Unleash your dog’s spirit. This has been a tagline of dogma’s for over 15 years and was inspired by my dear friend and mentor, Jennifer Buchanan. She shared it with me as we were discussing my work years ago and it instantly clicked. It summed up perfectly what my goals were in training dogs and developing our relationship with them. I was reflecting on this shortly after we said goodbye to our dog, Deja. She spent 16 wonderful years at my side and as I thought back on our time together, I smiled at thinking how beautifully her life was a reflection of our tagline. Deja was a spunky, full of life dog who brought us joy right up until her last day. Our relationship was not easy to begin with, but my journey with her is a perfect example of how unleashing your dog’s spirit creates a deep, meaningful relationship for you both. In honour of Deja, and to help more of us who enjoy our lives with dogs, I am going to share how unleashing Deja’s spirit created one of the most special relationships I’ve had in my life.
Deja came to me around the age of 3 months. She was rescued with her three siblings from a dumpster at the age of 1 week. There were four of them and only her and her brother survived. I can remember the foster mom telling us that she was a bit of a princess and showing us how she would throw herself around when you asked her to do something like sit for a treat. Doing her first home visit with us, we saw a very different dog than the pup who was fostered at an acreage. She was unsure of the noise and busyness of the city. She hid under a chair and one of my favourite memories was Guinniss fitting his head in beside her to make her feel more comfortable. As many of you know , Guinniss had numerous behaviour concerns and we weren’t sure how he would respond to a new dog. They immediately bonded and he was excited to have a canine companion in the household.
Reflecting back on Deja’s puppyhood, I can see now that I misinterpreted much of Deja’s response to the world. She was a soft dog at the core but had a fierce independent side that I mistook for confidence. She loved people but was not overly affectionate and preferred to explore the world on her own. She was a drastic contrast to Guinniss who wanted to constantly be with me and was keen to listen to my guidance. I often joked about the differences saying Guinniss would be shown something and seem to respond with a ‘Got it, Mom, will do this whenever you ask’. Whereas, Deja seemed to be more along the mindset of, ‘That seems ok, Mom, but what about if I do this instead? Or what if I add to that and then do this?’ That princess behaviour we saw as a puppy was quickly recognized as more like a defiance. ‘Stop asking me to sit and just give me the damn cookie!’.
I struggled with the differences between the two dogs. If I was sick or tired and just wanting to rest, Guinniss would stay right at my side and seemed to always be at the same pace. On the other hand, I often felt that Deja took this as an opportunity to live life as she pleased. I’d wake up from a nap and discover a plant unpotted, a garbage can spread around the house or a collection of items strewn around the house or chewed on. I can see now that not recognizing Deja as her own dog, with her own personality and needs, much of this frustration could have been avoided had I done a better job at listening to her and addressing her needs versus assuming she was just being a defiant pup.
I struggled to connect with Deja for her first couple of years with me. I loved her, but our relationship was strained. Everything that I had been traditionally taught for training a dog, Deja seemed to challenge. I can remember my struggles with getting Deja to walk on a loose leash. Reward them for being at your side, stop when they pull, build it up slowly and work with minimal distractions. I can remember having moderate success inside and then taking it out to the real world. I’d stop when Deja put tension on the leash and proceed to watch her fight this with all of her might. She’d go so far as digging all four paws low to the ground to get extra leverage in her fight at my stopping and preventing her from exploring. My time with Deja seemed to constantly be a battle. I thought more about how she wasn’t listening to me and considered her a challenge versus stepping back to assess how I was attributing to the problem.
I now see this over and over when watching owners with their dogs and listening to how they speak of their dogs. We too often discuss what the dog is doing wrong. We focus on correcting their behaviour. We view them as the only one in the relationship that needs the work. Deja’s lessons for me were to listen and take responsibility for being the guide in our relationship. It didn’t mean a strict set of rules on how to train. It meant accepting and working with the dog at hand. And to have fun. Deja loved life and once I recognized how to better work with her, the training clicked, and what fun we had.
Deja’s soft side was paired with an incredibly joyful and full of life side. Her love for other beings was deep and she showed incredible joy for others as a result. For those people that she loved, they would be greeted with wiggles and squealing. One of my favourite memories was walking on the sidewalk beside a bus full of people going to work and Deja wiggling and dancing for the people she saw smiling out at her. I have no doubt she started their day off with such joy and that many still remember this time. If she was happy, it was paired with a chorus of woos and a dancing around unlike anything else I had seen with a dog. She showed an excitement for life that was unmatched. As a young pup, we spent too much time trying to quiet this. It wasn’t until I stepped back, focused on rewarding what I wanted to see more of and channeling versus trying to supress her enthusiasm for life, that I saw true change in our relationship.
This is the true sentiment of unleashing your dog’s spirit. Too often, the very part that we love about our dogs is the very side we try to quiet. Traditional dog training focuses on compliance and having an obedient dog. I am saddened by what I’ve come to call robo-dogs. The dogs that must stay at our side, accept whatever we put them through and are subjected to harsh, punishment-based training methods to force them to be obedient. I’ve never understood why more dog-lovers don’t see the hypocrisy of this and would want to put their loved canines through this. Deja was with me for 16 years which is a long life for our dogs, and still that felt way too short. What I wouldn’t do to go back to her younger years and correct the mistakes I made. At the same time, these mistakes allowed me to better recognize the power of reward-based dog training. And that training a dog is about developing a meaningful relationship and helping them to navigate and be successful in our busy human world.
Deja was about two years old when I smartened up. I remember a pivotal moment when she joined me at a class. She often chose not to play with the other dogs and would instead run around the room greeting each person. With my limited knowledge at the time, I never recognized the lack of confidence with the other dogs. Instead, I saw her as more of a people dog versus a dog who loved other dogs. It wasn’t until after class with an over-aroused black lab that I began to see how much I wasn’t listening to Deja. Deja would still play with other dogs and seemed to enjoy them. This dog was struggling with arousal and excessive barking in class. I decided to go get Deja from out front (she had already removed herself the situation) and bring her in to do some work. Upon entering the room, she began to throw herself around (remember that behaviour we saw as a puppy) and bark loudly. She wanted nothing to do with this dog and it was like I had been slapped in the face. I had been so worried about training Deja and telling her what to do, I had not stepped back and listened to her.
Something seemed to click that day. I listened to Deja and removed her, despite my partner reprimanding her and being embarrassed by her behaviour. I started by rewarding Deja for the behaviour I wanted to see more of. I celebrated and rewarded her little spins she put on our traditional skills and created new ones. My favourite was saying ‘sparkle’ to Deja during a clicker session and watching her run through a variety of new skills to earn a laugh and a treat. I rewarded all offered attention and developed the most solid and focused dog I have worked with. I could attend classes and have Deja off-leash the entire time at my side. And I started to engage with her when she danced around with excitement and share her burst of joy at getting to be out and exploring the world.
It was magic. It was joy. And we built a relationship of pure love. As I began to celebrate Deja for the dog she was, I began to watch this incredible little dog blossom. She had the best sense of humour, was not afraid to let you know how she felt about something and inspired me to show more gratitude. Deja loved life. She was a dog full of gratitude. I can remember the times she would spend giving me gentle licks after receiving a delicious treat or after engaging in a fun game. She would dance around and woo at everything that made her happy. And the more I engaged in this, the more she settled and became the ideal canine companion. Deja could go anywhere with me, would stay at my side and brought joy to each and every person she met.
As I mourn the loss of my special girl, I think about how life may have been if I hadn’t learned to listen. What if I continued to stifle the very part of Deja that made her so special? Would she have grown to be a more subdued dog? Would she have lived as long? Or the worst part, would we have ever really clicked? The loss of Deja put a big hole in our lives and it’s hard to envision what my life would have been like without her joy. Had I not learned to unleash Deja’s spirit, what a sad life she would have lived. She may have learned to become a traditionally obedient dog, but what fun we would have missed having.
So what does unleashing your dog’s spirit mean? It does not mean a dog that does what it wants and it does not mean accepting behaviour you don’t enjoy. It means recognizing all the ways your dog is special and celebrating those. It means that you stop the battle. Focus on what you need to do together. Quit trying to stop your dog from making wrong choices and show them how to make the right choices. Let them explore. Take them with you places. Play. Have fun. Laugh. Dance. Celebrate and show gratitude that you get to share your life with these incredible teachers and companions each and every day. It’s a journey, not a destination. I hope more dog owners see that a life with a dog is more than a creature that does what you tell it to. It’s not about obedience, it’s about a relationship. Celebrate their spirit and unleash it.
RIP Deja. Run free. Dance. Sing.