Love, work, play: it’s all about balance

Written on January 21st, 2019

My first family dogs, two Bichons named Larry and Lucy, were just that — family dogs. We trained them in the beginning and kept up a few basic obedience behaviors, but for the most part they didn’t have to “work” at all.
This was for a lot of reasons: my sister and I were very little when we got them and didn’t understand the importance of consistent training, Bichons are naturally lap dogs, and they weren’t particularly “unruly” in the first place, among other things.
We were totally content just having our two loving family pets. They were well-enough behaved and brought us so much joy.
When Larry got sick towards the end of 2016’s summer shortly after turning 14, we were devastated.
And because we loved him so much, and because he was old, and because we hated the thought of him not being around… we spoiled the crap out of him.
In his last days, when the seizures became more frequent and we knew the time for that tough decision was near, he got whatever he wanted. Cuddles. Treats. Massages. Car rides. Everything he had ever loved was at his pawtips, offered by us with breaking hearts.
As a side effect of this, Lucy got spoiled too — we called them “sympathy treats”. In the weeks after Larry’s passing we clung to Lucy’s presence with everything we had. We were so saddened by our loss that we felt a need to spoil Lucy, to love her, to make happy the one dog we still had.
It all came from a good place, but it wasn’t ideal: up until we lost Lucy in the fall of 2017 she had no manners to speak of. So much of her already limited training was undone after we lost Larry, and then she grew old and confused.
We still loved her dearly, of course — and growth comes in owning our mistakes in the situation — but I was determined when I got my next dogs that they wouldn’t be “spoiled” in the same way. Lucy was wonderful until the very end… but I wish we had better kept up our consistency for her sake. In many ways, we failed her. That will always weigh heavily on my heart.
When my family got our husky, Snort, we started working with the trainer who regularly volunteers at our local humane society since she had known our snow dog throughout her time at the shelter. Snort was a wonderful companion, but we wanted to ensure that we were equipped to help her become even more wonderful — and to not lose the great traits she already had.
Snort is brilliant and learns quickly, but we ran into one big roadblock: her shyness.
In the beginning she was afraid of many things inside of our house. She hid in her kennel for hours, sometimes what felt like full days. She loved to be pet but not too close, and any noise or movement could send her flying away. If you accidentally dropped something near her, you might not see her for hours afterward.
The constant eye drop applications for her keratoconjunctivitis sicca also made it hard to feel like we were bonding with her. Sometimes when we would simply stand up off the couch she’d go sprinting away for fear of medicine.
What this meant was that often during training time we’d be tempted to reward her even when she didn’t follow a command. We wanted her to “like” us. If she rolled over for a belly rub, then she’d get a belly rub… even if she was supposed to be doing something else.
We had to work hard as a family to find a balance between love and work. Snort needs to simultaneously know that she is safe and cared for but also that rewards come for listening when told — not for simply looking cute.
It was tough in the beginning, but we’ve come so far.
She still gets affection without “working” for it, like in the morning when she jumps onto the bed for a massage or after work when she greets my parents with a wagging tail. There are times where we love on her just for the sake of loving her, but there are also times where we expect her to work.
When we’re training she gets rewarded with both food and physical affection, but only when she does what is asked. Because of her timid nature we use strictly +R (positive reinforcement) to teach what is expected, but gone are the days of her being able to collapse at my feet in the middle of a training session to get a belly rub!
It’s a constant work in progress, but I’ve come to appreciate the importance of balanced expectations. Yes, Snort was naturally pretty wonderful when we got her. But she deserves consistency. She deserves boundaries.
Making my dogs work for me doesn’t mean I don’t love them; it means I love them even more than if I didn’t.
Snort is adored and a little bit spoiled — with her sweet face and medical issues, how could she not be from time to time? — but she’s also become well-trained to match my family’s specific lifestyle. Different medicine methods, hours of bonding, and consistent work have transformed our relationship.
The truth is that she loves to learn, and she also loves affection. Who says those things can’t work together? My dogs certainly deserve my patience and respect without earning it — but there is no shame in making them work for most things. In fact, they’re happier that way.
When I adopted Scout this past month, I put into practice all of the things I learned alongside Snort — and I know without a doubt that my relationship with my cattle dog is better for it. From using hand-feeding to turn meal times into training sessions to being consistent about rewarding or correcting behaviors, her life with me is predictable, solid, and safe.
I’ll never forget that she has my snow dog — and all of those blunders and mistakes and hours spent researching and experimenting as a result — to thank.
At the end of the day, reliable boundaries and training effort are some of the greatest gifts I can give my dogs. It might feel like “giving them whatever they want” is the way to show love in the moment, but they’ll appreciate my steadiness far more in the long run.