“All they wanted was a good dog.”

“Max” is an associate, who is involved with his local breed club’s rescue committee. We get along well, we occasionally collaborate on projects. Recently, Max referred a couple (Louis and B.) to me for help in getting organized prior to bringing home a dog (Buddy) that Max had discussed with them. It was unclear whether they would adopt or foster, but I had recently done some head halter work with Buddy, hoping to support Buddy’s placement by teaching him to walk well on a loose lead. Buddy had stayed with me for a few days, so he and I had developed a nice rhythm – Buddy was becoming a pro at loose lead walking. I was considering transitioning Buddy away from the head halter to a flat buckle collar, when Louis sent me a text message, inquiring about the pet parenting experience (please see: http://wp.me/p4u8xL-9K ) we now offer. I hadn’t been working with Buddy for long, but I thought it possible that I might introduce Buddy to this couple, as part of a pet parenting experience. I spoke with Max and he thought it would be a good experience for Buddy, as well as for Louis and B. Reaching out to Louis, I suggested that we might set up a pet parenting experience, sometime in the next week or so. I was pleased that this would work for us all. I mentioned to Max that I had a confirmed plan to pimp out Buddy, who was appreciative of the opportunity for Buddy to get more exposure.

Max had told me that Buddy was one of the dogs he’s brought up from the South, recently. There wasn’t a lot of information available about his background, but we did know he was from a rural area and he hadn’t had much exposure to urban center sights and sounds. I was addressing his lack of exposure to big city chaos, but he would need time before he’d fully adjust to being in the Big Apple. I would make sure to share this with prospective adopters and/or foster homes.

Showtime was Saturday morning. Buddy’s behavior wasn’t as refined as I had hoped, but my barometer wasn’t really the one that mattered. Louis and B. were not looking for the image of polished perfection. This is good, since I certainly hadn’t “ironed all of the kinks out” of Buddy, just yet. I expected to deliver a positive experience, but wouldn’t have been surprised if their were comedic moments.

As it turned out, we spent more time indoors than I would have expected, since B. was feeling a little under the weather. When I offered to take them out with Buddy for a bathroom break, only Louis was prepared to venture out, so leaving B. on the sofa with a mug of steaming hot tea, Louis, Buddy and I hit the streets. Once we were outdoors, I handed the leash to Louis, who was surprised at how quickly Buddy went to the curb in front of their building to void his bladder (I had told Louis to expect this and to use the verbal marker, ‘good’ to “catch Buddy in the act” of urinating. Louis was a little confused, initially because he had only heard the phrase, “catch him in the act” in the context of capturing a negative act – not a behavior that we want to encourage. After being rewarded for elimination, Buddy looked up at Louis, expectantly. He seemed to want more of the prepared raw diet that I had supplied to Louis, but Louis didn’t immediately mark the sit that Buddy offered, and the treat-driven dog sat and stared for a bit, before just standing next to Louis. Louis appeared to want to go back indoors, but wasn’t sure if he “was supposed to take Buddy on a long walk during every outing” – I thought it was a great question, and told him, as much. I shared, “Buddy is often out walking in a variety of Manhattan communities, as part of the work to prepare him to transition into a permanent home. He’s been out, quite a few times and has probably walked several miles, today. I believe he’s comfortable, whether or not he walks for several blocks, right now. If you’d like to experience what it’s like to handle Buddy for several blocks, this is a great opportunity to do so.” Louis seemed impressed that Buddy was so relaxed, and commented that, “There doesn’t seem to be an urgent need.”

I explained that Buddy has frequent outings, in part because he’s originally from a more rural area, and is given plenty of opportunities to begin to acclimate to the insanity of  a much more complex and stimulating way of life. “Since coming to New York City, Buddy never knows if there’s 5 dogs on every block, or if he’s going to encounter a group of children tethered together, on a day trip . New York City dogs experience this diversity, all the time. Most country and suburban dogs make the necessary adjustments, if given an opportunity to comfortably make the shift. Professionals, such as myself help dogs with these types of transitions, all the time.

Louis headed back towards the glass doors of the apartment building with Buddy at his side. I follow closely, speaking to Louis about the remainder of our visit; thinking to crate Buddy for a bit, while B., Louis and I spoke for a few… Louis shared, “I don’t know that B. and I really have much need for crate training. I know that it’s part of what gets demonstrated in a pet parenting visit, but we can skip it, if it’s all the same to you.” That was entirely fine for me and I told him, as much. “Louis, this is your pet parenting experience. If there are aspects that don’t interest you and B., that’s fine. Crate training is a tool, but it isn’t a tool for everyone.” We waited for the elevator and another resident and dog walked around us to get to the stairway. It was a nonevent for Buddy (as well as the passersby’s dog). Louis asked, “Is it normal for two dogs to in a situation like this to pass one another without any attempts to interact, at all?” I smiled, “It can be, yes! Passing other dogs in one’s travels becomes the norm, I think because a lot of people are rushing about attempting to get through their task lists. Many New Yorkers will want to stop and socialize their dogs, but I think it’s situational. How do you think it work for you and B., Louis?” Louis looked down and towards Buddy and said, “I look at meeting my neighbors as one of the benefits of having a dog. I’m sure that there are times when it would be inconvenient to stop and socialize, but I’m hoping to meet a lot of the people in the area.” Smiling at Louis, I told him, “I can imagine that he might want to explore the dog park as an option for socializing. It isn’t part of what we do in the Pet Parenting Experience, but dog parks are a very popular part of many New Yorkers’ dog walking experience.” Meeting my gaze, Louis asked me, “Why is it that a dog park visit isn’t an option in the Pet Parenting Experience?” I explained, “Dog park visits, hen they go well (as they often do) are a very positive experience. However, there are a lot of variables that affect how it all comes together. Where there are challenges, it’s still possible that positive teachable moments can happen. However, if dog to dog interactions get botched up, it’s possible for situations to get ugly. To put it simply, Buddy is not my dog, so I am very careful to not subject him to places where he could get physically hurt. On the behavioral side of my work, I carefully set up social interactions and train in a way that pretty much guarantees a positive outcome for him. There are a number of variables I cannot control in a dog park, so I avoid them. I believe dog parks are great options for informed pet parents willing to to manage the variable risk, but it would be inappropriate for me to take chances with someone else’s dog. Does that make sense?” Louis nodded, affirmatively and asked, “How does one socialize dogs, if not at a dog park?” We had stopped in the lobby of the their building. The dog park was important for Louis.

dogpark
An idyllic moment at a Manhattan dog park.

“Great question, Louis! Socialization is a very broad term, wouldn’t you say? We are being socialized on many fronts, all at the same time. I am having an interaction with you, in this space and my mind is aware that you have a certain way of dressing and that you are accompanied by a dog of a certain size, color, and weight. There are other details that my mind may absorb, that I’m not consciously aware of, as well. This is an oversimplification, but all of the minutia that I’m not consciously aware of gets taken in and helps me form opinions and make decisions about what feels safe and appropriate, or that something about the environment is likely to cause me harm. Our brains take in all sorts of information, right? It’s similar with our dogs. They develop preferences, form attachments and learn what they need to learn about people, other animals and all sorts of settings, too. They learn to navigate long term relationships, as well as the micro-encounters that we and they are exposed to, even when life does not include frequent trips to the dog park.”

 

We spoke about dog parks and other socialization opportunities (like obedience classes) for a few minutes more and I knew that I should give explore with my team the possibilities of including a dog park component to our Pet Parenting Experiences, at least to the extent of it being a possibility in the longer duration option. I could see that Louis was experiencing a moment of customer sacrifice (the gap between what you deliver and what your customers really want) and that, in this instance it was going to linger for him, for some time) – this was not part of my desired outcome, at all. I might have been more tempted to waver on a visit to the dog park, had there been more time and they’d both been available for it. Since this wasn’t the case, I promised myself to revisit this, later and finish up with Louis & B. in a timely manner. We continued to their apartment.

Our reappearance roused a napping B., who acknowledged that she nodded off, and that staying inside to nurse her tea was just what she needed. Wanting to bring her into the dog park discussion, I shared that Buddy needed to leave a deposit, and that Louis and I discussed dog park visits without actually going to one. I asked her directly, “How do you feel about dog park visits, B?” She smiled at us and replied cheerfully, “I’ve visited a few dog parks with friends who take their dogs. It was warmer outside. The dogs really seem to enjoy it, and their aren’t many other places where we can meet other dog owners and chill out for a little while. I guess we can have a gathering of people and dogs, here in the apartment, but it’s not really the same thing. It’s nice to see what the dogs are going to do. There was a large kiddie pool that someone had filled with water – I don’t know where the water came from, but the dogs were splashing around, laying in it, and I thought it was a great moment.” Pausing for a moment, B. asked the obvious question. “So, why didn’t you guys go to the dog park? Doesn’t Buddy like it?” I gave her the greatly abbreviated explanation and asked them both if there were any questions or anything that they wanted me to touch upon before Buddy and I left them “to enjoy the remainder of their day?”

prettysrugB. looked up from her comfortable position on the sofa – Louis, Buddy and I were still standing and, as is often the case, her (like other clients) last question was significant. B. asked/told me, “You know, all we really want is a good dog. I realize that probably sounds pretty vague, but it it hard to find? I had to smile…

“B., I am sorry that you weren’t feeling up to coming outside. Had I known that today wasn’t good for you, I’d have suggested that we reschedule. Your question/statement is important, for several reasons. I think there are a lot of things that impact on the pet parenting experience. A ‘good dog’ is a wonderful part of the foundation for a great pet parenting experience, which is what I look for when I speak to colleagues and search through animal shelters. A “good dog” is only vague because of the variables that make pet parenting unique in each household. I think we’ll agree on a lot of what a “good dog is like,” however what goes into creating and maintaining a good dog – the work that folks like me enjoy, and more importantly, the work that pet parents must do to encourage the behaviors that make Buddy a “good dog” is hugely important. I want to make it easier for more people to have more positive pet parenting experiences. I can demonstrate house training, how to use a kennel, and all sorts of other behaviors – including that the dog I bring to a family has the skills to not be a nuisance at their daughter’s pizza party. At the very least, I can help pet lovers save an animal’s life, prepare a dog for their home and set them on a path to maintain the behaviors they experience as valuable. Unfortunately, most of the people I meet are not going to happily dive into dog training. Many seem to wish for the Gods to wave a hairy paw over their homes and hope that their dogs “just behave” – that they’ll be a “good dog” through an elusive and magical process. I really do want people to be happy with their dogs.”

web[2]It is a great source of frustration, generally speaking, when dog placements fail – often it’s because no one has been working on the relationship with the family dog. It’s usually a question of leadership. Someone has to be at the helm. If it isn’t one of us (bipedal beings), it’s going to be very unlikely that the dog will make human-centric choices and that it’ll all just happen to work smoothly. Dogs, like other sentient beings, have their own agendas. It works best when we chart the course and steer the boat.”

“If you had to describe Buddy in a single word, what would it be?” Would either of you describe him as blah, boring, bland, dull, or uninteresting?” Would a less well-trained dog have been more to your liking? I wonder if you’d have preferred meeting Buddy as he was, before I worked with him? This was important to me, both professionally and personally, but I needed to move on with my day. I told the couple that I had to prepare for another appointment, but I’d like to continue this discussion. I put the bug in their ears that there are many dogs in need of loving, caring homes and that it’s possible that we could do some matchmaking. B. picked up her phone, processed my payment and we parted company.

The last moments in this couple’s home were among the most meaningful for me. I learned more about where my offering wasn’t fully hitting the mark for this couple. They provided me with some useful feedback about how I might expand my work.

The discussion continues…

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