Yesterday I got a call from a trainer I had reached out to try to work on aggression issues with my rescue pit bull, Sam (and who was recommended highly by my awesome vet). She had a very soft, kind voice, totally different from another trainer I spoke to a few weeks back who I felt was not empathic at all, which makes my entire body tense in self-protection. Probably not the right fit.
The night before, I went to bed at 5 a.m. after a marathon of catching up on projects I’ve needed to do for quite some time. My pitbull, Sam, was with me the whole time, curious and loyal and excited as always. Sam is about two and a half, so if you were to look at me as parenting a toddler, I would be keeping my toddler up until 5 a.m. erratically, not because of an emergency — no, because I got on a roll. Not acceptable. And I know this.
“I used to be the same way. I would work very late, but my rescue dog changed all of that,” the trainer said. “If you give him a schedule, you will see his behavior change dramatically, and it will support the training.”
My dog is incredibly loving, like me, but, also like me, he is incredibly anxious. He never knows what is going to happen. Will we stay up until 5 a.m.? Will we go on just one half-hour walk for the entire day when he really needs much longer? Will my place be covered in clothes and mess, or will it be nice and orderly with his toys doled out as rewards in a way that he understands?
I told the trainer why I was reaching out for her help, which was an incident at daycare where he punctured the skin of another dog after playing too rough. My heart sunk when it happened, and I cried like a jerk when I went to pick him up.
The daycare folks are the best, and they love him almost more than I do after two months of working with him (where he is normally great with other dogs) but obviously, they can’t put other dogs at risk if he plays too rough, so if it happens one more time, he won’t be able to go there anymore. I hope it doesn’t come to that. (The other dog is okay and taking antibiotics, and I’m devastated the incident ever occurred.)
Here is the Big Epiphany the trainer provided: “You need to teach him positive behaviors when he is in a calm and relaxed state, because right now what’s happening is that he doesn’t know how to control the over-excitement he feels, which can lead him to go into his prey drive.”
It clicked. It clicked a lot. And honestly, it led me to think about my own “prey drive.” Oh, I have one all right. It’s when I feel as though I don’t have the tools to control the excitement I am feeling, that is exactly when I make bad decisions. As the trainer talked, I felt so grateful as I petted Sam as he lay next to me, patiently panting, while I thanked the trainer. Then I checked my bank account. Ouch.
As much of a profound epiphany as I might be having (“I am the pitbull!”) with Sam, I can barely afford his food right now, let alone $100-an-hour training sessions. In fact, ever since I adopted Sam, I’ve cut out seeing my regular therapist so that I can make sure I’m giving him what he needs in terms of veterinary care, special food, and all his other needs. And I don’t regret it at all.
For me, the conversation with the trainer was just one of many countless lessons this dog has given me.
A few of the other ones:
1. He teaches me to live in the moment, something I have so much trouble with and always have.
He is not thinking about yesterday or tomorrow — he is right here, smelling that awesome flower. (Okay, peeing on it.) This is so simple and profound but so hard to get through my brain. And I love the excitement he feels about every little thing. This is when the epiphanies happen. When I give my brain a chance to actually rest.
2. I’ve never experienced unconditional love the way my dog provides it to me.
Sam shows me his love every time he snuggles up next to me, licks my face, or wags his tail a million miles an hour when I return home. This has opened my heart and softened my heart all at the same time. He also feels like (forgive the New Agey tangent) an extension of my own inner child. I love giving him the attention and care — and discipline — I’m trying to give my own Little Baby Mandy.
3. He’s given me a reason to be responsible.
I don’t know why it’s so hard for people to treat themselves as lovingly as they might treat, well, a dog. But for me, it is. I can’t tell you how many nights I could not bring myself to even wash my face or brush my teeth or make my own bed. I’ll do it tomorrow.
But my dog can’t take care of himself. He helps me see that I am needed in this world in a way that so few people can when you do not have children or other dependents or even a significant other. Yes, I know my friends need me and my family loves me, but day to day, it’s hard to really feel that in your bones when you are right there, alone with your single life (a glorious one, don’t get me wrong, and one I wouldn’t change for an unhappy compromise of a relationship, ever). I know my dog needs me. I know my dog loves me. He teaches me to get out of my own stupid brain and feel more, and think less.
4. He isn’t afraid to express himself.
Yes, I do need to curb the aggression, undoubtedly, because Sam loves other dogs, and I hope to feel safe letting him play with other dogs regularly. But there are times when Sam barks, and it is absolutely okay. It’s okay for dogs to bark when something does not seem right to them, and I love that about him. I’ve swallowed gallons of grief and rage and anger over my lifetime, and there is something so primal and refreshing about watching an animal express what he is feeling.
5. He is joyful and playful.
I consider these two of my core attributes, but they are very tired, very eclipsed ones. Sometimes it feels like my attributes are more sarcasm, bitterness, and exhaustion. But Sam is helping me bring them out more. The silliness and the fun and the play of watching his doggie exploratory spirit is inspiring. I can feel my own joy bubbling up easier and more fluidly to the surface.
In fact, the first time I took him out, right after adopting him, I had trouble even saying to him “Good boy,” without feeling stupid. Now I coo it to him, unabashedly if there are other people around, trying to use positive reinforcement, every time he is good and calm and resists those prey instincts. I love the young energy of telling him “Good doggie,” or, “What do you see there, Sam?” It feels like joy itself.
I’ve undoubtedly learned many things from therapy. And I hope to learn many more. But right now, with the budget that I have, I’m OK putting it on hold while I learn the lessons Sam is continually teaching me. He is a good boy.
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