I spend a good deal of time celebrating Balton’s little moments of bravery. Making it through a walk without incident (or even with only one minor incident) usually is enough to make me proud. When most people think about what a “good dog” is though, Balton’s little accomplishments may not add up to much. I think if they got to be a fly on the wall at our house, maybe they would see what a lovely dog he is. But, let’s be honest, public opinion does matter, and B doesn’t always do his best out and about in the real world. He sure has come a long way, but most people don’t get the luxury of knowing that. Even at his best, greeting strangers and their dogs on leash aren’t things he can do.
When working with a dog who has fear issues, progress is measured in such tiny increments that it can feel like watching grass grow. When your reactive dog has a reaction after you feel like he’s come a ways, it makes you question if the grass has been growing at all, or makes you feel like you’ve lost the ground beneath you entirely. Maybe that’s why few things give me a greater joy than when I hear someone else pay Balton a compliment on his behavior. It’s one thing for me to see him doing well, but another quite entirely to get an outsider’s perspective. In those moments, I feel like the progress he’s made is something big.
Since we started his Relaxing Rowdy Rovers training class almost a year ago, we’ve seen a lot of dogs come and go while we’ve kept working, in an effort to give Balton a safe place to train each week. We’ve had stops and starts, and after seeing little bits of progress, we would hit road blocks and have to take a few steps back. Recently though, Balton’s been on a trajectory upswing in his training class. His quiet confidence has been shining through in his willingness to take treats from the trainers and greet them with cautious optimism, to settle with his back to the other dogs in the room, to walk about the room with a lightness in his step, to not feel the need to go on the offensive if his classmates bark at one another. To trust. To relax.
Last week, as one of our trainers was working with another family who started class recently and is as anxious as Balton was when we first started, she commented on how well Balton was doing. Our classmate said something to her, and she smiled and said “say that so Balton’s mom can hear you.” He looked at me and said his wife last week commented on how “Thundershirt Dog doesn’t need to be here.” I looked at Balton (sporting his weekly school uniform of a Thundershirt) and smiling, joked that he puts on a very good show for class. But for me, it was all I could do to keep from crying happy tears in that moment.
Those words came from someone who really doesn’t know Balton. They came from someone who didn’t have to try to dig deeper to see Balton’s beautiful heart, to keep from seeing him as mean, scary, or broken. The words were unbiased by love, affection, or filtered through my eyes as people here see Balton. I think those words may be the kindest words an almost complete stranger has said about him.
As it turns out, that wouldn’t even turn out to be the biggest moment of class for Balton this past week. More on that tomorrow…