Wednesday, February 27, 2013

People grow up

I thought a lot about patience today, as I walked my dog. She's going to be one year old in just a couple of weeks. I have no idea how many times I've walked her up and down our road in that year, but it's been many, many, many times. Probably close to 250 times, since I walk her 4-6 days a week.

It's so important for her, that walking time. It's important for me, too. It's a time of bonding, of learning about each other, and about the world of our little road.

It's taken me nearly 9 months to teach Reya to walk on a leash with me - or maybe it's taken me that long to learn how to teach her. When we began - the second day I owned her - she was afraid, and unsure of everything. The leash was new. This big, scary black pavement was new. The cars were monsters. She tiptoed behind me, sitting down on her little furry bottom every few steps and looking at me as if I was crazy for wanting to be out in this big, scary world.

I didn't want to frighten her more by coaxing, so I waited patiently (most of the time) for her to decide to get up and follow me again. I used dog talk - body language - to convince her that everything was all right. I pretended I didn't have a care in the world. I pretended I didn't notice that she was afraid. I hoped she'd pick up on my unspoken message. It took several weeks, but as she adjusted to our family and our environment, the road was no longer quite so scary. She would trot behind me fairly confidently, only sitting down occasionally.

Then Reya began to discover her nose.

She had a nose! God had given her a wonderful nose, and - look! - He had put all these wonderful smells in the world! There was something in the ditch! There was something in that mud puddle! There was something over there, in that driveway....

She wanted to go everywhere and smell everything. She'd walk contentedly enough with me until her nose touched the pavement and she picked up a scent. Then - whoosh! - she was off to find the source of the smell. ...Until the leash stopped her.

Walking Reya began to be quite a task. I would come inside every morning with sore arms, and blistered - sometimes bleeding - fingers, where the leash had rubbed them raw. I determined not to "choke" my dog into walking beside me - the leash is for corrections, not the steering wheel - but continual corrections left me drained and discouraged. Would she ever learn? I marched up and down the road every morning, tense and upset, face straight ahead, correcting my dog with the leash every few steps, swallowing down the lump in my throat and calling myself all sorts of names for not being able to handle my own dog, and crying silently every time I had to hurt her a little to correct her. I despaired over ever being a good mother some day - if I lost my temper over my dog, how could I mother children?!

I've heard the definition of stupidity is doing the same thing over and over again, and expecting different results, so, based on that definition, I suppose I was being stupid. I needed to try new teaching tactics.

Eventually I got the point, and I began to try different ways of walking her. The first change was huge.

Before I got a dog, I walked a mile or two every morning by myself, and I didn't like the loneliness. I pictured my dog and I exercising together every morning - her trotting submissively by my side. This new puppy didn't want to stay by my side, and she grabbed the leash to play tug-of-war every time we started to run. Instead of a profitable exercise time, I had to stop every few seconds and correct her, or drag her away from cat poo. How was I supposed to get my heart rate up for decent cardio, if I had to stop every few feet? And how were we supposed to walk a mile in 15 minutes if she didn't behave? 

My first change was a change in attitude and priority. This wasn't about me getting my morning mile in. This was about teaching my dog, and I would take it as slow as I needed to, and stop as many times as I needed to until she learned. I knew it'd pay off in the future. I turned off the internal stop watch in my head.

As I did so, I thought about all the times I've heard older mothers advise younger mothers; "just slow down and let your children be a part of your life. Take the time to teach them to do things, even if it takes longer than doing it yourself. It will pay off later." I always thought that was great advice. Pity it took so long for me to apply it to my situation.

That was huge. It took a lot of stress out of my walk. And Reya behaves better when I'm not stressed. I think I'm a good actor, but she always smells my moods - maybe literally - and reacts like a mirror.

I continued learning new ways to teach her - holding the leash differently, using voice commands, practicing in restricted areas, putting the leash higher on her neck, using a different collar, using treats. ....Some things worked (like holding the leash differently), some things didn't (like the treats). But I learned. I laughed and told myself that Reya wasn't learning to walk on the leash - I was learning to walk Reya! 

I saw small improvements, but over all I just kept seeing the continual corrections every morning, and the fact that she always jerks my shoulder when we passed that certain tree, and that she always tries to chase the grey and white cat. 

This morning, I compared her walk with me to our walks of three months ago. Ya know what? She's improved. I looked down at her fuzzy black head, bobbing along by my knee, her white paws (looking like kid gloves), padding next to my feet, and I was pleased. So what if her ears were pricked, and she was looking for the next cat to chase? She hadn't touched her nose to the pavement in several minutes. So what if that was the dreaded cat up ahead, and I would have to spend several minutes in the middle of the road teaching Reya what submission means? I knew it was coming, and I'd do it. I wouldn't let myself worry about what the neighbors think of me, or wonder when Reya would learn. I know she is learning. I know that each battle takes us one step further on the road to being the perfect team.

Sure enough - the cat was temptation enough for Reya to break her beautiful "heel," and dart to the end of the short leash. I was pained, hearing her choke a little, but stayed calm, and brought her back to me, and we practiced laying down and keeping her gaze on me, not the cat, right there in the middle of the road. (Thankfully we have a quiet road in the morning.) It took longer than I thought it would, but that was okay. She wasn't perfectly obedient, and that was okay too. I didn't expect her to be. But we stayed there until she was.

She's learning. And so am I. I'm learning that dogs - and people - grow up slowly, and you mustn't judge them before God is finished growing them up. You must be patient, and also you must be happy and excited over the little victories, because those lead to bigger ones. You must trust God to work in His time, and you must remember that He's never in a hurry. You must look ahead with eyes of faith, and see that this creature - this person - is going to be a wonderful team mate by the time God is through with them.

Yes, Reya is learning. But I'm learning more than she is.

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