Looking Back the Length of a Leash

This past year, I’ve been dogblogging about the things I’ve learned, working with Max.  This week I took a pause and looked back over those twelve months, the process of bringing her from adorable puppy to Almost Adult despite Life During Covid, which has been just as hard on dogs as it has people (cats, mostly, haven’t given a fuck).

I’ll be honest, there were days (weeks) when I wasn’t sure either one of us were going to make it.

Max a good girl, mostly.  Sweet, affectionate. But seemingly overnight she developed a fear reaction (expressed in defensive behavior), and it hit just as she was going into the predictable stage of “I know what that command is, I just don’t think I’m going to listen to it,” around nine months.  Also seemingly overnight, she went from “I can trust her with anyone” to “I can’t trust her with anyone but me.”  And that’s not much of an exaggeration: I knew that her barking and lunging was defensive, but to non-dog-people, it looked scary as hell, and a scared person and a scared dog is a bad combination.

I was convinced I’d screwed her up, that I’d done something wrong, or not done something right,  that I’d taken a perfectly good pupper and given her anxiety.

That was… a rough few months.  Max had to be isolated from strangers, which meant her outings, already limited by Covid, were cut back even more, interfering with her socialization – the very thing she needed to get over her anxiety.  And she – who honestly loves most people – didn’t understand why she didn’t get to go to work with me any more.

We worked with a canine behaviorist, and I talked with other people who had ACD mixes. I did my homework and Max did hers.  And what I kept hearing was, “she’s a good dog. She wants to avoid trouble, not dive into it.  She loves and trusts you, you’ve given her the right training; now you need to trust her to grow into it.”

And that was the hardest part: trusting her.  Letting her stand and observe a situation rather than redirecting her immediately.  Keeping an eye on her body language, letting her decide if this was someone she was comfortable with or not, rather than removing her as a preventative measure.  It seemed entirely counter to everything I’d been taught before.

But slowly, it began to work.

It’s not perfect yet.  It never will be – Max is too smart for her own good (and certainly too smart for my own), and overthinks herself into stress. And there will always be people who frighten or trigger her. But the past twelve months, I’ve learned to accept her for the dog she is, rather than the dog I’d expected, and not let the worry override the love. And she understands now, I think, that she’s allowed to bark when she’s upset, and come to me for reassurance, rather than throw herself into a defensive frenzy.

We’re a work in progress, and she’s probably never going to be good with running kids, or sleds, or people who stick their hands in her face.  But honestly, she doesn’t have to be.

Fact is, we’re all getting out of 2021 with a touch of anxiety.

And I’ve got nothing particularly profound to end on, after that, except….

to be continued.

a cream and red dog, in a field of snow

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