I wanted a dog I could take with me everywhere.
I wanted an agility partner that I could tear up the course with.
I wanted a dog who hung on my every word.
I wanted a companion to cuddle with on the couch.
I wanted a dog who loved kids and other dogs.
I wanted to go on long, relaxing walks with my dog.
I wanted a dog who would be easy to train.
I wanted a dog that people would admire.
I wanted a dog who I could easily trust off leash.
I wanted to be the best owner I could be.
Unfortunately, I didn’t get most of what I wanted in Risa. I did get a fun-loving goofball of a dog. A speedy, sprinting monster of great intelligence. But there are a lot of things I got that I was not prepared to deal with.
I wanted a herding breed mix because they’re generally biddable and handler-focused. While I am certain there is some herding breed in Risa, she tends to lean more towards the sighthound part of her heritage when it comes down to handler focus. She tends to be what Jane Killion calls a ‘Pigs Fly’ dog; a dog that is less driven to do something for the handler without thinking “What’s in it for me?” While Risa is generally willing to do as I request, she definitely has an independent streak. There are some times she decides she has a better idea and just takes off to do it. Other times, she simply doesn’t care that I might have something else planned and does her own thing instead.
I remember when I first brought her home. She didn’t care that I was holding the other end of the leash. I simply did not exist in the outside world. She had no relationship with me and I doubt she’d had much of a relationship with any person at all up to that point in her life. Getting her attention and focus outside seemed like a daunting task. To this day, I still struggle to get and keep her focus when we’re working. Whether due to her initial fears of the outside world, her curiosity about it now, or her independent nature. . .it is a struggle for me to keep her attentive.
Because of her fears and sensitive nature, the training techniques I had originally learned about were ineffective. Raising my voice would cause her to cower. Corrections were either completely ineffective or caused her to shut down. I couldn’t force her to pay attention to me or do what I wanted. I needed to change my thoughts about dog training. Fortunately, I was on the right path having signed us up for a clicker training class. Had I taken the other road, we would have had a completely different journey and I highly doubt Risa would be the awesome dog she is today.
Her difficult nature forced me to be a better trainer. Much of what she does doesn’t fit the typical dog behavior mold. (For example, Risa thinks that the ‘lifeless’ tuggie she has ripped from my hands is just as much fun as the one that she was fighting to get. She has little interest in bringing it back to me to start the game anew!) I had to become more proactive in handling her. It was important for me to tell her what TO do rather than just telling her “Don’t do that!” I needed to learn to be more interesting to her and to build a relationship with her. She needed to learn that it is fun to work with a person. I had to show her the world was not out to get her and that I would protect her.
I often wonder how things would have gone if Risa had been an easy dog. If I didn’t have to struggle with her fears, dog reactivity, and lack of focus. Despite the years of frustration, I’m glad Risa came into my life.
She may not be the dog I wanted but she is definitely the one I needed. Risa opened my eyes to a whole new world of training. One that, to me, feels like a partnership. While I am ultimately the one in charge, I also take her feelings into consideration when we’re working together.
There are still times I feel we’re a bit of a mismatch. I still struggle with some of her issues and wish there were an easy fix for them. But Risa is truly a joy to work with and she’s such a fun dog. I don’t know what I’d do without her.