The Hardest Thing
By Sean O’Shea
What’s the hardest thing for both owners and trainers? It’s the power of association, emotional habits, perceptions, and feelings. All the stuff owners have accidentally or inadvertently created between their dogs, themselves, and their environments.
Watching well-trained, calm, and obedient dogs literally become different animals – reactive, aggressive, crazed, freaked out, incapable of listening etc – right before your eyes as the owner enters the room, grabs the leash, or returns the dog home is something that never ceases to amaze and confound.
It’s the one thing we can’t control. Even with owners doing their homework, having the tools and commands down pat, and showing up ready to change it all, it’s still the wildcard in play. For many dogs it’s a seamless transition – they jump right into the new game. For others, it’s a totally different story. These dogs are so affected by the relationship/associations/feelings they have with their owners that their minds and nervous systems simply meltdown.
They are so aroused, excited, overwhelmed, over-stimulated, and most of all, reconnected to their past feelings (dependency, guarding, fear, anxiety, excitement, possessiveness etc) that they’re completely different dogs. They don’t respond to commands. They don’t care about the tools. They react when they didn’t react. They explode when they previously didn’t care. The just-minutes-ago calm, and well mannered dog, disappears in an instant! They actually engage in physical ticks and behaviors (rolling on the ground, scratching, licking, spinning, whining etc) to try to channel out some of this toxic remembrance and association.
This is the power of relationship and association. Dogs not only get into behavioral patterns, they also get into emotional, and physiological (secretions of stress hormones) patterns. They actually feel emotionally different, and physically different around their owners and environments. To be successful with these guys, it’s not just about training new behaviors and habits, no, we’re talking about needing to actually reprogram the emotions and the body of these dogs.
To be successful, these dogs need to actually FEEL different in their owner’s presence and in their home environments. And this is the Mt Everest that these owners have to climb, if they want their dogs to be safe, polite, relaxed, and well-behaved. These owners have work ahead of them that many aren’t going to be down for, simply because it’s too hard, too exhausting, and takes too much perseverance. It’s not your usual dog training hand over, it’s something totally different. It’s human and dog reboot time. World Series version.
This was me with my two dogs, Oakley and Junior. It took me fighting and wanting it so bad, for over a year and a half to get them to finally reset. We had SO many negative, toxic associations and feelings, that the only fix was tons of time and tons of effort. Daily battle, of me wanting this and being unwilling to give it up unrealized. It was messy, and it was far from pretty, but we got there. Finally.
For other owners who find themselves in this position, I can tell you that what you want is definitely possible, but I can also assure that it can be an incredibly hard, and long road. And only those who want it bad enough to go out day after day and earn back a new relationship, create new associations, and develop new feelings will get it. It will be hard, it will be uncomfortable, it will often feel hopeless, and it might even be embarrassing, but that’s the required exchange if you find you and your dog in this predicament, and you want to find your way back out.
P.S. Yes this is about training, tools, commands, rules, structure, and accountability, but even more so it’s about the inner resolve to become the person you need to be daily, in every moment, to create these lasting changes in your dog’s perception of you.
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