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See the Dog in Front of You

Anyone who has had more than one dog in their life has probably fallen into the pitfall of living many years with their “perfect” dog and then suffering a devastating loss. When another dog eventually enters our life we compare, looking at the dog before us through misty eyes and seeing the dog we wish we still had.

Sometimes this sets everyone up for frustration and disappointment. At other times the consequence of faulty vision is catastrophic.

My first two Labradors were safe and reliable off leash. Samantha was a great city dog and adapted well to country life. Charlie was so dependable he trotted behind me while I mowed trails on our 25-acre parcel. When I worked midnight shifts he napped during the day on the deck. Birds found him sleeping contentedly and plucked loose fur from his coat to line their nests. Charlie was my “perfect” dog.

Charlie: Perfect Dog
Charlie: Perfect Dog

Then we adopted Jake, an untrained juvenile Lab who was traumatized by six months in a shelter. We took him to plenty of training classes but whenever we let him off leash, he was off and running. My least favorite memory was when he dashed down a busy snowmobile trail chasing 60 MPH prey for a quarter of a mile.

Years later Buddha joined us and our penchant for Labradors continued. With separation anxiety he was a Velcro dog I believed would never run off, so he gained off-leash privileges soon after adoption. He stayed within sight about 90% of the time. It was a good start, but I worried about the other 10% and suggested to my wife that we put him back on lead.

The next day she took him for a jog on our trail, sans leash…and he ran off. I was in the house, one-quarter mile from a busy highway and it seemed most likely he would seek me there. Surely he would avoid the highway, but then again, he was not Charlie.

After he was struck by a car he limped back to the house and I saw his rear leg dangling in the air, a compound fracture nearly killing him.

After a long recovery Buddha went back on a short leash, then a long lead. He slowly earned our trust until we saw that he was reliable off-leash and with great recall.
Gandhi was our next Lab and like Buddha he was good off-leash…until he wasn’t. He was drawn by the excitement and wonder of our woods, like a green magnet drawing him away from us. Excited dogs do not make good choices and he went back on lead.

As a professional dog trainer serving rural areas I usually hear dog owners declare they must have an off-leash dog who knows enough to stay on their property. Using the same methods as with Buddha I usually meet their expectation. Usually…and I always propose good management and safety over wishful thinking.

The toughest challenge is with families who recently lost their “perfect” dog and expect a newly acquired pet to perform as well as the dog they worked with for a decade or more. Leo was such a dog.

"Am I safe?"
“Am I safe?”

I met Leo January 9th, 2016 in a behavior consultation due to his fear of novel people and motor vehicles. He was recently adopted by Suzie and John to give him a wonderful home for the rest of his life. That is just what they did, though not as anticipated.

They lived on a large parcel in the country near their son’s home and their family dog, Bruno. Leo and Bruno were fast friends and they roamed the property together. Bruno never approached the highway they lived along and Leo stayed close to his buddy. Besides, Leo trembled at the sound of vehicles and his owners were sure he would never approach the road.

Country dwellers are all too familiar with the sight of road kill. One poor animal is killed by a vehicle and that attracts another to scavenge, which leads to another kill. Dogs are opportunistic scavengers after all.

As I worked with the family I described how Buddha and Gandhi led me to a deer carcass in our field. It must have been hit by a vehicle and died near my trail. The carcass was utterly magnetic and my dogs were drawn to it during every walk for three weeks.

“Are you sure Leo won’t go down to the highway?” I asked one day and mentioned seeing another deer carcass near their mailbox. “We could do some long-lead boundary training.”
I had, after all, desensitized Leo to the sound of motor vehicles. Perhaps the traffic rushing along the highway was no longer a deterrent to him pushing the boundary, or chasing a rabbit across the road.

They declined, citing how Bruno and Leo played and explored their land. “Leo never even walks down the driveway” they assured me. When our session ended and I began driving away from the house, Leo trotted after me. I stopped, returned him to the owners and renewed our discussion. When I looked at Leo I saw a risk, and when they looked at his off-leash behavior on a daily basis they saw reassurance.

Four months later Leo was a great success, confident, friendly and responsive to training cues in a wide variety of environments. I enjoyed watching his true personality develop like a flower unfolding in the sunlight. Updates from Suzie were increasingly upbeat and they had found another “perfect” dog. In her last email Suzie invited me to stop and visit, but I had not found the time.

Today after breakfast Suzie sent me a new message.

“With my heart heavy…..we lost Leo to the highway this morning. He was probably going for the dead raccoon on the road. We never expected that he would want to go near any traffic….We just buried him on our land up the hill a we can always see him from here.”

Soon, very soon, I will visit Suzie and John to express my sympathy. Perhaps they will take me up the hill to Leo’s grave. There, through misty eyes, we shall see the same dog together.


Too Perfect to Last
Too Perfect to Last

Leo’s Legacy: I share this so you may use this story with your clients and perhaps do a better job than I, helping owners see the dog in front of them. Leo’s legacy may thus be measured in the long lives of other dogs as they make their way to perfection.

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