I’ve always advocated doing ‘stuff’ with your dogs. I’ve spent many enjoyable hours teaching all my dogs to do potentially useless things. I’ve loved the journey and the bond that results from spending so much time together. Sometimes it drives me insane that I can’t move around the house without having a carpet of dogs bouncing around going ‘Now? Are we working now?’ but I wouldn’t have it any other way. If I’m honest, one of the reasons I have dogs is because I enjoy training behaviours (or messing with their heads).
When Misty came to live with us in June 2019 she got me thinking – who exactly do we do all this training for?
Misty was an 8-year old conformation champion Bouvier des Flandres, imported from Ireland, and had outlived her owner. She was diabetic, vastly overweight and had lived a very quiet sedentary life.
She arrived as a very well trained and well behaved show dog (apart from an annoying habit of chewing wooden furniture and skirting boards), with all the skills necessary for comfortable co-habitation. And that was it. No recall, no sit or down, no pushy in-your-face engage with me behaviour and absolutely proprioception.
I have never lived with such a clumsy dog. She couldn’t do any of the things that we just automatically teach our puppies.
Poor girl – she was totally overwhelmed with the changes in her life in recent months, and moving into a much crazier household that she was used too was almost too much. She clung to Gavin for dear life and when he wasn’t around she kept to herself in the bedroom and was content to do so. Content to lie and sleep all day, content to just occasionally follow the crowd around the garden. She wasn’t interested in me at all.
The first few months were interesting: Misty learnt that there is another way to be a dog. The first time she saw my mad boy Tendai clear the couch in one jump she was completely baffled. She couldn’t understand where dogs go to when they go into an agility tunnel, or how they then magically appear somewhere else. The idea of leaving the grass and looking for stuff in the flower beds was beyond her.
I couldn’t help but start fiddling with her brain. It took me months to get her to sit fast and square and wait a couple of seconds for her meals. She learnt to put her front feet on tub and ‘pivot’. After weeks of walking over poles and other obstacles in our garden she realised she had back feet. Her stamina increased – on our weekly walks at a local field she went from just about keeping up with me walking slowly for 100m to running the length of the field after the others.
I took her to Doggy Paddle for swimming to try and increase her strength and weight loss. My original plan had been to drop her off while I took the others to their bitework class up the road, but she was just so sweet and helpless in the pool that I changed our schedule and took all three Bouvs for regular swims. While Mouse and Tendai rocketed up to 40 lengths of the pool in weeks, poor old Misty just never got the hang of it so she ended up just doing underwater treadmill (much more her thing – clear, simple criteria with staff on hand to help). But she would trumpet and perform in the car until it was her turn.
Misty learnt the rhythms of our house – specifically when was a good time to appear in the kitchen. She started to push through the crowd to play during impromptu training sessions. She turned into a versatile kitchen assistant. You only had to think about making a meal and she was there. Under your feet, pushing her big hairy face into everything she could find. She got to know every nook and cranny of the dishwasher in her role as prewash monitor. We rejoiced the day she managed to get her front feet on the kitchen counter – what an improvement in strength and agility! Of course, we lived to regret that joy, but it still made us smile.
The outcome of this was that Misty started to enjoy my company and wanted to be with and do things with me. This made me happy. The happier I was with her, the more she participated in whatever is going on. Was she an unhappy dog before? No. Was she happier dog with us? Maybe. One thing for sure was that she lived a very different life than she did for her first eight years.
Misty was only with us for ten months – undiagnosed liver cancer got the better of her. As with every dog I’ve ever lived with, she taught me an enormous amount. Living with her reminded me of what Lisa Longo of Animal Académie wrote in her July 2020 blog posted on ZooSpensfull:
Training creates better communication and a better relationship, it increases the skills of the trainer and those of the animal and can also help maintain their good health and good physical capacities (dexterity, muscles, balance, and so on).
(You can read the whole blog post here)