I think there was a mistake. I was a completely inexperienced dog owner with big dreams for her first dog. I wanted to be able to take her anywhere with me. I wanted to compete in agility and other dog sports. I had lofty goals and minimal dog training skills. I’d never had a dog before. I should have been given a basic model. Somehow, I ended up with the advanced model and no instruction manual!
Most of my posts about Risa these days are relatively happy. They speak of me knowing what to do, brushing off reactive incidents, describing how I’ve trained behaviors, etc. Early posts were not so upbeat. We struggled a lot in the beginning. I didn’t understand the time and patience required working with a fearful dog. Oh I thought I knew. I talked a good talk but I clearly stumbled in the walk. Life with Risa was a struggle for us both. The lines of communication were down. There was no trust. There was simply a fearful dog and a handler ill-equipped to handle it.
I shed so many tears working with her. Out of frustration. Out of sadness. I felt like I couldn’t help her. I didn’t know how to show her she could trust me and I certainly failed to earn her trust on multiple occasions. My dreams of an agility/sport dog were dying right in front of my eyes. I often wondered if I could ever even just enjoy a walk with her without having to watch her flee in terror from people or lunge at other dogs.
It was never easy but we had great support. Our clicker trainer showed me a new way of working with Risa. One that put us on equal footing and taught me to listen to her especially if I wanted her to listen to me. Friends online lent their support and shared similar experiences. I had a group to commiserate and celebrate with. Friends who I originally only knew online became friends in real life. Their journeys with their dogs helped shape my journey with Risa. (I owe them so much.)
I laugh inside when I tell people about Risa’s past. So few of them believe me after watching us together. They can’t believe she’s fearful and dog reactive. That she’s shy around strangers. But she is. She always will be. It’s simply that she’s learned to cope. That she trusts me to keep her safe.
We celebrated Risa’s 6th Gotcha Day this weekend. I always try and do something special for her for her Gotcha Day and this weekend was no exception. The organization I volunteer with was having a fundraiser involving lure coursing and other dog sport run throughs. So we packed up the car and were on our way.
Though we had a slight detour before we could start our fun. Risa had an appointment with the vet for her annual visit. Despite pacing, panting, and trying to exit the waiting room even before her name was called, she was relatively okay. Once we got into the exam room, she was even better. I always take her leash off when we’re in there. Originally because it was annoying holding onto it as she paced back and forth. But now, I think it’s easier for her to get a chance to check out the room. So she paced back and forth for a while but not nearly as badly as she used to. When the vet had to check her over, she didn’t even flinch. She was still uncomfortable but I barely had to hold her in place. Risa warmed up to the assistant in the room as well and even allowed herself to be petted! That was a shock. After all the handling, she would lay rolled onto one hip once everyone had left the room. I’ve never seen her so relaxed. It was a far cry from her first ever vet visit when she climbed into my lap and shook the entire time we sat in the waiting room.
Then it was time for lure coursing fun. As soon as we pulled in and Risa saw the lure whip by, she knew what was up and she was elated. We didn’t get to course right away, though. Instead, we went to watch a search and rescue demonstration. While we listened, Risa was close to several other dogs and people. As long as the other dogs kept their distance, she was totally fine. She did one high-pitched bark and lunge at a Lab who got up and moved in her direction before I could create enough space. But it was very minor and the worst she did all day. Risa met that dog three times today and they greeted appropriately each time. Risa simply has a harder time with dogs close by when she is “parked” in one spot. She walked alongside that same dog a couple times later without issue and even walked alongside the lure course operator’s dogs. Even if other dogs were barky and upset, Risa seemed to take it all in stride. Even when we passed an “exploding car” (the dogs inside were not happy with us passing by), Risa simply kept on walking.
She got in three coursing runs which made her day. There was almost a huge incident before her last run. One of the dogs who was running came straight for us. I had no option but to pick Risa up and wait for someone to grab the dog. Despite the loose dog bouncing up and trying to sniff her and me slowly spinning us around trying to keep it on the opposite side of Risa, Ris was pretty calm. She didn’t try to snark at the dog at all which is a huge improvement!
I had volunteered to assist with rally and ended up deciding to try a run through too. I hadn’t planned on it originally; Risa sort of loses her mind when it comes to lure coursing. But, by the time rally run throughs were on, the lure coursing was over. It was also far enough away from the coursing area so I thought we could chance it. We haven’t worked on rally in a while and it was HOT so I didn’t expect much from her. In fact, I wasn’t even planning on having her off leash. Despite some wandering and peeing in the ring (this is part of the reason we trial indoors), she was actually really good. I did relapse into my high-pitched cues which I caught and stopped. Doing that seems to cause Risa to wander more and seems to only be a problem for me in rally! I don’t do it in freestyle. I was also good and rewarded her with some treats and she got a nice petting session after a particularly nice sequence. 🙂 This is the first time I really treated a run through like a FUN match and not like an event.
Overall, it was a splendid day and demonstrated just how far she’s come in every way. She went somewhere new and wasn’t scared. She met another dog and greeted him normally. She was practically non-reactive. She let strangers pet her. Risa wasn’t super-stressed at the vet’s office. She paid attention to me and worked with me. She trusted me to keep her safe. It’s been a long journey. Now the tears I shed are tears of joy. We did it. She’s almost exactly what I had wanted at the time. “A dog I could take anywhere and do dog sports with.” It just took a while to get there. I’ve always known she is the dog I needed, not necessarily the one I wanted. But maybe she really is both.