Maisie and I are at the park with Will and his dog Sonya and we are reintroducing them after a week or two hiatus. Sonya, a four year old rescued blue heeler mix, is the elder stateswoman, a role model if you will, and she is unimpressed by Maisie’s barking. Will is down on one knee, rubbing Maisie’s ears, and he tells her quietly and matter-of-factly, “She can hear you.” Maisie eventually settles down, but as we begin to walk, she punctuates her point with a few quick little barks, to which Will responds, “Always has to have the last word.” I immediately think, “Like mother, like daughter.” My little mirror, she is. Maisie the Mirror.
Will is Maisie’s trainer, or canine troubleshooter, as he calls himself, making him a perfect match for my canine troublemaker. What this all really means, though, is that Will is my trainer. I had encountered him twice before we began working with him: once at the shelter the day I fell in love with her and once several months ago on a very challenging walk, when she went batshit crazy on another heeler he was walking. In between my failed efforts to settle her down and near-tears apologies to him, he said calmly, “I know Maisie. I work at the shelter.” I told him I remembered him. He told me he was a dog trainer. I told him we were having a particularly bad day.
If you’ve read any part of Barks at Strangers, you know that Maisie is an overly reactive dog. She can go from sweet and calm to amped and crazed in a nanosecond; a squirrel, a bird, a chipmunk, a leaf, another dog — especially another dog — sends her into a fit of barking and panic and excitement that I was, quite frankly, unprepared to deal with. She was so very quiet at the shelter and for the first few days we had her. But she also had significant time under her collar before coming to live with us, not only not learning the basics, but also learning some pretty bad habits. Training a dog is one thing; un-training a dog requires a whole new set of skills.
Even though I had successfully trained my first dog, a 65 pound every-breed-under-the-sun-including-probably-coyote mix named Henry, diligently devouring and following the advice in The Art of Raising a Puppy by the Monks of New Skete, I had to admit that this sweet, tiny, ever-so-innocent-looking rescue was proving to be more than I could handle on my own. “Crazy Rescue Dog With Unknown Issues” was not really covered in the self-taught dog training course I took 15 years ago. What worked with Henry so long ago was failing miserably with Maisie. I took Will up on his offer.
I know Maisie is capable of learning; she is smart and quick to figure things out, especially when we are in the house, when the distractions stay at bay. But the training that takes place in the confines of my living room is entirely different than the training that takes place outside in the real world. When I’m not writing or walking Maisie, I am working on music. I know what it feels like to know something so flawlessly, to feel so confident about a piece of music or a song — when I am safe in my studio. In a concert hall or a bandshell, a bar or a coffee shop, there are myriad distractions and variations: the sound isn’t right or the lighting is bad, it’s too cold or too hot, the milk is being steamed or the television is on, someone is talking or everything is perfect, but I’m just nervous. These are my squirrels, my birds, my chipmunks, my other dogs. It’s real world time and I’m not always up for the task. So I get it, Maisie, I get it.
When we meet with Will, I don’t know who is happier to see him, Maisie or me. She is certainly more expressive about her feelings, but I am so grateful for his wisdom and his calm demeanor. In each session with him, we make a little more progress, even if it’s just one tiny step in the right direction. We have lately been making arrangements with other dog owners we know, dog owners who are kind and generous and willing to come meet us at the park so we can practice her largest hurdle: running into other dogs. I watch Will handle her, see how much calmer she is with him. He explains what to do, how to achieve that same calm when I am at the other end of the leash, and then he hands me the leash and we give it a try. One of the hardest but probably most significant things I am learning is that training takes place in a split-second, that sometimes the time you have to react before your dog reacts can be measured in the same micro-units of time by which Olympic races are determined.
Yet while Will is teaching me many things about dogs in general and Maisie in particular, teaching me about how to work with her, what to do and what not to do, what he is really teaching me, whether he is aware of it or not, exists far beyond the world of canines. Working with Will and Maisie I am learning, more than anything, about being present and staying present. I don’t know what Will’s belief system is, or if he even subscribes to one, but I do know that the work we are doing is one of the closest real world applications I experience of the many Buddhist concepts I aspire to embrace.
And at the top of that list is the notion of mindfulness, the concept of Being in the Moment. When we walk, I cannot be perseverating over a conversation that irked me, a relationship that is causing me consternation, or an event that has vexed me. I cannot be thinking over my next performance, the taxes I still need to file, or my upcoming blog post. Indeed, I have found that the walks in which I am mulling over my own internal crap, my emotionally charged triggers and mood swayers tripping me up at every turn, are the walks in which “she” has the biggest struggles. I need to stay ever-present with her, to watch the world through her eyes, to be vigilant and pro-active to the stimuli that set her off, and I cannot do this when I am distracted by silly human struggles and a wandering monkey mind. The canine experts say that every walk needs to be a training walk. I say that every walk needs to be an exercise in mindfulness before it can be anything else.
I am also learning to put into practice the concept of non-attachment — one of the hardest things for so many of us to embrace — when I work with Maisie. I have high hopes that Maisie and I will work through her reactivity. But dealing with behavior problems needs considerably more diligence than your basic sit-stay-come commands and they can take a long, long time to work through. And so when I work with her, I need to let go of worrying about where she has been and wondering how I will get her to where I want her to be; I need to let go of being fixated, in other words, on every place but where she is right now (which sounds remarkably like staying present). I need to let go of any expectations that she will be like the miraculously transformed dogs in youtube videos and equally transformed owners on The Dog Whisperer. And letting all of that go means simply showing up with her, every day, no matter what yesterday looked like and no matter what tomorrow might look like. Showing up every, single day, and doing the work, and then doing it again and again and again.
When we first started working with Will, he gave me permission to be okay with Maisie’s barking. “Dogs bark, it’s what they do,” he said. “Don’t worry about what anyone else thinks.” Sure, we want to work on it, but letting it create stress and embarrassment for me will never be helpful for her and certainly won’t reduce her reactivity. And so, I am practicing the art of non-judgment: of myself, of Maisie, of other dogs, and other dog owners. I am learning that while lunging and pulling at the leash and piercing the air with that nerve-shattering bark of hers need to be addressed, they are just What Happens With Maisie sometimes, and when they happen, I leave the self-reprobation behind. My ability to train her well functions in indirect proportion to feelings of embarrassment that arise when she becomes Crazy Maisie. So I do my best to stay neutral, and we go to work, again and again and again.
There are days when this is far harder than it sounds, times when no matter which direction I turn, there is another dog, another squirrel, another issue to confront, until she is an utter worked-up mess and I am close behind. While I know this is not necessarily what the canine experts prescribe, these are the times when the easiest remedy, for both of us, is for me to pick her up and walk away from (or at least turn my back to) whatever has set her off. Sometimes she settles down immediately, sometimes she thrashes and squirms, trying to break free. But if I walk calmly and long enough, she eventually gets quieter, her breathing starts to return to something more akin to normal. In the moments this process takes, I am amazed at the intensity of her physical reaction: panting to near violence, her heart pounding, her body shaking.
And so I am also learning much more about compassion, because at this point, although I am usually rattled quite a bit myself and sometimes struggling with a churning stew of anger and frustration, when I feel how physically charged she is, it triggers in me the direct opposite response. All I want to do is breathe some calm into her, let her know she is okay, let her know I have her back. I hold her, we walk, I rub her ears, I whisper to her, and I pull her in close. When she is calm, when I am calm, I put her down, and we start from scratch. We begin anew — and we do the work again and again and again.
Little by little I am learning how to be a good trainer to my special needs mutt (yes, I realize that probably describes damn near every rescue dog). But I no longer assess the walks on how well Maisie did; I now assess them on how well I did. Because Maisie is just being a dog. She doesn’t have all of the challenging emotions and concurrent behaviors we humans have. She isn’t manipulative or conniving, she isn’t trying to upset me or frustrate me. She is just being a dog. I am the one who has brought her into my human world and so the success of our training lies squarely on my shoulders. How well she does is shaped by how I respond to her instinctual canine behaviors, how I handle her over reactivity, how I behave. And so I show up and do the work again and again and again. Where’s my treat?
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As always, dear readers, I’d love to hear your thoughts on how you have learned to work with a beloved animal’s challenges and the ways your animal companions help you grow and move closer to living your ideals. (Oh, and thanks and apologies to Robert Pirsig. I couldn’t help myself.)