Last week Jerry and I began something we should have undertaken a long time ago. We started a series of obedience lessons with Max and Ruby, our two rescue dogs. Now just look at those little faces for a minute? Do they look like trouble? While we love these dogs dearly, they have some bad habits. Habits that have gotten worse during the quarantine. As a psychologist, I was curious to see if causation is at work. Are others noticing behavior changes during this time? Sure enough, a quick Google search revealed that I am not alone. Animal behavioral specialists are taking a good look at what is going on with our animal friends. So we decided that we needed to enroll in obedience school. Even if Max and Ruby don’t get trained, WE can learn some new things to do.
Let me give you a little background information on Max and Ruby to add context. When the last of our Shih-Tzus died, we decided that we would not have any more dogs. We knew it would be hard because we have always had dogs in our home, and most have been Shih-Tzus. And actually, having no pets turned out to be a blessing in disguise because about six or eight months later Jerry became very ill with necrotizing pancreatitis and was in the hospital for months, mostly in intensive care. I spent hours and hours with him and having a pet that needed care waiting at home would have been an additional burden. Finally, Jerry was able to return home and gradually began to heal. After he had been home for a while, he was well enough to take some doctor-prescribed walks. It was then that we thought maybe a dog that also needed walks might be good motivation. We decided that this time we would rescue rather than buy from a breeder. That turned out to be a great decision because in spite of these behavior issues, Max and Ruby have been wonderful dogs.
We knew two things going in: we wanted an older dog and we did NOT want a male. We ended up with not one but two puppies, a female and a male. We knew that the mother dog was a Shih-Tzu and we are thinking dad must be some type of terrier. We wondered if they might be a little intimidated coming from living in a crate at a vet’s office to our house, but no, they trotted in like they were finally home! It was like, “What took you so long, Mom and Dad?” It’s like they think they chose us.
In the beginning we thought Ruby was the alpha dog. She was bigger, although Max soon passed her in weight and height. She also seemed to be bossier. But after a few months we decided Max was the alpha dog. From the beginning they have been barkers and jumpers. And we haven’t been able to curb those behaviors at all. Barking at the windows, barking at the front door. If a leaf blows by we have to bark at it. Evidently yelling at them to shut up and quit barking only exacerbates the problem, because they think, “Oh good, now we are all barking!”
Over time Ruby became fearful of almost everything, especially men. And especially men carrying equipment. Our yard guys and any type of service men send her into a barking frenzy, with Max joining in. She will NOT go out in the back yard without us, because she was once dive-bombed by a hawk. So anything with wings (bird, housefly, butterfly) scares her. Max loves the back yard but wants us to keep the door cracked so he can come in at will. But Ruby won’t have it. Don’t we know a giant condor might fly in and kill us all? She also hates the vacuum cleaner, thunderstorms, and well any kind of loud noise. Don’t even say the word “squirrel” out loud; in fact, don’t even spell it. And she gets very anxious if we leave her for a trip.
These are the behaviors and traits we described to our trainer, Merit Day, on our first visit. She had some interesting observations after listening to us and watching them. First surprise: although Ruby is the most anxious, she is actually the leader. And according to Merit, some of her anxiety is due to her need to protect us. She feels like most of the burden is on her to alert Max, and then us, to danger. So Merit gave us some new rules and I have to say, we are already getting results.
We worked on getting them to look at our eyes, even while we were holding a treat. She wants them to respond to the command “Look.” They are to keep their eyes on us and not be distracted by the treat. The next command was “Settle.” This was said in a gentle, but decisive voice while we pressed firmly on their shoulders. We are to stand between them and whatever stimulus is bothering them. This is best done with outstretched arms while telling them to settle. We are to provide direction and demonstrate that we are in control, especially when they perceive danger. They need to know that we understand the situation and that we’ve got it covered. She also instructed us to provide daily times when they are to physically follow us. It’s amazing how quickly Max and Ruby are responding to these new commands.
I was sharing all of this with my daughters when Kristie said, “That’s just how we are to be with God.” Bam! Why didn’t I see that right away, but of course she is correct. God doesn’t want us to live in fear and anxiety. I have heard it said that “fear not” appears 365 times in the Bible. That’s one for every day of the year. And He expects us to follow Him. God will stand between me and danger. Deuteronomy 31:8 instruct us this way:
The LORD himself goes before you and will be with you; he will never leave you nor forsake you. Do not be afraid; do not be discouraged.
There are many passages about keeping our eyes on the Lord. But a famous example occurs in the gospels relating a time when the disciples were caught in a nighttime storm on the Sea of Galilee. The see Jesus in the distance, walking on the water, and in a bold move Peter asks Jesus to tell him to come to Him. As long as Peter kept his eyes on Jesus, he was doing well. But when he began looking at the waves he began to sink. In Hebrews 12:2 we are told to fix our eyes on Jesus as we run our earthly race. In the original Greek that word “fix” means to look away from something else and look distinctly at Jesus.
I would be remiss if I didn’t point out that God chose me, not the other way around. By the power of the Holy Spirit I was able to respond to his call to me. And He didn’t just choose me; he rescued me. He saved me from spiritual death and gave me eternal life. He placed me in a new family, gave me a new home. All I had to do was accept His payment for my sin.
As I think about these things I have decided that the Christian life is one long obedience lesson. In these frightening times of coronavirus, riots, and uncertainty, I will do better if I settle, keep my eyes on Jesus, and let Him lead the way. Stay tuned for next week!