Nobody’s perfect

Gus awkward face with snow

So, just in case you think I’m trying to give the impression that Gus is perfect, I thought it was time to set things straight.  He is actually perfect; perfectly normal, as this little story will show.

This morning we were out in the field as usual, and I recognized a familiar face in the distance.  It turned out to be Lydia, a woman I had just met earlier this week.  She was with her two dogs, Sport and Snuggle.  On that earlier day, our conversation had rolled around to my blog because we were talking about getting our dogs to listen.  I had just written the post about communication, so we chatted about it and I was sharing my experiences regarding training Gus, and how far we had come.  In the end, I sent her the link to the blog.   She posted a lovely comment, and has since contacted our trainer to help her with her dogs.

The point in all of this is that, on that day, Gus was in top form.  He was the perfect gentleman; running nicely with the other dogs and coming to sit calmly as soon as he was called.  I left feeling delighted that we had made some lovely new friends, and that we had impressed them with Gus’s excellent training and fine behaviour.

Well, this morning as we approached, Lydia was throwing a ball for one of her dogs.  Gus took off like a shot and grabbed the ball before Sport ever had a chance.  He charged back over to us with the trophy in his mouth; ready to play.  I told Lydia that this was our one touchy issue – Gus loves to play ball so much that he doesn’t care whose ball it is -once he gets it, he thinks that the game is all his.

I barked “sit”  and “drop it” in my most commanding tone, and he did eventually sit and drop the ball at my feet.  Unfortunately, he thought that the game was on, and that I was going to throw it again for him.  When I tried to hand the ball over to Lydia so she could put it away, Gus began to jump for the ball in my hands.  Now, Gus is a big dog, and he has a lot of energy.  Believe it or not, it is possible for 82 pounds of doodle to become airborne vertically!  It’s actually pretty hilarious to see him bouncing up and down for the ball, but today I wasn’t impressed.  I felt like I was losing face as he jumped crazily and dodged for my hands as I tried to pass the ball back to its rightful owner.  Gus was so wound up that he totally stopped listening to my commands.  The final straw was when, on one jump, he crashed into my knee with such force that I began to see stars and I had to stop and put my head down to avoid blacking out in the middle of the field!

At this point Jeff clipped Gus’s leash on, and we were able to calmly hand the ball back.  We said an awkward goodbye, and waved as Lydia and her dogs retreated into the distance.  I thought to myself, “well, there goes that good impression!”

Let’s face it, no one is perfect!  Like Gus, we all manage to learn the rules and perform the tricks most of the time – even better if the right people happen to be watching.  However, just like everything else about real life, things don’t always go as planned.  We all have our moments from time to time.  Even the most wonderful mothers have been known to occasionally lose it and holler at their children like a fishwife.  The most poised and collected people can drop their guard and let it all hang out in certain situations, and the picture perfect children can forget themselves and pick their noses at the dinner table in front of Daddy’s new boss.  It happens.

My saving strategy in these moments is a deep breath, a good laugh (if I can muster it), and a reality check to remind myself that this is what real life is all about.  Being perfect all the time takes a lot of work, and it is exhausting.  It’s a standard that no one should be rigidly held to.  I learned a long time ago that it is healthier to accept and embrace those inevitable imperfections in myself, my family members, and of course, my dog.  In fact, if we are in the right frame of mind, these little quirks can be quite endearing, and they often lead to great stories once we can get a little distance and see them in better perspective.  While I do my best to keep my cool and not get hung up about every little thing, I’m only human, and I do forget from time to time like everyone else.  I guess today Gus felt that I needed a little reminder!

Letting go

So, here we are in Cleveland.  We drove in Wednesday night after taking Gus across the street to stay with our good friend Wendi and her family.  It may be hard to believe, but in three and a half years, this is the first time the whole family has gone away together and left Gus behind!  It wasn’t easy.

Like ridiculous overprotective parents, we packed up and carted over Gus’s food, his water dish, his frisbee, his favourite rubber bone, and his enormous bed.  I laughed and rolled my eyes as Jeff wrote out a full page of instructions, right down to the request that someone snuggle with Gus before he goes to sleep!  Then, when no one was looking,  I quietly took the paper and added a line or two of my own.  Okay, now for the hard truth:  we are only going to be away for three nights!

Why is it so hard to let go?  I know that Wendi and her family will take wonderful care of  Gus, and I have every reason to believe that he will be just fine without us.  We can even call and email from the road to be reassured that all is well.  I think that the worry comes from feeling helpless.  In letting go, we give up control over the events that occur between saying goodbye and reuniting once more.

What if there’s a thunderstorm and he is scared?  What if he encounters the nasty dog from around the corner?  Will he eat his food in a different environment?  Will Wendi and her kids know just the right place he loves to be scratched under his chin?  In short, will everything be okay without us??

Of course it will.

Perhaps the real problem is ego.  We can’t imagine that we are replaceable, or that anyone else could possibly fill our shoes while we are away. That may in fact be true, but it doesn’t mean that someone else isn’t able to do what is necessary; just a bit differently.  Even worse, what if  it turns out that Gus doesn’t actually need us as much as we think he does?

We tend to underestimate both the capabilities of those we trust to look after our loved ones, and the adaptability of those we hand over into their care.  Wendi has been a dog owner and trainer for years, and she actually has far more experience than we do.  Gus is, after all, a dog,  and he will tend to live in the present and roll  right along with whatever is right in front of him.  Everything will be just fine.

Throughout our lives we face the challenge of letting go over and over again.  As Labour Day approaches, many parents are preparing to watch their children walk through the doors of new and wonderful places; from kindergarten to high school to university.  We went through it when they were smaller and we left them with babysitters, and now those old feelings are bubbling up to the surface again.  We need to remember to put on a big smile and wave goodbye; telegraphing our confidence in our childrens’ ability to succeed out there.  If we’ve done our job well, then everything will be just fine.

As we come to accept that our charges can manage in new situations without us, we may end up with the bittersweet feeling of being a little less indispensable.  The trade-off, however, is knowing that we can relax and be proud of their independence and ability to stand on their own.  Letting go turns out to be good for everyone.

A walk in the fresh air always makes everything better

You know how it goes.  Take a little basic stress, add in some normal family dynamics; sprinkle with a few messy teenage bedrooms and some laundry pile-ups; season with a pending departure for a few days out of town, and what do you have?  The recipe for a perfect batch of family squabbling!

We are supposed to leave today for a mini-road trip with our kids.  It’s nothing major; just a much-needed few days away together to laugh, chill and generally hang out as a family.  Unfortunately, my Dad has been quite sick in hospital, so we really didn’t think we were going to want to be away, and we had left the final decision until this morning.  I’m happy to say that he is doing much better, and he has joined everyone in insisting that we head out for our little break.  You can understand how the lead-up to today has been very stressful, and we are all exhausted; physically and emotionally.

As we made our decision to go ahead this morning, we roused the kids and told them of our plan.  For some reason, this was the time that we discovered a multitude of neglected chores, messy bedrooms and undone laundry.  It seemed like there was a mountain of work to be done before we were even going to be able to hit the road.  With fuses already short from stress and fatigue, our tempers flared and we all started bickering.  At one point, I announced that it just seemed like too much trouble for a few days, and that we should just skip it altogether and stay home.

Through all of this rising hubub, a large brown dog lay quietly in the corner on the kitchen floor; his soulful eyes moving back and forth between the arguing family members.  I’m not sure what he was thinking, but I know that he could feel the stress level going up.  He always seems to retreat a bit when voices are raised in our house.  I have no doubt that he feels the negative energy, and it clearly affects him as well.

After my final outburst, I looked down at him and announced, “Gus and I are going for a walk!”  And off we went.

It’s beautiful outside today.  The humidity of the past week has cleared, and there was a cool breeze blowing down the street; rustling the leaves as we set out.  This morning’s rain had left everything smelling fresh and renewed, yet there were still a few drops falling from the trees as we passed under them.  The sun danced in and out from behind the clouds, and I felt my tension start to ease up as we headed down the street; falling into our familiar rhythm together.

We walked for almost an hour, and I found myself letting go of the issues that had seemed so important and annoying back in the house.  Do I really care if the kids’ rooms are clean?  So what if there’s laundry waiting for us on Saturday.  Everything will be ok with Dad, and the rest of the family can manage without me for a few days.  At one point, Gus turned back and looked at me with his goofy smile, and I could swear he seemed to be saying “see Mom . . . isn’t everything better once you get outside!”

By the time we rounded the corner to head back towards home, my head felt clearer and my steps were lighter.  I was ready to walk in the door with a smile and move into gear for our family getaway.  As the icing on the cake, a woman suddenly called out and waved to me from across the street.  I could tell she didn’t speak English, because she only made hand gestures, but she waved and pointed at Gus, and then gave me a huge smile and a double thumbs-up sign.  Gus had worked his magic again!

What goes around comes around

So, here’s the story:

Several times over the last few months, Gus and I have encountered Fido (names have been changed to protect privacy) and his owner on our morning walks.  The first time we met, I asked Fido’s owner if he was friendly.  “Oh yes,”  she replied.  So Fido and Gus did the requisite “hello” ritual – a bit of sniffing here and there- and generally checked each other out.  Gus is pretty easy going, and in his typical fashion, he eventually took a seat on the sidewalk as the two humans chatted for a bit.

At this point I must point out that Fido is a very small dog -probably 10 or 15 pounds, in contrast to Gus’s 80 or so.  The two dogs chilled on the sidewalk for a minute, and then,  for some reason I cannot explain, Fido suddenly decided to lunge at Gus.  He ran to the edge of his little leash, snarling and yipping, and generally appearing about as ferocious as a little 15 pound white dog can appear.

Gus understandably jumped back out of Fido’s reach, and regarded him with a curious look.  If I had to imagine the text bubble above his head, it would have read, “yo man,  what the heck is your problem??”  I said a quick farewell, and off we went with Fido’s owner apologizing after us.

A similar scenario has played out on several other occasions when we have encountered Fido.  Not wanting to foster ongoing bad relations in the neighbourhood, I have tried to give him a few second chances, but it just doesn’t seem to be worth the effort.  Fido’s behaviour has been pretty consistent.  He always waits for a bit, and then charges at Gus; yapping like crazy.

The last time we encountered them, Gus and I finally decided that we’d made a solid effort, and didn’t need to worry about being social anymore.  We nodded hello, steered a wide path around them on the sidewalk,  and continued on our way.

Well, yesterday morning things were a little different.  For the first time ever, we ran into Fido out in the middle of the field, when both dogs were off-leash.  I decided to let things take their course.  Gus hesitated at first, and then trotted up to Fido to say hello.  (I have to hand it to Gus; he really is so good-natured!).  As I had hoped, something about being off-leash changed the dynamic, and the two dogs seemed content to mill about each other with no obvious drama.   We hung about and chatted for a bit; remarking on how nicely things were going.

Then, as if someone threw a switch, Fido went back into his old mode and suddenly charged at  Gus.  Well, this time Gus must have decided that he’d had enough of this little bully, and he gave it right back!  He didn’t touch Fido, but he snapped back at him with a serious growl as if to say “that’s it!  I’ve had enough of you!”  The humans were a little stunned by the loud noise, and I think Fido was too.  He beat a hasty retreat and promptly sat down at a safe distance; striking a pose like a perfect little stuffed doggy.  I don’t think he’ll bother Gus again!

What I hope that Fido figured out was that everything eventually comes full circle.  The way that you treat someone on a first encounter is usually registered, and filed away for future reference.  Most of us, like Gus, can brush off rude behaviour when it happens, but it leaves a lasting impression nonetheless.  Sooner or later, bullies usually get what they deserve in the end.

Fortunately, I do believe that the opposite is also true.  Positive acts can be even more powerful and lasting in their reach than negative ones.  When we go the extra mile for someone, or extend ourselves with an act of caring or kindness, our actions boomerang back to us eventually; often via some unexpected route.

Communication is much more than simply words

Jeff talking to Gus in the hall

“Come!”  “Sit”  “Paw”  “Leave it!”

A dog’s life is full of the commands that we use in order to convey important information, and to elicit the behaviour we want from them.  Like most new dog owners, we devoted countless hours to practicing these simple commands with Gus when he was a puppy.  He, in turn, rewarded us by dutifully performing on cue -often in front of an attentive audience.  Let’s face it, what good is a dog if you can’t impress your friends and family with his tricks?

As Gus grew up, we began to have trouble with some of his “listening” skills.  We found that he didn’t always respond to our commands consistently anymore, and we began to get frustrated.  I was reduced to tears on a number of occasions as he galloped insanely through the park; ignoring my pleas for him to come to me.  We decided that we needed some help.

Enter Troy; a fabulous trainer who had been discovered by some of our neighbourhood dog people.  Now, I won’t go into all of the details of what Troy did with us, although I will tell you that the kids were convinced that he is part dog (they kept trying to see the tail concealed under his jacket!).  What I will tell you is that, through our “dog training” sessions, Troy helped us to develop a better understanding of ourselves.

It all came down to the fact that we weren’t giving Gus the messages we thought we were when we interacted with him.  Dogs are so finely attuned to what is around them, that they pick up so much from us that has nothing to do with the words we are speaking.  We began to focus on things like our tone of voice, head angle, and body stance when we gave commands to Gus. We came to realize that the total of all our nonverbal cues was overriding the commands we thought we were giving.    These lessons were invaluable.  We began to focus more on how we were delivering our messages,  and by following Troy’s suggestions we soon found a huge improvement in the issues we had been struggling with.

Life is all about communication.  Every day we have thousands of interactions with those around us.  How much of what we think we are saying ends up as the real message read by the person on the receiving end?  Simply changing our tone of voice and posture can give an entirely different meaning to a phrase as simple as “what are you doing?”

We humans aren’t as skilled as our canine friends, but we sure can read the subtle cues conveyed by arms tightly folded across a chest, a tip of the head, or a sarcastic tone at the end of a sentence.  The subtext may become the headline; and the impact of our words may not be at all what we intended.

When we run into problems with one another, more often than not it’s a result of signals getting crossed, or messages being muddled.  Focusing on all the components of the message we are sending makes it much more likely that our true meaning will come across as intended, and that we will see our desired response.  Imagine that. . .

Surround yourself with the things that make you happy

Gus loves balls.  It’s that simple.  Tennis balls, rubber balls, soccer balls; it really doesn’t matter.  He loves to carry them in his mouth when he walks.  He loves to run and fetch a ball if you’ll throw it for him.  He even loves to lie on the floor with a ball in his mouth and just roll it around.  This is what makes him happy.  As you can see from the picture, he’s in his element just being surrounded by what he loves.Gus with tennis ballsWe all have our own little things that make us happy.  For me, it’s my morning cup of coffee in my faded mug, the smell of freesia, and of course the endless bounty of colourful vegetables at a farmer’s market!  Jeff knows that if we are ever out in the country and we come upon a market, we absolutely have to stop.  It’s my happy place.

When you know what makes you smile, don’t skimp.  Serve your dinner on a beautiful plate.  Splurge on a single decadent chocolate truffle. Put on your softest cotton pj’s and curl up with the latest electronics flyers.  Life demands that we spend so much time looking after the needs of others that we often forget to take a minute and indulge ourselves.  Never underestimate how much pleasure you can get from something incredibly simple.  Give it a try!

Warm Fuzzies

True wisdom means knowing that, on some days, the right thing to do is to just stop thinking about everything,  and relax with something warm and cozy.

This little video is my treat for you all.  (Josh made it and posted it on Youtube the week that Gus joined our family)

Thank you so much to everyone for all the incredible support and encouragement I have received this week.