Happy Birthday, Reggie! Well, today may or may not be officially his birthday, but it’s the day I adopted him so it’s a special day at Chez Jackie.
Before Reggie came into my life four years ago, I had no idea how much I would change because of him. I am a different person. My outlook on my life is different. My outlook on the world is different. In hindsight, I realize that I’d been unsettled, kind of mentally wandering, searching for someone or something to guide me, kind of like a guru. Not a Jonestown-type guru, mind you, but a Mr. Miyagi guru. One afternoon not too long ago, Reggie came into the room. He yawned, circled exactly three times around a spot of sunlight on the floor and flopped down to take a nap. Ahh, Daniel-san, you have no need to find a guru. You already have one.
In no particular order, here are a few things I’ve learned from observing my guru:
Nobody knows the troubles I’ve seen. Reggie doesn’t worry about things he can’t control. Heck, he doesn’t worry about anything except staring at the floor while I’m cooking. Just in case.
It’s not all about me. Before I adopted Reggie, I envisioned playing endless rounds of fetch, chatting up other dog people at the park while my dog played with the other dogs, my dog sitting quietly on a blanket while I have a picnic and maybe even training him to be a therapy dog. Reggie does not want to do any of those things. I had to let them go, because they were really for me, and just let him be him.
The Archie Bunker Lesson. An espisode of All in the Family focused on Edith’s realization she was going through “the change of life” – the then euphamism for menopause. Her hot flashes, moodiness and irritability were frustrating to her curmudgeon husband, Archie. In a fit, he yelled, “Edith, I’m going to give you 30 seconds. Come on, change!” Funny and ridiculous as it was on television, I realized I had a little Archie in me. With Reggie, I had to learn that patience is something that has to be learned. Every day we work on desensitizing him to the other dogs in the building. Despite my efforts, sometimes he barks and barks and them. It’s my responsibility to give him the tools to help him live in my world. So I have to meet him on his terms and understand where he’s coming from. He can’t change in 30 seconds. Which leads me to:
Sometimes progress comes in baby steps. Sometimes we take two steps back just when we’ve taken a step forward. But more often than not, he surprises me with his accomplishments. Reggie used to growl at other dogs. If one came too close, he’d give a low warning. I consulted with a trainer and read books about how to help him. This was a s-l-o-w process. It was a huge victory when he was able to sniff another dog for 5 seconds without growling. Now he can meet other dogs without incident about 75 percent of the time. From this I also learned:
Aggression comes from fear. Think about it.
I gotta be me. When I visited Best Friends I worked with two dogs who were survivors of Hurricane Katrina. One was happy-go-lucky, as friendly as could be. Every time a person came near, her butt would helicopter out of control with excitement. The other was quite shy, bordering on shut down. She would let people walk her on a leash, but no one could look at her (quite literally). If she felt eyes on her she would wrench away in fear. Here were two dogs with similar experiences, but wildly different reactions. All of that is to say that if there is one lesson I am reminded of every day from Reggie and my volunteer work, it is this: dogs are individuals. As are people. How divisive and detrimental stereotyping is. (Which is why I hate BSL. Yes, I used the “H” word.) I know the adage that stereotypes are stereotypes because there is some truth to them, but they are a shorthand for lazy people. Isn’t it much easier to take the easy way out and just classify everyone into neat little packages? We do this with dogs with breed categories and humans with religions, nationalities, you name it. It does a great disservice to everyone. Reggie is a sentient being with his own life to live and napkins to eat. He is an individual.
No habla español. Let’s say Reggie is wiggling himself under a parked car, butt up in the air, to get to a box of half-eaten chicken wings (last night). If I say, “Leave it,” there is a good chance he will listen to me. But, as more likely is the case, I say something such as, “Stopthatcomeherewhatareyoudoingleavethataloneitsgross.” Whose fault is it if he eats the wings? How often do I do this in my human relationships? Maybe someone at work didn’t enter this data into that report properly. It’s probably not because the person is a nincompoop. Well, wait. No, no. It’s because I wasn’t clear enough in my instructions. Now, I try to think about how my communication is being received.
Don’t hold a grudge. While it’s true that it may have seemed like Reggie was angry at me for going away when he followed me into the bathroom, looked me in the eye and peed on the floor, I’m told by behaviorists and trainers that dogs and cats do not have the capacity for retribution. Really.
Intelligence don’t just come from a book. I read about a bloodhound (the best nose in the business) who tracked a lost child in a national park over 3 days. The child had wandered 12 miles in the opposite direction across streams and dense brush. I think it goes without saying that there is no way Reggie would do that; he’d come across an abandoned campsite and start eating the leftover hot dogs. But I have watched him sniff a seemingly bare spot on the sidewalk for whole minutes. He knows the people who belong on our floor by the sound of their footsteps. He hears things that cause him to wake from a deep sleep that I don’t even hear. He knows the owners of the dogs he doesn’t like from their scent and finds them guilty by association. He can tell the passage of time from how old a scent is. He is gathering and processing information I have no way of ever understanding.
Know when to shut up. When working with dogs language can be a hinderance. For that reason in general, trainers will teach a dog a behavior before they apply a word to it. A while ago I worked with a deaf dog at a shelter. She learned all of her basic commands through hand signals. Because there wasn’t as much extraneous chatter, the dog wasn’t the only one who was more focused. Sometimes we talk too much for our own good. And when we talk we’re not really paying attention, now are we?
Unconditional love is conditional. Many people say they love their pets because the pets give them unconditional love. Perhaps in the sense that your pet doesn’t think less of you if your deodorant isn’t working that day or if you decide against all that is good and right and buy a mid-life crisis Corvette . But – and I realize this may be an unpopular thing to say – do you really want to be loved unconditionally? No matter what you do? No matter how impatient, how stubborn, how ignorant, how frustrated, how short-tempered you may be? I don’t want to be complacent. I want to earn it. (This goes for humans, too.) I want to know that I’m trying to improve every day – give back everything Reggie has given to me.
Today is a new day. Tensing up because I’m assuming that Reggie is going to growl and bark at another dog because he did yesterday doesn’t give him the opportunity to improve, to show what he’s learned. Past experience isn’t always an indicator of future performance. That leads me to:
You catch more flies with honey than with vinegar, as my mom likes to say. I have seen firsthand how a once fearful and defensive Reggie responded to kindness and love. Once he realized I would always have his back, he could let down his guard. He could return to balance, where we all truly want to be. Treating him with force by using alpha rolls or yanking his collar would only reinforce the fear and the negative behavior. Why would treating fear with force result in anything else? Imagine how the world would be if we took that philosophy on the road to our own species.
Compassion is king. It is the root of all that is good. My wonderful friend Joy Southard, who I hope will write a guest post someday, knows this firsthand. She is the director of Healing Species of Texas, a violence intervention / character building program for kids. The outreach program uses rescue dogs that nobody wanted to illustrate the important life lessons such as respect for the feelings of others, self-esteem, anger management and conflict resolution. Joy has witnessed teens in juvenile correction facilities, where compassion and love are seen as weaknesses, break down in tears and hug these dogs. Maybe a door has creaked open ever so slightly to let some light in.
Live in the moment. There is no other way to be.
Thank you, Reggie, my guru, for all of the joy you’ve brought me and how much you’ve taught me.