It’s almost the anniversary of when I adopted my dog Pastina. Three summers ago, she sleepily emerged from her shelter dog bed and sauntered into my life. When I saw her sad, tired eyes and her little beard, I turned to my parents + my friend Nicky (my trustworthy dog choosing team) and said, “This is the face I want to be looking at.” Little did I know that the dog face I wanted to be looking at, was often looking away from me.
Once home, she spent her time scratching at the door, looking out the window and rummaging through the garbage. Many times she scurried around me and down the hallway steps, trying to set herself free. Luckily there were 3 sturdy doors to get out of that building, so she never quite made it all the way out. On walks, she looked for pigeons, squirrels and scraps to eat. I cannot stress enough how she was constantly looking around. Like she was just released from the dog mafia, and the dog-father might come for her at any moment. Oh I almost forgot her best move, frequently running full throttle ahead, then launching into the air and ending with running in fast circles at the end of the leash.
Often on walks I had to explain her behavior: when she hopped up onto people (“she’s curious!”) or attempted to walk into open garages (“she’s thinking about opening her own garage someday”) or tried to jump into cars with open doors/passengers getting in or out (“someone wants to go for a ride with you!”). She barked at kids on skateboards (“she wants your wheels!”), people running by (“sorry, she just hates exercise!”) or bikes coming too close to her. Most of the time people laughed. But it took a lot of energy and quick thinking on each walk to maneuver around all the sights and sounds. Remember a few stories back, I told you how slow I am to make changes sometimes? Well after two years of thinking about it, an outside force led me to hire a dog trainer.
The outside force was actually a piece of paper. As I signed my name and renewed a 2-year lease at my apartment building, I decided it was time for some professional help. We had left the 3 sturdy door building behind and moved into a larger, older brick building. This building has 5 apartments on each floor, with a total of 5 floors. We live on the 4th floor here. So there are plenty of noises and neighbors to distract Pastina on the way down. Plus there are 2 loose cats that sort of live in the laundry room and roam the halls at night. They show up very unpredictably, so you can just imagine Pastina’s reaction to that as we enter and exit the building.
In this old building, there are really caring neighbors, other dogs and families. Once people got to know me, they felt freer to express themselves when Pasti and I haphazardly walked by them in the halls. First, it started with questions, such as, “What’s wrong with her?”, “Is she having a seizure?”, “Why’s she spazzing out?” My least favorite question that I heard was, “Do you know she doesn’t act like that with the dog walker?” I talked to the dog walker, who she went out with two days a week in a pack of 5 – 8 dogs. His reaction, “She’s really a willfull dog. Most of the time, she’s doing her own thing.”
My neighbors moved from inquisitiveness to another level in our relationship. They started giving advice. It was a slow trickle at first. About once a week, a random neighbor would give a helpful tip. Then it burst into a full on waterfall. Almost every time we went in or out, a neighbor was yapping in my ear, as I tried to drag Pastina away from any number of things. Here’s a few snippets from them, “You gotta do what she’s doing. She’s whining… you start whining” (and they whined, in case I wasn’t understanding the lesson), “Try to pull her tail. If you pull her tail, she’ll stop all that nonsense.”, “Yo, you need to hold her nose closed. That will teach her. Just do it. Get that nose.”
I often responded, “Thanks, I’ll try it” or “Good to know!” or “Got it, nose closing.” Then I started saying, “We’re in training. No time to talk. Sorry, gotta work on this dog training.” It was true. We had started dog training. Denise, the dog trainer showed up one weekday afternoon. She was friendly, had messy hair and was slightly disheveled. I thought, “This is good. She kind of looks like me.” Later Denise overly shared about her previous night out, but at this starting point, she was all business.
It wasn’t long before Denise had her sitting + waiting to get her leash on, instead of running at top speed around the leash. We went out the door + back in repeatedly. Outside, Denise watched as Pastina leapt into the air to catch pigeons and then barked at a dog that was across the street. She assessed Pastina’s level of crazy as Pasti stopped outside the building to hone in on + bark at a neighbor’s apron hanging in the window. Denise’s assessment: we had a lot of work to do. Her conclusion was that Pastina was “physically almost 4 years old, but was mentally 1 year old.” She needed to work on “impulse control”, “compliance” and “patience.” I needed to look for patterns.
So she wrote down what to do. And we did it, over and over and over again. Each walk was a lesson in preparation (treats in pocket, sanity gathered, plan for what to do when she loses her shit, etc) and patience. It sometimes took us 20 minutes to just get out my apartment door. We walked by French friends that I knew very well. “Bon jour!” they’d say and Pastina would run straight for their cigarettes, that they were waving in their hands. “Hey!” I’d say, pull her over, try to get her attention and try again. We’d walk by old people sitting on their stoops. They DESPARATELY wanted to pet this shaggy thing. Pastina would run up the stoop and put her paws on their laps “Hey!” I’d say, pull her over, try to get her attention and try again. On and on this went, with each messed up interaction and attempt to repair it.
Over time, I discovered patterns: Pastina does not like plastic bags. If someone is carrying a plastic bag and they are approaching us, she will launch at the bag. Sometimes if I’m not quick enough, her front paws will make contact with the bag. Denise asks if this is joyful jumping or aggressive jumping. I reply as I always do, “I have no idea. I just see jumping.”
Pastina also does not like single people walking towards us. I thought for a little while that it was solo Latina ladies walking towards us. But that was not the pattern. The pattern was one, unaware person, strolling towards us for no good reason. And last but not least, Pastina has a real problem with anything that blows around. Blowing leaves, loose plastic bags (again, the bags), flags above us; if it is blowing, she is about to be running in small circles.
So it’s been over 6 months since training began in earnest. Except for a lapse during the cold weather, I really followed the plan of action. I’ve given Pastina endless treats. I’ve asked in a loving voice, “Who’s a good dog?” and answered “You are! You’re a good dog“at least 5,000 times. And Pastina has gradually learned. There’s less running, more following + looking at me. It is still a slow, ongoing process. But it’s happening. Now when we pass by neighbors and she doesn’t jump up or scurry over to them, there typically isn’t advice or questions. There’s often a compliment to Pastina. Three times now, separate neighbors have said, “What a lady!” , “That’s a real lady you got there.” and “She’s acting like a lady these days.”
Little did I know, Pastina needed training to go from this face…
to….finally this face…
Thanks as always for reading. Special thanks to my parents for being supportive and unbelievably kind during the early training days. And thanks to Pastina, who somehow found her way to me, and isn’t trying to run out the door anymore.
willful + spazzing out pastina pictures by my friend Michelle L. of Nuer Jewelry
all other photos by Vanessa
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