When my wife, Susan, and I adopted our Boston terrier, Lilly, nearly three years ago, she was closer to being a feral dog than a domesticated pet.
Lilly had lived with a houseful of people, but literally had no roof over her head. She was kept outdoors because she “pooped a lot” everywhere and no one in her previous family would take responsibility for training her.
This was no more painfully obvious than the first time we tried to take Lilly for a walk. Though we cooed reassuringly and were careful to approach her from the side, Lilly cringed when we clicked her collar in place and slipped the front-loading harness over her head.
We carried Lilly outside and gently set her on the grass. She crouched and crawled along - not like the natural hunter she is - but like chattel bearing an insufferable weight. Slowly, she began to sniff and paw at her new environment. By the time our walk was done she swaggered with the confidence of a show dog. Better, an adopted girl who had finally found her home.
We thought that Lilly would never again be leash- or harness-wary, but we were wrong. Sometime over the past few months, Lilly again became apprehensive when we tried to slip her front-loading harness over her head. She ducked and dodged us like a like an all-pro running back. Strange that Lilly should have this reaction even when it was she who gave us her reliable signal that she wanted to go outside for relief or for fun.
My wife and I scoured our collective memories for a seminal event that could account for her aversion to the harness and came up empty. All we knew was that the preamble to daily walks had become distinctly unpleasant for each of us. Not surprising, Lilly’s scrambling away from her harness grew more desperate when either my wife or me were on a timeline and needed to take her out to potty.
Then, it hit me. In our haste to prepare Lilly for walks, my wife and I had resorted to corralling her frontally and and slipping her harness over her head from above - probably the most threatening stance one can assume with a dog! Could it be that we had unwittingly conditioned Lilly to fear her own leash and harness?!
Though Lilly voiced her own discomfort clearly in dog language - flattened ears, head turned away from us, repeated lip-licking, body stiffness - we were clearly not listening.
So many of us take for granted the things we do well (or think we do) and assume that the day will not come when we fall out of synch. “Fight” to get back on track, and our skill degrades further. Relax, reset and remember the basics and our “flow” returns. This is equally true - if not more so - for those of us on two legs in need of training.