Good Enough?

Scared dog at hoarding siteChildhood milestones in my life could be measured by learning how to swim. There are grainy, black and white home movies showing me leaping up, wiping the hair out of my eyes after demonstrating the newly gained skill of putting my face in the water at our lakeside cottage. I remember learning the “deadman’s float” and pretending to swim in the shallow water, my hands on the bottom of the lake as I practiced kicking my feet. When I went away to college I sought refuge in the pool swimming laps. Waiting for me at the deep end one afternoon was a young man. He had been watching me and asked if I’d like some tips to improve my strokes. I’d never had a lesson and along with enjoying the attention figured, why not?

He suggested some minor adjustments to how I held my head in the water, the position of my arms as they reached to enter the water and start the freestyle stroke, how to loosen up my hands and alter the depth of my kicks. Whenever we happened to be at the pool at the same time he coached me on subtle changes I could make to improve the efficiency of my movements. Soon I was swimming a mile and only stopping because I was tired of the routine, not because I was tired. The things he taught me made me a better swimmer and I took my new found confidence and joy in my abilities and found summer jobs as a life guard and swim instructor. I went from being good enough to being better.

It’s not unusual for us to learn how to do something just well enough to achieve some success and be happy with it. We get the job done, and that’s reinforcing. I have no plans to become a competitive swimmer and am content to go for long distance swims simply for the pleasure of it. Most of the skills I have learned are probably like my swimming skills, I get by with them enough to not see the need to put the energy into improving them. My interactions with my dogs were like that for most of my life, that is until Sunny came along and showed me that good enough was not going to cut it.

There are people involved in dog rescue, training and rehab who seem to have settled for “good enough” when it comes to how they handle dogs. They get what they need from the dogs and that’s reinforcing enough for them to not bother trying to improve on what they do. I recently watched a video of an obviously caring and compassionate rescuer using restraint and force to get a dog to let them handle her. To the casual observer it was heartwarming and the audience broke into applause and shed tears when the dog finally gave in and stopped resisting. Many would say that the ends justify the means and I did not question for a moment the good intentions of the handler. But I’m not a casual observer. No one working with fearful dogs can take the risk of remaining casual when interacting with scared dogs.

I remember reading this rescuer saying that they did not pay attention to what others said or did, they did what worked for them, and without question they were being reinforced routinely by the success they were having with dogs. But I saw someone who though “good enough” by the low standards currently upheld today in the field of dog rescue, had the potential to be amazing. All of the behaviors they were getting they could have attained without using force and restraint. A terrified dog would not have to be subjected to the additional stress and what looked to some as acquiescence in the dog, looked to me like a dog who had simply given up trying to fight anymore. A dog who was saying “uncle.” Why go there if you don’t need to?

We all know that the story continues after the camera stops rolling, the tears have been shed and the money has been donated. Plenty of dogs go on to become happy pets, but there are others for whom “good enough” wasn’t enough. Their failure will be attributed to any number of causes; the dog’s past or genetics. But when will we acknowledge that if all the people who handled the dog throughout the rescue process understood behavior, understood how animals learn, understood that good enough was not always going to cut it, more dogs could be successful pets? It’s one thing to be on the path to improving one’s skills. It’s another to refuse to even step onto it.

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14 comments so far

  1. Hazel on

    So true!!!! I don’t want a good life for my fearful boy,I want the best life he can have. I decided it was time for me to step outside of my box to help him as no one else was going to. Learned more from my fearful boy than ever before.

    • Debbie Jacobs on

      And it feels good to keep learning too!

  2. Sam Tatters on

    Well said!

    I used to be amazed at the number of people who would claim to be a dog trainer, behaviourist, or worse a dog psychologist. And all with no more qualifications than having watched a TV show. Meanwhile, I’m over here slogging my guts out with a full time job, a college course, and practical learning, to get to the same place as them.

    If I could do it all again from the start, I’d still choose the same path. Knowledge really is power – in this case the power to really help others.

    • Debbie on

      I think that your efforts will pay off as people begin to raise their expectations for trainers. People love dogs and want what’s best for them.

  3. Linda Trunell on

    Well said. The “quick fix” in working with a dog can do long-term damage. Every dog deserves to be respected and handled without force or intimidation.

    • Elizabeth N on

      i’m with you Linda. I just rought home a little Boston Terrier who was rescued from a puppy mill. She was so traumatized and fearful it brought tears to my eyes. Anyway wrapped her in a warm blanket popped her into a cosy bed on my front seat and brought her home. It’s only been 4 days but she is accepting food from my hand. She spends most of her time curled up in her bed and in her crate at night but is doing well with potty training. So far no accidents. It will be a long road but it will be filled with patience & love.

  4. emily douglas on

    God bless you for writing this.

    • Debbie Jacobs on

      What a nice thing for you to say!

  5. Anu on

    Debbie, you are right on again!

    On days when I’m tired, or in a hurry and try to rush Remy through an open door, or around the neighborhood on our walk, he either snarks at me or worse, slams on his brakes and freezes. That shames me into remembering that in raising Remy, good enough just isn’t.

    Fortunately for Remy, I’m getting better at thinking up other ways of doing things when something spooks him. I’m learning to be a better teacher to, and advocate for him.

    Good enough is so much easier than trying to figure out another way – a less scary way, a better way for Remy. But he deserves the best I can do for him, not the most convenient for me.

    And so my little dog and I are bumble through his fear issues and my sometimes inept handling, together. Each small victory of Remy’s is hard won, hugely celebrated, and serves a lesson for both of us to build on.

    Thank you for being our guide and best cheerleader along the way!

    • Debbie Jacobs on

      I appreciate you sharing your challenges with us. You are on the road to being better and that’s important to keep in mind, especially when you stumble!

  6. Amaryllis on

    Unfortunately, “not biting” seems to be the gold standard of behavior in most peoples’ eyes. I actually saw the video you’re talking about (or there’s two, and now I’m more disturbed) and cringed the whole way through. Gee, thanks rescuer, now you’ve made it 10x as hard for the eventual adopter to do that same thing, when you could have applied some desensitization/counter conditioning and actually had the dog okay with what you were doing.

    I know, I know, they meant well. But the road to Hell is indeed paved with good intentions.

  7. Elizabeth N on

    so glad I found your website. I think this will be a big help to Saidie and myself.

  8. I think about these dogs a lot. I got my dog from a lady who didn’t have time for her anymore working 12 hour days. I respected the fact that she did one of the hardest things she would ever have to do so her dog would have a better life. She’s been a great dog and I love her every day. Thanks for sharing.

  9. Joy on

    I am also glad I found this site…and read your book. I know Angus and I will benefit from your experiences.


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