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Tuesday, October 17, 2017

What your dog's "Sit" says about your leadership style

Admit it, the first thing you probably taught your dog to do was sit on command…or on several commands, more likely. Why did you do that???

Seriously, as a good leader there should always be a good reason for everything you ask your subordinate to do.  Nobody likes a leader or employer who dishes out “busywork” just to keep his minions occupied.  Your dog can’t respect you, either, if you’re constantly badgering him to do meaningless things.

The real reason you immediately taught him to sit was because it gave you a sense of accomplishment, along with a dose of pride in your dog who was obviously so smart! (Yes, there is sarcasm there.) It really doesn’t take much brainwork on the dog’s part to learn how to put his butt on the floor after you’ve asked him four times in a row. 

Many trainers will tell you that you can calm a hyperactive dog by having him “sit.”  To a small extent, this may be true.  However, when I ask my hyperactive dog to “sit,” I can see her trembling with anticipation of the release—at which point she’ll burst forth with even more pent-up energy.
Calmness doesn’t come from the position of a butt.  It comes from the mind, which is in the opposite end of the dog (or any other animal).  You may be able to get your dog “still” for a couple seconds by asking her to sit, but being still is not the same as being calm.  For the mind to be calm, we must remove the agitations of outside influences, and we must focus the dog’s energy in one direction: toward us.  The best way to do that is to first develop, practice, and live a relationship in which your presence puts the dog at ease.  You can accomplish that, in part, by going back to the Leadership Game when your dog is stressed.

That said, “sit” is a handy command for your dog to know, particularly when you start adding the “stay,” which is like glue or Velcro to the dog’s body position.

So let’s look at a way we can use “sit” to demonstrate our leadership capabilities, rather than just as a button we push at our convenience.

Respected leaders are to be taken at their word.  They only issue commands one time, and expect compliance.  They expect their subordinates to be listening to them because they have already earned that respect.  Watch any group of gregarious animals; the leader of the pack or herd only has to “say” something once (generally using just body language), and everyone responds.  This compliance is key to the survival of the group! When your dog runs out into the middle of traffic, you may have only one chance to say “Come” before he’s hit.  His life depends on him taking you at your word.

So why do we say, “Sit.  Sit.  Sit” to our dogs?  They do NOT have hearing problems!  They DO have compliance problems because we repeat ourselves and fail to physically enforce the commands.  So they develop selective hearing and choose to only sit if they feel like it…or if we bribe them with a cookie.

You can and should teach your dog to sit the FIRST time you say sit.  If you follow through with this principle in all your commands, you will also teach your dog to COME the first time you call him out of the busy street.

So from here forward, your dog will sit the very first time you say it, and you will never have to repeat the command—provided you teach him the right response from the beginning.

How you teach it:

First decide exactly where you want your dog to sit.  In front of you?  At your side?  Wherever he is at the moment?  If you want him to sit at your left side (which we practice in class), get him over there before you ask his butt to go to the floor.

Next, make sure he’s paying attention.  He will not respond if he is looking at (and thus thinking about) the dog on the other side of the classroom.  To get his attention, play Leadership Game and/or simply say his name.  When he looks up at you, he is ready to listen to you.

With your dog now on your left side facing forward (parallel to you), place your right hand firmly on your dog’s upper chest.  Bring your left hand over to the left side of his behind.  Say “Sit” while pushing up and back on the chest and down and in on the behind.  Keep your hands there for a moment and praise the dog. “Good sit!”  Then release by standing up and saying “Okay!”  Repeat.  You will find the dog offering less and less resistance to your gentle assist.  DO NOT repeat the “sit” command.  He heard you the first time.  What you are now teaching him is what it means, and here’s the definition:

“When I say sit, you must immediately lower your butt to the floor wherever you are at that particular moment. If you do not, my hands will go on your body and I will place you in the position.”

Rules for using the “sit” command:

  • ·         Don’t ask your dog to do this unless it’s really necessary.
  • ·         Don’t give this command if you can’t physically enforce it after you have said it once.
  • ·         Don’t repeat the command.
  • ·         Make sure your dog is where you want him to end up when you ask him to sit.
  • ·         Always praise.
  • ·         Always release.

Thursday, October 12, 2017

The Leadership Game

It's been a long excuses about my lack of postings for the past year.  Actually, I've been trying to "retire" from dog training for the past 10 years now, but it doesn't seem to be working.  That's okay, I guess.  Most people's "dog problems" are so simple to fix that I feel an obligation to help--and feel guilty if I don't.

Recently I started a four-week class similar to the "Leadership Classes" I taught in Yakima for many years.  As my old students will recall, everything we do in Leadership Class starts with what I call the "Leadership Game."  I'm once again teaching that to my new students, who are witnessing the same miraculous and quick changes in their dogs' behavior and attitude. As communication improves between handler and dog, the relationship also improves.  The dog almost immediately starts to pay attention, show respect, and exercise self control.

I jotted down some notes for my new students on how to play the "Leadership Game," and then I realized I'd written probably my best explanation thus far of this amazing exercise.  So I'm sharing it here.....

How to play “The Leadership Game”
Stand facing your dog, who may be either sitting or standing—it doesn’t matter, as long as he’s facing you.

Gather the six-foot leash so you are holding the last 18” of it in your hands, held together at waist level.  There should be lots of drape in the leash between you and the dog.  The drape may even drag on the floor…that’s okay.
Without saying any command or even the dog’s name, step quickly backward to the end of the leash, giving the leash a HORIZONTAL zip, snap or jerk (not a pull) as you do it.  This should sharply and suddenly get your dog’s attention and cause him to move slightly in toward you. As soon as you do this, say something (not a command, but praise instead) to your dog to bring his attention toward your eyes.  Continue praising strongly and confidently to keep him looking your way.  Continue moving backward, inviting your dog to keep moving in to you.  If he wanders past or glances away, again move quickly to the end of the leash, giving it a horizontal snap, and using strong words of praise to bring the dog in toward you.   Remember to keep both hands together at waist level on the leash, so that all your physical corrections will move the dog in toward your center.  Keep up this movement and the vocal praise for several minutes each session.

If your dog crowds you—comes in TOO close and tries to step on your toes or push on your body—then bounce him backward a step or two using your leg.  Do not push or shove.  BOUNCE!  The abruptness of this move will help get your dog’s attention and respect without hurting either one of you, and it’s a more natural (dog-on-dog) move—playful and spontaneous.

Note: any bounce or snap of the leash is made relative to the size and disposition of the dog!  A big, heavy dog requires more energy. A small dog requires only a light snap or bounce…just enough to get his attention.

The idea of the "Leadership Game" is to immediately establish your role as the dog’s benevolent leader.  You should be strong, confident, intimidating yet kind. Your ability to occasionally catch your dog “off guard” in this exercise (and thus, get in a leash correction) will solidify this role in your dog’s mind, as you are demonstrating to him that you are faster, smarter, stronger and more leader like than he is (even if you don’t think you really are!)

While you do this, your dog should be giving you 100% of his attention.  In turn, he gets 100% of yours. In effect, you are taking control of your dog’s mind, almost like hypnosis, and keeping him in a “trance” of active, submissive, compliant mindset.

You may see your dog go through transitions during this process.. At first he may seem happy and willing and playful, with perked ears and inquisitive forehead.  This may change into a “Why are we doing this?” attitude, which could provoke minor naughtiness like jumping up, pulling on the leash, or avoiding eye contact.  Getting through these transitions is crucial.  At the end of your session, whether 15 seconds or 15 minutes, your dog’s demeanor should look relaxed, his ears down and back, submissive and listening, his forehead back and smooth instead of furrowed.

You then transition out of the exercise by releasing with “Okay!” or another happy release word.  Or invite him to jump up on you (a tension reliever).  Or ask him to do something else for you.  Pat him on the shoulders with strong hands and exuberant praise that reinforces the idea you are leader and he is subordinate.

Problem-solving the Leadership Game:
If the dog grabs at the leash that’s between you and him, it may be because you accidentally took up the slack (drape) and the leash is right in front of his mouth (easy to grab).  If so, lengthen the leash to reestablish the drape.  It could also be that you have allowed the dog to invade your personal “bubble” without realizing it.  Your dog will do this on purpose, if you allow, as a means of regaining control.  This “crowding” can be corrected by YOU walking FORWARD into your dog and forcing the DOG to BACK UP.  This is also a power move on your part, especially effective with herding dogs whose natural inclination is to control your foot movement by crowding you.  If you have a herding dog, YOU must show him you’re a better herding dog than he is.

If the dog “assaults” you while doing this exercise (i.e., comes forward into you with barking, growling, pawing, or other physical means of interference with your movements) “assault” back with twice the force.  In other words, if he’s moving in to you with intent to jump, move forward into him with more force and bounce him back.  The dog is the Volkswagen and you are the semi-tractor trailer.  Teach him it is his job and duty to “yield” to you.

If the dog is totally non compliant and uncontrollable, abandon the Leadership Game and instead do the “neck massage” to calm the dog, using firm but comfortable control with your hands on either side of his head.  Let the dog finish his tantrum while you talk with strong but soothing words.  When you feel him start to relax, the back of his neck will soften.  Now he’s in a good state of mind (calm, submissive) and able to handle the requests from you, the calm, assertive leader.

What this game does:

  • Forces your dog to concentrate (pay attention to you).
  • Uses natural body movements understood by the dog to communicate strength and benevolent dominance.
  • Calms the dog and removes stressful distractions.
  • Convinces your dog you are bigger, faster, stronger and smarter than he is (even if you are not!) and convinces him you are a leader who should be followed and trusted with his life and welfare.
  • Puts your dog into a settled state of mind so he’s able to think, listen, hear, and respond to your directions or training.
  • Convinces your dog the safest and calmest place for him to be at all times is close to you.

This exercise can be done any time, anywhere for the rest of your dog’s life.  If/when you are working with your dog and you feel you have lost his attention or respect, go right back into this exercise until you can observe the positive change in your dog’s demeanor.

When your dog is in the right state of mind, he is a sponge ready to learn whatever you want to teach him. 

The trainer who originally taught me this exercise was a domineering, ego-maniacal control freak who was so "over the top"  that association with  him nearly ruined my reputation as a dog trainer.  I realized the exercise needed softening and refining to make it palatable to normal people and their sensitive dogs.  There's no room for ego in dog training.  There is, however, a need for human-to-dog communication skill improvement .  So I've spent many years modifying the "Leadership Game" so that the principles will work for all dogs and dispositions.  The whole concept deserves a book of its own.  Maybe some day...

Note:  Those of you familiar with my training and this exercise already know I believe in using a conventional, well fitting "choke chain" for this exercise. The "cha-ching and release" delivered with a quick, horizontal zip of the leash (toward you, the handler), communicates instantly without hurting the dog in any way.   After working with some 12,000 dogs or more over the past 27 years, I still find a simple choke chain, used the right way, to be the fastest, most effective and therefore the most humane and respectful way of doing this exercise on the vast majority of dogs.

Friday, May 6, 2016

My problem with "no kill" shelters

Today I was evaluating Fancy,  a lovely little Rottie mix who'd just come into a shelter in my area over the weekend.  One of the kennel attendants was in the "meet and greet" room with the dog and me, and we were discussing her sweet disposition.  She'd be perfect, I hoped, for an elderly friend who has asked me to help him find a companion dog to replace the boxer he'd recently lost to bone cancer.

Suddenly there was a lot of commotion on the other side of a closed door to an adjacent viewing room.  It was obviously a big dog hurling himself against the door in hopes of getting in to see Fancy.  The kennel attendant looked nervously toward the door and said, "Oh no, I hope Cody doesn't give us any trouble."  Cody was a huge, beautiful American Staffordshire terrier who was on display for the public that day.  He was purportedly a real lover of people, but he apparently had a bad habit of trying to kill every other dog he ever saw.

Just as I was snapping a leash onto Fancy's collar to evaluate her leash manners, the heavy metal door between Cody's viewing room and ours burst open.  In an 80-pound flash of brindle muscle and frenzied snarl, Cody pounced on Fancy and locked onto her jowls.  As he clamped down on her, she screamed and moaned. The attendant and I tried to pull them apart, but to no avail.  She said, "Go get help," so I staggered clumsily to the door, leaned out and yelled "Help!  Help!  Dog fight!"  No one was in the lobby at the time, but within five seconds (which seemed like an eternity) several attendants came running from various directions.  They all descended upon the two fighting dogs, grabbing both and holding on.  One of them stuck a spray can and air horn in Cody's face, but the spray and noise were totally ineffective.  Cody wouldn't let go. The staff asked me to leave the room, so I did, feeling useless and sick.

Within a minute, the noise of the fight was over, and an attendant came out to find me in the lobby.  She apologized profusely for what I had "had to witness."  I told her I was more familiar with the predicament than they could ever realize, and that I fully understood what had just happened.  I asked how they finally got the dogs separated.  She said Cody had eventually eased up in preparation to get a better bite, and that's when they pulled the dogs apart. 

After a few minutes of calm, they let me visit Fancy again in an outdoor kennel.  She'd come through the attack amazingly well, without any lacerations or puncture wounds in her muzzle.  She'd be sore and swollen, and she stunk from having expressed her anal glands, but she was okay.

So here's my heartburn:  I believe Cody should be euthanized rather than put up for adoption.  This behavior is neither normal nor acceptable in any breed, and he is a huge liability for the next owner.  Can his behavior be fixed?  Probably not.  At best, it would be a temporary fix until it was pathologically triggered again.  As lovable as he may be with his people, he's psycho with other dogs.  He is a time bomb, through no fault of his own.  Eventually he will kill another dog, possibly injure a person in the process, and cause deep heartbreak for many people.  Yet this is a no-kill shelter, so Cody could remain there until he finds a new home where he will likely inflict his damage again.

In my 30 years of dog training, I've seen and experienced just about everything in the realm of dog behavior.  I know which behavior modification techniques work and which do not, and I've become brutally realistic about projected outcomes.  Some dogs are easily reformable while others are like the psychotic humans we commit to mental institutions....our human "no-kill shelters."

The goal of this shelter  (which, by the way, is the most outstanding shelter I've ever visited in terms of  facilities, caliber of it workers, and dedication to continued training for its staff and volunteers) is to get all its animals adopted out to "forever homes."  When I voiced my doubts about Cody getting successfully adopted, one of the attendants confidently said, "Oh, he'll get placed.  There's a good home for each one of them."

I beg to differ.  A dog with dangerous, truly abhorrent behavior should not be saved.  Nor should a dog who is critically ill and at risk of spreading its illness to others in the shelter and beyond.  There are WAY TOO MANY really good dogs of all breeds being euthanized all over the country in "kill shelters" due to simple overcrowding and ridiculous, indiscriminate breed ban ordinances.  THIS IS HORRIBLE.  But to keep a known psychopath in a shelter and try to re-home him is equally as wrong.

Some of you who are familiar with my situation know that I chose to have my own dog euthanized due to her escalating aggressive tendencies.  Lizzie was a therapy dog, a great obedience competitor, and an agility champion.  Everyone loved her--most of all, me. But when I saw her senselessly attack and nearly kill an older Lab one day in our front yard, I knew she had crossed the line.The behavior was not normal, nor was it fixable.  To prevent her from inflicting that kind of harm ever again, I had her euthanized that same day.  That was two years ago, and the painful wound in my psyche was re-opened by today's incident.

The term "no kill shelter" may warm the hearts of the naive and beckon them to open their wallets and donate.  But to me, the term sends up red flags.  A shelter should be a place offering temporary safe haven to animals until a responsible and permanent solution can be decided.  If that means one out of 200 dogs should be euthanized, then so be it.  I had my own dog killed, for God's sake!  The memory of that day will haunt me to my death, but my only solace is knowing it was the responsible thing to do.

Sunday, November 29, 2015

"Curb"...The Most Popular Command of All!

Of all the "word commands" I've taught in my behavior improvement classes over the years, the hands-down favorite of my students has been "Curb."  Back when I was charging semi-big bucks for my classes, I had a woman tell me that the "Curb" command was worth the whole price of the class because "it kept Puddles from climbing into the dishwasher to do the pre-wash cycle."

Well. "Curb" does indeed keep your dog out of your dishwasher.  More importantly, however, it will keep your dog from bolting out a door, gate or car.  It will potentially save his life.  It's also one of the easiest commands you could ever teach your dog.

Picture this:  you're about to go out the front door, and you don't want your dog to bolt out ahead of you.  So you look at him and say, "Listen, Buddy, you can't see it but there's an electronic barrier built into this doorway, and if you cross this barrier without my permission, you're going to get zapped big-time.  Believe me, it's not worth it."

The short version of the above: simply say, "Curb!"

You should be able to teach your dog this concept in less than one minute.  Here's how you do it:
1.  With your dog next to you on a leash, approach a closed door.
2.  Put the leash in your left hand.  Tell the dog to "curb."  Use a stern voice.  Repeat the command several times for emphasis.  As you do this, swing your right hand and arm from one side of the door frame to the other, back and forth, like the pendulum on a clock.  You are "showing and telling" your dog something he may not yet understand, but he soon will.
3.  Make sure your dog's leash is very loose that he'd be able to sneak out ahead of you if you opened the door right now.
4.  Repeat the "curb" command (and signal) once more, studying your dog's reaction to it.  (He will probably be ignoring you because he is fixated on the door that is about to open.  This is okay!)
5.  Holding the long, loose leash in your left hand, open the door with your right hand and proceed to walk through it.  As you do this, look down at the threshold and your dog's feet.  You are expecting him to move forward through the door.  Let him start. Do NOT hold him back!
6.  If/when the dog's front feet cross the threshold (which is the "barrier" you were trying to show him), say "NO!" or "AAGGH!"as you jerk him back or bump him back with your legs. Quickly close the door (if there is one) and start over. Immediately repeat the command and signal using an even sterner voice. Study your dog's body language.  He should look startled, somewhat bewildered, maybe even mildly alarmed.
7. Now show and tell him to curb again, open the door, monitor the threshold and proceed to walk through the door.  If your dog once again breaches the line with his front feet, correct him back again (with even more shock and awe), and once more repeat the command to curb. Your aim is not to hurt your dog, but rather to startle him into thinking about the gravity of that new word he's just learned.
8. The third time you open the door, you should see your dog choose to stand clear of the threshold, looking submissively at you and waiting for further directions.  He may even back up or glance sideways when you say the word. At this point you know your dog is thinking (instead of simply reacting) and making a conscious choice to do the safest thing, which is to remain behind the curb line you have established.
9.  At this point, immediately move back into the room to your dog and praise him lavishly!  Tell him "Good curb!" and let him know he did the right thing.
10.  Now, try it again. You're simply reinforcing now, and chances are you'll have success without any correction.  Your dog will stand there looking at you and waiting for your next cue.  When you come back to him, you'll see his ears dip back and he'll probably do a sweet, submissive little wiggle that says, "I did it right, didn't I?"  Praise him!

You've just taught your dog the main concept of "Curb," which is, "Remain behind this line until I tell you to do something else."  You have used the element of surprise to make your very first correction meaningful.  You showed your dog that there are immediate, clear, predictable consequences for actions.  Your dog will never forget this lesson because it's as indelibly etched in his brain as if he'd bumped into an electric fence.

You could use the above scenario for curbing your dog inside while you momentarily step outside to retrieve a UPS package left on your front porch...or while setting a bag of garbage outside the back door.  In each situation, you return across the curb line to your dog.

Now, let's say you and your dog are both going out the door.   He's pushy and wants to get out the door ahead of you.   Here's how you handle that situation:
1.  Curb your dog as described in the section above.
2.  Leave the dog and step across the curb line.
3.  Once you have gotten out ahead of your dog and are ready to release him to go with you, simply give him an "Okay!" and invite him to come across the line to you.  At this point, have the leash in your hand so you can give him a friendly little tug toward you if he is hesitant to cross the line.  Reward as he come to you and continue on your way.

This technique can also be used when you're getting your dog out of the car.  If he rides in the back seat, you must first get out of the car.  Next, stand outside his closed door and tell him to "Curb."  Slowly and carefully open the door, grab your dog's leash, and then release him out of the car with an "Okay!"

Some rules about the use of "curb"
  • Always say "Curb" BEFORE you open the door or gate, or before you cross the line yourself. This puts your dog on alert and can prevent an unsafe escape.
  • Always be ready to correct sharply if your dog's toes cross the line before you release him.
  • Your dog need not be at the door when you curb him.  If he's playing in the room, you can go to the door, tell him to "curb," and then just leave.  He can continue playing, as long as he does not cross the curb line.
  • Only use "curb" when you are there to enforce it.  Don't expect it to replace a fence or actual gate.  Use it when you can keep an eye on your dog to make sure he does it right.
  • When possible, try to use a visual "line of demarcation" on the floor.  A change in surface (i.e., from carpet to tile) is a good curb line, primarily because it helps you know precisely when to correct the dog.  If you correct the dog too soon or too late, he will become confused and frustrated, and learning will stop.
  • Start by practicing "curb" on small doorways and passages that are easily defined by both you and the dog.  Next, graduate to less specific and larger openings, like garage doors or corral fencing.  As long as you indicate with a verbal command and a pendulum arm signal, your dog will have the idea that he must not cross the invisible line drawn by your hand.
  • Be as firm and consistent with your corrections whether it's a critical curb or a convenience curb.  The dog must know there are always negative consequences when he breaks a curb line.

Is this cruel or harsh training?
It's real-life learning. Some of the most important safety lessons we ever learn are etched in our mind because of immediate negative consequences.  Put your hand on a hot stove and get burned.  Grab and electric fence and get shocked.  Exceed the speed limit and get a big ticket.  These lessons potentially save our lives too.

Why "curb" instead of "stay"?
Whenever possible, give the command that is easiest for you to enforce and easiest for the dog to do.  When you say "Stay," you should be asking him to freeze in his current position and not move until you release him. That's usually more restrictive than necessary.  You are also obligating yourself to strictly enforcing that "stay" command once you give it. "Curb," on the other hand, simply tells him he can do whatever he wants, as long as he doesn't cross the line.  Which is less restrictive to the dog? Which is easier for you to enforce?  It's "curb," of course.

Why not say "Wait"?
Personal preference.  I prefer "curb" because it sounds a bit stronger, a bit more intimidating.  But I've had many students who chose "Wait" because they'd already introduced their dogs to a similar concept with this word.  Whatever you choose, be consistent.

Ways to use "curb" around the house:

  • At the tops and bottoms of stairs to keep your dog from tripping you.
  • Inside when you are going in and out the sliding patio door checking your barbecue grill.
  • Keeping your dog out of your immediate cooking area in the kitchen.
  • Keeping your dog from jumping into your car before you've cleared a place for him to sit.
  • Keeping your dog in the mud room until you can grab a towel to wipe his muddy feet.
  • Keeping your dog from crowding the front door when someone rings the doorbell.
  • Keeping your dog out of the kitchen while you're washing the floor.
  • Keeping your dog backed up away from the dishwasher when you're loading it!

Ways to use "curb" away from home:
  • When you and the dog are approaching the door of a commercial establishment.  Seeing your dog "curb" will let everyone know your dog is trained and well behaved.
  • Getting your dog in and out of the gates at a dog park.
  • Getting off an elevator with your dog.
  • Preventing your dog from jumping out of your RV into an unsafe situation.
  • Preventing your dog from jumping from the back seat into the front seat when you are driving.

Use it 50 times a day whether you need to or not
Don't wait for the "really important times" to use this command.  Use it regularly, every time your dog is following you  through doorways in your home.  Use it every time you're getting your dog in or out of the car, his crate, or his backyard kennel.

Your dog likes it too
The "curb" command, used frequently and responsibly, will make your dog feel secure in your presence, because he knows you're watching him.  Our dogs are constantly looking for meaningful employment with us, so consider this a "job" you can give them many times a day.  They'll be willing workers, finding gratitude in the mere opportunity to please you.

More important than "Come!"
Even a dog who is trained to come when called may fail the exercise when he escapes out the front door and runs wildly down the street.  If he is taught to respect the curb command at the door, the  incident will never happen in the first place.  Prevention--with the curb command--is the best medicine of all!

Saturday, May 30, 2015

Old dogs lead the way for us

It's 3:15  on a warm summer morning in 2006. Something awakens me.  The sound of the breeze through the open windows?  The faint bark of a small neighbor dog down the road? Maybe just the overall peacefulness in this room. 

I'll get up for a drink of water.  I listen before swinging my legs out of bed.  He's down there on the floor in the blackness, next to me, and the last thing I want to do is bump him and disturb the peace he's finally demonstrating by his stillness. 

It took him a long time to get settled tonight.  Arthritis and the stress of aging are taking their toll.  Lots of restlessness, heavy panting, turning in circles, groaning as he finally flops down, and then getting up and starting the whole process over again.  It's the same procedure I go through when I'm trying to get my pillows adjusted "just right."  Sometimes there simply is no "just right,” and attempts to improve a situation just lead to frustration and more restlessness.

But he's quiet now, finally.  I can hear his deep, rhythmic breathing.  I reach an arm down to gently locate his positioning and determine where his head is and where his legs are.  My hands make contact with a body that feels almost foreign to me.  So different from what I've felt for most of the past 11 years with him!  I touch his hip...or is it his shoulder?   The hair is shorter, sparser, courser these days.  His body has lost so much of its muscle tone and definition that I can't even tell which quarter of him I'm feeling!  I can identify nearly every bone directly under the skin.  My hands slide up his body until I locate his neck, that one area still so soft and plush and full, and I gently massage the skin for a moment before finally getting the courage to lower my legs to the floor.  I know where he is now, and can get up without disturbing him.  As my feet land and I stand up, I realize, ironically, that he is so restful at this moment that hardly anything could disturb him.  These days, when he's out, he's really out.  I could have stepped on him and he'd scarcely stir.  For that, I am grateful.

He's leaving me.  He's fading away, ever so slowly.  It's more than just muscle tone.  It's his mind, too.  While generally healthy, he's also very elderly.  His cognitive abilities are decreasing.  He hears selectively, if at all.  His priorities have changed.  Meals and naps are his main interests.  He must get up now, almost every night, and be let outside to go to the bathroom.  Negotiating the doggy door by himself is difficult, so we patiently get up to help him whenever he needs it.  This is the least we can do, in exchange for 11 wonderful years of his service to us as a watchdog,  award-winning athlete,  and companion extraordinaire. 

The aging process is so humbling, and yet so graceful and natural.  Our dogs teach us what to expect for ourselves, and how to tolerate our own  "winding down" experience.  They say, "Accept yourself.  Enjoy what you can.  Wherever you are, be all there.  Each day and each moment is a gift to be relished to the fullest extent.  Become childlike again."

My old dog is still slumbering as I return to bed.  Once again, I reach down to locate him.  I stroke his front leg, down to a big paw which I cradle in my hand for a moment.  I think about all the hundreds of miles of mountain trails and dog show parking lots those paws have negotiated with me.  About all the motel rooms and travel adventures we've shared.  About all the unusual and challenging things I've asked those paws to do for me over the years.  And about how faithful and unwavering they have been in their devotion to me.

For most of his life, I was my dog's teacher.  Now he teaches me.  Age gracefully, and with gusto.  Be proud of a life well lived.  Look forward to an eternity of exploring the universe. 

Rest well this night, my old friend. And thank you for showing me the way.