Life Lessons From A Puppy
Toby was 7 months old when he came into our home and our lives. The woman who previously had Toby during a critical time in his developmental life was diagnosed with cancer. It’s unlikely she was well enough to spend time socializing Toby with other dogs or exposing him to a variety of new situations, places, and new people. She returned him to the pet shop at 6 months of age because she wasn’t well enough to care for him. Toby spent the next month in a glass cage by himself at the pet store. When we took him home, he was 7 months old.
Toby is very shy dog. He’s sensitive to all novel circumstances. He is easily spooked. For example upon a taking a walk we walked over a grate. It made a noise that frightened Toby. For five consecutive walks after that experience Toby would freeze, sit down, and refuse to walk forward every time he saw a grate. In other words he developed a phobia about grates after one unpleasant experience with an unexpected noise. I was shocked he could develop such a strong negative reaction based on a single experience. I knew immediately he’d be the most difficult dog I’d ever trained in my life.
I don’t believe in giving a puppy free access to food. I believe puppies should work/train in order to earn their meal. One of our first lessons I wanted Toby to learn had to do with trusting me with his food. I began our lesson with feeding him by hand. At first he’d take some of his food in his mouth and run some distance away in order to eat it. Once he finished he’d repeat this cycle. He never got tired of this. He’d take his food and run away.
We did this for many days until the day came when he decided to stay close and eat in my presence. Once he started doing this, I’d surprise him by adding an additional tasty treat. Now, he wants me to rub him while he eats close by. However, a sneeze or cough can send him scurrying away. Now that he trusts me he’ll comes back quickly. It’s going to take weeks, possibly months to desensitize him. What makes this task more challenging is Toby’s refusal to take food when he’s frightened.
Toby gave us a demonstration of how easily it is to lose his trust. My daughter Kate was using powder. She decided it would be fun to powder Toby’s nose. Had I been there, I would have warned her not to do that. After she powered Toby’s nose he ran away from her. When Kate tried to call him back Toby wouldn’t come, instead he actively avoided her. I told Kate it could take days for Toby to regain his trust in her. I’ve had dogs all my life but I’d never lived with a dog with such a sensitive spirit.
Watching how much purposeful work and time it took for Toby to regain trust in Kate taught me a valuable lesson. I’ve learned I can’t yell when I’m frustrated or raise my voice when I’m angry. Physically punishing him with a corrective jerk from his choke collar is out of the question. As I typed the last sentence Toby found the wire to my laptop and began chewing it. A firm “no” brought Toby’s chewing on the wire to an immediate halt. He came to me expecting something positive to happen. I didn’t disappoint him. I stopped typing to retrieve and offer him his rope chew toy. He happily took his chew toy to his pillow and chewed on the rope to his heart’s content. For good measure, I use my clicker (which I wear on my wrist at all times) to click/treat him for chewing on his toy. Both of us were pleased with this outcome.
I’ve come to the conclusion I can’t train Toby the way he needs to be trained. I’m out of my league and I need help. Unfortunately or perhaps fortunately, the help I need won’t come from a dog trainer. The help I need must come from the Lord. I need the fruit of the Spirit which is:
Gal 5:22-23 (NKJV)
I don’t posses any of these traits. I’m easily frustrated, short tempered, prone to use punishment, gruff, and lacking in self-control. The personality traits I possess are the exact opposite of what Toby needs to learn and to thrive. The good news is I don’t train Toby with my personality traits. I train him when I have access to the fruit of the Spirit. In those moments we are a great team. Both Toby and I are doing so well together. He’s a fantastic dog who challenges me to solve problems and teach me ways that don’t come natural to me. In fact it’s hard to know who is training who. It’s clear we are both training each other. The end result of Toby’s training will transform him into a well-trained and affectionate friend. The end result in my training will transform me into a better person. It’s a win-win. Toby will be a better dog and I’ll be a better person. You can’t lose when you are living a Spirit controlled life.
I wonder what aspects of life you’ve encountered where you realize you don’t have what it takes to do the task well. For me it’s parenting. As Father’s Day approaches I’m vividly aware of how important it is for me to be a Spirit controlled father. I confess I spent way too much of time as a Father using my own personality. That was unfortunate for me and for my children. The good news is that it’s not too late. In the same way I can be a better trainer for Toby, I can also be a better Dad to my children and a better husband to my wife.
I want to give Toby special thanks for teaching me that lesson.