys? Oh lord.

Boog the cattle dog, Bernie the pit mix, and Kainan the wolfdog all have a shiny, hopeful gleam in their eyes and big dopey grins on their faces.

Safe or not, my answer to each and every one of them is HELL NO.

The moral of this story is, mark your calendar with a big red X on the date when you plan to have your female puppy spayed. Six months is a great target date. I missed it…learn from my folly.

We have another 10 days, give or take, to go in this less-than-merry season. We will survive. Hannah will have an appointment with our veterinarian as soon as doggedly possible.

The good thing that came out of this was the realization our other teenager, Cupcake (CC for short) was also coming of age, so we rushed to the vet to have that potential train wreck derailed. She now sports a lovely little spay scar (which if you say that fast and out loud sounds like space car and that never fails to make me laugh).

Very soon, we can get Hannah a space car too. Hannah will stop whining and yipping from her temporary confinement. The boys will stop whining and pacing and, in Kainan’s case, howling in mournful lust. Peace will return to the farm.

Lawrence winEverything will be just fine and dandy. Until our current Dalmatian show dog, Brooke, decides to “celebrate the season” again. And let me check my calendar…yeah, that could happen just about any day now.

Hey, Jim, aren’t we done showing her now?

Maybe the lovely Champion Brooke wants a fancy space car too…

Tag

Hopefully, soon they’ll all be back to happily romping in the grass instead of wanting to roll in the hay.

A Nadia by Any Other Name…

1926860_10203562362843333_1208941453_n

Nadia when she first came to the farm as a youngster.

Nadia and I both need a little attitude adjustment.

Nadia is my foster dog. She is going through a rough patch. The happy, easy-going puppy I once knew has become a bit of a moody, uncomfortable teenager. She seems lacking in confidence. Her social skills are unpredictable. She often seems stressed or concerned for no apparent reason.

If she were a human girl, I believe she would wear heavy eye makeup, dark clothing, and there would be piercings. Oh yes, I’m sure there would be piercings.

I really can’t explain why Nadia has decided to become a Goth dog. Yes, she was rescued from life on the road at a young age, but that was eons ago in dog time. Her life truly has been safe and secure from that point forward. We will not fall back on the “she’s a rescue” excuse.

A rescued dog, yes. A tragic life? Hardly.

No, Nadia’s issue are not because I rescued her. During her first couple of months at our farm, the onetime stray transformed into a happy, bouncy, outgoing puppy with no lingering issues from her roots as a castaway.

Nadia did place in a home for a period of time. It was a good home with a woman who really tried to help Nadia fit into her world. But it didn’t work out. You can read that tale here for a little background.

Nothing tragic happened in her “almost home.” She received good care, loving attention, and positive training. But somewhere along the way, Nadia seemed to stop trusting her new life.

So now, of course, she has been welcomed back into our home. The plan was to give her a bit of time and training to restore her to her more carefree self, then try, try again to find her a perfect permanent home. This time we would take a few cues from things we learned about Nadia during her time in my friend’s home when she started exhibiting stress and anxiety issues. For example, we now know that Nadia will do better in a home with another resident dog. Nadia will also likely do better in a suburban or country setting instead of a home in a midtown neighborhood.

Nadia 2It has been several months since Nadia returned to Tails You Win Farm. She loves being here with all of the other dogs. She loves having dog door access to the big fenced yard. She loves lounging on the multitude of dog beds here.

And yet, something is still so off. I still get a very heavy feeling when I’m with her.

This week I decided that we need a change. It may seem simple, it may seem silly, but I think I have finally discovered the ticket to a happier, lighter outlook – for both of us.

I’m going to change her name.

Yes, I am a professional dog trainer and I think this dog needs a new name. Oh that voodoo that we do. Sometimes effective dog training has nothing at all to do with yummy treats and the right leash or collar. Sometimes it’s just a gut feeling backed by some good old dog sense.

Initially, I dubbed this girl Nadia because she loved to tumble all over the yard in a floor exercise routine that would have surely earned a perfect 10. She had dark, lovely hair, and big dark eyes, so making her the namesake of a talented Romanian gymnast seemed very fitting.

Nadia humanBut think about it. What image do you see when you think of the name Nadia?

Well, I remember Nadia Comaneci’s debut in the Olympic games very well. She came across as a quiet, serious, focused young lady – anything but lighthearted and playful.

Hmm.

So now I am changing Nadia’s name to Mary Lou. Yes, Mary Lou. I’ve tried the name out and it causes a certain dark-haired dog to wag the back end of her body from side to side as if there is a giant hinge just behind her rib cage.

Mary louAnd if you look back again in Olympic history, well, there’s no denying that Mary Lou Retton had incredible energy and appeal.

Will the name change really matter to Nadia/Mary Lou? Well, maybe not directly, but it might change my attitude toward her; it might improve my feelings surrounding her. And if I change my mindset, her outlook may change as well.

A human’s attitude toward a dog has a huge effect on that dog and his or her ability to respond to training and environment. Nadia/Mary Lou’s situation brings to mind the plight of a friend who was training with her dog in obedience and trying to earn a novice title in American Kennel Club competition.

The dog trained nicely and performed very well in all of the exercises in the trials until it came time for the group stay…which after a few fails became known as the “dreaded group stay.”

In this particular exercise, several handler/dog teams enter the ring together and line up with dogs sitting to the left of their humans. The judge instructs the handlers to leave their dogs, and everyone utters a loud “STAY,” leaving their dogs lined up in sit/stays as they walk to the opposite side of the ring for what generally feels like the longest minute of their lives.

My friend’s dog would hold steady for 20, 30, even 45 seconds, but you could easily see increasing anxiety furrowing her brow and causing her to pin her ears back. Before the full 60 seconds could pass, she would slowly get up and slink to sit directly in front of her human.

In the dog obedience trial world, that’s a big, fat fail. Ugh.

So my friend asked me to watch her with her dog to see if I could come up with some trick she had not yet tried. Was there some correction or some incentive that she had yet to think of?

After watching her in a trial, and witnessing another failed stay after an otherwise great performance, we met at our training club. I had an idea.

“Ok, here’s what I want you to do,” I instructed. “As you are walking away from your dog, I want you to take three deep breaths. Then, when you turn to face her from across the ring, I want you to plaster a big, happy smile on your face.”

She looked at me like I was completely nuts, but desperation in dog training often makes insanity look pretty damn good, so she followed my advice. Guess what? Yep, the dog stayed put.

The issue was not with the dog at all. The issue was with the stress my friend felt about being away from her dog on the stay exercise. Prior to our little training session, the expression on her face as she planted herself opposite her dog was a big, stern scowl born of obvious stress and fear of failure. Her dog was completely unnerved by her normally cheerful human’s dark expression and it caused her to lose her confidence.

A few huge smiles later, and handler and dog were awarded the degree of Companion Dog, AKC’s novice obedience title.

So, am I guilty of the same story, different chapter? Maybe so. Maybe I’m just mired in the frustration of dealing with a dog who needs to work through some growing pains. Perhaps I’m still projecting disappointment that her placement didn’t work out. Maybe the stress we seem to feel just requires one little change to fix my attitude. Could it be that the problem is not the dog at all?

Oh yes, yes it could be.

A Nadia by another name, just might find the world a little brighter. A Nadia by any other name just might be a Mary Lou. Sometimes the most profound dog training isn’t really profound at all. Sometimes it just requires looking at a problem from a different angle.

Come on, Mary Lou. Let’s give it a try. A little placebo name change sure can’t hurt, can it?

I, for one, feel better already.