This is a love story. Vulnerability. Blech.
This does not happen often, but this dog is really special to me. So, here goes: I ran/raced triathlon competitively throughout most of my teen and adult life until a chronic injury got real, like really real. Enter a decade of doc appointment, tests, rest, diagnoses, frustration, surgeries, depression, climbing out of depression, training, only to start over again. To add to the problem, my profession is fitness. I’m as gritty as they come, but with the inability to train, compete and teach fitness, I lost a big part of myself. Chronic pain is a chronic bitch and by 2015, I thought I had officially broken up with running.
“You F#$&er.” My left hand investigated my torn jeans, bleeding face and dinged up Doc Martins, while my right hand held his collar. We sat side by side, deep in the woods, me on a log, Ojai in leaves. He sat with an open-mouth pant. His eyes sparkled, even in the dark woods. I dropped my head, tasting harsh metallic in the back of my throat. My calves throbbing in pain. A split second error, a mis-clip of his leash. As opportunistic as they come, he took the opening and set off into the icy forest behind our house.
20 Minutes Earlier
I got the other dog to safety and pursued the shadowy figure bounding up the valley. Sprinting uphill, over trees, under trees, I slid, I clawed and crawled through bramble. He stayed close enough to keep an eye on me, far enough away to make my quads burn and my booted feet feel like they weighed a million pounds. I knew we’d break through the forest and hit the cul-du-sac soon. I prayed no dogs were out, knowing he would bolt hard or fight hard. When we hit civilization, Ojai paused, scanning for his next move. With a soon-to-be lost dog on the line, I needed a better strategy. I whooped it up with a joyful noise used for recall, caught his attention, turned my back to him and ran into the woods. He chased me, caught up and settled in at my side.
I remember Ojai’s foster mom asking me why I wanted a 3-legged dog. “I don’t,” I said with a laugh. “I just want a great match. I guess it doesn’t matter how many legs he has.” Jesse and I both fell in love with the sleek, handsome black dog. To top it off, Ojai was incredibly tolerant of our pint-sized Havanese and Hilo was enamored by his new 3 legged pal. On the day we brought Ojai home, his foster mom told me that he was going to fall in love with me. I remember thinking how lucky that this enchanting dog was going to love me.
Ojai had never known a human bed. The first night with us, he took up a small spot at the foot of the bed, cautiously curling into a tight ball. Night 2, he claimed his forever place - his head on my pillow. Ojai was about 3 weeks post amputation when we brought him home. His barking, lunging, and maniac chasing increased exponentially over the next few weeks. He hated bikes, the mailman, pedestrians, fast movement, slow movement, no movement, things too close, things too far away. I got yelled at because he’d flail at the end of his leash and scare the shit out of people. He was a wild banshee in public. But, when that wasn’t happening, he loved on us with the same intensity. Everything, the good and the bad, is extreme. Still, I saw pure magic in him. I was determined to make him better.
In the moment, I was offended when he bolted on me. Me? His best friend. His rescuer. His mom. After a few minutes of sitting on that log in the woods, it all became so freaking clear. His love of running reigned above it all. I used to know someone exactly like that.
The whole point of having a dog is to have a loving friend; a furry pal to bum around with; a mate for every adventure. But, what happens when what we want and need doesn’t match up with what they want and need from this shared life?
Social media tells us that dogs belong everywhere all the time, from farmers’ markets to restaurant patios, biergartens and on shopping sprees. I really and truly love the movement toward a canine friendly community, but the reality is, not all dogs are ready and capable for navigating those environments. Neither are their people.
Don't get me wrong - I think dog owners have the absolute best of intentions; after all, they are just socializing their dogs, giving them a great life and creating awesome memories with their dogs. But I have to ask, is that the actual outcome?
My Lesson Thea and I started running together about one year ago. We did a couple of canicross races, trail running events for dogs and their people. Then, we had the opportunity to run a regular human event in town - one of my favorites, in fact. It’s a small race and the race promoter was kind enough to say dogs are ok. Thea and I parked the car, geared up and walked to the startline, to the startline with really loud music. Then, I watched the sun set. “Had Thea ever run in the dark?” Like we do in busy environments, we kept moving and she was doing awesome. My girl. Doing a big race. Then, people I know started to arrive and circle around - our opportunity to keep moving became restricted. Nice people wanted to pet the pretty dog. Thea started to get jumpy; her go-to nervous behavior is to jump on people. Out of nowhere, Thea growled and threw herself on the end of her leash toward a woman walking a dog behind us, admittedly she startled me too. I wasn't paying attention.
Too Deep I put her in too deep. What was I thinking? I’ll tell you what I was thinking - Thea and I had been working a ton on public appearances, running and hiking in groups, being around other dogs on leash and navigating crowds. She had been thriving in every situation. However, running races are second nature to me, not her. What I didn’t do is work through the real logic of it. Any one of the factors that caused her new and unexpected stress would have been no big deal. But all of this, it was just too much - too much waiting, too dark, too many people too close to us, and my focus was split in too many directions.
We started toward the back of the pack. Thea ended up doing phenomenal - she navigated the crowd like a pro, kept pace and her normal, loose, running body language. Thank goodness for resilience, training, luck and whatever else was on our side. We finished, while proud of her and grateful for every mile with any running buddy, I felt like a jerk.
Retool Expectations I want to have a dog that can run everywhere with me, all distances, all terrains. You may have a dog who you want to be the belle of the dog park, or queen of the cafe - and it's just not happening. Maybe it's full on disaster, maybe it's just not quite what you dreamed. So how do we better align a human goal with a dog's abilities and interests? We get flexible, we explore alternatives and we work toward a training solution. Let's turn struggles into strengths.
This weekend, the weather was great and it made for an excellent opportunity to observe (creep) on people and their dogs. Here are a couple of the more common dog/human goals that are slightly out of alignme
The super cool thing is that none of these social goals are bad - in fact they are great ways to hang out with your dog. But, there is an element of planning and training that could make them really successful.
My Solution? Never race again. JUST kidding. We totally paw the start line, but not at night and not at every race (or distance, or pace). This past weekend, we raced in Kenosha at the Pike River Trail Run. Start to finish, it was a brilliant day. During the exciting pre-race moments, we kept it moving, avoiding the chaos. I carried treats in my FuelBelt pouch. On the run, we allowed really energetic dogs to pass and we stopped to sip water in the river. Was it fast. Nope. Was it the manner in which I would have run on my own? Not even close. Was it fun? 100% I advocated. I made the decisions that were best for her. Today, we were a team. Today, we shined.
Shine On You are your dog’s advocate and guardian. When you hit the streets, the trails or the city with your pooch, that dog isn't an accessory. She's your partner in awesomeness and adventure. In other words, it's a "we" thing, not a "me" thing and just like any relationship, there's a bit of navigating, definitely challenges, and absolutely compromises and choices. So, if you and your pup aren't jiving, behavior needs some fine tuning or you're feeling at a loss, take some time to bring your goals and your dog's abilities into alignment. I promise you, that dog adores you just as much as you adore her. The work is worth it. And, you will both shine so brightly.
Reach out to Jess at firstname.lastname@example.org for help building a stronger bond and better behavior with your best friend
Local Dog Adventure Blog
Join me and my 3-dog crew as we share our stories of training and adventure. Whether you're a newly leashed dog guardian, veteran handler, weekend warrior, cuddle on the couch sort, got yourself a fancy AF purebred or filthy, little mudblood, all are welcome in the Local Dog Tribe. If you want your pooch to think you're the coolest thing since sliced hot dogs, read on!