I think there are a lot of things we
over look in working with dogs; everything from the importance of
knowing when to stop, the idea of cutting yourself some slack, the
idea of loving the dog you're with etc. All of these are things other
people have covered (often times better than I could myself) or
things I mean to write about but get distracted (hello, ADH—oo
shiney!) But the one I want to discuss today is something that I like
to tell people at the end of my reactive dog classes; and it's this:
this difficult dog you have, right here, right now, is going to make
you better.

We all know of the dog who is
“difficult.” Perhaps they are incredibly fearful, hyper reactive,
aggressive, or maybe they are just really difficult to motivate;
whatever it is we know this dog. We might even own this dog. And when
we are buried under a mountain of self doubt and frustration, anger
and resentment because we just want Fido to be normal for god's
sake... We have to take a moment to remember a few things.

The first is that no matter how
frustrating this situation is for you, it's equally, if not more,
frustrating for your dog. They don't want to constantly be feeling
the way they do (angry, frightened, upset, overstimulated – pick
your adjective.) They don't want to be living with their own stress
and they really don't want to be living with your stress, either. So
matter how bad it gets, remember you are not in it alone, Fido is
right there beside you (wreaking havoc and stirring the pot, but he's
there just the same.)

And the second thing to remember is
that this dog will make you better. He will challenge you, he will
force you to better understand him (and all dogs) and meet his needs.
He will demand you learn more, that you hone your skills, that you
sharp your intellect and your creativity. .He will force you to be
more compassionate, and more understanding of some one else's needs
and desires. And in doing so; you will be better. This dog, the one
who is yet again throwing a fit at the end of the leash when a
situation went sideways, will make you better. He will teach you to
remain calm under overwhelming pressure. He will teach you to see
things from his perspective, no matter how weird and different it is,
to better understand why he's reacting the way he is, and how you can
help him cope. He will teach you to break things down into smaller
and smaller pieces until his hyper-drive over stimulated little brain
can chew it and learn it. This dog, this exasperating furry heathen
that you love and are trying so hard for, is going to make you a
better version of yourself.

So when you're ready to throw in the
towel because you just CAN'T any more; think about all you've gained.
Think about how differently you approach training; it's no longer
something you could do, but something you must do. Think about how
differently you view dog interactions than you did before ,how you
can read a dog's body language better, that you recognize signs of
stress and signals that a dog is uncomfortable long before anything
ever escalates to an argument. Think about how creative you've become
in teaching skills in tiny little nibbles over time to achieve a much
larger goal. Think about how when the dog acts up, or out, you stop
and think of the situation from his perspective instead of assuming
his behavior is the result of malice or incompetence. Consider how
you know that being negative about a situation rarely helps, but
instead how to look at the positives, and that being encouraging is
more fruitful than being discouraging.

Now think about how incredibly valuable
potential employers will find these skills, how much easier it is to
interact with people when you know how to view the disagreement from
their side, and how to approach a task from a variety of angles so
every one can learn and benefit. These are skills employers spend a
significant amount of money trying to teach their employees,
seminars, and guest speakers and corporate retreats and team building
exercises. Think about how much you can expand your resume under
“special skills” because you've managed to figure out a way to
coexist with a very difficult being, and love them anyway, and teach
them things, and help them become a better version of themselves.

So often dog owners are so busy trying
to find a reason, a solution, a fix for a problem they forget to
realize that they are already stepping above and beyond. In simply
actively trying to help their dog they are achieving something a lot
of people never do; compassion, desire and understanding. And they
forget to take a step back and smile, and feel good about their
successes (Even when they are small, or short lived) and in
forgetting to reward themselves for the work they have already done;
they don't appreciate their own efforts. This is especially true with
reactive dog owners, they don't see that they have closed the
threshold from 10 feet to 9 feet and 2 inches. They only see the
remaining 8 feet and 10 inches to go. But in doing so they don't give
themselves enough credit for that success. But those small steps, and
those little victories will eventually build themselves to something
great. But appreciating the success along the way is important for
our sense of self worth and self esteem and motivation to keep going.
I get clients who are frustrated, and stressed and often very upset
and worried for their pets. And it's easy to get caught up in those
feelings, so I like to have them take a deep breath, and I start
asking about other things with their dog. Things their dog does well.
Things their dog likes. Things they find amusing, or lovable about
their dog in particular. And then I point out how much better Fido is
doing at walking to a heel, or some other (relatively) trivial skill
they weren't intentionally focusing on but has become a byproduct of
their other efforts. And then I ask them about what caused the
situation that was so stressful for them this week, and I point out
every single instance when they correctly identify the triggers for
their dog's behavior, they take ownership of their own mistakes, or
they correctly identify and address a dog's body language cues etc.
Things they overlooked in their fret over the bigger picture. And
with in a few minutes the conversation has changed from “Why can't
he just be normal?” to “Okay, how do I keep helping him improve?
What else should I be doing?” And in that their attitude has
changed, and they are brighter, more determined and refreshed for the
uphill battles ahead. All because I pointed out how well they were
doing; not necessarily how well Fido is doing because his behavior is
irrelevant to the human's need to recognize and remember how much
they are growing along side their dog. And even with clients I've
been working with for a while, who's difficult behaviors are well
managed and altered to significant degrees, I occasionally remind the
owner how proud I am of them, and how far they have come. So they
never forget how much work THEY did and how much THEY improved right
along side their dog.

Remember when you're knee deep in
frustration, stress and are ready to strangle the dog: that this
exhausting, exasperating and lovable ball of fluff is making you a
better version of yourself. And pat yourself on the back for it.
Because you deserve it for a job well done.

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