Mr. Toads Wild Ride, the first year –
If I look back at my choice in dogs, I’m definitely drawn to a particular type. I like my dogs athletic and agile. I value stamina and endurance. I want my dogs to have opinions, fire in the belly. And most importantly, dogs that are great problem solvers. I value team.
I have never once asked that any of my dogs be sweet, easy, perfect, or compliant robotic type minions. That isn’t interesting to me, nor would it suit my life style.
Now if you know anything about projecting, I more than likely described myself. In all honesty, I think that is what we value in the dogs that we connect with the most, bits and pieces of ourselves, good and bad, healthy and destructive.
revealing ones self –
During the first year, as Fran started to feel more comfortable we learned more about what lay beneath the surface. Property guarding, chasing anything that moved (cars, bikes, deer…), killing small prey, playing with coyotes, flying off and out of things, cautious in new environments with people, extreme barrier frustration when in the car (she cracked the window trying to get to a dog on the street). She also was showing beautiful settle in the home, loved children, was eating better, wanted to play with me a bit more, showed interest in learning with me, tricks, agility, and trail behaviors.
settling in –
The more Fran started to settle in, the more of her we were able to get to know. She wasn’t forthcoming with anything though. I was learning that she was a dogs dog, loved being a dog, doing dog things, and really had no time or need to invest any of herself in anything human. It was some how, ever so slightly, offensive to her.
Piper loved her from the start, and this relationship I felt was mutual. Piper drew pictures of her, they would play in the yard together, and played dress up daily. I can’t even count how many times Fran fell asleep dressed up as one of Pipers Princess friends, Buttercup was a favorite.
It was charming. But there was something else brewing. Everyone that came to the house would remark at how awesome Fran was, so mellow, patient, sweet and lovely. Yes it would appear so, but in reality it was more like having a Ferrari in our living room, idling quietly, and waiting for that ounce of pressure to be applied to the gas pedal.
initial training –
My goal was not to work on sit, down, stay or even come. My goal was to have her eventually eat what I presented and stop killing and eating her own food (I felt this was imperative, call me silly!), help her feel comfortable and take a deep breath, and get to know us and hopefully like us.
I went into the yard with some toys and started to play with them, throw them, hide them, run away with them. I wanted to see where her interest was. She just lay there with her paws crossed and watched me, intently. Then she got up, stretched, and sauntered off in the opposite direction. She turned to look at me once, and shook her head, and continued her saunter away. I remember saying, “Are you kidding me, I’m fun!” She simply wasn’t impressed.
I wasn’t new to dogs or training, I worked on the Park City Ski Patrol for four years, two were on the K9 avalanche team, and two in the back country summer conditioning with the dogs, rough I know! I had the amazing fortune to work with Lyn King, a talented and unassuming handler. He taught me a great deal about play, motivation, scent work, tracking, relationship, trust, and balance. But this was something I did for work, surely it wasn’t the same for a family dog?
I started to think that maybe it would be good for me to take a group training class, surely I would learn more? I was 37 years old and signed up for my first family pet training class, I was so excited I could barely sleep the night before. I had never seen or heard of a pinch collar. Even after 37 years of living with dogs, and four working with them professionally, this was a first. My initial thought was, wow when did punk rock become so main stream in the dog world!
The trainer seemed nice enough, she was kind of funny in a caustic kind of way. She put the pinch collars on all of the dogs and said to leave them on for a week and then come back. See ya all next week.
I went home, took it off and went about family living. I didn’t go back to this class for three weeks, something just didn’t feel right.
Fran was following me around, eating what I would throw to her from the BBQ, play a bit, and was proving to be an amazing trail dog. It was coming together in bits and pieces.
But I did pay for the class, so I went back at week four. Fran and I ran the 1 1/2 miles to the barn in the evening, arrived happy and ready to learn, we were the only ones smiling. It was the night to teach lay down. Fran already new this, if I stopped moving she would lay at my side. I had been working on this at home when I was in the kitchen. And since she was now taking food from my hands, this was even more thrilling to me, a two-fer. But since I was the truant student, she used us as an example for teaching down. When I mentioned she new it, not with the word, but knew how to do it, the instructor smirked, took the leash and stepped on it as she yanked the other end up. Fran started to scream and my mouth dropped in horror as tears erupted from my eyes. THIS is what that pinch collar is for?
I was laughed at by the instructor in front of everyone. She told me I was weak and my dog was trying to control me. In that moment I didn’t feel weak, I felt like an idiot and abuser who on some level should have known better. Fran must have felt like she had entered hell. We ran the 1 1/2 miles home in silence. I hung the pinch collar in the garage, sat down and thought long and hard. I needed to get my shit together, I think Fran was thinking the same thing.
I continued the class sans collar, part of me getting my shit together was learning who I didn’t want to be, with or without my dog. The class proved to be valuable in this respect. It confirmed the path I wanted to take, clarified my training choices, and gave me purpose.
trail work –
After that little slice of hell called a class, I found solace with Fran out in the mountains on trails. Fran felt complete. When I had the kids with me, she stayed about 10 feet in front of us and would check in often.
On another hike she bolted and came back, within 100 feet or so, with a young coyote. And they were playing. This repeated itself too many times to count. Watching her interact and play gave me a new appreciation for her. She was alive, full, and engaged in this world. So different than when she was at home, seemingly waiting.
We had another dog that had a coyote friend that she played with on a daily basis for a little less than a year. But it was a specific coyote in a specific location. This was different.
Then she showed me how proficient she was at chasing deer, tracking small game, alerting to other predators, and barking at anything coming towards us if we were hiking remote.
More things to add to my list of things to work on.
maybe a job?
Because she seemed so alive in motion and working on a trail, perhaps a more directed job would be a good addition?
We tried herding, she was actually good with sheep, but too vocal for the instructors liking. She rocked when working cattle. She was put on a herd with three other dogs, and they were going to move them to a different pasture area. She naturally fell into the flanking position, it was breath taking! I didn’t plan on buying a piece of property and adding cattle to it, so this would be a hobby of sorts.
What about agility? I had been interested in this sport for a couple of years, Fran might be the perfect dog? We found an instructor and gave it a try. Fran was cautious with the intense human interaction and direction, there weren’t a lot of choices. But I was really liking it, it was fun, stimulating and gave me something I could do in our yard with Fran.
The over the top energy from people and dogs proved to be too much for Fran, it was shutting her down and that was not the direction I wanted to go. The lack of management in classes during those years was our demise though. Fran was attacked by the instructors dog while doing a private at her home. The next night during a group class, Fran reciprocated. She was never asked back. My second group class experience, and another experience that ended badly. She was called a monster, dangerous, unpredictable, out of control, a candidate for euthanasia, etc … Everyone that I was meeting and enjoying in the dog world now turned their back on me.
When you are living with a dog that is living life outside of neutral, it can feel like a very isolating experience, especially if you’re social.
Having a dog that needs you to make choices wisely, falls outside of the norm for the average owner. But with Fran I learned that this was the best way to live. It was our new normal and was going to be a good normal, a creative normal, and our normal.
adding dogs –
So I went and added more dogs to our household. Chaser was Fran’s friend from the shelter, and we decided to foster him. Ocean came home with us as a puppy because I did want to get more involved with dog sports. If it wasn’t going to be Fran’s gig, that was OK, but I wanted it to be mine.
Fran came alive with dogs in her own home. It was one of the craziest decisions we made, but great for the whole household. Companionship in her home was one of the main missing pieces. She wanted some of her own to be around her.
my part –
I was feeling like I had been given a part in a play, with a story that was unfamiliar to me.