Rescue: Training the Things We Take for Granted

Lethargy. Sweltering with a non-specific stickiness. Flies. More flies. Dilly-dallying. These are the wilting Dog Days of Summer, named for Sirius, the Dog Star. No connection to the napping habits of dogs so deflated by the heat that a sploot position on the linoleum is the smart choice.

Preacher Man is having a good summer. I haven’t been able to find the toenail clippers and sometimes a good day can be best described by what doesn’t happen.

It was two and a half years ago when this rescue dog arrived like a mail-order bride at the local airport. Preacher Man left a trail of kind hearts and burst eardrums in Texas.

He has a tendency toward the incessant operatic bark; a clear ringing tenor that rises seamlessly above his inhales and exhales. Or it might be a previously un-diagnosed case of canine Tourettes. It’s a syndrome fairly common among horsewomen as well.

In my experience, rescue dogs fall into two categories. Some are pragmatic; they stand in the front door taking a long look from the couch to the kitchen, assessing the possibilities. Immediately satisfied with the accommodations, they circle three times and fall asleep hugging the cat.  Everyone resumes a peaceful routine with just a bit more dog hair in it. Everyone gets to feel magnanimous.

The other category is like entering long term-addiction therapy with your new stalker. Sure, herding dogs are a bit of a challenge on the rescue spectrum. It’s their job in life to make sure everyone stays together so there’s a testy balance of guilt and hysteria at finding themselves in rescue. “No!” Preacher howled to the ceiling, “This incarceration is a big mistake.” The jailers at the rescue shrugged; all the dogs desperately plead their innocence. Jailers agree.

Preacher Man was named for loving the sound of his own voice just a bit too much. He’d been in and out of a few too many packs and he was crazy with the shame; he believed he couldn’t survive that failure again. He was confident that trying too hard was just the ticket.

As for me, I began to train the things we take for granted. The everyday habits that define normal. My first task was convincing Preacher that the cats were not agents of the devil. I know what you’re thinking; it’s pretty much true, but we are not a species-racist farm. We do not tolerate intolerance. We have a goat to prove it.

On day one, there’s the big tabby cat sitting nonchalantly in the doorway and Preacher warned me like an air raid siren all day. Every hour-and-a-half or so, he paused to catch his breath and I gave him a cookie. It’s positive reinforcement for the split second of quiet but positive training also requires a split second of hindsight… that instant of connecting the dots but Preacher knows if he slows down even that much, his past might catch up. Instead he thinks that I have given him the cookie to keep his strength up in battle, and the one-sided fight begins again. Eventually Preacher wins when the cat gets bored enough to leave. Preacher settles under my chair, confident that if he can just keep up the bark work, he’ll prove he’s indefensible. Or indispensable. One of those words.

Preacher barks especially loud, if that’s even possible, at meal time. The other dogs, a little pudgy around the middle, don’t quite believe the call to arms but it seems like a good idea to join in. You wouldn’t want the short dog to get all the food. Their conversation soon degenerates to name-calling, and by the time I’m there with bowls, it’s more like a controlled explosion.

How am I doing at training Preacher to be normal? It’s about now that I decided to take the high moral ground and pretend he was never housebroken in the first place. I did it for my own sanity. And his.

The hardest training had to be done after dark when the monsters roam. I guess I thought all corgis slept belly up and snored like your weird uncle. Preacher spent the first year sleeping under the bed. The second year, he came out and tentatively pressed his backside into my ear, keeping one eye open, ready to launch across the room in attack mode should a mass-murderer or a stray cat wander by in the dark. After an hour or two, he went back under the bed. It was just too much responsibility, even for him.

But lately Preach manages to sleep through a couple of nights a week. He still has to face the door, but sometimes the back of his little flat head presses hard against my cheek. Sometimes in the dark, his nose rises up and falls back toward me. All the way back, like a contortionist, till his white throat glows all the way to his belly. I exhale long and he flips around on the bed like a sturgeon out of water. We forget where we came from for a little while and our inner puppies wrestle until we fall into a fearless sleep.

Normal is like gravity; a steady force for balance.

Come morning, Preacher Man is back on task, ferocious that the Dude Rancher is using the bathroom. I remember to let him out before I sweep. Preacher seems to know an alternate use for broomsticks and he’s trained me a new normal on that.

In this oppressive season, it’s easy to find danger at every turn. To feel that the world is a scary place and any connection we have found will fray and break. Sometimes amid the stress of fearing for the worst, we let our habits change, and before we know it, purrs sound like growls. It’s hard to imagine that in a still quiet moment, if you could just trust yourself. That in a moment of vulnerability, you could feel safe.

What they don’t tell you about rescue is that it’s an inside job.

Anna Blake at Infinity Farm
Horse Advocate, Author, Equine Pro

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