This month, we’re going to try to feature some thankful for moments in the month of Thanksgiving on the daily, from various members of the family. Some of these may be fun and silly, and some may be a little more heartfelt and sappy. We’d like for you to join us by posting your Thankful For comments, and we’d also like to welcome some guest posts. Please feel free to email Thankful For stories to us at firstname.lastname@example.org
Many of my friends and family have grown up around dogs. Certain dogs have had their quirks and oddities. My dog Lady would often growl at men who were new – often when my sisters or I would bring home a new boyfriend Lady would size them up and keep an eye on them if they tried anything funny. My one friend had a dog who, when we went to visit her home, we were not to interact with. He tolerated the presence of her teenage friends, and hang out around us without issue, but we were instructed not to try and pet him, lest we run the risk of getting bit. My brother-in-law’s parents had a Miniature Schnauzer (really he was once our dog, but he didn’t care for children or sharing my mother with them, and was a biter, so he ended up being rehomed with these good family friends of ours and being babied as the lone “child” of the house, since all the kids were adults by then…and it was a great gift for that dog) who always without fail would bark and attempt to ankle bite when guests would leave the home. And, my cousin had a dog who we never saw during family gatherings – I think he didn’t like kids, but maybe it was strangers in general. I was too young to remember and didn’t think twice about it.
In each of these instances, it just sort of was what it was. It didn’t mean that these dogs weren’t great family pets, but there were just things that they did and people needed to respect the dog as a family member, but also recognize the dog is an animal. We were instructed to leave the dog alone during meals, and not to bother the dog while she was sleeping. As children, we were not to walk the dog without parent supervision. Lady was incredibly tolerant and wonderful to her family, and in hindsight, she put up with more from her little girls than she should have been expected to (we have an entire album full of photos of Lady in different outfits my sister had dressed her in). But, ultimately, she was a dog. And as a dog, her dogness was to be accepted and respected.
Today, I sometimes feel like much of the world expects more and tolerates less of dogs. After Balton had lived with us for two months, a trainer we were working with suggested he be evaluated and see if he might need some stronger meds (he was on a mild anti-anxiety medication at the time). Truth was he was just completely overwhelmed at the notion of going into downtown DC for all of his training sessions, and both Balton and I were ill-equipped to deal with the stress we were putting him through when we brought him there.*
Nevertheless, we did an assessment with a different trainer who partnered with a vet. They didn’t prescribe him any new meds, but they did ask us during the assessment to determine resource guarding “what does he do when you try to take his food, stick your hand in his dish, or take or a bone from him?”
I blinked and did a bit of a double take at the fact a professional trainer was asking me this question. I had never attempted to do any of these things in my home, and didn’t see why I would or should. I was told that in order to determine adoptability, it would be important to know because children in a home might do that. So…I gathered if I took or messed with the dog’s stuff for absolutely no good reason, and he reacted less than favorably, as I expect a dog would react, that would count as a strike against him. I wondered what had happened to the days of stay out of the dog’s food dish? I wondered why anyone would expect a dog to just accept having his stuff messed with, and why it’s somehow unacceptable for the dog to act like a dog when he does?
For the sake of testing the question, I later went home and took a bone from him to see how he would react. He looked at me perplexed, as if to ask why I wanted it, but also trusting it must be for a very good reason since I had not attempted to take his food or bone before. In essence, he accepted what I had done. And so I gave it back, feeling sad that I had taken it in the first place just to prove a point.
I admit it took awhile for me to really accept Balton for all he was, and for me to accept what was needed to help him cope with his fears. I guess when I finally adopted him I could start seeing that more clearly, because I no longer had to somehow create a dog who would accept any more of the scary stuff the world had seemed to throw at him his whole life. Scary stuff that I too had been inadvertently been throwing at him in the desperate interest of helping him “get better” and be primed for a seamless transition to an adoptive family.
Some of my friends and family raised an eyebrow when we decided to adopt Balton, and there are certain things that I have to accept with it: walks with a heightened level of awareness, fewer people willing to come visit our home, needing to provide more careful logistical execution when we do have visitors, all of which are part of training and management forevermore.
With acceptance and compromise on my end, Balton too has become more accepting of the world around him through regular practice of confidence building, counter-conditioning, and desensitization. For example, the walks where my heightened sense of awareness continues, but he is able to relax and enjoy himself. It turns out he’s much happier about observing a new person or dog around the bend or across the street when he knows he can turn right back to me and get a treat and a bit of praise, or when he can keep looking at me while staying at my side and feeling like “Mom’s got this, so I can accept what comes my way.”
Part of that acceptance has to do with communicating and listening to one another, and while some things should not be accepted in this world, it helps gain some clarity in approaching the things you strive to change with realistic expectations and a little bit of patience.
I don’t know how many of my friends or family (or people who stumble upon/read this blog, for that matter) readily accept my adopting a “project” dog with some pretty significant behavioral challenges, or how many accept it, but don’t necessarily embrace it. Part of my acceptance is knowing just like I don’t need to force my dog into accepting things that scare him, I don’t need to force anyone to feel differently about him as a member of my family unit as long as I am a responsible guardian and continue to help him heal. Maybe down the road I can show people who doubt why my investing in Balton was a good decision, but for now, I already know that it is…and I am thankful for each day I am reminded of it.
When in doubt though, I refer to the well-known prayer –
“God grant me the serenity
To accept the things I cannot change;
Courage to change the things I can;
And wisdom to know the difference.
Living one day at a time;
Enjoying one moment at a time;
Accepting hardships as the pathway to peace…”
*Footnote: While I do think behavioral medications for the dogs can be helpful under the supervision of a veterinary behaviorist, it’s worth noting that Balton is no longer on medication, and in fact began responding to training much better when he came off his meds after several months of using them. Every dog is an individual, and all dogs will respond to medications differently. I like this article about use of anti-anxiety medication for dogs from a trainer perspective. If you’re considering behavioral medication, the websites for The American Veterinary Society of Animal Behavior and American College of Veterinary Behaviorists can help you find a veterinary behaviorist that can help you work out a treatment plan with your dog, and determine if and how medications should play a role in it.