Disclaimer: We haven’t started Dora’s official service dog training yet. We are still in the application phase. However, after all of the research and preparation I’ve done so far, I feel like I understand a few of the basics. For example, your dog can only learn to respond to your emotional cues if you practice those behaviors, just like verbal commands, just like learning tricks, just like almost all training goals.
So we were just outside for the 5th potty trip of the day (Dora peed but still hadn’t pooped). We came back inside. Within 10 minutes, she’s crying and poking at the leash. Dora only pokes at the leash when she really needs to go out. Cold ears and all, I had to bundle back up and head out. We went to one of Dora’s preferred spots. She finally finished her business after 6 trips, and I dragged her back to our home.
Child coming home from school? No. Go inside. Trash in the road? No. We’re going inside. Weird smells? No. Go inside. Geese flying around? Don’t care. Inside. Neighbor’s dog outside? JUST GO INSIDE! Screams. Pulls hard on leash/harness. Both inside. Door shut and locked. And I stood there, pressed up against the door, just breathing.
A nose touches my gloved hand, and I remember: I need to be training her now. She can tell that I’m not doing well, and I need to be interacting with her so that she learns to keep doing this.
I sit down and start talking to Dora. I pet her and apologize for being rougher than I’d like. I take off our gear (gloves, boots, harness, leash, coat), and I just start crying. Dora licks my face and I manage to praise her and pet her for doing it. I sob, she licks me, and I ruffle her ears and tell her that she’s a good girl. We do it again. And again. Until I don’t have any sobs left inside.
It is such and odd thing for me at this early stage: allowing myself to experience my feelings so they don’t end up trapped inside and remembering to interact with my dog, teaching her little by little that if she comes to me when I’m sad, I will pet her, and love on her, and say nice things to her.
It’s weird, being the caretaker who teaches her dog and the cared for who benefits from her dog’s care. Both roles are true, and it makes this a delicate partnership, held in balance through our affection for one another, which we’ve built through tug of war, walks, all of our outings, and just living life together.
I can do this. I don’t need to be perfect. I don’t need to have exclusively good days. Bad days are useful too. It will be alright.