When Hope is Born

IMG_7097The moment I met her I knew she was special. Or maybe it’s that I could feel how special she was.

It’s not that she gave me an enthusiastic greeting. In fact, she really didn’t even raise her head. She was tired, sick, and, well, I can only tell you that I felt she was heartbroken. It’s not something I can explain easily, but the feelings rolling off this sweet dog hit me full force.  So far, in her young life, I believe the world had done nothing but let her down.

39750197_2331274450235193_2842965249814953984_oFirst I felt how exhausted she was. And then I felt her aches and pains followed by waves of uncertainty and resignation. But then I felt a little flicker. Something in those soft brown eyes reached deep in my heart. I think it was longing. This good, good soul longed for simple things like comfort and safety. She didn’t dare envision anything more.

She was found by some very wonderful and caring women at the Tulsa Botanical Garden office. She had found her way to them and then just plopped down in the dirt, not able to raise the energy to take one more step. They saw to her immediate needs by giving her water on a steamy summer’s day, and then a bowl of food. They applied drops to her shoulders to rid her of the hundreds of ticks that were draining her body. They gave her the first relief she had likely known in months…or even years.

They messaged me through our non-profit Dalmatian rescue for the help they knew she needed beyond what they could provide in the short-term. I looked at the photos coming across my phone of a dog that appeared completely drained and defeated. She was by no stretch of the imagination a purebred Dalmatian, but this dog pulled at me through her images. I loved her before I ever gave her that first reassuring pat.

Her name became Tansy, a nod to her rescuers who also tended to the beautiful flowers at the Botanical Gardens. Her veterinary exam quickly revealed that the legions of ticks she endured had left her with an unwelcome gift in the form of ehrlichia, a tick-borne disease. Her aches, pains, and lethargy had a catalyst…one that now identified, we could and would chase into submission.

Tansy settled into our veterinarian’s kennel to begin her journey to good health. And there, she told me she felt safe. She had everything she thought she needed. A space of her own, soft blankets, people who stopped in to give hugs, fresh water, and good food twice a day, every single day. And with that, a few of the cracks in her tired heart began to fill.

Then, a week later, I returned with a leash. As soon as I slipped it around her neck, she habitually turned toward the door that led out to the kennel yard. But this time, I urged her toward a different door, the door that led out of the hospital.

Sweet Tansy immediately stopped. Her eyes clouded with concern, her head and tail drooped low. Again I could feel her. This place was safe, she didn’t want to leave. The unknown…the “what next”…had never been her friend. She had no reason to trust anything on the other side of that hospital door.

I coaxed her, I encouraged her, I made her so many promises. Slowly, reluctantly, she followed me to the parking lot and allowed me to help her into my car. Her protest was quiet, her resignation to whatever was to come escaped her in a long, deep sigh as she laid her head down staring blankly into the back of my Jeep.

I concentrated hard, trying to send her feelings and mental pictures, just as she had done for me. I thought about my house with all of the soft dog beds and dog-friendly furniture. I envisioned our big backyard and how beautiful the view is at sunrise when dewdrops on every strand of grass sparkle like precious gems. I thought about the resident dogs out romping and playing, then coming inside to stretch out in the air-conditioned comfort. I thought about how our dogs didn’t have a care in the world.

Could she hear me? Did she feel the peaceful images I was trying to send to her? I could see her in the rearview mirror, head still down, unmoving, but maybe I did feel some little glances my way. A little desire to trust blooming in her own mind.

We arrived home and she glanced around tentatively as she peered out of the open car door. As she stepped to the ground she sniffed a bit, taking in more information than any of us can imagine with each small inhalation. We walked to the house and I could feel her uncertainty mounting. There was not much I could do for her beyond offering my own calm demeanor as her guide.

Once in the house she was met by a few of our calmer dogs. Oh, poor girl. She wanted nothing to do with their inquisitive sniffs or their wagging invitations. She sat quickly in a “please go away” gesture. Her back curved, her ears pressed in worry to the sides of her head, her lips ruffling slightly in protest if any of the dogs tried to come toward her face.

“Too much! Too much!” the feelings cried. And so I listened. I let her scurry into a large crate covered on three sides by a blanket so she could have refuge. I gave her some fresh water and a little snack and then I let her just be. She needed to process. She needed to just be a spectator.

The other dogs in the house…and there are quite a few…came to the front of the crate to meet the newcomer. They were met with furtive glances and quiet, grumbling protests not born of aggression, but rather of fear. “Not yet,” the feelings said. “Please let me be invisible.”

And so, after initial curiosity was satisfied, the other dogs of our household, both our own dogs and our foster dogs, moved on. There were toys to be chewed, birds to be chased, and sunbeams that begged for nap partners.

IMG_7108One hour passed, two hours, a visit outside by herself, and then straight back to the crate. Her idea, not mine. “Not yet.”

Three hours, four hours passed and I left the crate door open. “Up to you,” I thought.

That evening, with all of the other dogs snoozing around the living room, I heard a little rustle. From the corner of my eye I saw her tiptoe out of the crate for a brief look around. Then she slipped back into the safety of her little cave. “That’s fine,” I thought. “At your own pace, in your own time.”

She slept the whole night in the open crate. Her trips to the yard were still solo and protected from prying noses.

But that next morning I saw it – that undeniable little glimmer called hope.

She stepped quietly out of the crate and into our midst By now, my dogs, who are very accustomed to newcomers, were not so curious about our new friend.  They went about their business, weaving Tansy into our routine with little fanfare.

But to Tansy, every part of our routine was amazing. There was food on a regular basis. First she ate nervously, as if someone would surely come to steal her share. Then she ate with focused gusto, no longer glancing over her shoulders with each bite.

Time outside was cherished. The yard was safe from people shooing her away. She could lounge in the shade of the porch or she could lie in the soft grass for a nap in the sun. And when she was ready, the door to the inside was always open to her, welcoming her back to the house.

IMG_7125There were treats, belly rubs, soft brushes, cushy beds. Routine was pure Heaven to this dog who had known nothing but uncertainty. And just as her little space at the vet hospital had become her safe place, so this new place became her haven as well. She started to trust the routine and all of the little things the other dogs knew as constants.

She also started feeling physically better as the medicine chased disease from her body. Her coat softened and filled in. Her ribs were no longer so easy to count. Her eyes no longer darted away, but held a gaze, steady and soft.

And then, one day, I pulled out the leash again. With a deep breath I asked her to trust me. In the car, I could feel her old nemesis uncertainty welling up and I did my best to reassure knowing that only experience could bring true peace.

As we pulled into the drive of the tree-shaded home, a woman walked out, a warm smile spreading across her face at her first glimpse of Tansy.

And the feelings! Oh the feelings. For once, Tansy moved out ahead of me and went straight to the woman. Sitting politely, directly in front of her, Tansy raised her head up to look straight into the woman’s face.

Together, we all sat out in the backyard, Tansy meeting the quiet, kind man of the home as well. She moved between the two, enjoying their attention. She met their dogs with careful curiosity instead of concern. Inside the tidy house, she relaxed calmly at the feet of her new friends.

Not wanting to turn her world suddenly upside down again, Tansy returned home with me that day with plans in place for her ultimate transfer to the couple I had now chosen as her new family. After a few days, I packed up her medicine, wrote out her care instructions, packed a bag of food and a favorite toy, placed a new tag on her collar, and loaded Tansy into the car for a very important ride.

This time, instead of turning her back and lying with her head down between her front legs, Tansy sat looking forward. What was that I felt from her this time? Expectation?

As we once again pulled into the shady drive in front of what was to be her new permanent home, Tansy’s feelings manifested in the form of a thumping tail. Was recognition possible after just one visit? I guess when you visit the right place, it most certainly is.

This time, there was no hesitation as she hopped from the car. She headed straight for the door that was immediately opened by the gentle woman with the wonderful smile. I knelt down to whisper the words I promise to every foster dog that leaves our care for a new home, “I have picked this home just for you and it’s a good one. You will be safe and loved, but remember, I’m always here for you if you need me, whether it’s in a day or in 10 years. I love you. Be happy now.”

Then, as I turned to leave, she gave me her own gift as she looked directly at me, her own eyes bright and shining with feelings that can only be described as trust and hope. Beautiful, newly born hope.

Good for you, Tansy. Enjoy your happily-ever-after.  I think I’ll always be able to feel you in my heart, no matter where your journey with your new family takes you. And right now, finally, the feelings are really, blissfully good.

Sunrise wag

Good Dog. Seriously. Say It.

11745853_10204634876415871_6407302087695439989_n

Photo by Jim Thomason

I have a lot of pets. And many of them are pet peeves.

Ba-dum-dum. Thank you, thank you. I’ll be here all week.

But seriously folks, I do have a lot of pet peeves, especially when it comes to the animals that share our world. And hey, one of my first pet peeves is that I don’t call them “pets.” I’m going to admit it. That word annoys me.

Pet is something I do to greet my dogs, to comfort them, to calm myself. It’s an verb for me, not a noun. Using the word pet to describe my dogs actually seems demeaning to me. My dogs, horses, chickens, unintentional house mice, etc., are my companions. They are my animal family. They are not furry/feathered humans, nor are they little slaves sent here to do my bidding. They are animals who are willing and kind enough to abandon a lot of their natural instincts to try to co-exist in our crazy, human-focused world.

That’s pretty amazing to me. I think it deserves a little respect.

Oh, and don’t even get me started on the term “fur babies.” Nope. Let’s not go there.

Today’s pet peeve, however, actually focuses on how we speak to our animals, how we choose to try to communicate with them. As a professional dog trainer (fancy certificate, letters after my name and all!), I get a lot of calls about “bad dogs.”

“My dog is stubborn.”

“My dog won’t listen.”

“My dog is out of control.”

I listen. I ask questions. I imagine what I will find when we finally meet. And I’m usually spot on.

What I generally find on  visits with “out of control” dogs is a complete lack of clear, meaningful, and consistent communication. So what I’m telling you is that 98.9% of the time…it’s not the dog’s fault.

And more than a lack of dog training know-how, I have found that it’s actually a mindset issue. As humans, we still feel the need to be very large and in charge when it comes to our animals. And when other people come around, it seems humans often go into hyper-militant mode, as if to suggest that their dogs behave like perfect little angels every moment of the day…except right now. You should see how people act when an actual dog trainer steps into the mix. It’s as if everyone suddenly has something to prove.

“Sit. Bo-bo, sit. SIT. SIT. BO-BO SIT. Sit down. SIT. YOU SIT RIGHT NOW. Bo-Bo…come here. SIT. COME. NO. NOOOOO. SITSITSIT.”

Kind of makes me want to toss an “h” in that sit somewhere.

And then I get asked how to “correct” that. “How do I make him mind?” “See how stubborn he is?”

OK. I can’t give an entire dog training 101 here (because hey, I don’t give that away for free! Bills to pay, people. Dog food to buy), but what I can do is help you get your head in the game. The right game.

First, dogs require constant feedback when they are learning. That means as good as you are at telling them when they are wrong, you need to be equally as good at telling them when they are right. Equally good. Tell them when they are RIGHT. In fact, spend more time doing that than you do telling them how wrong they are.

I’m going to let you think about that one for a moment. Here’s a gratuitously cute puppy photo you can ponder whilst you chew on that paragraph…

14370220_10210860223725294_5630181008885323902_n

Ok…all done pondering? Great. So here’s my next free tip: Let’s change your vocabulary.

Sometimes changing your mindset is as easy as changing the words you choose. Here are my new training words for you:

  1. Instead of train, use the word teach.
  2. Instead of command, use the word cue.
  3. Instead of correct, use the word redirect.

Let’s start with those three and see how it goes. Teach, cue, redirect. Doesn’t that feel better already? Just switching to those words and paying attention to their meaning, their undertone, could make a world of difference in the relationship you have with your dog.

This is not a battle. Dogs have no hidden agenda to overthrow the world. They repeat behavior that gets them attention. They avoid things that are unpleasant (and we wonder why they don’t always come when called…). Let me give you some real-life examples.

I visited a home with an “out of control” dog. The dog was said to have horrible manners when guests came over. The dog wouldn’t listen. The dog jumped all over people.

“He knows better. He’s just being stubborn.”

The moment I hear that stubborn word, I wonder which being in the house it really describes. And then I giggle to myself. Usually to myself.

So I asked my client to show me the dog and let me see how they were dealing with the situation. That’s when I got the SIT-SIT-SIT-NOOOO-NOOOO-DOWN-SIT-OFFFFFF-NOOOOOOOOO routine. I listened to the tone of their voices. I saw the chaos escalate. I saw the humans growing frustrated and more excited. I saw the dog doing the same.

And even when the dog wasn’t actually trying to jump on me, the humans were still barking commands.

So when the dog came toward me and kept four feet on the floor, I quietly said, “Yes! Good boy.” Then I offered the dog a little treat.

I backed a few steps away and invited the dog to follow me. I had his attention now because I was speaking softly, I wasn’t stressed. He liked that. He followed.

When he came to me, I asked him to sit. He did. I said “Yes!” I gave him a tiny cookie. I praised him. Then I backed away and did it a few more times. Pretty soon, every time I cued the dog to “come,” he ran to me and slammed his butt to the ground with his tail wagging happily.

I praised him. And looky there, I used all three of our new vocabulary words.

I taught the dog what I expected instead of just waiting for him to screw up.

I helped the dog learn a cue, one indicating what I expected, and also a word that marked the moment when he did something right. “Yes.” I captured behavior I liked.

And I redirected the dog. The dog was jumping on people because he was friendly and wanted attention. I showed him a proper way to earn attention. He listened. He learned.

Here’s another example. I visited a family who had a dog that would not come when called. The dog would play keep-away, staying just out of reach. The family was frustrated.

So I asked them to show me.

We went out in the yard. The dog chased a bird. When he ran to the other side of the yard, one of the humans said “Fritz, COME!”

Now, don’t think for one second that dogs don’t understand the tone of our voices. They do.

When this person said “Fritz, COME,” the sharp tone me want to back away slowly. Seriously…why do we have to change everything about ourselves when we go into dog training mode?

So Fritz, who was still on the lookout for that bird, did hear his person say COME. And he did look back at us. That glance back was the moment of truth…what would happen next?

Well, the owner repeated his command even more sternly, “FRITZ! COME! COME!” It sounded angry to me. It sounded angry to Fritz too.

“FRITZ. RIGHT NOW. COME HERE RIGHT NOW. FRRRRRRITZ!”

Fritz didn’t come. In fact, he glanced away (which is actually dog-speak for “hey, human, chill out! Let’s all calm down).

“See? He’s stubborn.”

Huh. Ok.

“Let’s try something different,” I suggested.

I went to within a few feet of Fritz. In a happy voice, I said, “Fritz, come!”

The moment Fritz looked at me, I said, “YES! Goood boy! Good!”

Guess what? Fritz came right to me. Because I praised him in the moment he acknowledged my cue by looking at me, I gave him a reason to want to come to me. We communicated. I was teaching Fritz that the cue “come” would be followed by something good/fun/rewarding/calm/happy.

Fritz liked that. I wasn’t scary. I was nice. That made Fritz feel good and want to be near me.

So Fritz’s dad, who was also a really nice person when he dropped his alpha dog trainer persona, gave it a whirl. When Fritz heard the cue “come” and glanced at his person, he was praised. Oh hey, Fritz liked that and came RUNNING on cue.

Just capturing that one little questioning glace back and giving Fritz the promise of good things to come, made all the difference in the world.

It makes sense, doesn’t it? The true key to good dog training is to be a teacher, not a trainer. And to give clear praise when praise is due. And perhaps most importantly to recognize when praise is due. Be in the moment. Your dog is.

OH if only I had a dime for every time I’ve seen people continually telling their dogs what NOT to do, but never capturing that moment when the dog is actually doing what they want. I would be a wealthy, wealthy retired dog trainer.

Think it through. Go talk to your dog. Talk. Don’t holler, yell, get all stern and scary. It’s not about intimidation. It’s about building communication.

Now get out there and play with your dog. Oh, and here’s another gratuitously adorable puppy photo as your reward. Good human. Goooood.

yoga-dog

(Bo-Bo and Fritz are not actual dog names. But the stories above are quite true. So true. Very true. Let’s just let all of my training clients wonder if it’s them…)