We are being welcomed into February with a lovely 36-hour snowstorm, which makes me feel happy, complacent and cozy. I’ve been thinking about today’s blog for awhile, and wrote it off and on all day, stopping to work in the upstairs studio, chat with Paul, fruitlessly shovel the back porch, do indoor and outdoor school sessions with Chance, and roast some potatoes because it’s so comforting to have the oven on. When we entered true blizzard status around 3pm (due to last till midnight), everyone on the street gave up trying to manage the snow. Or they went inside to watch the football game. Or both. No cars have braved the unplowed street for hours. I hung lights for Imbolc, calling back the sun.
Last year, February 1st was Chance pup’s first full day with us. Life with him has been odd, definitely; so many times we’ve said aloud, “I’ve never known a dog like this!” His fears, which are many, can trigger him into a terror so complete that he is unreachable. Something happened to him as a tiny pup, and then he spent the most impressionable developmental period in a pup’s life in cages. Essentially, he suffers from a canine version of PTSD.
My childhood wasn’t so great, either. I knew those unreachable stages as a teen: I jumped and ran from a car in traffic, slammed my fist through windows, cut into my wrists, lived in garages and public restrooms, stole food. It was later that I was diagnosed with PTSD; when I was young, it was called being ‘emotionally disturbed’ and it was a legal reason to be jailed, with no inquiry into its causes. It’s been a lifetime of tempering, of learning, of conquering triggers. Now, it only shows up for me in nightmares. 2014 was the first year in which I did not once wake the house, yelling and flailing. Instead, Chance had occasional nightmares, something I didn’t know dogs did, though they all obviously, vividly dream.
Conventional training didn’t work for Chance at all; it didn’t work for me, either. Avoiding punishment is simply not a valid motivation for creatures who have endured worse.
In October, we began a loosely outlined program that our vet estimated would take six months. Chance has been isolated in the house and yard, kept away from his fear triggers as much as we are able. We’ve been clicker training, which he responds to eagerly and happily. He became calmer almost instantly and has learned tons of things, most of which graduate into a reward of praise and petting with only occasional clicks and treats. But the first verbal cue he learned, to come touch his nose to my fist when I call ‘target!” always gets a click, treats, and praise. Beyond being a learning device, when he’s in the presence of something he fears, the click is a neutral sound that cuts through his emotional chaos to the amygdalia, the primal fight/ flight defensive part of his brain. It says ‘good things exist and some are coming now!’ and it’s a lifesaver to him. When he starts to spin off, we call ‘target!’ and he chooses the click. It’s wonderful.
Meanwhile, he’s learned to walk indoors with me wearing a head collar, harness and double ended leash. A pull on the leash tightens the padded harness before any pressure reaches the halter. I’m teaching him that when I tighten the leash, it’s not a ‘correction’ but a cue to look at me. At the same time, ‘target!’ is something we’ve just begun to practice every day outdoors as well as in. This week, he put it into effect, and stopped challenging a dog who was walking past, opting to ‘target’ instead. We’re on the brink of putting it all together and taking this process out into the world in small steps, overcoming his triggers one at a time. I’m ready to take him through it.
My reward for the work isn’t only the dog he’s becoming, or watching him finally make friends of neighbors, or learning his language while he learns mine, though it is all those things. We’ve bonded in a way I never expected; we have a vocabulary of survival in common. Helping him past his fears is allowing me to conjure up things I have long felt I’d dealt with, but now can safely re-examine, realize lingering bits I did not know were there, and put them to rest. Chance and I are bringing peace to each other.
This winter, joy comes too, through a return to what’s good in any childhood: snowballs. He LOVES them, and I love making them and sharing his huge, pure ecstacy. Yep, we’ve been waiting for this snowstorm.
(Things are happening out in the world but I can write about those later; a blizzard day is made for looking inward…after playing in the snow, of course.)