Life is a long, messy tangental inquiry into what the big questions are and what their answers might be. The older I get the more I enjoy and appreciate the journey, even though it’s not always fun. We all have guides and teachers on that journey, and the ones that speak clearest to me have always been my dogs. They aren’t able to articulate their lessons in words, but if we pay close attention they are able to teach us by their very being. I’ve spent the last twenty years trying to be a good student and learn what it is they are here to teach me. Even though I try, I don’t always succeed. This article is about a long, difficult lesson that my oldest dog Shaw has been teaching me over the past 13 years that I’m only now beginning to comprehend. Truly understanding this lesson, as you will learn below, has been painful and embarrassing. I’m sharing it with you today in the hopes that doing so might save you from learning this lesson in the same long, painful way I am going through now.
Shaw joined our family in 2007, just as I was heading to dog training school. He was my second border collie, following in the very deep and impressive footsteps of his big sister Fenris, who was four years older. One of my requirements for school was to train a dog from “scratch”, and I had already done quite a bit of training with Fenris, so I needed to either supply a fresh dog or be assigned a rescue dog to work with once I arrived. I wasn’t too keen on leaving the choice of my training partner to chance. I also couldn’t see myself doing all that training with a dog and not keeping them, so I wanted to work with a dog that would work in my household when school was done. These concerns lead me to a trip to Glen Highland Farm, a magnificent border collie rescue in upstate NY before heading to Texas for school where we met a very young Shaw and added him to our family.
From the very beginning, I had high expectations for Shaw. Much like the children of teachers, the dogs of dog trainers are both blessed and cursed by their caregiver’s vocation. The personal dogs of trainers are often called “demo dogs”, and these canine partners training level and general behavior are often seen as a direct reflection of their owner’s skill and ability. Additionally, as I was in school with Shaw, my grades depended on his performance.
Shaw was an excellent training partner in school. I however, was not. I had set my expectations so high that Shaw was doomed to fail to meet them. Even though other classmates called him “miracle dog” and marveled at how quickly he learned, it was not enough for me. My ego pushed me to force both of us to practice far more than was necessary or prudent. At the end of 16 weeks of training Shaw was by far the most accomplished dog in the program, but he was also beginning to show signs of stress. I had made training a job, focused on results rather than a collaboration between two partners.
Shortly after returning home I retired Shaw from agility, not because he wasn’t good at it, but because it was clear that he didn’t enjoy it. Over the next couple of years Fenris took on most of the workload from Shaw. Honestly, her temperament and work ethic was better suited for it, and Shaw was more than happy to just chill. For years, I believed that I had learned my lesson about pushing too hard and that I had accepted Shaw as the dog that he is, which is frankly a great family dog that just about anyone would be thrilled to have as a member of their family.
Recently as I’ve been noticing that Shaw’s clock is starting to wind down, I’ve been thinking a lot about him, me and our relationship. Looking back, I’ve been a terrible partner to this wonderful dog. I’ve treated him as a second-class dog, as a disappointment for over a decade, not because of any failing on his part, but because he didn’t live up to expectations I created in my head. He didn’t fail me, I failed him. It’s going to take me some time to come to terms with the fact that I not only sabotaged our relationship before it really began, but that it took me over a decade to truly realize it. I’ve been treating him as though I forgave him for failing me, rather than seeking his forgiveness for failing him. Even when we realize that we made a mistake, we can still mishandle ourselves in addressing it.
Thankfully, Shaw has had Kate to pick up the slack that I have left over the years. I’m so happy that she has been able to appreciate him for the dog that he is, and that he has bonded so tightly to her. He absolutely deserves better than what I have given him and I’m so glad he has gotten it. At the same time, I can’t help but wonder what life would have been like for both of us If I had done better.
This entire line of inquiry has been like a dark cloud over me. Fortunately, I think there is a silver lining to it. Over the past year I have done a lot of thinking and writing about the marvelous possibilities that open up when you explore the possibility that your dog is perfect. Until today, I would have credited those realizations to my interactions with Wyrm, my youngest dog and current full-time parner in crime. The truth is that Wyrm and I have Shaw to thank for most of those realizations. I limited the scope of Wyrm’s training as described here as a direct consequence to my experience with over-training Shaw. I also somehow sub-consciously managed to prevent myself from building expectations for Wyrm, and the result has been that every success, no matter the level, has been celebrated rather than compared to some imagined ideal. Finally, I'm not concerned about being judged by Wyrm's behavior, as I've matured enough to not really care about who judges me or why. Wyrm and I today are the beneficiaries of knowledge and understanding that I don’t believe could have come from anything other than my flawed handling of my relationship with Shaw. I wish I did’t have to learn it in the way I did, but I’m so incredibly thankful for the lesson. I’m sure Wyrm is glad I learned it too.
So this all leaves me with one question. What do I do with the time I have left with this dog who has taught me so much at so great a cost? I don’t know the answer to that, but I am going to do my best to be the person I should have been for him each and every day that he is still here. It pains me that I can’t apologize, can’t explain myself to him, but at least I have some time left to be better for him. That and ensuring I don’t make those same mistakes again are the best I can do. Learning life's lessons can be hard. The only thing harder is not learning the lesson.
Thanks Shaw, you're perfect.