Random Musings on Dogs, Photography, and the Vagaries of Life

Friday, April 30, 2010

Appreciating Tango...

...the dog, not the dance, although after years of ballroom dance lessons, I definitely have an appreciation of that as well (and of the people who do it well).

Tango is my canine "problem child." My husband, Mark, and I adopted him along with his sister, Samba, when they were 14 weeks old, and as we celebrate his 11th birthday on May 1, it seems appropriate to reflect on the impact he has had on my life.

I'll be the first to admit that our decision to adopt Tango and Samba was driven by our hearts rather than our heads. We saw them at an adoption show and they looked so much like Boris, our beautiful black Lab/golden retriever who had just died, that they made us cry. And that was that.

I remember sitting with Tango on my lap at the adoption show and thinking what a calm, quiet puppy he was; he hardly moved at all, even though a dog sitting next to me was trying to chew Tango's tail. Wow, I thought, this is going to be one easy-going dog. I was wrong.

Our first clue that Tango had "issues" came several days after he and Samba came home with us. Both puppies were sitting in our TV room with me when my husband walked into the doorway from a dark hallway. Tango jumped up and began barking like a banshee at Mark, and it took several minutes to calm him down. Needless to say, we were startled, never having seen such a reaction in a puppy before.

We soon discovered that Tango was also startled and frightened by Kramer on Seinfeld (okay, I can understand that), the sound of the dishwasher, the automatic ice maker in the refrigerator, umbrellas being opened, unfamiliar people, and even familiar people wearing items of clothing that changed their appearance. He also was terrified of Mark's black briefcase and large black plastic garbage bags. I remember being mortified and embarrassed when Tango backed away, barking, from neighbors during walks. I had never experienced anything like this before.

I asked our vet if he knew 0f any canine behaviorists in Maryland, and he didn't. He suggested that we enroll Tango in obedience classes, which we did. Tango did well in class, although he was obviously uncomfortable in the unfamiliar surroundings. He "graduated" from beginning class and moved on to intermediate, where he easily did 3-minute "sit-stays" and 1-minute "down-stays" with me across the room. The only thing he would not (probably could not is more accurate, given his emotional/psychological make-up) do is "stand for examination," which involves someone--usually, but not always, the teacher--placing a hand on the dog's head and running it down the dog's shoulders and rump. Tango eventually would let our female instructor touch him, but any time she asked a man to assist in the exercise, Tango would back away.

We eventually stopped going to class because around the age of 2 or 3 Tango began displaying dog-aggression tendencies. He would almost always ignore the dogs around him but if one of them broke a sit-stay and came bouncing over, Tango seemed to feel threatened and would respond aggressively. I did my best to keep Tango focused on me and asked other handlers not to let their dogs get in Tango's face. Unfortunately, some people just didn't get it. One older woman with a little Yorkie-type dog would let her dog jump at Tango's face. I told her that Tango didn't like that, and her response was that her dog was just being friendly. I'd explain over and over again that Tango didn't see it that way. Eventually, it just got too stressful.

Over the years, I increased my knowledge of dog behavior issues. I read such books as Bones Would Rain from the Sky: Deepening Relationships with Dogs by Suzanne Clothier; Cautious Canine, Feisty Fido: Help for the Leash Aggressive Dog, and The Other End of the Leash by Patricia McConnell; The Dog Who Loved Too Much by Nicholas Dodman; and Aggression in Dogs: Practical Management, Prevention & Behavior Modification by Brenda Aloff. I attended seminars by Patricia McConnell and Sarah Kalnajs, and worked with trainer Liz Marsden. And I began putting the knowledge I acquired into action with Tango.

The good news is that it's helped. Tango will never be immediately comfortable with new human acquaintances and he will never like other, new dogs. So he will not get to interact with the occasional foster dog that spends time with us on his or her way to a forever home. He will not get to go to dog parks or for "play dates" with our friends' dogs. He will not get to go to "Yappy Hour," "Canines & Cocktails," or any other "dog friendly" events, where humans and their canine companions gather to socialize and enjoy a little "nosh"...often to raise money for a good cause. But...I can take him for walks without him lunging, barking, and growling at other dogs we pass. Thanks to patient, consistent, positive training--and some really yummy treats--I can turn his attention back to me. In fact, when we pass a neighbor's house and their three dogs run along the fence and bark at Tango, he will automatically look up at me instead of them. He also is more trusting of new people...especially if they'll throw a ball--his favorite item and activity in life--instead of trying to pet him. Basically, he seems more comfortable in his own skin.

The bad news is that I could have helped Tango even more if I'd spent more time addressing his issues. But with two other dogs who both had needs of their own, a full-time job (until recently), volunteer work for the SPCA/Humane Society of Prince George's County, and other professional and social activities, I just couldn't focus all my attention on Tango. And I have to admit I sometimes feel guilty about that. But, to use a sometimes trite phrase, "it is what it is." I've done--and continue to do--the best by and for Tango that I realistically can.

I've told many people that if my husband and I had known about Tango's "issues" ahead of time, we never would have adopted him. But once he was part of our family, we felt we had made a commitment to him. And I'll never regret that decision.

I have learned more about dog behavior than I could ever have imagined...information that has benefited not only me but also other people who have sought my input on their own dog challenges. And I have met some amazing people who I never would have met otherwise...people who have enriched my life in many ways. And I have seen Tango mature and develop into a wonderful, if flawed, companion. My mother once said, "It's not easy being Tango." I'd like to think that thanks to the love and work we've done with him, that "being Tango" gets easier all the time.

When I think of the number of people who would have given up on him--and given him up--I thank my lucky stars that my husband and I found him at that adoption show 11 years ago. It's been a challenging but enlightening ride...and it's not over yet. Like all of us, Tango is a work in progress...a work that will continue until the day he dies.

Happy birthday Tango!

1 comment:

  1. "a wonderful, if flawed, companion"

    Isn't that what we should all aspire to? Fritz says "Happy Birthday Tango!" (from a comfortable distance for both!)