When I first rescued Boo, I had many goals for him. But – because of who he was and what he later showed me, I had to adjust my goals and what training for him would look like.
In my book, A Dog Named Boo we get to journey though the amazing things Boo did in his life in spite of his limitations and training hurdles.
Boo’s story is one of teaching: success in the face of struggle, unconditional acceptance of others, joy in all things, and that Patience, Persistence, and letting go of Perfect lies at the heart of all of these. Everyone who has potty-trained a puppy has used a type of ‘successive approximation’ like this.
– Cleaning up over and over until puppy begins to learn.
– Getting the puppy out often enough so puppy can be rewarded for ever more successful behaviors.
Perfect is not all it’s cracked up to be –
– Sometimes we all make mistakes.
Boo was patient when he taught me to give him the time he needed to learn things. Patience allows you take your time and let your dog show you who they are. Boo’s physical and cognitive limitations made it difficult for him to answer these questions quickly or at all sometimes.
Together we persisted in his training for his Pet Partner’s evaluation because his working as a therapy dog was the only way he was going to have kids in his life. Each dog will need their humans to persist in training differently. Boo needed extra time to learn new skills and confront fears. When he was afraid in the truck I had shift from convention wisdom to ways that would accommodate Boo so he could learn how to love the truck at his own pace.
For Boo to achieve his goal of visiting kids, it was almost two years of outings that slowly worked on his basic skills and treat-taking abilities in public. I had to craft alternative cues that Boo could follow and understand, much like I advise clients whose dogs are visually or hearing impaired. They can and will learn their basics and maybe even more than one might imagine, but it will have a different shape and form from traditional cues and signals.
And, when it came time for his therapy dog testing, we both let go of perfect knowing that in spite of his bumbling through the skills portion of the test, he would excel in the aptitude portion. Too often we get caught up in comparisons of one dog to another, yet one of the greatest gifts you can give your dog is to only compare them to where they started and how far they’ve come. Each dog will reach their fullest potential once we simply focus on each successive approximation as its own victory.
Boo never did things quite like any other dog, but it worked for him. When I would ask Boo for the paw command he’d swipe his paw in the air as if he were searching for a light switch in the dark. It in no way compared to the perfect easy-going dogs who leisurely reaches out and gently places their paw in your hand.
But when Boo does it, you could see his effort and sense of accomplishment in his simple, wobbly gesture and it always brought a smile in spite of the imperfection and probably more so because of it—like everyone cheering for the little engine who could—or in this case the little dog who could.
The lessons of Boo can apply to so many elements of human and canine interactions from dogs with special needs like him, to dogs who are reactive, stressed, need remedial socialization, and pretty much any dog who will be destined to work as a service or therapy dog.
As canine advocates and guardians, our job is to patiently observe what our dogs tell us then persistently and at their speed craft a training routine that suites them so they can become the best they can be given who they are.
Like Boo, all dogs have potential. Our job is to find it and nurture it.