As you might have guessed from the title, three weeks ago I went with my sidekick, her parents, and her younger brother to Pass-a-Grille, Florida. It was lots of fun. For one thing, it was terrific to escape the never-ending winter-without-snow of New Hampshire. It wasn’t hot enough to swim, but it was still very warm. I got to canoe, terrify some enormous birds on the beach, relax in the sun, and overcome my fear of dogs.
Now I know most of you have heard stories of how I’m not a huge fan of boats. I’ve gone kayaking with my sidekick before, and let’s just say it didn’t go so well. She couldn’t do any paddling because I was either trying to drink the ocean—which she tells me is a bad idea—I definitely wouldn’t be wagging my tail if she let me try it—or I was trying to jump into the ocean. Don’t get me wrong: I didn’t want to go swimming. I don’t like swimming that much either. I just wanted out of the boat. I really wanted out of the boat. After that, my sidekick usually left me at home when she went kayaking with her family, and I was pretty happy about it. But in Florida, she didn’t want to leave me in our hotel, because I wasn’t that familiar with it and she didn’t want me to get anxious. I might have been fine staying behind, but it turns out I like canoes better than kayaks. There was room for me to flop down on the bottom between my sidekick in the front and her dad in the back, and I got this nice combination of warm sun on my fur on one side and the cool bottom of the boat on my other. My sidekick said she was very proud of me. I did almost tip the boat with my wagging tail.
And I almost tipped the boat because of the birds. My sidekick was not so proud of my interest in the birds.
They were pelicans. They were everywhere—on the beach, on the piers, out on the water—and they were big. Really big. Huge. Bigger than me. And I kind of liked to leap at them and watch them fly off. I know. Not super good Seeing Eye dog behavior, but how often do you get to chase a pelican?
But while I did chase the pelicans once or twice, I was very good about not chasing dogs. I’ve been having some problems with dogs ever since Italy, so this was a big big deal. Lots of tail wags.
Here’s what happened. We’re in Assisi. The drivers are crazy people, and they just keep driving where we’re supposed to be walking. They’re pulling in front of us, creeping up behind us, screeching to a stop exactly where we were a second ago. I already let my sidekick get hit by one car—and we were on the sidewalk!—and there’s no way I’m letting it happen again. I will drag her into a hedge or up a tree if I have to (and I had to). So I am seriously wound up, and this is just outside. Inside, we have people yelling at us and blocking turnstyles. My sidekick describes riding the bus on the way to school (with all the students), like a claustrophobic roller coaster where you’re standing up, and she wasn’t the one looking at a hundred kneecaps (she learned to be very forceful with her elbows so that I didn’t get trampled).
Add to all this craziness the large dogs—either stray or off-leash—who came charging at me barking, and I forgot my training a little bit. Maybe a lot. Hey, they were scary, and they could understand me. I was working. I had a very, very important job—keping my sidekick alive until we could get home. So I barked back. I’m not supposed to bark ever. I know that. And no way am I supposed to get distracted by other dogs when I’m working. But they were bigger than me, and they were coming at me, and I couldn’t let them distract me from my job, so I had to tell them to stay back.
When we finally got home from Italy, my sidekick started working with me to stop the bad behavior, but by this point I had it in my mind so firmly that other dogs were bad—scary, even—that we weren’t making much progress. She called my school, The Seeing Eye, several times. They gave her advice about how to correct me and told me that whenever I barked at dogs she had to put the gentle leader on me. The gentle leader is not a muzzle. It doesn’t keep my mouth closed. It doesn’t prevent me from barking. It just puts pressure around my face on the points where my mommy would pick me up when I was a baby and liked to chew on her ears. It reminded me to stay focused on my job and not bark at the dogs. I didn’t like the gentle leader, and I knew I needed to stop barking at the dogs. I knew when I did it right, because my sidekick would get very excited and give me lots of pets and even kneel down so I could lick her ears. We both thought we were making progress, but then, every time, I would get startled by a dog, and I would bark, and we would be back to where we started.
Around Christmas, my sidekick tried a new tactic. Instead of just correcting the bad behavior, my sidekick started rewarding me with kibble every time I was a good girl. We’d gone to New York to pick up her brother from college, and we spent the day walking all over the city with her mother. When a dog was coming, she had me sit and focus on her and the treat until the dog passed, and if I didn’t bark and pull towards the dog, I got the treat. If I did, I got the gentle leader. It was slow going, but now we both felt like we were finally making progress. I don’t need to be afraid of walking past dogs: there are treats on the other side of it. Pretty soon, my sidekick didn’t have to ask me to sit. She could just tell me to leave it, and I would trot right past the dog. We kept practicing, and she starting weening me off the treats, replacing them with pets and cuddles and lots and lots of praise, which I like too, especially if it comes with the chance to chew her ears. (I like chewing ears.)
Which brings me back to Florida. We were walking on the beach, when we wandered into a section where dogs were allowed. Now, I’m a special dog—I have a mission—so I’m allowed to go anywhere with my sidekick, even if other dogs can’t. But all of a sudden, we went from having the beach to ourselves to being surrounded. And I mean surrounded. There were maybe fifty dogs, all off-leash, playing in the water, chasing balls, running around with each other. I slowed down a bit and looked at my sidekick. I was a bit nervous about all this. But she said “Leave it, Mops. Let’s go. Good girl!” And I kept right on going, right through all those dogs. I was so proud of myself, and my sidekick was so proud of me! We both knew I’d been making progress, but this really sealed the deal.
The dog problem isn’t behind us. If a dog appears suddenly, I still startle, and I might bark or just pull too hard on the harness, but we’re working on it, and I’m confident I can do it. If I can handle those fifty dogs in Florida, I can handle one, even if it’s giant and sneaky. I got my sidekick through Italy, and I’m going with her to law school, and no dog is going to stop me.
So thank you, Florida, for the springtime, for the relaxation, and for showing me that I don’t have to bark at dogs to do my job right.