So, I have been the dogless wonder for almost two years now. By this I mean that I earn my living as a dog trainer, but I don’t actually have a canine partner of my own. My last two dogs were incredible partners, who died one year apart to the day. Losing those dogs, first D’fer, and then Eco was difficult, but the loss was not why I didn’t run right out to get another puppy. I have been very busy with my own growth and development and really don’t have the time right now to raise another puppy. I am also not really sure if a dog would fit well with my current lifestyle: I like to hunt and I spend long periods of time alone in the bush, canoeing and camping. I like to take car trips on weekends too. And I spend about two hours a day riding my horse. So, getting another dog right now might not be the right thing to do. But still, I consider the possibility.
For me, the process of getting a dog and developing a partnership is a bit like falling in love, and I have a good model for that to follow; having been married to John for the past twenty years, I can recognize the signs. There are several stages. The first stage is the looking around stage. When John and I met, we were both in university. We each had friends and things that we did, and at some point, our interests intersected and we met. It was NOT love at first sight. It wasn’t that we didn’t get along or anything, it was just sort of neutral. I wasn’t looking to fall in love; I just wanted someone to go out with and to spend some time with. John was nice, and we got along and we started to do things together.
When I get a new dog, the first step is finding a breeder who is breeding the sort of dog who will intersect with my interests. I have a laundry list of things that the dog must be interested in. It starts with being outside. Outside is really important to me. I go outside a lot. Today I spent about 8 hours outside even though the temperature is just about freezing. When I am outside I hike, fish, camp, canoe, hunt and ride my horse. So I need a dog whose interests are going to be compatible with all those things.
Knowing what my interests are means that no matter how pretty I think that a Cavalier King Charles Spaniel is, I won’t look at them; they just aren’t sturdy enough to do the kind of heavy hiking I do and they would likely find my winter activities too cold. No matter how funny I think basset hounds can be (and trust me, if you haven’t worked with a basset hound, you have no idea how funny they are!), they would not really like the canoeing I do. No matter how much I admire many of the guarding breeds such as the Rottweiler, they most likely won’t enjoy being a resident dog at a dog training school. German Shepherds can struggle with this work too, but if I choose carefully, I can likely find a good candidate, and my Chessies have all enjoyed this sort of work. Having narrowed the field to two particular breeds, I need to keep in mind that I enjoy hunting. A lot. Which means that a Chessie is a better choice for me at this point in my life.
The next stage is the stage where I am at right now. It is the get to know you stage. During this stage in my relationship with John, we went to the movies together, we went hiking, and we learned a lot about who the other person was. Somethings we tried didn’t work out so well. I never really enjoyed cocktail parties, and he used to go to a lot of them. He really didn’t like swimming. So we each had to figure out if those were things that we needed to do together, or if we could do without them. Luckily, John doesn’t need to go to cocktail parties anymore, and we have agreed that for the very most part, I can swim without him!
In the dog world, once you know what breed or type you are looking for, it is time to get busy and look for a breeder who is going to meet your needs. I will go to the dog shows, and visit breeders and meet brood bitches and sires, and eventually, find a breeder I like, who is breeding a bitch I like to a sire I like and then I will talk to them about their upcoming litters. In the event that a litter is likely, then I will eventually purchase a puppy.
After that, there is the infatuation stage, and this is the stage that prompted this blog. In this stage, everything is about being with the person you are madly, passionately, incredibly in love with. This stage is so much fun. The other person can do no wrong! You want to be together all the time. You think of nothing other than the other person. It is so exciting. This is the stage that I see the most often with people who have a dog new to them. Everything is great! Except that this puppy that people are so in love with has a number of frustrating habits. Like chewing things up. And stealing tea towels. And running around the house randomly. And not doing as asked. I won’t even tell you about John’s frustrating little habits that came to light during the infatuation stage! Luckily this stage is designed to help us to deal with these little deal breakers, and so we forgive the object of our desires and move on to the next stage.
The next stage in falling in love is where you get to really know your partner and you start to deeply appreciate them. This is the long slow process of building a life long love affair and this is the part I think is the most important part of having a deep relationship with a dog. Reflecting on this, I think it is probably the most important part of having a deep relationship with your human partner too. This is the stage where you know your partner’s quirks, and you may even have a love/hate feeling towards those quirks. Honestly, how hard is it to remember that the gate gets left opening IN to the kitchen? If only John could remember! On the other hand, if I came into the kitchen and the gate was left open the correct way, I would wonder who had been in the kitchen! During this stage with D’fer he would regularly set up toys on the top stair to chase down. He would place them “just so” and then nose them down and when they got to the bottom he would throw himself down the stairs after the toy. Interminably cute, but insanely noisy and downright dangerous! I could always tell if he was playing the game because of the suspicious silence while he set the game up and then all that banging and bumping as he ran down the stairs. I loved that he had figured out this crazy, noisy and fairly sophisticated game, but honestly…who needs all that noise?
This is the stage in training where you no longer have to set up every training scenario as though it were a complete mystery to your learner; you and your canine partner have enough of a common language that you are able to figure out where the training game is going, what the point of the exercise is and how you will apply it to your lives. If you have an Einstein of a dog, you may need merely expose him to the situation! If you have a less intellectually gifted dog, you may have to walk him through the training scenario a few times, but he will trust that you are not leading him astray; he will follow along the game trusting that you will show him the point soon enough.
Likewise, at this stage of training, your dog may tell you no and instead of making him do as you ask, you can trust that he will do his best and if he is refusing, he is refusing with good reason. You may find your canine partner starts to offer “suggestions” of activities too, and you are tuned in enough that you can follow along with these ideas and see where they go. I remember many years ago meeting Attila Szkukalek and his amazing dog Fly. Attila and Fly are famous for their Gladiator routine (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=L0RjKJfuPbE )amongst others, and we were talking about how he had trained various moves. Attila related about how Fly herself had “suggested” one of the moves in the routine. He felt the idea would work, so he took the idea and did that part of the routine in the manner that Fly had demonstrated it to him. This level of understanding, trust and communication are the kind of “love” that I value deeply as part of my training relationship with my dogs.
As this stage of love grows, my dogs age, and with age comes the realization that dogs never live as long as we do. Towards the end of his life, D’fer would anticipate my actions so accurately, and then offer me such funny ideas that I felt like he was reading my mind! He would make me laugh when I was most in need. He would give me the answer when my creativity could not come up with a solution on its own. At that point in our relationship I came to realize that there is nothing more important than true love, and in the end, he taught me how to love better than I could have learned in nearly any other way. He forgave my errors, he supported me when I needed it, he filled in the blanks when I didn’t know what to do. When I reflect on all I have learned over the years, I have come to the realization that my human loves are a good template for how to love a dog, but also that a dog’s love will ultimately help me to love my human friends and family even better.