We recently moved, and while talking to someone on the phone, I mentioned that Maya hasn't been out for a walk in the past week. The person was shocked -- dogs need walks! And besides, they added, "haven't you trained Maya out of that?"
"That" was reactivity, or anxiety, I guess. Which I've never claimed to have eliminated with training, but it's a common expectation. People expect training to effect cures, otherwise what's the point? And besides, stories of marvelous behavior reversals abound.
When you are beginning the complicated task of living with a "dog with issues," inspirational stories probably help with motivation. Stories about dogs who had serious behavior challenges, but who were helped with training, time, treats, love, medication, and so forth, and are now normal. It is very encouraging to think that all your hard work will pay off with a cured dog.
If I crack open the pages of any of my numerous books
about reactive/fearful/aggressive dogs, or go online, I can find half a dozen similar
stories at my fingertips. The details change, of
course, because these are largely true stories. People really do adopt
dogs with issues and then find ways to help the dogs function normally. Sometimes, the dogs even go on to do therapy work, help a special child, win blue ribbons, or other heartwarming and remarkable achievements. Their stories get told because they are inspiring, because they
are often beautiful, and because we love a story with a happy ending.
love a happy ending too, but I have come to distrust this story. Because if these are the only stories we tell about "dogs
with issues," we are being neither fair nor truthful. And if a
total cure is the only outcome that we understand as a success, many of
us are doomed to perpetual failure. I have owned Maya for four and a half years, and spent much of that time trying hard to help her feel
safer in the world, but she is far from being cured. Maya can walk down a quiet residential street and appear "normal," she cannot walk up to a stranger and sniff them while giving the same impression.
I suppose it's possible that I really have failed, and am trying to make excuses...that I am simply not the trainer Maya needs, and that with someone else she would be cured. It has also been suggested to me that Maya is a particularly
challenging dog, a suggestion with at least a sliver of truth. Mostly, I think it's
just that real life is a lot more complicated than the simple "cure"
narrative: there is more than one kind of journey that we take with our "dogs with issues."
Maya will never be a therapy dog, help any children, win ribbons, or otherwise fit into an inspiring narrative. She may not ever be comfortable greeting strangers, or making new friends, but she's still a very loved dog. She is currently curled up in a ball with her nose pressed firmly against her anus, which I'm certain is a happy ending by any canine standard.
And, for the record, Maya will get to go out for walks soon enough. She has a huge yard, things to chase, things to chew, and an entire new house to explore: her need for exploration, exercise, and novelty are likely being met in full, without outings. Walks can wait until her confidence rebounds and she is ready to handle a little more.