Thursday, May 11, 2006

If there are priests for dog owners,

...then please, I must confess. I'm not even Catholic, not even remotely. But hey, it's a culture of confession--just watch a talk show. My main problem is that I need some absolution here, not just a listening ear. So let's get it right.

Forgive me Father (? Do you suppose that would be the proper form of address?) for I have sinned. First of all, I feel silly starting off like this in the first place, and secondly, I guess I'm not sure that in the scheme of things, difficulties in dog training would really count as "sins" in my world, and even more truthfully, as a secular humanist, I'm pretty uncomfortable with the liturgical language and the word "sin" itself. Let's just say I'm feeling guilty and leave it at that. I feel guilty, and angry, and like a big frustrated failure. Oh, right--you need to know why.

All right. We have two lovely dogs, let's call them Foo Foo and Fluffy (the names have been changed to protect the guilty--or the innocent, as the case may be). Foo Foo has been with us for two years, and is altogether a bit mellower and less pushy than Fluffy. He has his moments, though. These moments consist of either jumping our fence, or his problem with other dogs while on leash. Lest you think Foo Foo is a big hideous meany, let me explain: Foo Foo gets so excited by other dogs that he gets what dog folks call "aroused." Although perhaps the word is unfortunate (especially if you consider the possible key search words for this post on Google), it means simply that his energy levels go way up. Dogs in this state are much more likely to tip towards other high energy states, such as fear or aggression. We've figured out that Foo Foo is afraid while on leash. Perhaps this comes from some deep seated pychological incident--but he's not telling. And neither of us can think of any such incidents. But essentially we figure he's decided that he's both genuinely excited to see the other dog and he also thinks he has to take care of the situation because nobody else will, and this involves getting big and giving warning signs. We know it's not true aggression, because he's damned friendly off leash, and has never attacked a strange dog for any reason. It also is telling that this started off as simply getting excited and barking on leash, which is often how he tries to play with other dogs. HOWEVER. Can I tell you how embarrassing it is to have your otherwise sweet tempered dog start barking and growling and lunging at other dogs? It's like saying you're a Republican at an enviromentalist rally. You get nasty looks--judging looks--looks that say: "I can't believe you walk such an aggressive vicious beast in public." If you say he's afraid, you get the look that says "yeah, buddy, pull the other one." Our dog is sending mixed signals, and this sucks for eveyone involved, including the other dog, who eyes him with some distrust. It would be like if a stranger came up to you and hit you hard on the arm and said, "hey, wanna play with me, m*therf#@!!?"

Fluffy is a different ball of wax. We've only had her about 4 months. She was a shelter dog, and came to us as almost an adult. She's got a heart of gold (well, so does Foo Foo), but her heart of gold is hidden by a very busy brain and a pushy nature. We can speculate that either her doggie momma didn't teach her no manners, or her first human parents let her get away with murder. It doesn't really help her that she's at least part Border Collie, so her tenaciousness tends show itself in inconvenient moments, such as those where the toy is taken away but she really still wants it! She has improved greatly, but her basic desire is to push. If Fluffy could talk, we would have these kinds of conversations:
Me: "Fluffy, leave it (referring to the good smelling thing on the counter)."
Fluffy: "Are you sure? Cause it smells really good. Can't I have just a teensy bite?"
Me: "No."
Fluffy "Well, I mean, OK, but if you change your mind, I'll be right over here."
Her modus operandi with other dogs is to run and jump on them bodily, because surely, that must be endearing and will entice them to play with her.

So. We have been going to dog classes. Both dogs have passed Basic Obedience with flying colors. And diplomas. Really. They are both very smart, eager to learn, and know both verbal and hand signal commands for sit, down, stay, wait, leave it, paw (and lately they have been learning "knock it off" and other less polite commands. It has been an impatient week). What we have discovered is that they are excellent--BUT--only when there are no to very few distractions. Like other strange dogs. So the first couple of classes can be a little wearying, but after that, the classmates are no longer strange dogs. Foo Foo is in an intermediate class, which we then take home and apply to both dogs. And we have been having the trainer out for both dogs one hour a week. So we have been working on how not to pull on a leash. At first, it was amazing. Both dogs walk by our sides beautifully. But walking both dogs at once and encountering such exciting things as other dogs? Or dare I mention C-A-T-S? Even other people are distracting, since they would both like to be petted. And hence, my sorry tale.

I took both dogs for a nice walk tonight. At first, we were doing great. A few people distractions, doin' pretty well. A barking dog, not too bad. So I said, with the naivete of the optimistic, boy, we need a bigger challenge. Let's cross the street and go to the other neighborhood. So Foo Foo's lagging a little, like ususal, and Fluffy is trying to get ahead of me every other step, a thing that seems to be much harder to control when I have both dogs. And I'm getting a little annoyed at her. And then: the OTHER DOG on a leash (thank goodness) must walk by. And instead of the calm controlled I'm - in - charge - let's - keep - walking - nothing - to - see - here - move - along mode, I can't get either dog behind me; they're both out in front, pulling my arms off, trying to leap off the leash. I make them both sit. It works, sort of. And I am so livid at this point I could kick both of them (OK, now that I write this, it seems sort of more trivial. But people, I can't believe that I can't even walk my own dogs properly!) and am convinced that 1) I am doing something completely wrong for them to be so obnoxious. 2) I am failure as a dog trainer and should simply get some cats. Or fish. 3) I am a bad person and a bad owner because I am so angry at these two creatures I can't even communicate with them properly, and I'm sure, knowing just enough to be dangerous, that I am confusing the hell out of them, ruining their training, their trust in me, and our future relationship.

What's worse is that this happens A LOT. So maybe that's why it's so upsetting. And the thought that we are about to move to a city, and they really will have to behave on leash. And of course, in my true perfectionist fashion, I envision my dogs as eventually beautifully well-behaved creatures who never jump on others or fail to come when they're called. And I can't stand bad manners in any creature; I can't just say "oh, dogs are just like that" because they can be beautifully well-behaved. It just takes WORK. I didn't know this for many years, and many people just figure Fido should hit the end of the leash and keep on pulling; chew the carpet; leave footprints on your new pants. I'm sorry, y'all, I have been converted. I cannot look at that kind of dog without comparing it to some sort of three-year old run rampant. Would you let your toddler run into the living room full of guests and leap onto people without invitation? Or eat whatever he or she wanted? All I see is my badly behaved dogs, and I'm embarrassed. Now, most of our friends tell us what well-behaved dogs we have, and--another confession--I often wonder what non-jumping, non-pushy, non-obnoxious animals they are referring to. So I am all wrapped with guilt and shame, because sometimes I don't love my dogs. Sometimes I want to come home to an empty house and not have to worry about the walk, the pushing, the training. Is it because I spend most days lavishing care on animals, most of whom are either too sick to behave badly, or behave far worse than my own, to have patience with my own dogs? I sure hope not, or it's gonna be a sucky lifetime for all concerned. Is it OK to want to throttle your dog when they give you that "hey mom, f- you look?" (If you've ever had a dog disobey the come command, you know the look I mean.) You read far too much drivvle about the sweet dopiness of dogs; the slobber, the oops-I'm-sorry-about-the-carpet-mistake-but-aren't-I-cute personality, the unconditional love. It makes them seem like over-sized pillows with an appetite. My dogs are good dogs, fundamentally. I wouldn't give them up for the world, and they ARE making progress. But sometimes they are bad dogs, and they make me really mad. And intellectually I figure this is OK. But the guilt about feeling angry is huge and boomerangs into a sense of failure. It's probably magnified by my profession, which paints me as a caring animal lover that would never consider bodily harm to an animal, right? And therein lies my desire for expiation.

I guess it's nice it'd be nice to hear from you, Mr. Dog Priest/Bishop/Cardinal thingy. But really, we all know who really needs to hand out the forgiveness here. The trouble is, she's got such high standards she has to post about it on her blog in order to recognize who has to be the true absolver in this story. Damn. I'm awfully hard on myself, aren't I. Busted.