Last week I took a call from a prospective client who told me she was struggling with her dog.
He is a dock diving competitor and his mum, we will call her Sally, travels all over the state and beyond, in order that Bobby [names changed to protect the innocent, as usual] can compete at the highest level.
I knew what the problem was the minute Sally, his Mum, started talking and I am sure you will too.
When a prospective behavioral client calls, I start every conversation the same way, pretty much.
‘Tell me about your dog. Age, breed, temperament, how happy he or she is, any medical issues you know of, any dietary issues you are aware of, where he came from, and how long you have had him?’
I start there so it gives me a baseline of information that I may need to call on later if there’s something that doesn’t make sense.
(I’m not kidding, one time, in my early days, I had a lady who called me asking for help with leash walking as her dog was getting very stubborn on walks. I didn’t ask her dogs age until after I had listened to the rest of her spiel, which took half an hour or so, and when I finally got around to it, I found out that the poor bloody dog was 17! It was at least 1000000 degrees outside that week and so I don’t know who was more of a stupid idiot; her for not realizing, or me for not asking upfront about his age?)
Back to Sally (of course also not her real name), who told me the breed and age and then immediately launched into his string of awards and achievements, how he was number one at this and that, how they were traveling 12 hours in the car sometime in the near future to go to Florida for some big competition and how she needed him to get his ‘focus’ on, as this was the ‘big one’.
We didn’t even get to medical or dietary issues! She just launched into what he could do, what a champion he was and how he needed to do better at it.
When I asked about his diet, she started telling me about his ‘perfect weight’ for competition and how she fed a particular food (nasty, nasty food....mass produced kibble) because he doesn’t gain weight on it and that for speed she likes to keep him about 3 or 4 pounds under recommended weight guidelines.
When I asked about his general health, she told me she goes to a sporting dog vet who says that he is ‘competition fit’.
Yada, Yada, Yada......did every single thing have to come back to his sporting prowess?
My third question, and to my mind, the most important question I ask prospective clients, of how happy he was, had gone completely unnoticed, she didn’t give a flying toss about his emotional needs, she just wanted the bragging rights of owning a potential champion.
I’m sorry to say this to any of my clients whose dogs compete, but I am not interested in the slightest as to their sporting achievements.
Telling me that your dog is absolutely the best in the country at something like dock diving or agility or flyball is going to do absolutely nothing for me.
Telling me that your dog is one happy, well balanced soul who feels no stress and enjoys his life, that he has an incredibly fulfilling relationship with his human family? ........Now THAT shit floats my boat big time!
I’ve had clients who have made me cringe because their dogs are on anti-anxiety medication due to ‘performance anxiety’. I hate it, hate it, hate it.
If something’s making them anxious enough to need meds, can’t you just love them enough to find a different sport/ experience to share?
I’ve heard horror stories about owners at competitions berating their dogs for not winning titles, and talking about the dog ‘letting them down’. Honestly!
Oh for Gods sake!
Do they not give a shit about what the dog wants?
Do these people seriously think that anyone is measuring THEIR magnificence because they happen to be lucky enough to own a dog that can jump 30 feet into the air and land in a pool of water? Or complete an agility course in record time?
I have no issue with competition sports for dogs.
I don’t like them for myself or my dogs, mine would all rather go and murder a chipmunk than jump over cavalettis or run and jump off a dock, but I have seen, and personally know, quite a few dogs that genuinely love their sports. They give zero shits about the screaming and shouting of the spectators and are lucky enough to be owned by loving dog owners who continually ask ‘Are you still up for this? Do you still love this? Want to stop now? Because it’s fine if you do.....”
One of my dear friends has been taking her dog to K9 Nosework trials and workshops all over the South for years because her dog loves the ‘mummy and me’ aspect of the trips and also because he absolutely adores the work. He’s not fussed about being with other dogs but he loves to work on his own initiative, and K9 Nosework is great for that. The day he doesn’t, she will stop taking him.
Another friend has a dock diving dog, a little Aussie, who is like ‘Meh’ at the thought of chasing squirrels when he comes to the Ranch, but take him to the pool and he becomes a Dallas Cowboys cheerleader, doing flick flacks and handstands ready to get in and get started. His Mum has told me on numerous occasions that he is ‘a funny little so and so’ who totally gets his mojo when he’s competing, but the day he says ‘No thanks’ is when she will stop schlepping him all over the place to do it.
Back to Sally.
Each time I tried to steer the conversation away from Bobby’s sporting prowess and back to his emotional needs, she demurred. I tried to explain to her that we work holistically and try to meet the needs of the whole dog in order to solve the problem in any one area. She couldn’t see that as being of value to her needs, she just wanted to stop him from balking at the jump and ‘embarrassing her’.
Finally, she very correctly told me that we were both coming at this from opposite directions and that she should try to get help elsewhere. She wanted someone to help her dog get over his fear at competing and make him love the sport again, maybe I knew of a vet that might prescribe something?’
You know what I said to that.
As we finished our conversation, I felt incredibly sad for her dog and wondered how the poor thing would have to step up his efforts to make her realize he didn’t want any part of this any more.
I have no doubt her next call to a behavior counselor will be because he has started nipping at people or self harming, perhaps biting his feet in a frenzy of stress.
Perhaps he will break out in skin rashes or start chasing his tail?
Or maybe it will cause him to completely withdraw...who knows how these things will manifest?
My only hope is that she doesnt blame Bobby when these things occur, because it surely isn’t going to be his fault.
None of us likes to be forced to do things that we hate doing.
I watch those Pageant shows sometimes, transfixed by those vile mothers screaming at their kids to learn better dance moves or to be more ‘cute’, always pushing, pushing, pushing them to the forefront when some of the time, those children would just like to allowed to be children and go get dirty in a stream on a sunny afternoon.
Does everything have to be a competition?
Do we have to win all the time?
Isn’t it enough to have a blast taking part in something and then moving on when we are done?
Stress is a very serious and expensive condition. It forms the basis of most modern day illnesses. How funny that we pretty much eradicated all the illnesses like Polio, Rubella, Scurvy, the Bubonic plague even.........and then, in this advanced ‘modern civilization’ burdened our bodies with the greatest killer of them all, stress.
And now we are inflicting it upon our animals too?
How did this, performance anxiety in a dog, even become a thing?
Take a look at the beautiful being sitting beside you on the couch and ask yourself what you could remove from his life to make it better? What can you add in to replace it, if indeed anything at all?
Ask yourself how much of the stuff you do with your dog is for you, how much is for him and what you can do about redressing the balance if needed?
A happy dog is one who has sunshine, friends, exercise, good food, a soft place to lay his head at night and the love of his pack.
Sometimes, just that is all that’s required.
Be understanding of each other.