Looking Back On: That Time I Failed

I’ve often heard that when you’re working on or with something that it’s good to keep a journal. Keeping a written record of your journey helps to show yourself how much progress you’ve made.  Especially when working with animals, it is essential to have the ability to look back after a training session that didn’t go so well and see all the victories you’ve made thus far. That way you aren’t too hard on yourself or your animal when things don’t go perfectly one time.

I am extremely lucky to have this blog to track my journey. With the click of a mouse I can access any date in the last 14+ months and see what I was up to on that exact day. Pretty cool, huh? What’s better is when I look back and see just how much I’ve learned.  It’s astonishing at times – I can’t believe where I was and where I went and where I am now.  And, just like I mentioned above, I sometimes find myself needing a little pick-me-up to remember just how far I’ve come (or, on same days, even just that I’ve come anywhere!).

Yesterday started my first week coaching a reactive dog class with Your Dog’s Friend.  As I listened to the instructor give a review to the students last week, I kept nodding in agreement to what she was teaching and thinking in my head, “Yes! Totally! Yes that’s the perfect thing to do!” for all these dog owners who have never learned a successful way to deal with their reactive dogs.  It really got me thinking: holy cow, I have learned so much in just the past few months. Since when did all of this become just engrained in my brain as common sense knowledge?

Just a few months ago I had a pretty rough run in with a reactive dog. Many of you might remember the post That Time I Failed (in fact, lots of you might remember it considering it’s gotten the most views of any of my entries – oy!) about a dog I was supposed to temporarily foster and had to bail on because he was reactive towards my dad and others. I talked about the reality that I didn’t know much about managing a reactive dog. Fast forward five months, and here I am helping to teach a class about it. So what changed?

What changed is that I learned about the way dogs think and why they act the way they do. I learned that reactivity is usually based in fear or frustration. I learned that most of the time when a dog is reacting, you cannot teach it anything because everything in that moment its brain has shut off except for what it’s focused on, and that you must remove the dog from the situation immediately. I learned that it makes total sense for a dog to be reactive towards something it doesn’t like, because when it barks and lunges the bad thing moves away. I learned that practiced behaviors get repeated. I learned SO MUCH and it all just seemed to click (no pun intended, hehe).

Mylo2

Because of all this, I feel the need to point out to myself (and whoever else cares to listen) what I did wrong with Mylo on the night that he lost it in front of my dad. So much of the way our dogs react is caused by the environment and circumstances around them, including their handler (and then of course their previous emotional opinions about things).  I’m glad I can now look back and see how badly I did not set Mylo up for success, and hopefully address these mess ups with any dogs I have in the future.

1.  I forgot to remember that change is scary for dogs.  I should have remembered how much transitions with a new dog can suck. Imagine being moved to a new place with new people you didn’t know – would you act like yourself?  We took Mylo away from his fosters, to Mark’s apartment and then to my home. Sounds like a plenty stressful situation to me, and certainly a good reason to act a bit unlike himself.

2.  I had him in a choke collar. I cringe even typing that. I had gotten instructions from his fosters to put him in a choke collar and, because I hadn’t learned much in the way of how to teach dogs to walk nicely using positive methods at this point, I went with it. Mylo had ZERO interest in letting this thing slow him down, so he was nearly choking himself the entire time. Discomfort adds to stress and can heighten a dog’s reactivity levels because they are redirecting their feelings about the pain.  If I had him today, I would have immediately put Mylo in a sense-ible harness to remove that element of stress.

3.  I introduced him to my dad in the dark and without any preparation. I will always and forever be more careful about introducing my pops to dogs because I have finally realized that when they don’t like him it’s not them, it’s him. He’s tall, he’s got a big beard, and he wears dark clothes. Recipe for disaster for a dog who is weary of large humans!  My poor dad – I didn’t give him any heads up about how to approach Mylo, so he went right up saying, “Hi doggy, hi doggy!” like he always does. Mylo didn’t like that.

Today, I would keep Mylo far enough away that my dad didn’t bother him (known as ‘below his threshold’), and then have my dad throw treats to him to show Mylo that father = yummy things (without putting the pressure on Mylo to approach my dad to take a treat from his hand!).  I would have told my dad to avoid eye contact or hovering over Mylo, and if he got to the point where Mylo wanted to say hi, to crouch down to his level without directly facing his body at Mylo – a much more inviting greeting for a dog!

4. I didn’t bring treats anywhere with me. Treats don’t solve everything, but they sure can get you out of a pinch when you need it.  A dog that’s focused on a high value treat isn’t as quick to focus on something else it might react to.  If I had treats from the get go, Mylo might have been more inclined to pay attention to me instead of his surroundings.

So I know that dwelling on the past isn’t always the best idea, but I think reflecting on it and reminding yourself of lessons learned can sometimes be very beneficial.  I would encourage you to start keeping a written log if you are on any sort of journeys of your own. I know there are plenty of times – even for non-animal related things like training for races – where I wished I could have written evidence of my accomplishments. Everyone deserves to give themselves a pat on the back every once in a while (or maybe get a high-five from your dog), and reflection can help to make sure you don’t miss an opportunity to do so.

01


I Am Thankful

It’s Thanksgiving again, which means taking a minute to make note of what we’re thankful for. The feeling of obligation to do something like this is quickly being replaced every year by a feeling of wanting so badly to acknowledge the things in my life that make it possible for me to do what I do.

Last year at Thanksgiving I did a run down of the people in my life that I am thankful for. Those people haven’t really changed, so I don’t want to be redundant with a post about them again (though I love you all and I am still extremely thankful for you!). Which leaves me here thinking about what to give thanks for in this post.

Rather than material things or specific people, I am going to write about experiences from the past year that I am thankful for.  I’m so early in my career that every new situation for me is a valuable learning experience. So much of what I know and what I stand for has been shaped in the last year. To think that just over fifteen months ago I was dogless, blogless, and somewhat clueless shows me how much I have to be thankful since then.

Fostering Baxter

Yes, I know this is an extremely broad experience – but I can’t leave it out. Fostering Baxter was a crash course in learning about training, behavior, dog-dog interactions, boundaries, teaching, compromises, responsibility, patience and love. Baxter was all mine to help grow and then adopt out. The amount that he taught me is immeasurable, really.  He helped me realize that there is a difference between just liking dogs and having the knowledge to really help them, and for that I am very grateful.

Buying a 50mm camera lens

I know I said I would stay away from thanking materialistic things, but this little lens changed my photography life as I know it.  The 50mm lens is affordable and can give you the most amazing photos if you’re used to the standard issue lens that came with your camera. After buying this lens I was inspired to take a photography course and invest in Photoshop, so my skills set has grown immensely. I have also since invested in a 30 mm lens (thanks to this gal’s growing skills as a photographer!).  Of course I still have tons and TONS to learn, but I feel so much more confident about my photography after all I learned this past year.  I am really falling in love with photography, and I am thankful I discovered this passion.

One of the first photos I took with my 50mm. I was in love with the shallow depth of field, but still didn’t quite know how to fully utilize it.

Taking Otis back

Yes, fostering Otis was an amazing learning experience as I navigated the waters of having a nervous, confidence-lacking dog. But the actual act of accepting Otis back as my foster was a big lesson learned as well. There is a lot to be said for the realization that adopting a dog out should not be where your journey ends with that dog. Every foster/adopter relationship is different after an adoption, but I feel like it is our responsibility as the foster or rescue group to step up and help a former foster dog who is losing their home. I wanted to help so many different dogs after Baxter, but I ultimately knew I had to take Otis back for his well being. I felt guilty taking him in over a dog whose future was uncertain, but it took me accepting him back as a foster to realize that his future wasn’t certain either, and I owed it to him to find him the life he deserved.  I am thankful that Otis taught me the full responsibility of having a foster dog.

Participating in Project Mickey

Project Mickey is a program started by Jasmine’s House to teach humane education to elementary school children in an under-served part of Baltimore. If that sentence right there doesn’t make it obvious why this experience was so impactful, then I’m not sure I can explain what would.  I only helped for two sessions in the program, but I still got to know some of the kids, how bright they are, and their stories. It is like an entirely different world than my own – one that I can really benefit from spending a little more time in. I am thankful for the opportunity to teach these kids about caring for animals, while learning so much more myself.

Adopting Otis to his new home

In the past year I’ve learned a lot about restrictions for adopters that make it difficult to adopt animals out.  When I was searching for a home for Otis, I had almost the exact mold in my mind of what I wanted for him in a forever family.  The person who ended up adopting him was the opposite of many things I thought I wanted for Otis, but they are perfect for each other now.  This was a blatant example to me that I should always be open minded when talking to potential adopters, even if they’re not what I originally envisioned for my dog. I am thankful that I learned this first hand.

Going to Animal Farm Foundation

Another one that should be pretty self-explanatory is my week-long stay at AFF (read all about it in its own post).  The amount of not only knowledge, but also passion and motivation, that I soaked up during that week truly solidified the path I am on to help animals. I learned lots about the basics of training and canine behavior, again building on the bits of knowledge I already had. AFF was fun, exciting, extremely educational, and eye-opening. I’d consider it one of my most influential experiences of 2012. I am very thankful for the opportunity to learn and interact with such a wonderful organization.

Me and Julep during our week together at AFF.  Photo credit to AFF.

Participating in B-More Dog’s Community Pit Bull Day

Another example of a world I need to spend more time in. I recently heard a speaker talk about how animal advocates spend too much time thinking they’re their own audience. B-More Dog’s CPBD really opened my eyes to the whole group of people that I can reach with spay/neuter advocacy, etc. I am thankful that I got the opportunity to see all the families who love their dogs and are trying their hardest to provide for them, and I look forward to helping as much as I can in the future.

The second year at my job

Again, another broad one. But I can’t pick out specifically one part of it that I am thankful for more than another.  You learn so much about planning events on the job as opposed to in the classroom (especially when you’re an Animal Sciences major…), so my first year was spent soaking up as much information I could. I learned best practices, I learned things to avoid, I learned what would make me the best events manager I could be, and I learned how to learn from my mistakes. Entering into my second year, I feel like I’ve taken these skills and ran with them. My confidence in my abilities has skyrocketed, and all of a sudden I feel more capable than ever.  I am thankful for all the experiences I’ve had thus far in my career that have set me up to be the best I can be.

A photo from our annual gala, The Love Ball, courtesy of Virgil Ocampo Photography. This was the second year I managed the event, and it felt 100x smoother.

I’m sure I forgot even the most major milestones of this past year – it’s hard to believe I can write so much about the ones above and still have more blessings.

I’m also extremely thankful for all of you who stop by every morning and show your support. I so appreciate you reading, commenting, following and sharing.

Happy Thanksgiving week (or day or month) of gratitude to you and yours – furry friends included of course :-) I hope you have a lovely Holiday among family and friends!