Ah the smell of a brand new year!! It’s so squeaky clean, and I always really love it when the calendar is brand new!! Somehow, a new year always seems full of hope and anything feels possible! I don’t set any New Years Resolutions, because for me, I might just as well stamp “epic fail” on anything that has the word “Resolution” attached to it!
Don’t get me wrong! I like setting goals, and I like working toward achieving them. I’m an eternal optimist! I really am. At my house, the glass is always half full. When it’s a rainy day, if there’s a break in the clouds, I’m the one looking for the rainbow to appear at any moment! It’s just who I am. I have to admit that Disney’s “Pollyanna” is a favorite movie. I love how she thinks and approaches life!
However, I’m also a realist. Even though I’m optimistic about things in life, I understand the reality of life, and the limitations that are presented to all of us. This is definitely true in my work with dogs. I am always always hopeful that a reactive, emotional dog can change his way of thinking and responding to life. It’s what keeps me working.
However, I know that realistically, much of the success with any given dog will be up to the dog himself to connect the dots and work through his issues to learn new behaviors. Not all dogs can work through the process and I understand that. Sometimes, the behavior has gone on for so long, that realistically, I’m not likely to change anything. However, as long as the dog and owner want to try, I’m your girl, because I’m all in if there’s hope for change and a willingness to try.
So having said all of that, how in the world do I set any measurable goals in my work with Rugby James? He’s soon going to be ten years old. Realistically, much of his behavior is pretty well set into stone at this stage of his life. I’m not likely to see him completely stop resource guarding or learn to accept strangers or dogs. For nine years, we have worked on these issues, and for nine years, I’ve seen some good results, but the changes have come in baby steps and with a whole lot of hard, consistent work. In some situations, he can be an absolute rock star, and in other situations, he melts down into a ridiculous barky, reactive mess of emotion.
As a result, I’m selective in who and what I expose him to, and I’m always prepared for the worst possible behavior to erupt. Because Rugby can be aggressive, I always have a basket muzzle if I ever think there’s a possibility that he could become dangerous. He always wears his Thundershirt when we go somewhere. I always use a harness with him, because if the situation goes south, I know I can’t physically harm him, if I have to give him a big tug on the leash to get him out of a situation. And with Rugby, he’s far less reactive on a harness than he is on a buckle collar, so using a harness just makes good sense for us.
Rugby is a dog who needs a small world. He can’t cope with the everyday situations that other dogs can manage. So I focus on improving the quality of his life within the confines of his small world. I try to improve things where he simply has to be exposed: the vet and staff, his house and yard, neighbors, friends, etc.
We have occasional fun outings to walk in a cemetery, for example, but I can’t do them very often, because Rugby gets very stressed if they are too frequent. He loves to do the occasional field trip, so I try to schedule outings when it can be fun for Rugby and I know that he will have a successful, positive experience in the process.
This year, I hope to have some additional success in exposing him to the vet staff with “friendly vet visits.” These are visits in which I simply take Rugby to our vet clinic during a slow period so that the staff can pet him, talk to him, and offer him treats. That’s it. It’s a friendly visit, where there is no poking or prodding, and his interactions with the staff are all positive and good in Rugby’s eyes.
Depending on how he does, I want to see if this year, I can get him comfortable being handled on the exam table rather than my lap. He’s done super well with friendly vet visits this fall, and his vet said that his most recent annual exam was the best she thought he’d ever had. I felt ten feet tall hearing that! I was able to get him on the exam table for part of his exam, and he tolerated things really well for the most part.
This year, I hope to get him more comfortable watching humans walk in and out of the clinic without melting down. He doesn’t cope well with change, so getting him to handle surprises like a new stranger coming into the clinic without completely freaking out would be great! So far, this has been absolutely hit or miss with very little predictability in how he will respond.
At home, I hope to work more on getting him to tolerate our neighbors having friends over for cookouts in their back yards. Rugby typically finds it necessary to announce to the world that the neighbors have guests over, and while he may feel that it’s important to bark loudly and for a long time, he really needs to learn that they honestly will not cook and eat him! His primary concern is that it upsets the peace and quiet of his back yard, which is secluded and offers the same back yard experience day after day. That’s the way that he likes it: quiet, predictable and safe! He loves the occasional squirrel or chipmunk surprise, but never appreciates people or dog surprises!!
I’d like to do additional yard training in the front yard, to see him feel safer outside the fence, trusting that I’ll have his back and keep him safe. Right now, he’s clearly anxious, and his body language says that he’s very uncomfortable, and ready to explode at a moment’s notice. I’d like to see him improve with being able to see his neighborhood when nothing is happening, and learn to relax. That’s really never, ever happened. It will be a tall order!
And those are our goals for 2017. Some are realistic and more measurable. Others are a bit lofty, but I think it’s good to have some balance with reality and daring to dream! I want to give Rugby the chance to simply amaze me! I always say that any progress forward is good progress, so even if it comes in the very familiar baby steps, I’ll take what I can get. I’m an optimist, remember?