The Story of Morris (or "What is My Job Here??")

My first visit to Morris' home was not out of the ordinary.  When I entered the home, his mom was clinging onto this very big wiggly 2 year old Black Lab mix's choke collar for dear life, attempting to prevent him from leaping at me. Clearly friendly, I instructed Mom to let Morris loose, and he predictably jumped all over me, mouthing my arms hard, grabbing at my clothes. I ignored him the best I could, but he was very persistent. For the next hour, I observed Morris repeatedly pushing boundaries... jumping on counters, jumping right on top of a coffee table, snatching at my treat pouch... he was a nightmare of obnoxious adolescent dog behavior.

However, it didn't take long to figure out that Morris wasn't a bad dude. In fact, he was pretty amazing. Playful, engaged, and smart as a whip, Morris picked up on everything I threw at him within seconds. He learned with excitement and vigor, always seeming to ask “What's next???!”

I looked around the home. Not a single toy in the home or in the yard. I asked Mom about this. “He destroys every toy.” I asked if Morris had doggy friends. “No, not really”. I wondered about his weekly exercise. “A few walks a week”. I made my normal suggestions advocating more enrichment and exercise.

From week to week, Morris was improving leaps and bounds in terms of learning his behaviors... way ahead of what I'd say was “average”. Holding place-stays for 10-15min at a time regardless of distance and distraction. Leaving treats placed on both paws after just a few reps. This crazy young Lab mix had really impressive learning skills.

Yet every week I left the sessions feeling frustrated.

Something just wasn't working. I knew, in my heart, that I was not giving these people what they wanted. But also, I wasn't giving Morris what I wanted him to have.

He had what he needed... comfortable shelter, food, love... but he could use so much more. He is extremely resilient considering the lack of socialization, training, and enrichment over the first 2 years of his life. He didn't even bark at the doorbell. He was doing just fine in his home, and would probably be perfectly content there for the duration of his life. But I couldn't help but wonder what a dog like Morris could be like in a home that was more actively involved in his day-to-day life.

At first I blamed the parents. “They are not complying!” I told myself. And there was some truth to that. The dog was not receiving any more enrichment or exercise despite my persistent suggestions. They were not doing their homework. He still had no toys. They wouldn't even let him drink water indoors.

But then I started thinking. Maybe this wasn't about compliance. Maybe I was trying to fit a square peg in a round hole. Maybe, as hard as I tried, I was not going to turn these people into owners that were willing to put in the time and effort to really give this dog the things he deserved. Maybe, while it was a good home for Morris...... it was not the ideal home.

This family wanted a couch potato. Morris is not a couch potato and nothing I am willing to do will turn him into one. There is nothing wrong with wanting a couch potato. But it's just not what they have. This is a dog that wants to run, play, chew, jump, have fun, and just... do stuff! Then maybe after that lay on the couch.

So now, given the hypothesis that this may be not the ideal home for Morris, what could I do to help these particular people and this particular dog co-exist in the best way possible?

My job is to help my clients improve their relationship with their dogs in a way that is fair to the dogs. If, at the end of my work with a client, they don't feel happier with their dog, then I've lost. Sometimes the game is rigged and achieving this task is nearly insurmountable. But it's still my job to try and make it happen.  I did my best to help my clients see things a little bit more through Morris' eyes.  I helped teach Morris a few skills that would make him easier to control around the house.  Could I have done more?

I'm writing this blog entry from the standpoint of not having any answers. I don't know what I could have really done differently with Morris and his parents. And I don't know what I will do next time a similar situation comes up. The parents claimed to be thrilled with the results. Morris had a handful of new skills. Should I expect any more than that?

I do know that, leaving Morris' home today after his final lesson, I was hit with a pang of sadness. It wasn't because of the way the sessions had gone.  It wasn't that I felt like I could have done a better job.  One thing haunted me.

Morris still had no toys.   


- Steve DeBono Dog Training in Austin, TX