Hazer and his faves, many moons ago.
Dozer’s fave, many moons ago.
Nina’s fave. Oops. Nina doesn’t quite get the concept of toys.
Gus and his faves.
Chase and his faves. His taste in toys range from free and natural to expensive!
Herding: It’s hard work!
Hunting: It’s hard work!
When you lose a dog that had an enormous personality you have to expect a change in energy. I always knew Hazer’s persona dominated everything on our farm, but I never put any thought into what it would actually be like when he was gone. Oh sure, I let myself think about it those half gazillion times I was irked with him for one reason or another, but I never seriously considered the changes.
I spent the majority of last week trapped inside because it rained eight days in a row. I got a tad depressed, and several times I had to remind myself that things would get better once I could get outside and start working on projects in the yard and garden. It’s been said that keeping a routine helps ward off the blues, and staying “busy” does too. So when the weather improved and I was finally able to dig into my outside chores I was shocked to find I was more sad than ever.
Again, it’s not like I’m trying to dwell on the fact that Hazer is gone, rather, I’ve actually gotten to the point where I don’t think about him every waking minute of the day. But yesterday as I went about digging and trimming it occurred to me that I’m going to have to go through an entire year of seasonal changes before I can fully wrap my head around this loss. Because every season brought a different role that Hazer played. His personality was so large that he inserted himself into the middle of everything I did. In fact, just last week when I pulled my vacuum cleaner from the closet I hesitated, waiting for the scramble of nails as he dashed to grab the hose and give it a good shake. Every day I go through dozens of little moments like that, moments where I pause to do something with or for for a dog no longer there. Moments that feel empty and profoundly different.
Learning to do things without Hazer beside me is going to take time and a concerted effort to change my focus. I’m sorry to say that the first few weeks Hazer was gone I barely even noticed Gus and Nina. They drifted in and out of my peripheral vision, doing what they always did without any help from me. I’m paying more attention to them now, trying to get a fix on who they are without Hazer here to steal the limelight. Nina seems to be changing the most, which surprises me given how much Gus had to dodge Hazer’s propensity to pick on him. I thought Hazers absence would affect Gus the most, but it’s not.
Nina has always been her own dog; aloof to everyone but me and Velcro without being needy. She’s the perfect blend of “busy,” but with an “off” button, the kind of dog who takes good care of herself, avoids trouble and will do ANYTHING you ask her with no questions asked. Inside, she likes to be near, not on top of you, but I can’t leave with a room without her immediately following. Outside, Nina marches to the beat of her own drum. Sometimes she’ll hang out nearby, but it’s far more likely she’ll be off poking around the property. She’ll pop by every now and then to keep tabs on my whereabouts, but generally she’ll wander off out of sight. (She’ll come lickity-split if called.) And she’s happy to follow me out to the barn, but once there she’ll promptly part company to go off to do her own thing elsewhere. Nina is what I’d call an “independent” thinker: she’ll gladly take advisement from me, but if none is offered then she’ll figure out a way to entertain herself.
Since Hazer died Nina has become more “there” for me, especially outside. I’ve been pleasantly surprised to find Nina has been sicking by me in the barn. Prior, she might have made a quick pass through the barn before going off to do something else. “OK, Mom’s here. I’ll just go poke around the stone wall or yard,” and off she’d go only to rejoin me when I was done. But now she’s actually planting herself out behind the barn right where Hazer used to lay to watch me pick the paddock and feed. Sometimes she scoots off for a few minutes, but she always comes right back. Her waiting doesn’t seem to be a fluke because I can tell she’s tuned into me. Every time I glance her way her eyes are on me, following my every move just like Hazer did. At first I thought Nina had an ulterior motive: She’s always been a living Hoover for any of the grain the horses dropped. But she’s not even trying to get to the leftovers. Apparently she’s just there waiting for me. Two months ago that never would have happened because Hazer always had my back.
Yesterday when I was out gardening I noticed that every time I looked up Nina was laying some fifteen or twenty yards away, watching. Granted, she’s not ten feet away like Hazer was, but she’s there instead of going off to do her own thing. That’s VERY unusual behavior for Nina and I’m not quite sure what to make of it. Do dogs consciously choose to fill a role when another passes? I don’t know, but I’d like to think so. I could explain this behavior by saying she’s twelve years old and not as active as she used to be, but that’s not true at all. Nina is twelve going on eight and what’s more, this behavior only started after Hazer died.
Don’t get me wrong: Nina is NOT Hazer. Even though she’s doing some of the things Hazer used to routinely do, she does them HER way not his. For example, when gardening with Hazer if I took a little “break” Hazer would move in and flop down beside me looking for some attention. Nina doesn’t do that. Instead, she keeps her distance or uses my breaks as an opportunity to go “off duty” and do her own thing. So the dance is different. It has it’s own rhythm and new steps that are unique to the dancers. And if you’re not careful that’s right where the sadness creeps in: your ear hears an old favorite song, your eyes see your old dance partner. You don’t intend to go there, but you do. Old habits die hard.
It’s a struggle not to see Hazer sitting somewhere nearby, just like he is in the photo above. I thought summer would be easier, but I’ve come to realize it will be rife with memories and habits that are going to be tough to break. Sometimes I’m OK with it, but more often than not this sadness sucks the joy right out of whatever I’m doing. I know this too shall pass, but I don’t know when. Until then I’ll just keep trying to give myself over to the change in our dynamics, knowing that eventually this new will become the norm.
It’s been three weeks today since I said my final goodbye to Hazer. I try real hard not to “count the days.” I really do. But it happens anyway. Things just automatically get divided into one of two categories: all the stuff I did before Hazer died and the stuff I’ve done since. Trust me, I haven’t done very much since. Certainly nothing that warrants remembering.
At the risk of sounding maudlin I’ll admit I’m not doing great. Oh, I’m past the stage where I can’t breathe and I have to shut myself in the bathroom to muffle the sobs because it upsets Gus and Nina. But I’m shocked (and willing to say, a little bit frightened) by how often the tears still come. Suddenly out of nowhere I’ll find myself going to that dark place where I question my decision to let him go. I’ll wonder if I did everything I could do to help him. I’ll see snapshots of him in my mind, pictures where he’s happy and healthy in one, then languishing and not at all himself in another. When my head gets really messed up I’ll reluctantly grab my cell phone and glance at the handful of photos I took of him the last two days he was alive. My eyes will linger on those pictures a few seconds, which is just long enough to convince me I did the right thing. Sometimes it’s only a matter of hours, or if I’m really lucky a day will pass before the cycle starts over again.
There are a million and one firsts. First time I finished a roll of paper towel and Hazer wasn’t there to get the empty tube. First time I made salad and Hazer wasn’t there to beg for lettuce. First time to the barn, the garden or the car without Hazer at my side. First time I unloaded groceries and didn’t come out to find Hazer rooting around in the rest of the bags in the car. First time UPS or FEDEX pulled into the drive and Hazer didn’t announce their arrival. The first Saturday my husband went in to work without a dog. Those are just a few of the firsts I’ve had to get through and every day brings more; those moments when you pause for just a fraction of a second, waiting for a dog not there. I can still barely sit down at my computer because I’m bombarded by literally thousands of photos of Hazer. I’m still at that stage where I want to look at his pictures, but I can’t. I can’t handle the fallout.
I know it will get better, but I’m afraid it will get better. I’m afraid there will come a time when the thought of Hazer or the mention of his name won’t cause my heart to break and my eyes to fill. It’s like I’m being tortured, but I don’t want the torture to stop because that would be like saying my life is OK without him. And my life will never be OK without him. But I know my heart will heal because that’s just the nature of things. Eventually all my memories of Hazer will become happy memories and the pain of his loss will lessen with time. Perhaps I’ll always remain a little wistful about Hazer, but the bulk of my sadness and grief will wash away and leave me with a lot of gorgeous photos and dozens of great stories about a big red dog who waltzed into my life and stole my heart completely.
Tanglewood’s Who Dunnit Again
11-16-04 – 3-30-16
I don’t know what the last eleven years of my life would have been like if I hadn’t had Hazer. For sure, it would have been a lot quieter. Simpler. Definitely a whole lot easier. But it also would have been dull. Dull in a way that I can only look back at now and see how all the chaos, calamity and constant challenge was exactly what I needed at the time.
Hazer was never a walk in the park: Complex, smart, quirky and both biddable and independent, Hazer was a handful. He never wanted to be cuddled, fussed over or loved on, but he was always with you, right by your side or under your feet. He was my consummate hiking partner, barn chore buddy and yard companion, and while the other two dogs were always eager to be off doing their own thing, Hazer wanted nothing more than to hang out with me while I worked around the farm. No matter where I was, I only had to look up or turn around and there he’d be, quietly watching and ready for anything.
There’s so much I’d like to share about our last few years, even our last few days together, but the pain and sadness keep getting in the way. Maybe at some point I’ll be able to pen something more memorable, but for now it’s all I can do to just look at his picture without getting lost deep inside my head.
Well done my beautiful, big red dog. Well done.
I’ve had so many things go sideways on me lately, I’ve taken to saying my life has turned into a bad country western song. Most people chuckle when I say that, which makes me laugh a little too. I suppose that’s the whole point of saying something like that when the truth of the matter is, you’ve reached the end of your rope and you feel like your heart is breaking about a million times each day.
About two weeks ago, right around the same time I broke my leg (and around the same time I came down with a nasty stomach virus), Hazer decided to stop eating. Given this isn’t a dog who plays “games,” I took his aversion to food somewhat seriously. At first I thought maybe he was just having an ‘off’ day, but that’s not his typical MO. So I kept a close eye on things. Well, as close as I could given I was hugging the toilet and pinned down in bed for several days with my own form of hell. Some days Hazer would eat a little, other days not so much. I knew how he felt, but once I was fairly confident I could hobble around on my broken leg without barfing, I made an appointment to see the vet.
As I stood on one leg and heaved Hazer’s forty-two pound butt into my (previously) clean and dog hairless SUV, I was once again thankful that he isn’t an eighty-five pound GSD. Riding in the car is one of Hazer’s favorite things to do, but he didn’t show much enthusiasm for it that day. After a few wobbly attempts to copilot from the console, he curled up in the back corner of the cargo bay and didn’t move until we pulled into the office. As per his usual behavior, Hazer sprang to his feet and commenced shrieking while I went in to announce our arrival. Probably a moot point given the cacophony of noise coming from the parking lot.
Fortunately, the office was deserted. Hazer is dog-reactive and even in his weakened state I knew he’d never miss an opportunity to try to kick some doggy ass. We didn’t need the drama, so he waited while I got the all-clear. (Pet peeve: Vet’s offices that are designed in a way that fail to allow enough space for reactive or shy pets to get in and out without having to endure or cause additional trauma.) Thankfully, I was able to wrangle Hazer out of the SUV and gimp our way into the office together.
I love my vet. That bears saying again: I love my vet. First on the long list of reasons to adore her: she’s an experienced ACD owner herself. She GETS this curmudgeonly, stoic, serious breed. That makes for oh, so many things I don’t have to explain to her about my dog because she’s been there, done that with her own gang of bad-ass dogs. Whereas one vet might suggest an elderly dog sometimes plays mind games over their food, my vet believes me when I say food and games are not his gig. Like me, she’s known this dog since he was thirteen weeks old. She knows his quirks and his “death doesn’t scare me” attitude about most things in life. She knows that while he’d try rip any dog a new one, he’s never met a person he didn’t like and while he looks kind of mean, he’s really got a heart of gold. (Well, unless you’re another dog) But most important, my vet knows that when she looks Hazer in the eye and asks him how he feels, his answer is always going to be “ready to roll!” even when he can barely stand up.
We ran tests, took vitals (borderline temp), and did a very thorough exam (fine) while Hazer ate liver treats like they were gummy bears. (They’re about the ONLY thing he will eat). On the up side, nothing looks way out of whack. On the down side, obviously something is wrong. Since blood tests take about 12-14 hours, the best I could do is hope that I’d have a few answers in the morning. We talked about things I could do to try to tempt Hazer to eat (none of which have worked for us thus far) and returned home to wait for a call with the test results.
Meanwhile, Hazer is no longer interested in tagging along while I do barn chores, so for the first time in eleven years I’m flying solo. Between multiple trips to and from the paddock I still expect to see him laying in the hay, waiting with that expectant look on his face that says.”I’m here if you need a hand, Mom!” And when I’m done, I can almost hear his shrieks of joy as he jumps back and forth behind me, herding me as we walk toward the house, hoping there might be enough time for a quick toss of the Frisbee too. Instead, as I limp along the well-worn path my eyes glance toward the edge of the woods, to the place where a smattering of early spring flowers are ready to bloom , flowers that mark the place where Dozer and all the dogs before him have been laid to rest. I choke back a few deep sobs and wipe away the tears. I’m not willing to admit defeat yet, but I’m worried that I’ve been so laid up myself that I haven’t had time to contemplate Hazer’s final resting place. The thought shatters me anew and my guts clench with dread.
Late the following morning the vet calls. Her voice is cheery and bright and because I know her so well I realize the test results are good. Actually, they are beyond good. Hazer is a very healthy senior dog. Well, mostly healthy. There is that one little issue with anaplasma. Again. *Sigh* We live in Tick Central. Both of my ACDs have been treated multiple times for three persistent tick-related diseases. Hazer has been treated about seven or eight times. That’s a lot. And while it’s very difficult to know if we’re treating a NEW infection or just the old antibodies, we go on clinical symptoms. So if the dog has a low-grade fever and no appetite and everything else is OK except the titer numbers, then we treat it. Again, with thirty days of harsh antibiotics. It’s a necessary evil.
Unfortunately, by Friday the lack of interest in food or water and the fever had taken a toll so that afternoon I had to shovel Hazer’s butt back into the (now hairy) SUV and run him back to the vet for fluids and a shot that we hoped would calm his tummy enough so that he might eat. Or at least get the antibiotics down his gullet. Because prying his mouth open and sticking your hand down his throat is NOT a pilling option for this boy! But before he could get that shot he needed X-rays because you don’t want to mask an intestinal obstruction by giving a powerful drug to settle the gut if there’s a blockage. I didn’t object, especially since X-rays would give us even more information that we could maybe use. (The X-rays were read immediately by the radiologist and they were EXCELLENT!)
Home I went with a lumpy, but well-hydrated dog who looked none the less for wear. He perked up a bit, had a little pep in his step and small spark in his eye, but he still wouldn’t eat more than a handful of this or that. Have I mentioned how frustrating it is to be opening multiple cans of dog food, frying eggs in bacon grease and cooking all different kinds of meat while combating the dregs of my own five-day stomach virus? Ugh. For a dog who would normally eat anything offered, it’s just weird to see him not want to sample much of anything. And we’ve tried it all. I even made a last minute, eleventh-hour drive across town to pick up a frozen specialty that’s known to snap all but the most finicky eaters out of their funk. He refused to even try it.
So far I can interest Hazer in a few dried liver treats, a moist training delicacy appropriately named “Great Bait,” and an assortment of holistic doggy biscuits. That’s what he’s been living on for the last three days while I cross my fingers and hope today will be the day the antibiotic starts to kick in and make him feel more like himself, more like the dog who used to eat anything we gave him with gusto and glee. He looks a lot better today. He’s got more interest in taking pot-shots at Gus, in pissing everyone off in general and launching into random fits of barking. That’s my boy! *Sigh* He’s also drinking more water (good), but he’s still not interested in eating a real meal. I don’t know how many times I’ve thanked God he doesn’t weigh ten pounds. I don’t know what I’d do if he was a small dog who wouldn’t eat. While Hazer isn’t a fatty, at least he won’t fade away if he misses a couple of meals … or that’s what I tell myself as I wrap another plate of home cooked goodness and shove it back in the refrigerator. (My other two dogs are going to be fat as ticks!)
The clinical stuff is easy to write about, it’s the emotional toll that chips away at me; the hundreds of times a day that I look at Hazer with a mental check-list in mind. Is he resting OK? Does he look like he’s in pain? Is he freakin’ BREATHING? (I actually check several times a night. I’m up anyway.) Am I missing something? How long can this go on? Does he want to go?
That last question is the biggie. Hazer and I, we’ve had “the talk,” the one where I tell him it’s OK to want to go and just give me a sign if you’re ready. (Sob) Hazer stared back at me with clear, wise eyes. Licked my hand. Gave me his paw.
Not ready yet, Mom.
I have days (more than I’d like to count) where I cant look at my dog without getting teary. He’s suddenly aging way too fast and things are cropping up here and there that are problems, albeit minor problems thus far. He’s had reoccurring lip infections, a small fatty tumor near his rib cage, miscellaneous small bumps (growths) scattered here and there and the worst of his ailments: a degenerative loss of coordination and strength in his hind legs.
None of these issues are really unexpected. Hazer is eleven and at some point most dogs will begin to show signs of aging. Sadly, nothing lives forever. As much as I’ve always tried to have a matter-of-fact attitude about death, I’m struggling with it this time. I think that’s due to my own advancing age: I’m not quite sure I’ll ” just get over it” when Hazer’s gone. In the past I’ve always mourned my losses, but I knew I had plenty of time left to open my heart and home to another dog (Or three!). In fact, it wasn’t even something I had to think about. Now? I’m not so sure.
When I do the math the projections put me into my early seventies for my next “aged” dog. Will I be able to cope with another loss then? Will I stay healthy enough during my sixties to provide for a young active dog? What about the rising cost of vet care and other miscellaneous expenses? As my extended family members age, what if I need to travel to be with them or just visit more often? It gets complicated and bottom line, I’m not so sure I can ease the loss of one of my dogs by investing in another. And so I think the finality of losing Hazer makes me sad. I’m not saying I won’t get another dog (and I still have Gus and Nina), but the odds of my raising another Cattle Dog from scratch seem slim … or slimmer than they used to be.
I can always adopt an “adult” dog. I know this, but I’m not sure I’ll do it. Nina was a “failed” foster, but I think that was an incredibly lucky situation where I just happened to be in the right place at the right time. I’m not a big fan of trying to bring an adult dog into a home that already has adult dogs. I don’t think it’s nearly as easy or as smooth of a transition as getting a puppy. So it’s hard to say. I’d like to think I’ll try to keep my options open because I like the idea of providing a home for an animal that needs one, but sometimes it’s just not the right choice.
If anything, it’s pretty clear my days of hiking, herding, Frisbee and doing all the marvelous things I’ve done with Hazer might be done. And while the older, tired part of me is probably just fine with that, there’s a part of me that’s grieving. When Hazer is gone it will be the end of a three-decade era of canine fun and games. I don’t say that to sound morbid, but it’s true. I’ve already noticed that the activities I do with three year-old Gus are much tamer than what I’ve done with my previous dogs in the past. So with that in mind I can’t help but wonder if it’s even fair to get another young, exuberant Cattle Dog pup? I’ve always rallied. I’ve always put a lot of time and energy into my pets. But maybe deep down I know it might be time to take things down a notch. And that makes me a little sad.
I can’t even begin to describe all the places my mind goes every time I look at Hazer. My life with him has been SO complex, so packed with opposites and extremes and yet, so full. They say you miss the really difficult dogs the most: all the struggles, the heartbreak, the little tiny successes that get overshadowed by all the epic failures. I haven’t even lost Hazer yet and I know that’s true. Raising Hazer has taught me more about life than any dog before him. It taught me humility, pride, sacrifice, patience and mostly, it taught me how to love something that is deeply flawed.
As a perfectionist who holds herself to a very high standard, love has been Hazer’s greatest gift: Unconditional love for him. Love, when the very last thing you feel is the milk of human kindness. Love in the face of embarrassing failure. Love that lets you admit you’ve messed up … but it’s OK. Life with Hazer taught me how to love when my love wasn’t being returned and how to love when the love I was getting back didn’t look or feel like the kind of love I wanted. He taught me to love in the midst of hopes and dreams that have been crushed and flushed, and to love when there is no other choice but love.
Life with Hazer has seen a lot of ups and downs, highs and lows and two steps forward, ten steps back. And when people ask me if I’d go back and do it all over again I usually have to pause, because I’m not so sure I would. But I’m glad I did it. I’m grateful for all I’ve learned. Living with Hazer has been an enormous challenge, the kind of challenge I’ll never take lightly again, but the kind of challenge I’ll always be proud I took. I love Hazer to the moon and back, and while a day seldom passes that we don’t lock horns over something, my life has been richer (and certainly LOUDER) because of him.
I’ve spent the last week trying to get comfortable with the idea of letting go of my winter plans. Boarding a horse when you have a barn in your own back yard is a big step, and not one I take lightly. It required a good deal of planning and forethought to move my horse and that isn’t something I’d decide last minute to do. In fact, I didn’t board Dharla at all last winter; a decision I’m still not sure was right or wrong.
That said, I know when something isn’t working. I get an uneasy feeling in the pit of my stomach and I can’t stop thinking about things. Although I’m not prone to insomnia, if I’m bothered enough about something I’ll wake up during the night and spend several hours tossing and turning while my mind goes over every little detail. When the same symptoms start to creep up on me during the day I know I have to address things.
The last few weeks have been a little stressful. I’ve had multiple animals all my adult life so it’s not very often that I’m caught off guard. I expect “stuff” to crop up now and then. Illness. Hierarchy spats. Changes in routine. What I’m never prepared for are multiple issues at once. Like the sick dog who needs a month of medication, and the horse or another dog who decides to develop a medical issue at the same time. That throws me for a loop.
And when talking about medical things can I just say that I like my diagnoses cut and dry? For example, your dog (or horse) has X, Y, Z. Do _____ (fill in the bank) and it will get better. I like it even more if the Vet can tell me an approximate time frame for when the patient will start acting and feeling better. For those of you who don’t have animals (first of all, my deepest sympathies. Go out and fix that oversight right now!), it’s a little like having a sick infant. You fret. You worry. You wish for the millionth time they could tell you what’s wrong and say exactly how they feel. But they can’t, so it’s a guessing and waiting game. It sucks. If you’re anything like me, you start steeling yourself for “the worst.” I’m never quite sure what “the worst” is, so I run through a completely different scenario about every hour or so. And by default, I go into “evaluation” mode, which is to say that every time I look at said animal I run through a mental check list of potential problems. It’s exhausting.
I have one dog who just finished 30 days of medication for anaplasma. For the fifth year in a row. To be honest, we’re not sure if we’re treating a new infection or the remnants of an old one. But with a list of very serious (potential) issues when left untreated, who am I to argue? I’m not inclined to play Russian Roulette with my critters. She’s a great pill-taker and she looked a bit perkier after a week or so of treatment. That’s not to say she seemed sick. She didn’t. We caught the high titer on an annual tick panel that I run on all my dogs because we live in tick Central.
The red dog is struggling with mobility. It came on quickly, which leads the vet to suspect it’s not arthritis or typical old age. (He’s a healthy 11) He’s trying an arthritis medication for a week to see if it makes any difference in his ability to get around. Day 3 and I see no change. He’s willing to run and play and do all things dog-like, but his body isn’t buyin’ it. Next line of exploration is nerve and disc testing. We already know he has spinal fusion in his lumbar region, so it’s possible there’s an increasing issue there. He seems to be pain-free and the biggest problem is keeping him from doing stuff that he really wants to do, but can’t. Think: seventy year-old who wants to play rugby. This is a dog who requires a lot of mental and physical stimulation or he gets obnoxious. He’s like the high drive puppy breeders warn you about, but sometimes fail to mention will quite possibly stay that way … f o r f r e a k i n g e v e r! Yes, this is a challenge and depending upon what kind of day I’m having, it can become a night mare.
The horses are doing pretty well. One is a little leaner than I’d like, but we’re not sure why. It’s not worrisome enough to run any tests. Thankfully, this winter hasn’t been to hard … yet … so we made some feed adjustments and we’ll see if that helps. We recently found out Rascal is 95% blind in one eye. That’s not exactly a health issue, but it’s interesting information nonetheless. We also learned that Bullet has diminished vision in one eye and Dhalra has a an ocular anomalie in one eye. What is it with eyes here?
And Gus? Gus is wonderfully normal. No health problems. No temperament issues. No worries. Just pure, unadulterated fun and love! Being the only “normal” pet on the farm is a big load to carry, but Gus soldiers on like it’s no big deal. Gotta love that rattitude!
(Hazer, age 10.8 yrs.)
It’s hot here. So hot that my dogs aren’t even thinking about going outside. They lay around all day on the cool tile and hardwood floors and when I open the door to let them out, they just stand there looking at me like I’m nuts. I’m going to take my cue from them and stay inside the next couple of days. Oh, I still have to stagger out to water the gardens and take care of the horses, but there isn’t much I can do for the horses except feed and water them. The horses don’t like the heat any more than the dogs, but I can’t bring them inside to escape this inferno. I would if I could. I wonder if the same animal rights activists who think barns should be heated in the winter think they should be air conditioned in the summer? Don’t get me started ….
Whenever I finish a good book it takes a few days to slip back into the real world. My body goes through the motions of my daily routine, but my head isn’t in the game. I’m still back there …. wherever that might be. The book Stable Relation was “that” kind of book; a book where somewhere around the halfway point I started glancing at the dwindling pages left to read and dreaded the fact that the book would soon end. I slowed myself down to a crawl, putting the book aside every couple of pages and giving myself time to digest the words. Still, the story had to end and when it did, I found myself wanting more. More wisdom. More patience. More love.
Anna writes a lot about love and patience and her intuitive wisdom leaps from nearly every page. That’s not to say Anna thinks she’s wise. She doesn’t. But I guess when you spend the first two decades of your life steeped in angst and irritability you eventually have to make a choice: you can either become what you’ve been shown or you can run like hell in the opposite direction. Having been trapped in midst of a very dysfunctional upbringing, it seems like it would be the wise choice to try to change your destiny. That said, I’m fairly certain this is MUCH harder to do than most think.
I grew up in an era where animal training and farm life were not particularly pleasant. We did not operate from the core philosophy of first, do no harm. It was more or less assumed that all animals were “dumb” and humans needed to bend them to our will. The vast majority of farmers didn’t consider the animals in their charge pets, friends or companions, but saw their animals as a source of income, be it in the beef or dairy market or as breeding stock. And they didn’t speak of these roles in politically correct terms so as not to offend anyone. What’s the saying now? It was what it was.
When I left home with the first dog of my independent, adult life, I didn’t know squat about training an animal. I grew up with an assortment of animals, but training wasn’t a big focus in my life. I had a horse that was already broke to ride when I got her and although I suppose I can claim I taught her how to race barrels, I suspect (because she was so enthusiastically good at it) that she already knew how. My first dog was a Humane Society adoptee who, a little initial fear aggression aside, was so biddable and willing to please that merely thinking what I wanted her to do got immediate results. Naturally, with these two highly successes starts behind me I thought I had a gift.
I do not.
As life went on I got out of horses (briefly) and into dogs. By the time my future husband entered the picture we had four dogs between us, and that number didn’t drop for several years. The dog’s ages were staggered and almost as soon as we lost one, we got another. We were into the big breeds then; German Shepherds and Dobermans, soon followed by the slightly smaller (but formidable) Australian Cattle dogs. I was usually the one who spent the most time putting some basic training on our pets. I had moderate expectations and none of our dogs were particularly difficult to train. I soon found I had good results training the dogs I considered “mine,” but somewhat less success working with the Doberman gang that belonged to my husband. By the time we morphed into Cattle dogs my husband was removed from the training process all together. It was me who spent the lion’s share of the day with our dogs so the responsibility fell on my shoulders.
I never took a formal training class until I got Cattle dogs. Having been forewarned that ACDs can be more of a challenge, I enrolled my second ACD puppy in something new: Puppy Kindergarten. It was 1998 and it sounded like a great idea. After all, who can argue with teaching a young puppy how to sit, come, and play nicely with other dogs? I eagerly arrived for the first class only to discover that I had the smallest, youngest and most easily intimidated pup in the group. Unfortunately, the trainer knew very little about how to help pups with issues like mine and I was even less enlightened. With hindsight, I should have gathered up my puppy and walked away, but I thought I had to stick it out and we were encouraged to try. By the third or forth class my pup’s fearfulness had turned into aggression. She was so tiny that several of the other puppy owners thought her behavior was “cute,” but I got a sick feeling in the pit of my stomach and I think I stopped going shortly thereafter. Fortunately, my puppy didn’t end up aggressive, but she was always aloof and very much a loner. I’ll never know how much of her adult personality was nurture or nature.
Because I’m a slow learner and have a burning need to DO THINGS RIGHT, several years later I enrolled my next ACD puppy in puppy kindergarten. By then the Internet was well into swing and I belonged to an ACD news list. For the first time I could rub virtual shoulders with experienced trainers and dog folks and learn the proper way to go about raising a responsible pet. Most of the people on these lists had high expectations of new puppy owners. Lots of folks showed their dogs and bragged about their prowess in everything from conformation to obedience and agility. The Canine Good Citizen test had just been created and many experienced handlers encouraged novice folks to aim for that.
My second puppy kindergarten class was far worse than my first. My puppy Hazer was a social menace and our attempts to change his behavior with positive reinforcement and gentle exposure was a disaster. In his defense, he nailed everything connected to performance. Sit, come, stay, down, place … he did it all and he did it flawlessly on the second or third try. Problem was, his mind worked at warp speed and he was easily bored once he knew something. He didn’t “get” repetition. It irked him. And when he was bored he was trouble with a capital T. I distinctly remember the instructor asking me to remove my puppy from the classroom while other dogs were socializing off-leash. Hazer was a land shark and nobody wanted him anywhere near them or their puppy. I stood in the hall with my treat bag, drilling Hazer on anything I knew he could do so I could reward him. “Watch me!” “Good boy!” “Sit!” Over and over we worked on skills he’d already mastered while his classmates flailed around and failed abysmally in their attempts to grasp the most basic stuff.
In retrospect, I should have left that class too, but I didn’t. Some deep desire to Get It Right held me captive to the bitter end. That decision was hugely detrimental to my dog. I didn’t know that then. I erroneously thought sticking with it was important, but I know that was a mistake now. Fortunately, I’ve since learned to put what’s best for my dog ahead of my own needs, wants, goals and yearning desire to “fit in.” But back then Hazer was going to be my golden boy, my first wonderfully bred, purposely chosen dog who was created and selected with certain long-range goals in mind. I had high hopes and standards. That sounds pretty lofty for someone who’d never really learned how to train a dog before. But all my previous success (via minimal effort) with my former dogs led me to believe that I knew a boatload more than I did. I had an ego in my way. Not a loud, pompous ego, but a quiet, profound belief that I was much smarter than I was.
I firmly believe Hazer came into my life to teach me that I didn’t begin to know how much I didn’t know. And much to my chagrin, he wasn’t the only pet to do this. A few years later my new horse Dharla did the same thing. She rode into my life on the heels of a well-honed 23-year relationship with the perfection that was known by me as Tia. Young, green and full of vinegar, it would have been easy to blame Dharla for our early blunders, except at some point I stumbled onto Anna’s blog and I stopped thinking I had the wrong horse. Ironically, I also stopped reading everything I could find about “natural horsemanship” and began looking at my own heart stuff. Because Dharla and my roadblocks weren’t about leadership or round pens, they were about me. I am my own worst enemy. I know that now. No, Anna never came out and told me so, but her words left little doubt in my mind. And I’m actually OK with that, with me being the problem. It makes me appreciate Dharla’s patience with me so much more.
To show you just how far I’ve come, there was a time when I thought I knew what leadership meant. I did lots of basic training and ground work and tried to build trust slowly. Still, Dharla and I continued to encounter friction under saddle. The more we worked on basics, the more frustrated I got. So I started to search for a different approach and naturally, turned to the Internet for answers. Eventually I found Anna’s blog, signed up and started the gradual shift in my thinking. For awhile I still grappled with the concept of leadership. Oh, I understood what the word meant, but the internal debate about leadership and how one ought to go about creating it was so mixed and emotionally charged that it was only through much experimentation and personal exploration I came to see that leadership is the wrong word for me. I now prefer to have a partnership with my animals because a “partnership” suggests the mutual desire to share an activity or goal. A partnership also implies respect. Respect for the leader as well as for the led. So when I’m working with my animals I like to keep in mind the concept of asking as opposed to demanding. A leader says, “Follow me because I said so.” A partner says, “Let’s do it this way, together. Will you trust me?” Bottom line, am I asking my horse or dog to follow my lead or am I stubbornly insisting? Since force tends to lead to resistance, I try to keep my leadership soft and pliable. I’m open to options. I’m willing to work with what my animals can give me today, even if it’s not the whole enchilada. Don’t like passing the gate? OK, let’s cut the ring in half and skip going past the gate for now … and my, what a wonderful, calm trot you have today! It’s hard to make an issue out of something if you remove the problem from the equation and focus on what is going well! Go back and revisit gate-passing another time, when you and your horse are working and thinking better as a team. I try to remember there’s no “Have-to” in training. You get to progress at a rate that’s right for you and your partner. Sure, in an emergency situation you might have to insist your animal follows your lead without hesitation, but that aside, most training is about building trust and partnership slowly, one small step at a time time. It’s about finding that sweet spot that’s not built on the theory of “Because I said so!” but, “Because I asked.” And yes, I’ll always be grateful to Anna, the friend who helped me hone my mantra.
So what is getting it right? I guess for me it’s learning a better way, a way where I can lead and follow with my heart. Because like Melvin Udall says in As Good As It Gets, that makes me want to be a better woman.