This week marks one year since I began professional training with Balton. Right around this time last year, I was feeling pretty lost and sad about my then foster dog, whose behavior was confounding me and frustrating me. I’d been feeling pretty lousy for not knowing how to help him with it. I saw this super dog at home, who by all accounts was a really wonderful companion and joy to have around. On the other hand, walks were miserable and rather unpredictable at the time. I was starting to feel like my argument of “surely this dog is adoptable!” was losing ground, and I was losing confidence in myself as a foster mom.
Last week marked the conclusion of flight school, otherwise known as the basic skills class Balton and I were trying out. The first week went great, the second week was not as great but gave us (me) some things to think about in increasing his comfort level sense of fun. We saw improvements each week in the remaining three weeks of class, and although he was able to participate in most of the class activities, we made some modifications as needed so that he could succeed and enjoy himself. For example, while the other dogs would practice their recall exercises (requiring the trainer to take the leash, which neither Balton nor I would have been okay with), we’d use it as an opportunity to lay down and settle, and just be relaxed amid the activity of the other dogs being excitedly called by their people. Although very much aware of the moving dogs and squealing people trying to call them, he wasn’t worried about it and did a great job practicing his braves.
By week four, Balton was ready to let our new trainer try tossing some treats from a distance. Early on when his trainers would do this, he would be too overwhelmed to eat them and sometimes sniff them and refuse them. We promised they weren’t poisoned, but it took him a few months to actually believe us. Well, wouldn’t you know…when we did this exercise with our flight school trainer, not a single treat was poisoned. 🙂
Week five was our final class and class talent show. Our trick we practiced (and frankly learned just for the talent show) was to “wave,” shaped through hand targeting and then modifying the hand target for shake to a waving hand so he could differentiate the cues. This is what it looks like:
Following the end of class, the students who demonstrated the necessary skills taught in the class (many of which Balton came with, but had stage fright about initially) earned what is best described as a hall pass. It’s not exactly a diploma for graduation, but it means the dog has shown capable of moving up to an intermediate or Level 2 class. Coming into this class with pretty uncertain expectations, imagine my surprise when we got handed this:
I admit that when I got the card, I stared at it and teared up over it and got goosebumps about it. Silly, perhaps, I know.
But when I think about where we were this time last year, and I think about where we are today, I consider what I thought possible for Balton then and what I consider possible for him now. Sure, my thoughts for possibility were perhaps a little idealistic at the time because I wanted so badly for him to be adopted by a family that wasn’t ours. But with that possibility there came a million limitations: no families with kids, must be a savvy adopter committed to what would likely be a lifetime of training and management, must live in a suburban or rural area, must live a quiet lifestyle without many visitors. And when you’re looking at a window of adopters among a sea of dogs without those limitations, that makes for a very, very small window.
When we adopted Balton, we frankly adopted him because of those limitations. When I looked at things objectively, I didn’t really see how we could pass the leash, but I believed he deserved a chance to be more than a dog too limited to live a full and happy life.
For a long time, there were a lot of self-imposed limitations because we couldn’t and wouldn’t push him too far too soon. We had definitely done things wrong for a number of months before we got steered right. But with the pressure off to find him a home, and the reality being that we were the ones to give him that full and happy life I thought he deserved, we were able to slow things down. We were able to let Balton be the Balton he was, and that allowed him to become the Balton he could be.
These last few weeks, I can’t seem to get over how often I catch Balton smiling. I think it’s because he continues to redefine what his own limits are, and with that his confidence is starting to shine through in a way I don’t think I’ve ever seen. I’ve seen glimmers of it before, but I’m seeing it a lot more regularly.
This particular happy moment was captured soon after we had a visitor over to our house this past weekend. Balton and I have found a training buddy to practice visits with from the Animal Welfare League of Arlington Pit Crew, the group with whom we do our social walks. The training buddy we are working with has a dog with similar “stranger danger” challenges, so I visit with him and he visits with us in order to “practice” being okay with guests. This Sunday was his second visit. Now, you could probably argue this was Balton’s happy face after our visitor left, but take my word for it when I tell you he was the most relaxed I’ve ever seen him with a guest. He was kept on a leash and we kept our distance, but on this visit our guest tossed him hot dogs while I also fed him treats and he laid at my feet. It helps to have someone visiting who gets what we’re going through, and makes a point not to make eye contact or get too close. But it also speaks to Balton’s progress in overcoming those fears that have long since limited him. Seeing his world grow in tiny increments makes me so incredibly happy, and seeing this happy face who seems to know how far he’s come makes me grateful that we’ve been taking this journey together.
We’re learning that the world we thought we knew is changing each day, redefining what is possible, and defying gravity as a team. Discovering that our limits are no longer the same as they once were makes me really believe there is no limit to where we can go or what we can do. We just have to understand what our limits are in each moment, and keep walking the path, even if we walk it little more slowly and take some detours behind a car or a tree, or take an emergency u-turn every so often.