I know that Cesar Millan is a controversial figure in the dog world, but there is one thing he says that has always stuck with me: “You don’t always get the dog you want, you get the dog you need.” I try to keep that mantra in mind when my darling dog decides to test my patience.
A week after I adopted Maybelle I stopped by social hour at a local doggy daycare, where $5 gets you and your dog an hour of socialization. On this particular afternoon the only other dogs around were a couple who had just finished up agility training, and the daycare owner’s dog, an Australian Cattle Dog–Border Collie mix. He immediately took a liking to Maybelle, his Cattle Dog cousin. As the dogs played the owner said to me, “Have you noticed how controlling Cattle Dogs are?”
I hadn’t quite thought of it that way, but yes, I had noticed a few behaviors that seemed a little unusual. For instance, whenever one of my cats would walk by Maybelle’s food bowl, she would jump up and put her body between the cat and the bowl — even when there was no food in it. I quickly put a stop to that, lest it escalate to more traditional food aggression, but some of her other controlling behaviors were actually a big help. The sound of the cats scratching the furniture will wake her out of a dead sleep, and she immediately leaps into action. I don’t even have to bother yelling at the cats anymore, because Maybelle chases them off far more effectively than I ever could.
The dog park is kind of out of the question for us. While Maybelle does great in the more controlled atmosphere of doggy daycare, the chaos of the dog park turns her control freak meter up to 10. Dogs claiming the picnic table, or ganging up on one dog in the usual dog park melee? These are problems that, apparently, can only be solved by my dog.
Here’s the thing: I can’t really blame it all on her breed. I’m kind of a control freak, too — in fact, it’s why I am drawn to herding breeds. You can teach them anything in a matter of minutes. Sometimes you find they’ve learned something you didn’t even know you were teaching them. If I had to live with a hard-headed hound who just stares blankly at me after I ask him to perform some basic task, I’d tear my hair out. I like order, and I like a dog that appreciates it, too.
But our shared love of order and control has us at odds when it comes to strange dogs we encounter on walks. I adopted Maybelle from the Humane Society of Connecticut, but she had been shipped up from a rural shelter in Georgia. She’d obviously had a few litters of puppies, and it was clear that she’d been allowed to roam. Adjusting to a more suburban life on the leash has been a bit of a challenge for her.
I want her to walk politely on a leash. She wants to go running up to every dog she sees, sniff their butts, and assess them as friend or foe. For many obvious reasons, this is not an option. Originally, this mostly just manifested as her pulling on the leash in the typical dog fashion, but as time has gone by — and one neighborhood dog after another had passed by un-sniffed — she’s progressed to barking at the dogs as they go merrily on their way.
Training has helped in small ways. Every dog barking in his yard or from her window isn’t a cause for alarm anymore, though the really frantic or aggressive ones can still get a rise out of her. When I take her to a nearby park to watch dogs come and go from the dog park, it’s like she knows that training is in session and she behaves like an angel. But when we step back out on the streets of our neighborhood, we have the same old problem.
I know that, to some degree, my own control freak tendencies have contributed to this. Early on I began crossing the street when I saw a dog coming in the other direction. Up until then she’d given me no reason to believe she couldn’t happily greet an oncoming dog, but because she was so excited and ready to drag me, I’d deny her the reward of meeting the dog. Her frustration grew, and she started acting out. Meanwhile, of course, my frustration grew as well, which doesn’t help matters. But there have been a few times when I had no choice but to let go and let a greeting happen, and it usually works out well.
One day we were out walking when we were accosted by a Boston Terrier who had escaped his yard. The little guy was jumping all over me before Maybelle or I had even seen him. The dog wasn’t interested in her, but was scratching my legs to pieces. For her part, Maybelle impotently nipped at him, trying to keep him away. After a minute or two of chaos the dog settled down long enough for her to give him a good sniff, and she promptly lost interest. I called the number on his tags, and we brought him home.
Unfortunately, letting Maybelle drag me to every dog she sees still isn’t an option, but I’m trying to find the balance between being a control freak and being a good dog owner who still lets her dog be a dog. This involves a lot of deep breathing and me trying to remember that this is the dog I need, and if we can work out our control issues together, everyone will be better off.
Is your dog a control freak? What has your dog taught you about yourself? Tell us in the comments.
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About the Author: Theresa Cramer is a journalist and editor by trade, a NPR addict, and an avid gardener. She blogs at Writer on the Prowl, where you will find pictures of her garden, her pets, and musings about whatever is on her mind. She is working on a book about content marketing, and how to make the transition from journalist to brand journalist.