Come As You Are
I found a tee-shirt at a thrift store in Canada several years ago that said “Stereotyping Saves Time.” Because I have a quirky sense of humour, I bought it. Plus it was only $3 and looked sort of cute on.
That tee-shirt and its satirical message fascinated me. I think I found it around 2003 or 2004. Stereotyping was utmost on people’s minds as a result of 9/11.
I’ve long since parted with the shirt. It got recycled or purged somewhere along the way, but the message and its various connotations have stayed with me.
I’ve found labeling to be a form of stereotyping. In all honestly, I think that labeling, while useful for categorizing or speaking in broad terms, can also be incredibly destructive and hinder progress. Nonetheless, I’m as guilty as most when it comes to labeling.
I’ve wanted to write this post for some time, but had to mull it over and over as I think this can be a touchy subject, in respect to both humans and dogs.
This morning I read something that I found inspiring. It comes from: http://www.avidog.com/raising-puppies-to-be-brave-the-top-10-ways-to-create-confident-dogs/
“Avoid Labeling Young Puppies. If we label a 6-week old (or worse yet, younger) puppy as “fearful” or “manipulative” simply because it is wary around a new object, we have made a serious error. What the puppy is doing is normal for its age. The difference between it and others in its litter might be due to physiologic rather than temperament. Like people, dogs develop at different rates. Since we are talking about puppies that haven’t even been alive for two months yet, giving them the benefit of the doubt seems appropriate.
Psychologists have long known that labeling children affects how others treat them. Once we label puppies, we look for evidence to support that label, even if it isn’t there. We want to be unbiased but we are not once we have labeled a puppy. We watch “stars” and ooh and ah over the great things they do, overlooking their moments of tentativeness. Once a puppy has been labeled a “weanie” or “scaredy-cat,” we treat that puppy differently.”
I don’t buy into everything in that piece (avoiding hip dysplasia buy walking puppies in the woods while young?), but the segment quoted above spoke to me.
I’ve grown to despise the application of the label of “reactive” when it comes to dogs. Truth be told, if a dog, or any other critter for that matter, is not reacting to something, then it’s dead. Even a shut down dog, doing nothing because it’s paralyzed with fear, is reacting in some way by doing nothing.
Still, I realize that labeling a dog as reactive can be useful, especially when it comes to training. It’s just that now I don’t believe that’s the whole picture, nor should it be viewed with such a singular lens.
So here’s part of my story with Brady and why I’ve grown to realize that labeling a dog a certain way can impair a future and a relationship.
Brady came to me pretty much as an unknown. I’d met him only once before deciding to adopt him. That’s not really unusual for me. The reason why I adopted him was due to a moment that passed between us on a cold late November afternoon. I was attending an agility trial. A woman I knew was also there and was fostering him, with the original intent of keeping him and training him up as a sheepdog, possibly as a competitor in sheep trials and such. But she admitted to me that she was at that point unsure of keeping him. I only originally noticed him because I’d seen him on a breed rescue site I sometimes looked at – okay, that I still look at. In the picture, his fur was bleached orange from the sun and his eyes were focused on something outside of the frame. I thought when I saw the picture that he’d make a nice dog, for someone else. Originally, he’d been picked up as a stray in Idaho and in an area flush with ranches and plenty of sheepdogs.
She asked me to hold him ringside while she did something with her other dogs.
It was late in the day on the third day of the trial and it was relatively quiet. I held on to his leash in a dark, quiet area of the arena, softly petting him. He was not demonstrative. He didn’t try to nuzzle me or impress me as dogs so often do, soliciting attention. Nor was he really even looking around for the woman, a person that he’d been with for several weeks by then. He just quietly sat, although I now realize he was very much absorbing his surroundings. He wasn’t particularly interested in the treats I had on me either. it was while offering him a treat that the moment happened.
It’s a moment that is etched in my memory. Our eyes met. He looked intensely at me and suddenly I felt like my head was buzzing with an electrical current. While I always describe the moment in words, as if a question was posed, it was really more of a raw emotional touch. When I convey this story, I always say that he asked me if I was going to be his person.
Tears leaped into my eyes. I’d never been so acutely charged by that kind of naked emotion from a dog. I gazed back at him and made a silent powerful promise that I would be his person.
It took a few more weeks, but that dog, that I named Brady, came to live with me. Romantically, I envisioned that same emotional connection. Instead, what I got was a dog that I couldn’t connect with. Not for lack of trying on my part. Brady himself was incredibly distant. He remained emotionally distant for five months.
I’ve never had a transition with a dog take as long as it did with Brady. It’s not really an unusual thing. It just had never previously happened with me.
But I’m incredibly stubborn and this dog had asked me a question that I was determined to fulfill.
Brady is a very handsome dog and numerous people assumed I’d brought him into my life because I was attracted to his looks. It took over six months for me to see that exterior and to see him as the physically beautiful specimen that he is. I was focused instead on that question he asked in that dark cold arena and on his eyes. I was constantly searching his eyes for recognition, some acknowledgement of trust, an agreement on the contract I had prepared in my head.
Instead, Brady dictated a contract with very specific terms, numerous clauses and ironclad provisions that could not be broken.
As much stubbornness as I possess, I also have patience. By February, I realized this was not going to be an easy journey.
By February, I realized I had a reactive dog.
Brady is not my first reactive dog. Jasmine was. The difference is that I didn’t know nearly as much when I first adopted Jasmine, trained her and lived with her. That lack of labeling allowed me to proceed ignorantly, and indeed, fairly successfully. That lack of inhibition on my part is why Jasmine is an absolute dream in the context of an agility environment or large public gatherings, but is a bully in other situations or can be a loud screaming mess when encountering certain people and dogs in specific situations.
Brady’s display of reactivity though took things to a new level for me. While loving and friendly with every single person he met, something he still is to this day, by that February, Brady looked like the legendary fictional character of Cujo when seeing another dog.
The behavior was puzzling at first. He was fine with my other three at the time that he lived with. In fact, when I first met him, he was playing with a couple of dogs in a big field. He even played with a six-month-old golden retriever puppy in a classroom managed by a dog trainer friend.
But a switch flipped that February. I have theories about it. He’s had a not so positive encounter with another dog in January, Secondly, he was probably around a year old and my thoughts are that fear periods in dogs are not so precise as books often make them out to be. In my personal experience, dogs exhibit fear periods up through two years of age. Lastly, he had finally been in one place for more that a few weeks at a time and his real personality was starting to come through.
Since I was a lot more educated when I adopted Brady and recognized the behavior, I realized I needed to work with him in a positive manner and needed to start desensitizing him and having him learn to associate seeing other dogs with good things. Like hot dogs.
By then, I’d assisted in numerous reactive rover classes at the local humane society and had become acquainted with and become good friends with several area dog trainers. I had abundant resources at my disposal.
Brady and I were politely asked to leave the first training session we attended. Truthfully, the day I got the email I had made the decision not to return to class with him. The space was too small for his very large bubble and he was only practicing his fear-triggered behaviors. But that trainer did make an interesting observation. She said Brady was a conflicted dog. She observed that at times he appeared to be friendly, trepidatiously perhaps, but within a nanosecond could flip into Cujo-like warning behaviors, complete with nashing teeth, screams and charging. And that is what made him so frightening – that complete flip into insanity.
So, I enrolled him in reactive rover sessions at the humane society, which had a larger space and allowed me to practice a bit more within his comfort zone.
But Brady’s comfort zone, or bubble, was enormous. I could take him to a local state park, an area I knew where dogs were always on leashes and that within certain times of day we were likely to encounter few dogs and walkers. He reacted even at over 100 feet away. It became so bad that he would alert to a dog tag jingle.
A good many people didn’t even know I had Brady in that first year with him. I hardly took him anywhere with me unless it was dawn or dusk. Even then, I took him to places that I was sure we wouldn’t encounter other dogs. I got very brave about hiking in the evenings or even at dark. A flashlight was always in my car.
Meanwhile, Brady and I had connected.
The turning point came when I went away for a week to see family on the east coast. I searched out a special boarding situation for Brady since he couldn’t be around other dogs. When the pet sitter came to pick him up, he happily and nonchalantly hopped into her car, never even looking at me. I was devastated.
A week later, I had returned home. I was eagerly greeted by my other dogs when I picked them up, as per usual. Then the pet sitter dropped Brady off and a miraculous thing occurred.
I opened the door to greet them and the look of complete shock and surprise on Brady’s face was palpable. Recognition and joy filled his eyes. His body visibly relaxed. I knelt down beside him, choking back sobs. It was the acknowledgement that I’d waited for months to see.
I think, for the first time in his life, Brady realized he had a permanent home and a permanent human.
I continued to work with Brady on his reactivity to other dogs, but at a very slow and gentle pace. I’d started him on agility lessons and my instructor continually dumfounded me when she assured me that someday we’d be able to compete. I just didn’t see it happening. But it didn’t bother me. He was such a fun dog to learn with and enjoyed playing the game of agility so much that it was contagious. The things I learned by working with him and that instructor translated to my other two competition dogs.
Brady and I took semi-private lessons with another woman and her very high drive and excitable Doberman. The dog was a recipe for a reaction from Brady. Although they never met physically, and frequently their crates were covered, they could feel each other’s energy and did occasionally sight one another
Over time though, he learned to deal with the other dog’s energy. Still, Brady’s exposure to other dogs was minimal and I tried to assure that any encounters we did have were well controlled. I’d go for stretches of training diligently, then would deliberately step back in the name of letting his stress level even out.
Looking back, there was a great deal of fear on my part regarding his reactions. That’s not a good combination since dogs feed off the emotions of their humans. There were very good reasons for that, but the one thing that I always made sure to do, no matter what, was to guard him. Yes, a lot of that was initially to guard against a reaction from him, but eventually it became me blocking the world from getting to him. This became not only a metaphorical block, but also a physical body block. I didn’t realize it at first, but that consistent blocking told him that I’d handle whatever it was. It conveyed powerfully that he did not have to handle situations on his own and that he had me. Literally, I taught him that I had his back. Sometimes that meant that I’d quickly remove him from a tenuous situation. Other times, it meant that I’d physically step forward to block or deal with something that he didn’t like. It dawned on me one day that I inadvertently taught a verbal cue with this as well. I always said “I gotcha” when I was managing. To this day, those words elicit an ear twitch and relaxing in his body.
Brady knows he can trust me. It’s a high compliment.
In the midst of all this, I continued to protect Brady. We still didn’t really go places that couldn’t be managed or where I couldn’t trust the circumstances. I don’t think that’s a bad thing, but my perspective of him was very much colored by what I came to label, or was labeled for me, as his reactivity.
After the first year with Brady, I took a giant leap of faith and decided to try to see if I could enroll him in group agility classes. I was very honest and direct about his issues. I was lucky enough to have the support of my ongoing instructor, as well as two other experienced instructors who decided to take a chance on us. I had some dim realization that there are many “reactive” dogs that compete in agility and that in fact doing so equipped them with the confidence and ability to mange their fears. But what was dim realization has since grown to wide-eyed seeing. Interestingly, a lot of people, even experienced competitors, do not see this, even in their own dogs.
Agility is filled with herding breeds or herding mixes. The herding breeds are bred for environmental awareness, bred for a sensitivity to movement and bred to be able to read and react to nuances. It’s part of what makes them so good at the sport. it’s also a recipe for what we now label as reactivity.
A dog working some remote farm location, with a regular routine and an ability to perform the work it is bred to do may never truly exhibit the signs that modern dog trainers label as reactivity, But throw that same breed into the suburbs or a city with cars, bicycles and skateboards whizzing by and impolite dogs that rudely bounce into their faces at a hell hole that is called a dog park where humans are engrossed in conversations with each other rather than in keeping an eye on their dogs and you have a recipe for a reactive dog.
At first, Brady and I kept a far distance from the other teams in our group agility session, I took him out of his crate only to work on specific training skills or sequences. I deliberately rode out turns where multiple dogs were working. I carefully monitored what dogs he followed or that followed him. I still had no intention of competing with him, or at least not for a long time.
My instructors though had other ideas. They saw a dog that could compete and assured me that I’d be able to someday. One in particular encouraged that dream. I’m forever grateful that she saw that. But I still think she’d never had said those things if she’d seen Brady in certain contexts.
Eventually, I did enter him in his first trial. Then I promptly chickened out and withdrew him a week prior to the event. He may have been ready, but I was not.
I had a reactive dog. Therefore, he was likely to react. I was good at managing my dog, but how could I be expected to control a speeding red freight train in an environment surrounded by flimsy plastic tape or baby gates, where amped up dogs and their people where hanging just outside, staring us down?
I did eventually become brave enough to enter Brady in his first competition. Being in the ring wasn’t a problem. It was getting to and out of the ring that was the issue. So I employed the same techniques I’d always used. We came in at the last possible moment and prior to entering the ring, I body blocked, I told him to trust me, I kept his attention on me and eventually I learned that me relaxing about the whole thing was the most import element of all.
That latter is the part that hardly anyone tells you about. Relax.
It sounds counter-intuitive. Here you have this raging beast with sharp teeth attached by a mere thread and ready to charge at another dog. You envision bloodshed and killing. At the very least you fear the public humiliation over your lack of ability to control your dog. And really, that’s what it comes down to for most of us.
In the 18 months or so that I’d worked with Brady prior to competition, I had learned about the power of relaxing my body and trying to rid myself of the tension that translated down the leash to him. I’d actually gotten fairly good at it. That confidence in turn gave him more authority over situations. We’d managed to decrease our bubble of needed space to ten feet or so, a bit closer if we hurriedly rushed through.
It was a different matter though in the close confines of an agility arena. I had to teach myself all over again to keep my body and voice loose and comfortable, More importantly, I had to believe it myself so that Brady could believe me. Those things are hard when you’re in an environment already riddled with tension.
Still, I told myself I had a reactive dog. Brady’s entire identity was wrapped up in him being a reactive dog. At least for me. It was really the first thing I told people about him.
Then I began dating a man who was clueless about dogs.
I almost stopped dating him after we went on a brief hike. There were a number of reasons, including the profuse amount of sweating he did on that jaunt, but one of them involved my dogs.
Youke had chomped on a fair amount of grass and stopped several times on the way back to the cars to puke. I was concerned and stopped with him as he wretched. Not this guy though. He marched onward, nary a glance at poor puking little Youke. He later confessed that he was embarrassed about the profuse sweating.
Brady was Sweaty Guy’s favorite of my dogs. He simply adored him. Brady felt much the same way. it was very sweet. I took to just taking Brady alone when I went out hiking with Sweaty Guy. It worked out well, since Sweaty Guy and I both preferred to hike sparsely populated trails or to go when we figured they wouldn’t be well trampled.
I’d explained about Brady’s reactivity, but like most who aren’t professionals or wrapped up somehow in dog performance sports, it pretty much flew over his head. One such time, Brady was getting a scritch from R. (aka Sweaty Guy). R. shifted his weight slightly and stopped. Brady put his head down and started a low growling. I was horrified. R. was not. He took up the scritching again and Brady leaned into him. It was my first clue that Brady’s vocalizations could not always be taken at complete face value.
One fateful Saturday, R. suggested a hike. I was leery about going on a Saturday, but our plan was to leave very early and be back before noon. We’d already gone hiking numerous times, with the same sweaty results, accompanied by Brady, often off leash, but always quickly leashed up if we saw a dog. The problem was that R. was fond of taking these very narrow rocky trails. It was fun and certainly expanded my hiking repertoire, but it was problematic with a reactive dog. I basically held Brady tightly to me or we pushed off to a wider or higher spot until the other dogs passed.
That particular Saturday hike was lovely. We had the trail entirely to ourselves on the way to a lake destination. However, the hordes were ascending as we made our way back. It was the usual summer Saturday hiking crowd with lots of flying children, inattentive people in flip-flops and off leash dogs. Foolishly, we’d brought the three dogs with us. (I didn’t yet have Camm.) Youke is fairly bomb-proof in these situations. Friendly, but not too friendly and unless someone really wants to stop and admire him, moves forward. For Brady and Jasmine it is overwhelming. Jasmine has a hard time dealing with that many people and dogs coming at her. Brady adores all the people. The other dogs? Not so much. R. saw that I was getting overwhelmed myself, so we devised a plan. He’d take Brady with him, leading the way, I’d hold on to Jasmine, and Youke was free to either run up ahead a little way or to be between us. I was incredibly apprehensive about R. taking Brady, but he and Brady had a bond and I told myself I had to trust my dog and all the progress we’d made up to that point in time.
The amazing thing was that R., as I later learned, never even considered Brady’s reactivity issues. Actually, he was never really good at listening to many of the things I said, so he’d probably forgotten about it. Bottom line, I was a basket case when we got to the car, but Brady was happy as could be, prancing along with his human friend.
It was a valuable lesson for me.
In that same week, Nirvana’s “Come as You Are” played on the radio as I was driving around with Brady in the back. It’s not as if I haven’t heard that song a zillion times. I like Nirvana, but truthfully it took a long time for the band to grow on me and they’ve never been a favorite.
Brady has many quirks and among them is not liking music played loudly or me singing. He especially hates my singing. I’ve discovered Brady is not much of a fan of R&B or dance music. it seems the only music he really tolerates is good old rock n’ roll. Fitting, since if he were a human I envision him as the lead singer of a hard rocking ’80s style band. Probably a big hair band in all truth, but there’s no accounting for taste. He tolerates The Rolling Stones and seem to like AC/DC and Aerosmith, so he has that going for him.
On that particular day, I stared singing to the Nirvana song in a low contralto. For once, Brady didn’t start screaming in protest. In fact, his ears perked forward and he seemed to be listening intently. As I sang along, for the first time, I listened, really listened, to the song lyrics.
It sounds incredibly dramatic, but I made an important decision that day. I was no longer going to view Brady through a specific lens and as a reactive dog. I was going to see him as he is, a singular and unique being, entitled to his own thoughts and opinions about the world around him. A being that was trying to navigate a world that at times was puzzling and overwhelming, but one in which he had the tools and gifts to maneuver at his own pace and with his own understanding.
For too long my view of Brady had been colored by this perception of him as a Reactive Dog. Once I let go of that judgement, for that’s what it truly was, our progress accelerated.
It was hard in many ways to let go, but these days I think of Brady not as a reactive dog, but as a dog. A brilliant, fun, fast, fierce, quirky, serious and funny, opinionated dog. A dog with his very own theme song.
Come as you are.
- I will also be forever grateful to R.for seeing a different dog than the one I saw.