Project Dogs: A Letter to Myself (and Others)

Posted on: Friday, April 17, 2015

: from The Labs :

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Have you ever heard the term “a project dog”? This is often the term us dog folks use for dogs with some special behavioral needs, in other words, a dog that needs work of some sort, either behavior rehabilitation, training or the like. A “project dog” is not a dog for everyone, simply because the amount of work, effort, time and dedication the dog needs.

If you have read or followed anything I write, you’ll know I love dogs and I am fascinated by canine behavior, I wrote a 4 part series on learning how to “speak dog”, I attended and graduated from Trish King’s Canine Behavior Academy, I volunteer at the behavior and training department for the Sonoma Humane Society doing behavior evaluations of shelter dogs… and yes, I have a “project dog” of my own. She happens to be the canine love of my life.

Willow is only three years old, and she has been in our care since she was 5 months old. We have come a long way together and have learned an incredible amount from each other. She has been the best teacher I have ever had in regards to dogs. I have learned more by observing her than in all the literature and video I could have watched. We work Every. Single. Day.

Is she perfect? Nope. Is she “cured” from her fear and shyness? Nope. Is the work done? Hardly.
I have since learned, that most dogs shift a little in their behavior around the three-year mark. Maybe they test their boundaries again, maybe they regress in a few areas of their training, maybe they develop new fears or naughty behaviors… in other words, canine adolescence returns. Ah, canine adolescence. Just like the human version, adolescence in canines is a very trying and difficult time for the dogs and especially, the dog’s family. I thought we had survived adolescence once we were past the two-year mark, it was tough, man! But boy was I wrong.

But is Willow any less of a success story because we are having some regressions in her overall behavior? Absolutely NOT. She is still the same dog I know and love. And some of these behaviors are not new, they are just presenting themselves in a different context and in slightly different ways; and instead of it being a young pup, we are dealing with a fully grown, strong and athletic dog with an imposing presence.

I am writing this not because I need to vent about my naughty dog. My love for her has not changed, it gets stronger everyday in fact… if that is even possible! No, I am writing this because I found myself overwhelmed with the work for the first time in years. Because I confess to crying because I feel hopeless and unable to help her. Because I confess to having felt embarrassed and afraid beyond reason of what others may think of her. Because I confess that I have often felt like a failure to her and myself.
I am writing this for anyone who lives with and loves a “project dog” of their own and has ever felt the same way.
I am writing this because I need to hear it myself.

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Time is of No Essence
No matter what popular TV shows lead you to believe, there are no quick fixes for a tough behavior case. Good change comes with constant and consistent work in gradual increments. In particular with fear, you can never go too slow, only too fast. Some changes you will be able to see within days, and others take a little longer. Patience is a must when working with dogs (and animals in general); and if you are working with any sort of behavior modification program for your dog, be it for fear, reactivity, aggression etc. patience is something you will need a LOT of. Infinite amounts of it. And a “project dog” is a lifetime commitment. That being said…

It’s OK to Feel Tired
It is challenging work. Two baby steps forward, one leap backward. After a while, you are bound to feel tired, maybe frustrated and overwhelmed. And you know what? That is ok. You are human after all. It is important to allow yourself to feel it, cut yourself a break, then shake it off, take a deep breath and figure out a way to keep moving forward.

Your Dog is Not Perfect and Neither are You
Get that out of you head. Life happens. Bad timing happens. Surprises around the corner happen. You already love and work with an imperfect being in your “project dog”, who on earth said YOU had to be perfect all the time? We make mistakes, costly ones sometimes, but we learn the most from those right? The important thing is to be kind to yourself and to your dog, and to know when to call it a day. Dogs, just like people are individuals; and just like us, some days they wake up on the wrong side of the bed. It can take up to 48 hours for cortisol (the stress hormone) to leave a dog’s body, so if you have had a bad episode of some sort, it’s best to try and end on a positive note and call it a day. Go home, give your dog a stuffed Kong and you take yourself over to a yoga class, do some EFT work, meditate, go for a run, eat some ice cream of have a hot bath… whatever restores you to that safe place where you can step away from the problem and look at the big picture. Tomorrow is another day. If you don’t take care of yourself and be kind to yourself, how can you expect to be able to take care and show up for your dog, or anyone who needs you?

On of my favorite people to work with ever is Jessica Dolce. Having worked together on her branding for DINOS: Dogs In Need Of Space, an info+graphic for Animal farm Foundation and most recently her own line of educational resources on compassion fatigue; Jess is not only one of my favorite people to work with, she is a kindred spirit and a very dear long-distance friend of mine. She shared some very valuable insight on this topic:
“Loving and being responsible for a dog who has behavioral issues can be overwhelming and draining because there are no quick fixes. For that reason, it’s so important that we learn to have compassion for ourselves. No matter how hard we try or how much we love our dogs, things will still go sideways sometimes. In those moments, be kind to yourself. Know that you are doing the best that you can and your intentions are good ones. If there’s anything to learn from a bad experience, do that, then move on. Don’t beat yourself up. Instead focus on all the good moments, the successes, and the progress you and your dogs have made (no matter how small).”
Which brings me to the next point…

Be Kind to Yourself
When we adopted Willow, we took on the responsibility to protect her and love her for who she is and make her feel safe. These past few months, in more than one occasion I have felt like I have failed her, I have failed to protect her from every possible scary thing on this earth. I have failed at making her feel safe and secure.
Every Saturday, we go to training class with one of our favorite trainers here in town. Charlie, of Unleashed Dog Training and Behavior, is more than a trainer to us, she is one of Willow’s “aunties”, her shrink, my shrink, confidant and in many ways, our savior. During one of our classes, Willow was having trouble focusing, and I was not able to engage her. This class was nothing new, but she was different somehow. Charlie noticed and made me see what I feel I should have seen on my own: Willow was uncomfortable and nervous. She asked me to take her outside and give her a little break from the rest of the class. She came outside with us and in staring to chat about Willow’s body language, I welled up and started to cry. I could not hold it in any longer, I had failed my beloved girl. That LAST thing I ever wanted was to be responsible for making her feel afraid or insecure. I had failed. Charlie promptly hugged me and told me exactly what I needed to hear: You two will get through this. Remember who she is. This is how we are going to work on it and you will get through whatever this phase is, together.
Now, I don’t cry easy, and it’s not like Willow and I had only worked together for a couple of hours every week. We have been working together every single day for the past three years. If anyone knows how hard I have worked for this dog, it is Charlie.
The thing is, this happened to be my moment, the one where the pressure has been building for a while and it finally could not be held in any longer. But the truth is, everyone has these moments of helplessness, regardless of whether we have been working with our project dogs for three days, three weeks or three years.

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In Jessica’s new book The Official Guide To Living With DINOS, for which Willow happens to be the model DINOS dog for the cover, Jess stipulates that “…those of us with fearful or reactive dogs are intimately familiar with feeling like failures. We’re doing everything we can to help our dogs and make good choices, but things still go sideways sometimes. We show up for a training class or go for a walk and our dogs have a meltdown. Or we have a meltdown. And then we go home stressed and sad…please, above all else, be kind to yourself.”

Just as you need to be kind to yourself and your dog, please be kind to others, regardless of whether something they did or said is what caused you and your dog to have a bad day. You never know what battles they are fighting on their own. They are responsible for their own actions, kind or not; but so are you. By you being kind, and turning the other cheek even though it may feel unfair, you will find your own peace in how you handled the situation, and that in my opinion is more valuable and less stressful than getting into a full-blown nasty exchange with someone else.

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Breathe and Remember Why You Started
Willow is my “project dog”, she is a Dog In Need Of Space, not from other dogs (she loves them! the more, the merrier!) but from strangers. Willow’s main fear revolves around people, most of the time, men and often of the senior community. She tries very hard to make friends with new people, but she needs to be allowed to do it on her own time. She will never be a dog I can sit outside a coffee shop with and welcome people to pet her, and she would rather move away from what scares her than making it go away by barking, lunging or growling (a BIG plus), but when she feels cornered or surprised, and more recently, when she feels a little more confident, she will bark to gain some space from whomever is making her uneasy. She is not an easy dog, but all this is a small part of her, she is much more than her fear and shyness. She makes me laugh more than any other dog I have ever known. She is smart and loves to learn new things, which makes her really fun to train with. She is very loving, even at her most aloof and independent wolfish self, and she has made tremendous progress from that 5 month old scared little puppy that could not walk through a threshold without cowering in fear. My point is, the reason why you work with your dog is more than likely LOVE right? At the very top of it, your love for this perfectly imperfect creature is what keeps you working hard everyday. So take a deep breath, look at how far you have come and above all, remember why you started this work. Don’t diminish everything you have worked for on one (or a series of) bad experience. Do NOT give up.

You are Not Alone
Never, ever be afraid to ask for help, advice or support. Even if it is just a little venting session with a friend who gets it. “Ugh, you would not believe what happened today…” Having a support system in place is wonderful and very needed. You are your dog’s support system. Who is yours?

In the young-yet-wise words of miss Taylor Swift… Shake it Off
One of my favorite things about the wonderful Patricia McConnell is honestly, how much she laughs. Having a sense of humor, especially when working with dogs is a very valuable tool. Laughter relaxes you, makes those endorphins surge and amazingly but not surprisingly, it helps your dog too! Learn to laugh at yourself and learn to let your dog make you laugh. It feels good. And just like the song goes, shaking it off will help not only you, but quite literally, help your dog too. Shaking is a calming move in dogs, but its benefits need not remain only with them. Shake it Off, and move on.

In closing, sometimes I swear the stars seem closer to me than Willow is; and just then, she makes contact and looks me in the eye with a relaxed smile on her face, ready and anticipating our next move together, and I find my faith restored. Adolescence part deux, we will get through you, but only together. As my favorite quote from author F. Scott Fitzgerald goes: “I fell in love with her courage, her sincerity, and her flaming self respect. And it’s these things I’d believe in, even if the whole world indulged in wild suspicions that she wasn’t all she should be. I love her and it is the beginning of everything.” This is what Willow is to me. True to every beautiful word.

That is it friends, I hope you will take comfort or seek support or go to a yoga class. Don’t let the bad days bring you down. Remember that the good times are far more valuable than the bad and that your dog is lucky to have someone like you so dedicated and devoted to him and invested in their well-being that you often forget to put your own first. Take care of yourself. And give your “project dog” all my love. For what it is worth, you have all my support and compassion, not to mention, admiration for everything that you do.

Oh and if you have a DINOS dog of your own, Jessica’s book is a must-read. Go get it now, get it HERE.

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