Some time back, on a walk with Kit, a neighbor spotted us strolling along: Kit frequently looking up at me, making eye contact; me marking the behaviors I liked with a clicker and feeding him treats. She called out to us, “Looks like you have a really good dog, there!” I laughed and replied, “About fifty percent of the time!”
If only she knew, I though. This is the dog that has made me cry on dozens of occasions, the dog that came pre-loaded with explosive reactivity to other dogs, rabbits, skateboarders, running children, and mourning doves (yes, just specifically those birds). The dog that has to be muzzled and sedated at the vet in order for staff to get within 3 feet of him (Dear Pandemic, thank you for brining us vet-visits on Zoom). The dog that, when he first arrived at my house, would practically vibrate with stress and tension as he lay panting, shallow and hard, with nothing actually going on around him. The dog who is on a finely-tuned cocktail of medications, supplements, and Chinese herbs to bring his arousal level down to the point that he can live a normal-ish doggy life.
This is my “really good dog”.
Her words got me thinking, not just about what people mean when they say a dog is “a good dog”, but also about Kit, himself, how far we’ve come, and what we believe we are seeing when we glimpse dogs walking with their people.
I regularly refer to Kit as my “monster” or “30 pounds of fury”, but, in fairness, he’s come a long way since I fist brought him home and he unpacked his behavioral baggage. We’ve made a lot of progress, he and I. He hasn’t made me cry for a good long while. He’s able to rest and relax in the house instead of frantically barking, spinning, panting, or chewing on something. I can be in the bedroom without him vocalizing extreme displeasure at being left in the living room and I can leave the house without fear of what happens while I’m gone. He no longer spikes up so high when my partner comes over that I feel punished for having a personal life. We can pass telephone wires adorned with a dozen cooing mourning doves and he no longer blows up like a landmine.
Kit’s more in-tune with and responsive to me than any other dog in my life, past or present. He picks up on language-based cues as though he could actually understand the words, and he’s even learned to snuggle without trying to violently and lovingly force his way underneath my skin (well, sometimes). He’s not that bad anymore: he’s still a really challenging dog, in many many ways, but we have found a way to live with one another successfully, and with more peace and mutual affection between us than strife.
I can’t take all the credit for the progress he’s made. Outside of the actual training we’ve done, we finally worked out the right mix of meds and supplements for him, he’s nearly 3 years older, and therefore (theoretically) three years mellower, and my own effort to integrate the yogic/Buddhist tenets of acceptance and nonattachment have been a huge help in keeping my own behavior from amplifying his. The last three years have also tied us closer together, and the more clearly I’ve seen and understood him, the easier it’s been to give him the support he needs when he gets over-stimulated and his brain is reduced to a string of firecrackers. When I can meet his needs, he no longer fires up and erupts (at least as much or as frequently), which in the past would have set off a chain of emotional responses in me, and the cycle of anxiety and stress is broken.
I know that I’ll have many more blog posts about Kit, so I’m going to hold off on going into the details of some of the more nuts-and-bolts aspects of the work we’ve done to get here, to this place of predominant peace. It’s enough now to say that we made it. Imperfectly, arduously, haltingly, and ungracefully, but we made it.
This is certainly not to say that we’re done making progress. I’m still looking for and working on anything that may help bring Kit down a decibel or two, and decrease the strength of his responses to certain triggers and situations, but if this, the Kit of now, was as far as we could go? I could live with it without feeling overwhelmed, and just as importantly, so could Kit.
My neighbor who saw us walking together didn’t see all that.
We never see the whole of each other in a quick glance, whether we’re looking at a dog or a human. We never see the full story when we notice a dog behaving well or poorly, but we quickly make assumptions about the dog’s temperament and personality based on the snapshot of behavior we are witness to. We boil these judgments all the way down to a declaration that a dog is “good ” or “bad”. My neighbor couldn’t have looked at us and been privy to the last three years of literal blood, sweat, and tears, just as no one could see all the progress we’ve made if they caught us during on a Bad Day when Kit erupts like an angry volcano and I have to carry him for long stretches of road to calm him down.
My neighbor just saw a devastatingly handsome Cattle Dog paying attention to his mom, and she saw a really good dog.
And you know what?
He really is.