Tuesday, May 6, 2014

Hard Learned Lessons: On Goals, Fairness, and What It Means to "Quit"

"Being realistic about what a dog can and cannot do is an act of love." - Suzanne Clothier

Five years ago, I had big dreams and big goals.  I had been bitten hard by the agility bug, and I wanted to start a dog as a puppy and do everything right and one day have a world-level competitor.  I immersed myself in DVDs, seminars, on-line courses, books, you name it.  And I researched and researched and felt ecstatic when I put a deposit down on the puppy of my dreams.  When he was born, I knew the second I saw his photo that he was the one I'd have.  I picked him up in May five years ago, and haven't been apart from him for a single night since.  We fell madly in love with each other.  He and I are the same. Soul mates. We get each other, and we are a lot alike.  We set out with big expectations and big dreams.

That puppy was Cadence, of course.

Cadence is brilliant, clever, resourceful, passionate, energetic, determined, affectionate, funny, and charming.  He is also cautious, sensitive, particular, emotional, opinionated, and prone to worry.

Cadence loves long hikes on remote forest trails, swimming, running, camping, campfires, frisbee, soccer balls, chest rubs, playing with Maebe, and car rides.  He loves to learn, loves to do tricks, loves to problem-solve, loves to use his nose, loves to get as close to me as physically possible, and loves to play agility.  

He does not love chaos.  He does not love out of control motion.  And he does not love being at your average agility class or trial.

For all the genius, drive, and physical ability that Cadence showed from an early age, I struggled for four years to get him to feel comfortable in a group class or trial setting.  When I walked him into a building or a ring, what I saw was a dog who was stressed.  How could he possibly do agility (something he did love) when there was so much noise, so much motion, so many other dogs he didn't know, so much out of control?

Many times I questioned whether my goals were fair.  Whether they were realistic.  Whether they were worth it.  I saw a dog trying as hard as he could to ignore his discomfort all for my sake, and questioned how important something like agility was.

I was told not to give up. That I was doing such a great job.  That he showed such promise on the agility course.  

And I know what others who only saw him in that context must have thought.  That he was "reactive."  That I should medicate him.  Neuter him.  Get tougher on him.  Start punishing him.  These things all were said to me.  People all had their interpretations of his behavior, and what I should do, yet nobody acknowledged his (to me) obvious stress.  Maybe they also thought I should stop, but nobody ever said that.

To his amazing credit, he tried hard.  Harder than most of us would have.  If a dearly beloved friend or family member asked me to get up and sing at a public event, I couldn't, no matter how happy it would make them.  In fact, I'd probably actually resent being asked to do something so outside my comfort level.  But I was asking the same thing of Cadence.  And he did it, without resentment.  We entered some trials, got some beginning-level titles, earned a few ribbons.  I entered him for a full day at an outdoor trial in June last year, his first time at a venue other than where we normally train and trial, and he did a good job.  A few seconds here and there of distraction, but he ran each and every course with me and picked up a few more Q's.  I felt he was actually going to do this.

Two days later, life told me again what I had refused to hear for four years, but now in a way I couldn't ignore.  Agility was not going to be our thing together.  I have written here before that Cadence experienced a fibro-cartilaginous embolism which left him with some coordination problems in his rear legs.  In many ways we are lucky.  FCE is not painful, and he is not paralyzed.  He can hike, run, play, fetch, swim, and mess around on agility equipment in the yard.  What he can't do is safely perform competition-height equipment, especially in a state of arousal or stress.  At least that isn't a risk I'm willing to take.

I've spent the last year feeling sorry for him, feeling sorry for myself, and mostly feeling mad at myself that it took this to get me to accept things as they were.  He is so much more, so who cares about the agility? I've felt guilty, like this was the last desperate measure the universe had to take to get me to do the right thing.  And quit.  Quit those aspirations, those dreams, those expectations.  Quit trying to mold the dog I adored, who I never would trade or change for anything, who has given and taught me more than any other dog or teacher, and who has shaped my current life and future in amazing ways . . . quit trying to mold that dog into something else.  He can't be everything, but he sure as hell tried for me.

My regret is not having accepted this lesson before.  Rationally I know I did not cause his FCE.  But now that his physical condition has forced us to shift course, I regret not doing that for him sooner.

And this has me wondering about goals - the ones we create for our dogs and ourselves.  How do we decide what is reasonable? Realistic? Fair? Humane?  Just because enough training might get you to a certain point, is it right to keep on trying?  Should performance goals be the only ones we have?  Do we risk compromising more important ones in the process - goals for our relationships, our comfort, our happiness?  Yes, I believe that training would have continued to increase Cadence's comfort in the ring over time.  But who was I doing this for?

If I had changed course two years ago, and decided that all the many fun things Cadence and I do together are enough, would that have been quitting?  

Needless to say, it has been a year of changing goals and priorities.  Of changing my thinking about what is most important in my life with my dogs.  And in realizing that the path I ended up on, while not the one I expected to take, has landed me in an unexpected and exciting place. Agility continues to be a big part of my life, but now my primary dog training goals involve helping others understand and support their own sensitive, cautious canine friends.  And I like to think I'm better at that anyway.  

They say you don't get the dog you want, you get the dog you need, and while I always say our first dog Jade changed our lives, Cadence definitely changed it again.  Now he and I will write a different future for ourselves, and I'm learning to accept this.  I still grieve what might have been, but I am beginning to value the lessons learned.
What about you?  How have you made decisions about what is right for your dog?


WonderPupsMom said...

wow did this hit home! our acd/bc mix IS a reactive rescue. she is also brilliant, athletic and fast... and fearful, worried, and anxious. she has taught me more about dogs than i ever knew existed. no matter what anyone tells me, she will never trial in agility. she will however barn hunt beautifully, she will swim, and hike, and learn new tricks... so thats what we do.
dont beat yourself up suzanne, you came to the right decision when you were ready to and cadence is a happy dog for it :)
thanks for a beautifully written, insightful piece.

Sarah Ercolani said...

What a wonderful post! I really understand your feelings. My dog Gunny, who is the sweetest boy, he listens well which is remarkable for a elkhound, and gets along with all dogs. I had aspired for my next dog to be an agility dog but sadly with Gunny it is not meant to be. He has deformed front legs so it is not in his best interest to participate in this sport. But one day we will find his niche activity we can share but in the meantime we sure enjoy walking, swimming and having a wonderful life together!

Lara Elizabeth said...

This is such a wonderful post. When I adopted my Border Collie/JRT mix after having a leash reactive Norwegian Elkhound, I thought Ruby was going to be the dog I took everywhere: the farmers' market, pet expos, the coffee shop patio. She turned out to be extremely anxious and reactive, and I spent a little time feeling sorry for myself before realizing what other amazing qualities she has. She is the smartest dog I've ever known, and we are working toward her trick dog title. Her sensitivity has inspired me to learn all I can about dog behavior and positive reinforcement training and she has taught me more in nine months than a previous lifetime with dogs. I started a pet blog because of her and have met a wonderful community for sharing information. We truly are gifted with the dogs we need. Best wishes to you and Cadence in your slower, richer life together.

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