When I decided to adopt Frankie, I did so for various reasons. One of these reasons was that my now eleven year old dog Nano needed someone to help him working with other dogs. It was time to start thinking about Nano's retirement.
I always thought there was no better teacher for a dog than another dog. Our training abilities reach a point where they are no longer useful, and that's where the dogs take over. They are the best teachers, when they are happy, relaxed and balanced.
Nano has always been a great and valuable helper. He often took over when I could no longer help with his patience, iron discipline and ability to communicate with even the most difficult dogs. He always had the freedom to do whatever he wanted for as long as he wanted.
I thought Frankie could follow in his footsteps, learn from him, and become another Nano himself. And, once again, with the arrogance typical of human beings, I was wrong. I realised immediately that Frankie wouldn't be the same as Nano. He’s still very uncomfortable around adult dogs. While his communication is better every day and he is getting braver, he is never as relaxed and in control of the situation as Nano.
Then recently I happened to foster a Maremma Sheepdog puppy, barely thirty days old. In the general chaos that the presence of a puppy generates, only one has remained calm and kept a cool head: Frankie.
From the very first day, he was loving and caring towards the little one. He slept with her, ate beside her, controlled her when she got too brave with the other two dogs. If she was crying, he ran immediately to make sure that she was okay. With a great deal of patience he faced moments of play with her and guided and corrected her with unexpected kindness from a two year old 30kg Pit Bull.
As usual, that’s when I had my epiphany. We humans are awfully slow to realise certain things and often completely blind in observing the subtle nuances of our dogs. I didn’t have another Nano-like teacher in front of me. I had a nanny dog. I don't know why a lot of trainers always and only look for dogs who have this ability to 'scold' and deal with tough situations, that are 'stronger than the other dog'. Perhaps it's because people don't realise how beautiful all the social roles of the canine world are.
I started to observe Frankie in his interactions with the puppy and with her little sisters (thankfully not fostered by me), and I slowly realised how complex a role he was playing. I also realised how important, precious and delicate a dog like him is in the emotional, behavioural and cognitive development of a puppy so small and traumatised.
Now I know that when I organise puppy classes, Frankie is my most valuable helper. He calmly and politely deals with every situation, follows the little ones, separates them if they become too pushy with each other, teaches them important things such as the alternation of roles during play and when it’s time to take a break. Ironically, he is more at ease with puppies than with adults, which is curious since he was taken to a very bad shelter when he was less than two months old and never got to be a puppy himself.
It makes me reflect on a number of important things, including the expectations we have for our dogs and the roles we choose for them. Roles that may crush them for a lifetime, in which they feel compelled to do things they don't want to do. Sooner or later it will be too much for them and make them stressed, unhappy and disinterested in collaborating.
Once again my shelter dog, with all his fears and anxiety, teaches me something valuable. You need to observe a lot. You have to give your dog the time and possibility to express his own character. It is not us who decides which road he has to take. He will be the one who reveals his true nature as he comes out of his shell. Not respecting these inclinations would be like forcing a talented soccer player to become a pianist. He’ll probably play the piano, but always reluctantly and never living up to his true talent.
A dog is not a machine. We can’t dress him up in our own expectations, wishes and desires without even knowing him. He is an individual who will reveal his own preferences if we are able to provide time, patience and the support he deserves. I believe that we need more patience and openness towards dogs. Only by learning how to cherish them for what they truly are, and not for what we would like them to be, are we going to start having truly happy dogs to share our lives with.
It's never 'the dog I want and how can I get him'. It is always 'the dog I have who is already perfect, and whom I love unconditionally'.
Federica Iacozzilli is a dog trainer and behaviourist working in Italy. www.canietulipani.it