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  • Writer's pictureJackie Maffucci, Ph.D.

The Not-So-Perfect, Perfect Dog

Love the dog you have, not the dog you want. That is my mantra and one that I embraced after adopting the best imperfect dog a girl could ever ask for.

Meet Dinah, my foster fail. Dinah started as my foster dog in graduate school.

She was a shy girl when she came to live with me; timid with new people and uncertain around other dogs. She was gentle and sweet, but obviously lacking confidence. Needless to say I fell in love and adopted her within a few months.

At the time, I was dog lover involved in animal rescue, but just starting as a volunteer apprentice in a local shelter. I was also a graduate student studying animal behavior as part of my neuroscience program. So understanding dog behavior was a hobby, but not yet a career. This being my first dog as an adult, I was not prepared for the education that Dinah was about to give me. Now, even with my 15+ years of training and experience, Dinah was by far my best teacher.

Before I even made the decision to adopt I was committed to helping Dinah build her confidence. I enrolled her in agility classes. She was a very athletic dog and agility was the perfect fit for her.

With the help of agility and gentle exposures to people and dogs, her spirit started to shine through. We started competing in agility and she became a favorite among my peers. As her confidence grew, Dinah proved invaluable in helping to mentor other shy dogs at the shelter. She built a group of friends, human and dog alike, that became her extended family. She became the dog I always knew she could be; a dog that was happy to oblige any adventure from hiking, to backyard yappy hours, to agility competitions, and lazy movie marathons with friends. I was so proud of her and what we had accomplished. She was "normal." After graduation, we moved to a new state and a new life, and everything changed.

Bert was a very shy dog that I worked with while volunteering at a shelter. He was especially people shy. With Dinah as his mentor, I was able to help build his confidence around others and eventually, he found a wonderful adoptive home.

Dinah started showing reactive behaviors towards certain dogs. Over time, those behaviors started to transition to people. When Dinah first came to me, she was shy with dogs and people and would retreat away. Now, I had a confident dog on my hands, one who would move forward while barking and lunging when she felt uncomfortable in a situation. It was a hard transition for me to accept, but a necessary one, and we managed. I knew it wasn't unusual to see behavioral changes in a dog over time, and particularly a dog like Dinah who came with a history of behavior patterns. Genetics, life experiences, how those experiences all build on one another, and a seemingly simple change in routine and living conditions all can contribute to changes in behavior. But understanding the science of the change didn't make the challenge of addressing it any easier! What did make it easier was recognizing that at the heart of it, Dinah was still the sweet, goofy pup that I adopted years ago and continued to be my rock through the ups and downs of life.

Managing wasn't always easy. Gone were the days of letting her say hi to strangers on a walk, spending time at the dog park, or just feeling confident in letting her greet another dog. I was forced to accept that my perfect girl was not perfect in the eyes of everyone. At the same time, I realized that she was still perfect for me.

That was 2009. Dinah lived another five years and throughout that time I did a lot to manage her behaviors. I put protocols in place to ensure she wouldn't have to meet strange dogs or people on the street. When at home, I had protocols for meeting new people and dogs to make sure the interactions stayed safe. I also worked with her to modify her behaviors when faced with new people and dogs. It wasn't easy, and management was always a part of our life, but it was absolutely worth it.

Dinah was with me for eight wonderful years. She was a hiking buddy, an agility competitor, a nosework extraordinaire, and just generally a goofy, calm, and loving presence in my life. She was also a dog that needed constant management and work to make sure she and those around her felt safe. Was she the perfect dog? Most would say no. But she was the perfect dog for me. She's also the reason why I'm telling you her story today. She is the start of and inspiration for my journey to Positive Dog Solutions. I am so excited to start this next chapter of my life, helping to build healthy, happy relationships between people, dogs, and the community in which they live. I am committed to helping all of my clients find their not-so-perfect perfect dog. I look forward to joining you on that journey!

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