Can’t She Just Get Along? (Part III) - Teaching the Teacher

When it comes to getting along with other dogs, our Boston terrier rescue, Lilly, is making progress.

Last year she would have flipped into a tirade had any but a select-few pals broached her private space - which encompassed about a city block. Our trainer said Lilly was a “frustrated greeter” (as opposed to a ferocious beast guarding her precious resources). Regardless, her reactivity revealed both her lack of social skills and our ongoing challenge in effectively dealing with it.

My wife and I consulted reputable resources and schooled ourselves in tried-and-true “desensitization” techniques. Lilly especially responded to our new “open bar” policy. At the first sight of approaching fur, out came the treats and Lilly had a feast! As soon as the other dog disappeared the bar was promptly closed: “No more four-legged friends!,” we sighed with a smile.

Over several weeks, Lilly’s gyrations wound down into a quick spin or two. She then began to drop into a sit-stay and look expectantly at us for the treat when a distant dog appeared (that’s just what’s supposed to happen!). We were elated and congratulated ourselves for being good teachers.

We became cocky - and we learned what danger lurks when teachers become full of themselves.

The razor-sharp attention to the environment we’d honed while walking our girl became dulled by easy distractions. On the sidewalk, we engaged with neighbors, texted friends and talked with family on the cell. We greeted a group of well-wishers who’d stopped by to say hello and missed the radar blip that swelled into a code-red alert: a passerby walking a yorkie no bigger than a squirrel.

Lilly wheeled about from our gathering and lunged at the yorkie, nipping the dog’s sweater. Terrified, embarrassed and profusely apologetic, we pried her away. Thank goodness the yorkie was not harmed.

I scowled and immediately reprimanded Lilly for her bad manners while quietly shaming myself for my own ineptitude.

Neither act was an appropriate - or productive - response.

That experience reminded me that both teaching and learning requires unwavering presence and participation. While both teacher and student can model and inspire these states of being, it is ultimately the teacher’s responsibility to set the tone in the “classroom” and conduct the lesson.

My wife and I failed Lilly by not being consistent in her training and by failing to appreciate that learning is not linear. Three steps forward and two back. This is undoubtedly even more true when the teacher and student are of different species.

I was only able to help our old dog, Louie, conquer his fear of our spiral staircase through gentle persistence and exhaustive modeling (me on all-fours: humbling, yet delightful!). When Louie finally scampered up that tight, winding space, I greeted him as if he’d just scaled Everest.

My wife and me hopped back on the training wagon with renewed vigilance. Sometimes, Lilly sputters, snorts and bobs up and down like a rocking horse, but her force field has shrunk to the width of a two-lane street. Her progress has been slow, almost imperceptible, but undeniable.  

Our little “student” had it in her all along.

And so did we.