Saturday, January 22, 2011

Lady, My Beautiful Enigma

The walk was going great until we rounded the corner. My afternoon reverie vanished in an uproar of barking, yelping, and lunging at a small poodle who unfortunately happened to be rounding the corner toward us at the same time. "No!" I said urgently to Lady as the startled woman pulled her now yapping dog off the sidewalk and hurried past. "Leave it alone!" But in that brief instant, Lady, who mere moments ago had been serenely enjoying the walk, was transformed into an insane, agitated 90 pound bundle of anxiety. I could read the woman's thoughts as she glanced back at us - "Geesh, have you ever heard of dog training?"

Embarrassing/frustrating dog walking moment #938.

Lady joined the family just before Easter in 2007. And since that time we've tried just about everything in the book to change this behavior, fondly referred to among family and friends as Lady's "crazy dog" routine, since that's exactly what it looks like when it happens. A dog behaviorist consulted this past year validated intervention techniques tried thus far, provided a few new suggestions (which have been helpful), but best of all, shared her experiences with her own "Lady," a German Shepherd she rescued 6 years ago. That was so reassuring. Because at some point you do start to wonder - what am I doing wrong??

I was drawn to Lady because of my experience with Jessie, my first German Shepherd. But the two dogs could not possibly be more different. None of Lady's "issues" were present in Jessie. But according to the dog behaviorist, it isn't uncommon for German Shepherd dogs to exhibit these behaviors, that to an extent have been intentionally cultivated in this breed.

Essentially, Lady's problems stem from an overdeveloped instinct to protect, guard, and watch over her family. That's her "job." In the right environment, her behavior wouldn't be problematic, it would be valued. But considering we don't live on a Scottish moor with a flock of sheep to keep together and protect from wolves, well...her skills and instincts are a bit of a mismatch with the current environment.

So Miss Lady continues to be a work in progress. One of the goals is to teach her which elements in the environment merit a reaction, and which don't. I can still remember the day I was driving down I-40, and Lady, who was riding in the enclosed back end of the truck, suddenly exploded into a pandemonium of barking. Startled, I quickly looked around, trying to find the source of the uproar. There was nothing. There weren't even any cars around us. And yet Lady continued to bark, that loud frantic dangerous barking that says "I am going to tear you apart if you get any closer!!" About the time I was thinking to myself "I really DO have a crazy dog," suddenly I heard a familiar sound. A helicopter. I glanced out the side window and up, and sure enough, there was a helicopter up there, apparently too close to the truck for Lady's comfort. Then I just had to chuckle. I have a dog that protects me from helicopters.

I have to reassure her that I am in control, so she doesn't need to be. She has made a lot of progress over the past 3+ years. And she knows when she's done the right thing. When we pass a dog on the sidewalk, and she manages to restrain her almost unrestrainable desire to create a ruckus, I say "Good dog! Good leave it!" And she looks up at me with this unmistakably proud smile on her face, just beaming and prancing, as if to say "See! I did it! I'm a good girl!" The first time she uneventfully passed by another dog, we had such a party you'd have thought she just won a gold medal in the Olympics. Now she "gets it." I know she does. However sometimes she does the right thing, and sometimes not. It's very hard to figure out the rhyme or reason.

When I was considering titles for this post, the word "enigma" popped to mind. I looked it up, thinking perhaps another word would be a better fit. But the first definition for enigma read - "mystery: something that baffles understanding and cannot be explained." That's pretty much it. Despite all I've learned, Lady still baffles me. Why will she ignore 3 dogs out of 5, but go bonkers over two of them? Why does she persist in doing things that make us all feel bad - even though she knows better? And how can such a frustrating dog also be so wonderful and lovable?

The instructor of Lady's first obedience course wrote a personal note at the bottom of her end of course report card. It read "beautiful spirit!!" I was touched by that, because although Lady had only been with us for about 3 months at that point, I felt it too. There was something about her, a brightness and love that shone out from those soulful eyes.

Lady has a sweetness of spirit that exists in such sharp contrast to the chaotic energy that erupts in the face of a perceived threat. She is kind to the cat, and by way of greeting will lick the top of her head in a maternal way (much to Lucy's chagrin, I imagine). Her concern for members of the family, instinctive though it may be, is nonetheless touching. If I decide to get up from bed at night to make sure I locked the door, she goes with me, even though she was comfortable and half asleep. She'll patiently wait for me, and watch, while I check all the doors, then we both head back to bed. Lucky could care less. "You heard a crash in the basement? Go check it out and let me know if its anything to worry about." That's Lucky.

I've never had a dog that would wake me up if I'm having a bad dream, but Lady does that. She'll put her paws on the bed and gently nuzzle me until I wake up. As soon as I awaken, she quietly returns to her fleece bed, settling back down with her characteristic heavy sigh. The first time she did this, I couldn't believe it.

She also takes care of Lucky, watching over him outside and demonstrating concern if he wanders too far. When Lucky wants something, Lady is the one to come ask, on his behalf. It's surprising, and cute. This behavior is never reciprocated, but she doesn't seem to care. And as I've blogged about previously, Lady will serve as bodyguard for the cat if asked. It's clear she understands that job and takes it seriously.

What an enigma you are, my beautiful Lady! Dainty and feminine, fierce and protective. You can be impossibly stubborn and strong-willed, and yet you sit obediently waiting for the command that it's okay to eat, while the cat - who doesn't know any of the commands - proceeds to help herself to your food. Unlike Lucky, you will drop everything and come rocketing across the dog park when called, but completely ignore me when distracted by something.

So "in tune" with me, you gaze into my eyes and cock your head this way and that, trying with such intensity to discern my thoughts and intentions. Yet at other times you disregard my wishes with wild abandon. And I can't believe that after three years, you still seize every possible opportunity to get on the couch, even though you know its forbidden.

Oh, and although we haven't figured out how a 90 pound dog can tiptoe up and down a flight of wooden stairs without being heard - we know you do it. Lucy never eats her bowl completely clean. Your attempt to be sneaky would work better if you left a little of the food in the bowl.

We love you Ladybelle, you beautiful enigma. Keep looking after your family - it's appreciated. But trust the humans. Most of the time, we really do know best. We'll keep working on it together.


  1. She really is a beauty! And I love the cat in the box pic in the previous post was great. She looks like she has great purpose in sitting there.

  2. wow what a beautiful girl
    Benny & Lily

  3. Thanks Benny, Lily, and Vicki! You know, as I re-read my post just now, I realize that I neglected to mention that Lady isn't physically aggressive - not even toward those little poodle dogs who round the corner. Those visiting this blog may read what I wrote and come to the conclusion that she's violent and dangerous, but that's not the case. Just lots of noise and carrying on at inappropriate times. Just wanted to clarify that! :)

  4. Who knows what they sense in other dogs? It could be the other 2 out of 5 have a scent or feeling about them that just doesn't sit well with your girl, something that you would never know about.

    Loved the part about waking you from a bad dream! It's amazing how in tune some dogs can be, like the dogs that predict seizures. Great story!

  5. Sounds like Lady's dainty,sweet yet challenging ways have brought about their own unique rewards. That herding behavior of hers has pushed you toward interesting paths you may not have crossed if not for her presence in your life.

    Nice post!r

  6. Lady is such a gorgeous dog! But oh my god I feel your pain. It's like reading a post about Murdoch. In less time than it takes to get the first syllable of his name past my lips, I go from absolute devotion to him to wanting to strangle him when his "crazy dog" switch is flipped.

  7. What a wonderful depiction of the Lovely Lady. Our precious companions; they are mysterious miracles, aren't they? Much as we like to think that we can figure them out, it's only a delusion. You have some really fabulous photos of Lady; that head shot is incredible. Please give her a great big hug from me!

  8. Lady, what an amazing dog! I miss her! Also, how did you get her to pose for those photos?

  9. Loved looking at Lady's photos! Mommy told me she had a shepherd dog named Lady when she was a little girl -- she had dark brown fur though. I'm a Belgian Shepherd mix -- we must have something in common! Woofs & hugs! ~Bailey