I heard a really profound statement in a podcast earlier this week, and I’ve been thinking about it ever since. The speaker said, “Dogs will give you what they can, but sometimes they can’t give you what you really want.”
It made me think back to my early days with Rugby. It made me remember all of the dreams that I had dreamed for him, and how disappointed I felt when Rugby couldn’t be the dog that I had wanted. Yes, I said it. When I realized that Rugby would not be the dog that I had dreamed of, I felt very disappointed. Don’t judge me. Rugby was not the dog that I wanted. And since I was at least his fifth home, clearly four other people hadn’t wanted him either.
The day that I met him in his foster home, I was smitten! I remember driving home with him in my back seat, and dreaming of what a treasure I had sitting in a crate in my back seat. I felt like the richest dog trainer in the world. I really did! He was such a darling puppy, with such a cute personality that clearly shone through as I watched him in his foster home. I just couldn’t believe that he was all mine!
It’s one thing to dream about life with your dog, and quite another thing to have the honest reality of living with that dog slap you in the face. When I brought Rugby home, I had no idea that he would have the behavior issues that he did. Cute can only carry a dog so far. But being a dog trainer, I really, truthfully believed that Rugby could be that dog that I had been dreaming of.
I worked and I trained and I read books and I consulted colleagues to get help in dealing with some of Rugby’s behavior. I honestly never considered that he couldn’t be the dog that I wanted, because I just knew that I could train and shape his behavior. It was only behavior, after all, and behavior in a dog who isn’t even a year old…can change. And truthfully, it did change! It did get better, little by little. But we hit a whole lot of roadblocks in the process!
Looking back on it now, the big problem with my plans for Rugby, is that I had forgotten to really consider Rugby in the process. I assumed that he wanted my dreams for him. I assumed that he could fulfill my dreams of being “that” dog in my life. I didn’t really consider what he might have wanted, or even what he could offer. Of course, much of what I learned about Rugby’s background was learned many weeks and months later. In spite of that background, I still had a big set of expectations that my little nineteen pound puppy was supposed to meet for me. What a heavy burden I placed on his thin, puppy shoulders. What big shoes I expected him to fill for me. And really, more than anything, I think of how selfish I was in thinking of what I wanted, and not really thinking about what Rugby might have wanted for his own life.
For those of us with special needs dogs, it’s just entirely too easy to get caught up in what’s wrong with our dogs. We can get super focused on what they can’t do, rather than seeing all of the amazing things that they can offer to us. Tonight, for example, Rugby stood in the living room and barked incessantly for five minutes. I timed him. Why was he barking? Apparently, because he can. And while this behavior annoys me to the ends of the earth, I smile when I remember that it used to be thirty minutes! I have chosen not to let those five minutes of irritation frame my day to day life with Rugby James.
Rugby really does offer me what he can. He gives me everything that he’s got. He approaches training with a great attitude of excitement and willingness to work hard. He loves learning new things, and he is absolutely enthusiastic about figuring things out. He tries so very hard, and I think anyone who is watching can see that heart in him. He simply can’t always cope when things overwhelm him, and that’s something that he just can’t seem to figure out no matter how hard I try to help him.
I believe that the reason that Rugby doesn’t give me what I wanted in a dog is simply that he can’t. He can’t be the dog that I really wanted when I brought him home on December 1, 2007. Despite hours and hours of training and socializing, Rugby simply can’t give me that great, social dog who can go places and have fun with me out and about. He does give me what he can, and that meets some of what I wanted in a dog. But he’s never going to be the dog that I hoped he would. He’s just not able to do that. It’s not for lack of trying on either of our parts. It just is what it is…and that’s all. It just is.
An amazing thing happens when you let go of a dream. Suddenly, you’re making space for another dream to take its place. I had really always hoped that I would be able to take Rugby with me, just about anywhere that I went. I wanted his companionship, and I really wanted to give him a big, safe world. Because he was a rescue, I wanted him to have a really great life with lots of amazing adventures! Rugby, however, had different ideas.
Over time and lots of public failings, I had to reach the painful conclusion that my little guy was never going to be able to enjoy a big world. He really didn’t seem to want one. He ran to hide when he saw his harness, or thundershirt, and even though he seemed willing enough to go with me once he was all suited up….he quickly morphed into one stressed little pupper, who was a barking hot mess on a simple walk! He lunged at anything and everything, both sights and sounds, and once he was fired up….there was no calming him down. When he started becoming aggressive and re-directing his frustration and anxiety into really hard biting at the leash and my shoes and pants legs, I knew he was just way too overstimulated to cope with the environmental changes that happened in our neighborhood on a daily basis.
I have learned over the years that I can occasionally take him to some select, low stress public places, and we both really seem to enjoy the outing. Rugby’s day to day life is our house and his yard. We enjoy going to the vet for friendly visits, and he copes really well with their staff, so I can do some great socialization with a scary place all the while that I’m giving him a small, fun adventure. We walk in a few cemeteries that are large and have wide paved roads. I also walk him in our driveway, and right in front of our house, during the day when my neighbors are at work. If he hears a squirrel rustle in the leaves on our walks, Rugby comes unglued, thinking that some invisible bogey man is coming after him, and that’s the end of our adventure for the day. He just can’t handle much, and I understand that it’s just who he is.
So instead of me giving him a big world, the biggest surprise for me, is that he’s given me that really big world. Because of Rugby James, I started a micro blog on Facebook, to help other owners with special needs dogs. And that Facebook micro blog has grown into a full sized dog blog!! I wanted to provide the knowledge and support that I never received when I was desperate to help my little dog. I knew that other owners had their own versions of Rugby at home, carefully hidden away, listening to friends and family who judged them and who told them to “get rid of that dog!” I knew how deeply a human heart could hold the love of a dog who was healthy, but just wacky and neurotic. I knew how important it was to laugh every day, and those were things that I really wanted to give to other dog owners, because owning special needs dogs can be a very lonely, scary and overwhelming existence.
Since starting Rugby’s Facebook page, I’ve met people from all over the world. I have friends on multiple continents, and I’ve even gotten to meet many of them face to face! While Rugby has been so happy and content to stay home, I’ve been the one who has had adventures in a big world! I’ve accomplished things I never dreamed of in 2007. I’ve learned new ways of training dogs that are effective and fun because of Rugby’s learning style. I’m less fearful of failing, because when you’re a dog trainer and you can’t fix your own dog, there’s not a failure too much bigger than that.
In Rugby’s doggy wisdom, he showed me that neither one of us were failures at all. We just needed each other. We needed to learn to communicate well, and trust each other, and have safe boundaries for life together. As a result, we make a great team. He’s one of the most amazing dogs that I know, and he really doesn’t even leave home all that often. His world is small, but he’s such a happy little guy, and I love the way that he enjoys the simple things in life: chasing squirrels and chipmunks, the smells from a breeze when he’s hanging out on the patio with me, his beloved polka dottie piggies who are always nearby, a good snuggle with someone he loves, an unexpected special snack once in a while, etc. He keeps me grounded, and focused on the really important things in life that humans so often overlook.
I’m just so very grateful that I’ve learned to accept that he can’t be the dog that I wanted. Ten years into my relationship with him, that’s really okay with me. Rugby is enough. He is who he is, and he gives me what he can. If you’re the owner of a special needs dog, it’s really okay to be disappointed that your dog can’t give you what you really want from him. It’s okay to grieve the loss of your dreams and feel some sadness over those things. But I want to challenge you to let new dreams grow up in place of the old ones. Dare to dream new dreams….big ones! And decide to let your dog give you what he can….and decide to let that be enough.