Can’t She Just Get Along (Part X): Taking Stock of Progress

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After we adopted Lilly, the Boston terrier, just over five years ago, my wife and I both breathed a sigh of relief.

She showed zero people-aggression.

At the time, Susan and I were still reeling from the loss of our first dog, Louie, a Boston-terrier-boxer-mix, who inexplicably developed fear-biting behaviors with first few months with us. No amount of training and behavioral intervention could reform his hair-trigger snapping at strangers who suddenly appeared from behind bushes or walls.

Though Louie’s story had a happy ending thanks to some horse ranchers in Orange County, our hearts were still hollowed out when we brought our Lilly girl home. Still, we believed we had ample love to give and Lilly’s history of rejection by the family she should have been able to trust prompted us to roll the adoption dice again. And we won - big time.

Lilly was the people-magnet people wish they could be. She welcomed just about everyone with a polite sit and presenting of her paw and - if you gave her permission - a complete facial with her tongue. She was the canine equivalent of Will Rogers: she never met a human she didn’t like . . .

Emboldened by her good manners with bipeds, my wife and I looked forward to long walks in the neighborhood with our perky pooch trotting beside us. One Saturday morning, we’d barely stepped outside the front door when Lilly froze to stare at the distant figures approaching. It was an old man walking what looked like a toy poodle. They must’ve been at least two hundred yards away. Lilly growled and twirled like the Looney Tunes Tasmanian devil. She spun so fast she almost lifted off the ground! I quickly scooped Lilly up into my arms and the three of us retreated to the foyer of our building.

Time to regroup.

So began our wondrously informative and sometimes maddening journey to help Lilly at least tolerate other dogs. Those of you who’ve followed our Can’t She Just Get Along series have learned some valuable lessons right along with us: 

  • It is unnatural for dogs on-leash to meet “head on” during walks; this direct approach is considered aggressive by dogs. Their preferred method of introduction is to “circle” one another off-leash (or, at least on a “loose” leash), then draw closer to sniff each other. They then either make friends or back off.
  • Dogs “talk” with their whole body; their lips, eyes, ears, tail and overall posture. Hundreds of possible communication combinations exist and not every breed has access to all modes (i.e. floppy ears, short tail, etc.). Understanding Lilly’s “language” has helped us diffuse or avoid unpleasant situations.
  • Our “desensitization” (distract-and-treat) technique worked so well at first that my wife and I began to let our guard down while walking Lilly. As a result, we once had to pry her off another dog we didn’t see coming. We learned that training requires unwavering presence and consistency.
  • While many fellow dog-walkers are sensitive to our training of Lilly, some are not. They allow their off-leash dogs to bound up to Lilly and blithely excuse the behavior: “Don’t worry. He’s friendly!” Susan and I had to build this contingency into our walks and craft a calm and measured response.
  • After Lilly made a few, select friends, we decided to expand her social circle by joining a neighborhood dog “play group” we found on nextdoor.com. We met several pet parents dealing with the same issues we faced with Lilly while our dogs had a fulfilling meet-and-greet in a safe and structured environment.
  • Though our play group went on hiatus, Lilly had upped her doggie etiquette to a new level and began making new friends in our neighborhood.
  • Like all other pets - and people - Lilly is subject to the stresses of her environment. Change and uncertainty flooded our home in the weeks before an unattended Lilly tore off after another dog. My wife and I were contrite and humbled by the incident. A happy dog comes from a harmonious home.
  • Training is not a one-and-done endeavor. As with the human striving for betterment, “progress” in shaping good canine citizenship is not linear. By surrendering to this reality, we relaxed - and so did Lilly.
  • Lilly shows preferences for certain dogs the same way we play favorites with people. She gets to pick her friends the same way we do. Why would we expect any more of Lilly than we would of ourselves? 

Looking back, I’m awe-struck that three beings of two different species could teach and learn and grow so well together.