Stories & Lit
Print|Email|Text Size: ||
Waking up from my Dream Dog


I knew that ignoring or accepting her aggression would be irresponsible and dangerous. But even armed with all this new knowledge, I still balked. As I hoped for improvement rather than helped her improve, it became clear that I was the biggest barrier to progress. The truth is, I was reluctant to confront Ainsley’s behavior because I was reluctant to admit that she was something other than my dream dog come true. So I swallowed hard and gave up my fantasy of an off-leash dog. She chases everything that moves and therefore risks injuring herself as well as other critters, so now she never goes out without a leash, six feet long in town and 30 or 50 feet long when we’re in the woods.

Then I gave up my fantasy of a dog-friendly dog. I would like to walk around my town with a calm, tail-wagging canine who puts all the other ill-behaved dogs to shame. Instead, I have a dog who is perfectly behaved as long as no squirrels, other dogs or trucks are in close proximity. In which case I have a Cujo. (Fortunately, more frequently these days, I have a dog who is trying very hard to sit still and look at me for treats, even though she really wants to be a Cujo.)

The next fantasy to go was that of having the perfect dog and therefore being seen as the perfect dog owner. Instead, I throw myself into situations that ensure bad behavior on her part and embarrassment on mine so I can do all those strange and counterintuitive training things that will help her work through that bad behavior.

I also gave up my fantasy of having an ideal walking companion, and accepted that her behavior could be managed, but perhaps not changed; could be improved, but probably not eradicated; that working through it and around it would continue on each and every walk we shared, for the rest of her life. And I embraced the notion that our walks, and the training itself, could be, should be, lots and lots of fun.

Here’s what I found helps: A head halter to humanely control her physical behavior, along with months of patient and regular counterconditioning sessions that incrementally reset her trigger threshold. Carefully observing her to determine whether she wants to move away from or toward the trigger, and using that movement as part of the reward. Working with sympathetic friends, trainers and dog kennels with the other dogs on-leash or behind fences so we can practice the abovementioned counterconditioning/proximity-controlling sessions. Having the jogger, biker, person wearing a large hat and/or driver of the big white truck who share our walking trail stop and give her treats instead of racing by at full speed. Acting like a complete goofball when a trigger comes by in order to distract her and defuse us both. Swallowing my annoyance and embracing her with joy and snacks when she suddenly reappears dragging all 50 feet of yellow nylon lead with the handle that broke when she bolted and chased deer for an hour and a half through the snow-filled woods.

But what helps most? Realizing that in fact I have something infinitely better, more interesting, complex, nuanced, challenging, rewarding, entertaining, enjoyable and authentic than a dream dog. I have a real dog.



This article first appeared in The Bark,
Issue 70: Jun/Jul/Aug 2012
Laurel Saville is the author of the memoir Unraveling Anne. She and her dog Ainsley live with her husband and two cats in upstate New York. laurelsaville.com
CommentsPost a Comment
Please note comments are moderated. After being approved your comment will appear below.
Submitted by Kerry Nikutta | August 31 2012 |

I wanted to thank Laurel Saville for her article, “Waking Up from My Dream Dog.” I could relate to almost everything she said. My partner and I had the sweetest Australian Shepherd on earth for a very long time, but we had to put him to sleep about a year ago. We, too, felt lost without a dog, and wanted another Aussie. The rescue dog we eventually chose looked like a mini Aussie, but we now think he has a lot of Border Collie traits too.

We had the same experience with his increased reactivity to other dogs (and squirrels, bikes, trucks, etc.). He was great around other dogs for about five months, then started lunging, growling and barking whenever a dog was within 50 feet. We are working with a trainer and he is slowly getting better, but sometimes it feels like this problem will never go away.

I experienced a similar range of emotions, and from time to time, felt like it had been a mistake to adopt this guy. (We tended to compare him to our first dream dog, which didn’t help matters.) It was comforting to know that Saville—and probably many others—have gone through the same experience. We now realize that we need to accept him as he is. He has a lot of great things going for him, and we have grown to love him, so we will carry on and hope for the best!

Submitted by Laurel Saville | November 2 2012 |

Thank you for your letter - I am so glad the essay made you feel less alone!

Submitted by Melissa Shapiro | August 31 2012 |

The process by which Laurel Saville came to accept her new dog’s “imperfections” is so familiar that I felt like I was reading my own story. I am a veterinarian, and my vet- school dog was a beautiful white Collie mix, a once-in-a-lifetime dog. She had been a research dog, purchased from a Detroit pound and then made diabetic in a lab, so she needed insulin twice a day. But she was perfect in all ways. She went everywhere with me, and I worked in many different jobs in a number of states. She’s been gone more than 18 years, and my life now is very different than it was. I have three teenagers and have had quite a few dogs since she died in 1993. It took me four dogs to finally realize that I would never have that perfect dog again, that I would have to work to keep my dogs safe and happy, and that I could be crazy about my dogs even though they weren’t that perfect special one.

I did finally get another white dog. She’s a lethal white Aussie with profound hearing and vision issues, and I love her to pieces. Her white coat is familiar and comforting, as is the shape of her face, head and body, which are all very similar to my original white dog’s. But that’s where the similarities end. She has various issues and has been a great challenge, but I couldn’t love a dog more. There is a part of her that is sensitive and devoted, and I have a feeling it will continue to expand as she gets older. She’s the one who taught me that I don’t have to have a perfect dog, as much as I thought I did.

Recently, we decided to become a multi-dog family. We added a third rescue dog in October, and then a fourth in March. Our dogs are the center of our household. We somehow ended up choosing dogs who love each other, and that gives us great joy. We work with them, hug them and watch them like we would a television (no TV for me).

Submitted by Laurel Saville | November 2 2012 |

HA! We don't watch TV either! Thank you so much for your letter!

Submitted by Anonymous | January 18 2013 |

She's a double-merle, or bred merle to merle, or homogeneous merle, but not LETHAL. "Lethal white" is a condition in horses that results in death within hours of birth. I wouldn't want to scare a potential adopter away from a double-merle Aussie by using that term. Thank you for adopting.

Submitted by Kathy | August 31 2012 |

I totally connected with Laurel Seville’s story! It was a pleasure to see it articulated so beautifully. I, too, have a reactive dog, a red, bi-Aussie mix named Nike. He is the greatest gift in the world. I have met so many wonderful people and have a bond with him that I never could have imagined.

When I was told to euthanize Nike at seven months, I looked into his eyes and just could not give up on him that easily. I read numerous books and begged to be included in dog classes. But as you know, any sign of aggression is a big X for us. After reading Pam Dennison’s book, I begged her to help me save myself and my dog. I travel more than an hour and a half to see her.

She took a chance on us, and my boy and I are living quite happily with our 50-foot leather leash, our bag of treats and our high-pitched “yesses!” Let’s hope that people can and will realize that dogs are different, just as people are. They have different personalities, but one thing remains the same: they all deserve the love they give us each day. Dennison always says that anyone can train a dog, but it takes someone special to train a reactive/aggressive dog. I’m glad Saville didn’t give up.

Submitted by Laurel Saville | November 2 2012 |

NIKE! Love seeing him on FB! Thank you for writing me and again here.

Submitted by Cathrine | September 1 2012 |

The only difference between our situation and yours is that we never had a dog before. Now we have two! Rescued from abuse abroad, hugely reactive, the female aggressive, the male terrified, they are the joy and bane of my existence. I can relate to every single word you have written.

We are working with a behaviourist balancing SSRIs and intensive positive training. Slowly, so slowly, it IS making a difference. It touches me deeply to watch the female vibrate with her repressed desire to attack, Attack, ATTACK! as she sits looking to me for that treat and that click that tells her that, yes, it IS possible to live in the same world as other dogs, skateboarders, joggers, buses, strangers who look at you funny....

He can barely stand to be in the street if there is another human within sight, but he'll do it: he'll do it for me, although he'll try to look in all directions at once and has a sitting crab walk that breaks my heart.

Once inside, they are happy, loving, giving dogs, and even jump for joy to see their trainer. Inside, they learn quickly and love to do their 'tricks'. Inside, you'd never know what they have been through, or what it did to them.

And, know what? Even if they never get any better, even if she can never walk without a sturdy muzzle, even if he never goes more than a block from the house, I will love them from now until the heat death of the universe.

They might not be everyone's idea of a good dog, but they are the best dogs EVER: they are my dogs.

Submitted by Anonymous | October 19 2012 |

After 4 years and multiple attempts with various trainers (who were all very good), I've decided that there are some things about my little guy that can never be changed (likewise, there are things about me that a therapist could never change)! I've come to the conclusion that I was put on this earth for a reason, and this just might be it--to have spared this little furry from a lifetime of abuse and neglect.
I'm very grateful for having come across this article. It's comforting and reassuring for me to know that I'm not alone.

Submitted by Laurel Saville | November 2 2012 |

Thank you for your lovely comments. Indeed, I see continual improvement, but I accept that I will never have a dog park dog and can't let friends visit with their dogs anymore. All the more time for me and Ainsley to have fun just the two of us!

Submitted by Amy @ True Dog | December 27 2012 |

Not an uncommon story with those super sensitive herding dogs.
I've written many stories about the struggles I've had with my "dream dog, but not a reality!"

Submitted by donatosmama | January 17 2013 |

I have one of those! exactly. Got her at 5 months, didn't want a puppy (?). At first, our biggest problem, so I thought, was that she didn't connect with me as all my 6 other dogs had. Six historically, not all at once. And she was funny if not exasperating. When she didn't want to do something, she pulled a passive resistance lie down. And that was that. We have video of me carrying her back to the car, her big puppy paws flopping over my back and her tongue lolling and expression quite satisfied. Not a hint of embarrassment.
Then one day she pinned a dog at doggy day care, overreacted they said. Next, she punctured and got expelled. Then she attacked a dog. Then another. Then the neighbor - by now I recognized her warning signals and knew she didn't like him. He reached to pet her....
Only recently, have I fully accepted that, as you say, I have to give up on the dog I wish I had, and accept the dog I DO have. I love her. She's a challenge and adorable and a challenge. I've done all you describe and our walks our as you describe. She's trying. I've come to accept that she's here to teach me more than a 'good' dog would. thanks for this article. I feel such relief now. At least ONE other person fully understands. And she's a border collie/shepherd mix. Relinquished to animal rescue because she was too much to handle.

for the record, donato is my other bc mix. A totally different series of nutty characteristics.

More From The Bark

A bird in a paw
Donna Hicks Myers
Pumpkin and Daisy Dogs Illustration
Dana Standish
David Koff
More in Stories & Lit:
Part-Time Puppies
Walking with Misty
My Dog Murphy
How I Found My Dog Carson
Healing Fraught History of African Americans and Dogs
The Great Unwashed
My Canine Co-Counselor
Canis Mythicus
This Hound