When you live with a special needs dog, one of the hardest things about day to day life, is just that it feels like work that never goes away or gets better. It’s relentless, tiring, and often frustrating. When I train an average dog, it’s a bit of work for the owners, but the immediate positive changes and big results fuel the desire to keep working and keep trying. When you have a special needs dog, changes come slowly, if at all, and it’s so tempting to give up and give in. This is often why dogs go to shelters. Owners get frustrated, and rather than seek professional help for their dog’s behavior, they surrender their dogs or re-home them.
When I’m training special needs dogs, I often hear, “How much longer is this going to take? When is he going to stop behaving like this?” Those questions are heart breakers for me as a trainer. They really, really are, because I never can accurately predict how long it will take to rehabilitate a given dog. In addition, I can’t even predict that a given dog will recover. Many do, but Rugby is one who didn’t. And the process can honestly take years.
One of my past clients fosters Old English Sheepdogs who are in rescue. Often, they are dog aggressive, and he’s wonderful and patient in working them through the steps needed to help them overcome their behavior. His current dog has taken 4 years to learn to walk calmly past other dogs without lunging and firing up. I’m so proud of him I could bust my buttons!! He just kept working and he never gave up. He didn’t let setbacks stop the process. He found ways to keep himself encouraged and hopeful, no matter what was going on with his dog. He just put blinders on, and he put one foot in front of the other! That is a huge key to success in any dog training, but especially in training and living with special needs dogs!
One question I would ask all of you with special needs dogs: If I could tell you honestly that it was going to take 4 years for your dog to recover, would you ever take that first step? What if you knew your dog would never improve? What then? That’s a heart question, isn’t it, because not many of us want to consider those questions. We want the magic fairy dust that will transform our dogs. I think that’s because most of us don’t run marathons. We don’t want to train for one, and we don’t want to spend many hours in a single day just to run one race. We all want the quick fix, the short race and the easy way out of anything that’s hard. I think it’s just human nature.
But here’s the flip side of that. When we bypass everything in life that is challenging or hard, we miss so very much that life has to offer us. So many of the really great things in life come through a lot of sweat and hard work. It’s where our character is formed and where we learn what we’re really made of. Rugby has been the hardest dog I’ve ever trained, but the things I have learned have no price tag.
So here are some things that help me every day!
- I make sure I look deeply into Rugby’s eyes to see the soul of the wonderful dog I share my life with.
- I have a great support group of friends who love both Rugby and I, and they celebrate every single success with me.
- I avoid the people who are going to be negative or critical, or who make me feel insecure about myself or my dog.
- I’m selective about the areas of reactivity that I work on, and I don’t try to work on everything all the time and all at once. It would be overwhelming for both Rugby and me! This is where a professional trainer is invaluable, because they can help you learn those skills.
- Don’t be afraid to put a specific area of work on the shelf and let it rest for a while. I tackle something for a bit, and then I give it a rest. I try it again in a few weeks or months, sometimes with a different approach or technique, and see if Rugby is ready to move forward. That way, I’m always working him, but it stays interesting and challenging for him.
- Make manageable goals for yourself and your dog! Think baby steps!
Living with a special needs dog is a marathon, not a sprint! Change your mindset to think of being in it for the long haul! Pace yourself….take breaks….celebrate milestones, and don’t forget to hang onto hope!!