This isn’t a training question but a question from the heart: What do dogs make you most thankful for?
Salt Lake City, Utah
What a beautiful question, Ellie! And it comes at a time of year when we humans are practicing gratitude and sharing the joy of the holiday season. I am grateful for so many things that come from our dogs that I will have to work hard to keep this answer brief.
Here are some reasons I am thankful for my life shared with dogs:
When I am petting my 10-year-old Border Collies, I marvel at all of the changes in my life that I have shared with them over a decade — including moving to Colorado five years ago and finding my forever happy home in the mountains. With every change, the Border Collies have adapted and thrived, even when I have sometimes faltered. At the end of every day, they give me a moment of calmness as they relax and unwind beside me.
We happen to live in one of the most beautiful places I’ve ever been (and I have traveled to many countries and nearly all of the states) but even so, work demands sometimes keep me out of the mountains. My dogs love to run off-leash (where legally permitted) no matter what my schedule demands are or what the weather outside is doing. My love of seeing them so happy gets me outside more often than I would by myself. I find enormous peace and healing in the mountains, and my dogs lead me up there on a regular basis.
Even though my brother and sister Border Collies were neglected as puppies by being shut in a horse trailer with no windows or socialization whatsoever, they bounced back from being terribly frightened and have gone on to earn obedience titles and more, including one of them becoming a certified therapy dog who really enjoys helping people. Their resilience reminds me on a daily basis that I am resilient as well.
Together we can handle whatever life throws our way. I am much stronger for having dogs in my life, as they bring me strength in knowing that no matter happens, I will be there for them as their protector and guide in this human-run world. And they will always be here for me as a grounding source of unconditional love, who show me how to live a life more in tune with the natural world.
I help dogs with fearful emotions learn to move past that initial fear and begin to trust their environment again. Many of these dogs have been in fights with other dogs and fear them. My calm dogs — all three of them, including my 120-pound mutt named Monster — are instrumental in helping dogs who bark, lunge, and growl at them every week. My three have learned to ignore whatever other dogs are doing and keep their focus on me, and they are richly reinforced for doing so. They demonstrate calm behavior better and faster than I can for dogs who are afraid. Owners are always amazed when their own dog stops reacting to my dogs in a few seconds because my dogs ignore their antics. My dogs put enormous faith in me that I will keep them safe, and they seem to enjoy their work.
The work that I do each week can sometimes mean the difference between life and death for highly troubled dogs. It takes a toll on me as I have come to understand that not every single dog can be reached or helped, no matter how good the training or how hard the owner works for the dog. Most of the time we do achieve major behavioral changes, which allow the dog to remain with his family and keep his life. My happiest days are when we reach a point of change and the formally stiff, worried, and anxious dog learns that life is safe enough to play. It is a reminder to myself that I need to play and trust life myself.
I’d love to hear from readers in the comments about what you are most thankful for from dogs. Happy holidays and may your days be joyful and playful!
Read more from Annie:
About the author: Annie Phenix, CPDT-KA, is a force-free professional dog trainer enjoying her mountain-filled life in Colorado. She is a member of the Pet Professional Guild and the National Association of Canine Scent Work. She is also working on a book due out in spring of 2016: The Midnight Dog Walkers, about living with and training troubled dogs. Join Annie on her dog-training Facebook page.