I got schooled.

Way back when I first got Melvin, life was a bit overwhelming.  Max was on his last weeks and Melvin was…I’m not sure I know the words.  That dog was wild.  I got injured trying to walk him.  He would flip and flail and pull and refuse to walk.  I don’t think he’d ever even seen a leash, let alone been attached to one. Inside the house, he was like a wild caged animal, running from window to window (ramming the windows to try to get out), leaping onto and then off of the back of the couch.  Up the steps, down the steps, crashing into Max, furniture, doors.  My part-time job was fixing the area rugs that he was constantly moving across the floor.  When I’d put him in the back of the SUV behind a steel barrier, he’d break through the barrier, leap over rows of seats and try to sit in my lap, AS I WAS DRIVING. It was comical yes, but frustrating. One time, someone asked me if he was the real Marley.

I was in the process of looking for trainers but I was also desperate to have some alone time with Max.  Every time I’d try to remove Melvin from the room to have this time, he’d flail and freak-out.  Seriously, there was nothing tame about him.  None of my friends were eager to take him for a few hours.  I can’t say I blamed them.

Up to that point, I had no experience with doggie daycare.  There had never been a need so I wouldn’t say I was pro or con daycare.  Melvin and I were going on several walks a day but he was still so full of energy and I needed a few hours every couple of days that were just for Max.  So I took Melvin in to some local daycare places for a few assessments.  Each assessment came back the same. He was ‘harsh’, ‘played very rough’. should be with the more ‘aggressive dogs’.  That seemed like a bad plan.  I saw injury or lawsuit in our future so we left and never traveled that avenue.

By the time Max died, I had finally found a behaviorist for Melvin.  She and I had chatted many times on the phone about his issues and what I hoped to get out of time with her.   Aside from harnessing his cray, one of the main things I was concerned about was getting him more socialized with other dogs.  I felt he was ‘missing out’.  That his reaction to other dogs seemed… off.  (How adorable was I? Naive as could be but still so darn cute.).

There were tons of sessions and many, many learnings and growing and eye-opening moments.  But none so much as when the behaviorist told me point-blank that Melvin was indifferent, almost apathetic to the existence of other dogs. He was not fearful, he just didn’t care for his own kind. She said he didn’t pay attention to other dogs who were nearby (i.e. showed no excitement), in fact he preferred to ignore them.  But if they came too close, he let it known that he wanted them to go back from where they came. He preferred distance, space.  He showed zero interest in playing, or learning dog language or any of it.  I cried. I sobbed,  “his life was doomed for loneliness”.  “What had happened to him to make him such a loner?” More tears. “How could I ever fix this broken shell of dog?”  “Everyone needs friends!” And then the behaviorist put her hands on my shoulders and looked me in the eye and she said: that loneliness I was fearing, that (perceived normal) need to be with other dogs, those were things I created the need for.  I wanted them for him.  I felt they were crucial.  The thing was, Melvin didn’t need them.  He was not unhappy to be away from other dogs, just the opposite, he was at ease with that.  He didn’t want to play with them, he wanted to play with me.  He was likely NEVER going to change (thew in a ‘why should he?’) and she asked me if that was ok with me.  Was it ok that he was who he was?  Was it ok if he stayed this way, his way. Could I let go of my vision of how things were ‘supposed to be’ and instead give him what he needed to thrive.

I changed more in that moment than I have perhaps in any single moment in my life.  I arrived to that session with one Melvin, a dude I hadn’t gotten to know all that well (yet) and left with a Melvin that I felt such sudden bond to. He made sense now. He wasn’t broken, he was just Melvin.

I didn’t go home and only ever ask ‘what does Melvin want’, can you imagine?  He’d eat all day and the death toll of cats would be astronomical.  Instead I took the learning about recognizing who he was and what he needed and accepted him.  I started looking at his training from the standpoint of ‘how does he learn’.  How does Melvin operate? And that is how we got from a wildebeest to a king.  When other dogs came too close, I taught him to focus on me. When we were on the path and had zero choice but to pass by another dog I would verbally (and very proudly) announce that my dog does not enjoy the company of other dogs and then would put him in a sit and stare with me.  Suddenly, other dogs didn’t exist.  And Melvin was better off for it and he grew to trust me, and me him.

To this day, others find it ‘sad’ when they ask if Melvin and their dog might hit it off and I inform them that, Melvin doesn’t play.  He doesn’t chase other dogs, he has never once play bowed, he doesn’t give a crap about fetching balls, he hates squeaky toys. These playdate seekers claim ‘he’s missing out’. To that, I say calmly but with conviction, he’s fine. He has everything needs.

I was not certain we’d ever be a multi-dog household and I had fully accepted that.  It wasn’t until we met Jake and I saw that Melvin, in his years of training, had built up just enough tolerance to give to a 33-pound-googly-eyed-hot-mess Frenchie. Miracles I tell you, each and every one of them.


17 thoughts on “I got schooled.

  1. Twins, I tell you. He and Ray are some kind of split-distance-egg twins, only Ray did originally want to play with other dogs and by play I mean jump on their head and growl (in the friendliest of ways.)
    In all seriousness, though, I can actually imagine the kind of remarks you hear. After all, “all Labs” are friendly, outgoing and want to play, right? I wish good pet behaviorists were more common. Our fave lives 2 hours away and is semi retired so we muddle through as best we can but oh boy a good one is worth their weight in platinum.

  2. Dude – this post hit me right in the feels. Cooper will NEVER be tolerant of other dogs. Never. That fact is what made him “unadoptable” but also what made us realize how much he needs us. This is something we’ve come to accept, and went through our various stages of grief like you did. Some dogs just AREN’T into other dogs, and never will be. Our job as owners of those types of dogs is to love them where they are, and build that trust that we are not going to put them in situations that make them uncomfortable. Cooper is forever ‘quarantined’ to our house and our yard – but that’s where he’s comfortable. It’s not at all the “life with dogs” we envisioned, but it’s OUR life. I’m not going to BS and say “I wouldn’t change a thing,” (because of course it would be MUCH easier if every dog Cooper met was his BFF!) but his preferences certainly don’t make me love him any less. He’s my Little Man. Forever. <3

    • That moment, when you truly meet them and get them and understand them – the love is wild and wonderful! And yes, much different than envisioned but I think that is what unconditional love is built on! Little Man forever INDEED!

  3. What a great post! Sophie and I went through a learning period when her leash reactivity started at 13 months. Lots of training classes and practice, she is a different dog now at 7yrs old. Then along came Swyatt. It took me a good 8 months to come to the realization that 1) he wasn’t the super friendly lab that loves to meet all new dogs, he is in fact a nervous nelly and 2) he was also somewhat reactive. Once I came to terms with that, we have learned how to build his confidence and have fun together. 🙂

  4. I swear my boy Kane is Melvin’s twin, and we’ve went through the same things only dumbly I subjected him to daycare so he could “learn to play with other dogs”, yeah THAT didn’t happen. He does play, occasionally, but with very few and select dogs. I wanted more than one dog but obsessed for years about upsetting him by bringing in another dog, finally I just did it. And you know what? It was ok, it’s still ok, his little sister adores him, she wants him to play and cuddle and be a dog and occasionally he indulges her by stealing her toy or not leaping off the couch when she tries to cuddle. (It helps if they have a blanket barrier between them so she’s not actually touching him, it appeases them both). For years I felt horrible that he wasn’t a “normal dog” then I just quit worrying about it and accepted that he’s not super social, heck neither am I. He likes his alone time and we allow him to have it. He’s happy just being by himself, when other dogs approach he warns them off and I make sure they leave him alone. We take him places where there aren’t a lot of other dogs because he just seems to enjoy it more. And occasionally we ship his sister to daycare for a day so he can have his alone time 🙂

  5. So awesome how you really got what the behaviorist and Melvin were saying!

    Maggie and Duke have their own rules about other dogs; they guard our entire street from other dogs, even if the dogs are in their own yards. They’ve (mostly) learned not to bark “F U, other dog!” and just keep walking. 🙂

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