Couples Therapy and Dog Training

Here we are, the end of January and the last installment of my journey with greta toward better pack health. For those of you just joining us, read This post about the origins of the problem, this Guest post by Greta, and last week’s post about my Polite disagreement with THe Seeing Eye’s prognosis. When you’re all caught up, come on back and we’ll get started.

Today I’m going to describe the tools and resources Greta and I are using to repair and improve our pack mental health. These can fall into roughly three categories: bibliotherapy, couples therapy, and mindfulness for doggies.

Bibliotherapy: Books That Help

I’m a book-wyrm (no, that’s not a typo). When I want to learn something new, like how to cook or a new type of therapy or how to manage a blog, I get a book or three on the subject and devour it. I can’t read physical books, of course, but I absorb Kindle and Audible titles at an alarming rate. If I ever did get physical copies of all my books – and I do prefer to buy them so I can take notes — Greta and I would have to get a second house!

So when I determined to try and tackle Greta’s anxiety the first thing I did was log on to Amazon.com. I was already working on my own anxiety through meditation and journaling, so it was Greta’s turn. I bought several books by renowned dog training expert Cesar Milan. I listened to them while cleaning the house, cooking, grooming Greta, and became aware of several ways I could optimize our pack lifestyle for positive (pawsitive?) mental health.

I no longer relied on the mental exercise of guidework to be sufficient for Greta. We went on regular walks around the neighborhood, and extra walks before we left the house for the day. I tried teaching her new skills to increase our bond, arranged our exercise and feeding schedule to naturally align with her instincts, and learned to pay attention to what her body told me about her mental state.

I learned a lot. My physical health improved as I walked more and I became more intimately familiar with when and how Greta’s anxiety manifested. I began to really discern the difference between walking a cautious dog, a confident dog, and a dog wound up and ready to spring.

I read the following in 30 days:

For those of you who don’t find five books in 30 days impressive, let me just add (because I did just proclaim myself a devourer of books) that these were intermingled with half a dozen Patrick O’brien novels and the first three Cradle novels. And though at the time I knew only one name in dog training, my TBR now includes a sublist on dog training, canine psychology, and canine physiology 25 titles strong and counting.

But the most important thing I learned was that general advice can only improve general functionality. We were making all kinds of general improvements, and those improvements helped to highlight the very specific nature of the problem. I could see the difference more clearly between good and bad walks, and knew we needed a specialist.

Greta and I needed therapy.

Couples Therapy When Your Partner is a Dog

Couples therapy is a place where individuals who have committed to intertwining themselves attempt to unravel knots between them. It can serve a lot of purposes, but one of the primary purposes is that it shows each member of the couple areas in which they need to grow.

Growth-oriented couples therapy works best when one or both partners also has an individual therapist. Sometimes it’s easier to face your shortcomings in private, then bring your healed self, improved insights, skills, and awareness back into service of the couple.

Greta can’t exactly go to an individual therapist, but I can. In fact, I do. A lot of counselors have therapists of their own, in fact.

My therapist, as Providence would have it, also has considerable experience in dog training. Not only did I not have to worry about her misinterpreting our problems, but she could suggest useful resources. More importantly, though, she helped me unravel the threads of perfectionism that had woven a pattern of shame into my relationship with Greta.

“You see, animals don’t follow unstable pack leaders; only humans promote, follow, and praise instability.”

Be the Pack Leader by Cesar Milan

And then for our couples’ therapist…

That’s what a good dog trainer is, a couples therapist for the human and dog. I needed someone who would find the areas of growth in both of us, then teach me how to help Greta become the healthiest, happiest version of herself possible. As a side note, couples’ therapy isn’t usually so lop-sided, that’s just the nature of your “couple’ including someone with fuzzy ears and a tail yet lacking a well-developed pre-frontal cortex and opposable thumbs.

As I explained in last week’s post I wasn’t able to get a Seeing Eye trainer down to help because of covid. But I also knew quite certainly by now that the problem we faced was a very normal doggy problem, so a very normal doggy trainer ought to be able to assist.

Yet even though I’d determined that a regular dog trainer ought to be sufficient for our needs, I knew we needed someone who would respect the boundaries dividing Greta’s doggy nature, our pack requirements, and our working team requirements. I also needed someone who could adapt their training techniques to my disability.

A friend recommended I try asking for recommendations at a local obedience training school. She reasoned they probably gave out specialized referrals all the time, and she was right. They directed me to a lady with the unfortunate last name of Roach. But that was the only unfortunate thing about her.

Ms. Roach, Kim, is the owner of Rocket City Fit Dog. At this time they don’t have a working website or Facebook page, or idd be advertizing for them here. I emailed Kim and we sent messages back and forth, then had an hour-long interview over the phone. I’d pre-gamed some questions for her, and came up with a few more on the fly.

“Have you ever worked with service dogs before? If so, what kind? Did you train them for service work, or support general obedience and good behavior?”

“Have you worked with clients who have disabilities before? Any blind clients? How comfortable would you be adapting your explanations and techniques to someone who couldn’t see? What’s your policy on coming to a client’s house or meeting them at parks?”

I also asked about her certifications, education, how long she’d been in business. Of course, there are no national credentialiing agencies for dog training, but I could google wahtever information she gave me and satisfy my questions to some degree. I wanted to know how she approached the concept of “bad behavior” and “correction.” That was probably my greatest concern.

I know from experience that I can teach almost anyone how to adapt to my needs. I’ve done that all my life. It’s wearing, but doable. But if we didn’t see eye-to-eye on what caused misbehavior and the distinctions between correction, training, and punishment then we weren’t going to get very far.

“Discipline isn’t about showing a dog who’s boss; it’s about taking responsibility for a living creature you have brought into your world.”

Be the Pack Leader by Cesar Milan

Kim had worked with service dogs before, but not guide dogs or blind clients. But she was eager to do s ome extra research to make sure she could adapt to my needs. What I liked the most was the way she described her approach to my problem. It wasn’t a matter of correction, but redirection.

Right now, she explained, greta had a program going on in her brain that said “X stimulus will produce Y feeling. When I feel Y, I do Z.” What KIm proposed we do was alter that program one step at a time.

This is where I planned to transition into my discussion of mindfulness for dogs. I could have simply edited the introduction when I realized just how long this post would be, but I remembered I’d promised mindfulness for doggies in a previous post so I have to at least address it. And today addressing it means…I’ve run out of time, this post probably already falls into TLDR territory, so…next week.

Well, correction hadn’t worked. Wasn’t it just like a human client with high levels of anxiety? A child who lives in a mental fog of worry knows, when they’re at home and the world is quiet, that they’re not supposed to run out of the classroom at school when they get overwhelmed by the happy chaos of the other children. But in the midst of 30 other students laughing and talking and moving about, the volume on the conscious brain gets turned down and the volume on the Survival brain gets turned up.

Kim suggested introducing an alternative behavior, reinforced with tasty rewards and affection, during times of low stress, when her brain was most prepared to learn. And then in slightly more stressful situations, and then in slightly more stressful situations, until the positively reinforced behavior began to vie for her attention in even the most triggering of environments.

“That seems like a leap, comparing human anxiety to dog anxiety,” you might say. “Human and dog brains are different, after all, even if they do share some similarities.”

Your’e absolutely right. If I were dealing with another human I’d have a lot more options than just treats and a clicker to make this work. But, you know how we first test theories of how human brains work? We try them on animals, like dogs.

Kim worked with me and Greta for a month before the shoulder injury that began, in an oddly disjointed way (pun intended), the cascade of health issues that has dominated our lives for the past year. At the same time as Greta’s shoulder went out and we scrambled to find a canine chiropractor she started having reactions that looked like a bacterial infection. I’ll write more about our journey from traditional to holistic veterinary care later, but for now let’s just say it took is six months to finally get a list of food allergies, and it’s taken us another six months to find the only dog food formula on the market that doesn’t contain a single one of the TEN common ingredients Greta is allergic to.

But our work with Kim didn’t pause entirely. She has training in canine injury rehabilitation, so whenever Greta was up for it Kim came over and taught me how to exercise areas like Greta’ss hips and shoulders to strengthen them and aid in her recovery. She was also the genius who first suggested that there might be such a thing as an Ergonomic guide dog harness.

It’s been over two years since I pulled Greta from active work. So far an entire year of that has been solving her health issues, and the year before that was me on my own with Cesar Milan books and playing phone-tag with The Seeing Eye trying to get their recommendations from a distance. I’ve got travel plans for the summer, and I don’t like the idea of leaving Greta for a whole week. I’ve never left her for more than two days. But will she be ready?

I’m optimistic. We’ve got one more health hurdle to cross before we can get to serious training work, and I expect that to resolve within a couple of weeks. And I also recently realized that I don’t need Greta to be perfect by the time my first trip roles around. I just need her to be measurably better than she was. Because I am measurably less anxious than I was.

After two years of consistent therapy unpacking my fear of others judging my dog and finding her (and by extention me) wanting, unraveling the toxic perfectionism seeded throughout my mind, and patiently reversing the physiology of anxiety in my own body I am far better equipped to handle mishaps in public. In fact, part of my therapy has involved my therapist guiding me to recall times when, after Greta misbehaved, random strangers have praised my dog-handling skills!

While excellent behavior in a service dog is a must-have, I’ve learned that people are more inspired by watching each other overcome challenges than by untouchable competence. So, Kim and Greta and I will work hard throughout the rest of winter and spring to help Greta find a healthier balance within herself so she can resume the work she loves. And when things don’t go perfectly, Greta and I will handle it as a team.

The opposite of anxiety is not the absence of fear or fear-inducing events, but the capacity for accepting fear and fearful events as a natural part of life. Greta and I are both working toward this state of acceptance.

Well, this wraps up my little series on why Greta isn’t actively working for me right now. Time to move on to new topics. Next month you can look forward to mindfulness for dogs and other holistic dog care ideas, writing updates, and a resumption of Flashback Fridays.

Place your bets on whether your favorite blindfluencer will manage to get two posts out this week!

2 thoughts on “Couples Therapy and Dog Training

  1. “The opposite of anxiety is not the absence of fear or fear-inducing events, but the capacity for accepting fear and fearful events as a natural part of life.”
    And similarly dealing with anxiety, and being confident, is knowing that when things don’t go right that you’ll find a way to handle it.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I quoted this in a previous post, but a pastor I know said it this way, and I think you’ll like this. “Contentment is knowing we have sufficient resources for life’s challenges.”

      Like

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