My dog Woody is a service dog flunky. Try as he might, with all his smarts and tricks and personality, he just couldn’t make the cut.
Originally chosen by Texas Hearing and Service Dogs to go into the program because of his aptitude to learn and obey, he spent nearly a year in the service dog program and came a really long way in his training. And most of the time, he was really good. He likes to work, likes to help. But at the end of the day, he just couldn’t obey under pressure.
See, Woody is a runner. He is a furry-thing-chasing-gap-shooting- runner. So if you open the front door for too long or don’t have him on a leash, Woody is off like a rocket. He is cheetah fast and will not come back until he is ready, no matter how big the steak or how squeaky the toy. And if the temptation is a furry one, say a cat or squirrel or deer or anything else that might make the mistake of moving, all bets are off entirely. His prey instinct is simply too powerful. He would literally drag people in wheelchairs for miles to get what he wanted.
So my little flunky dog came to live with us about 8 months ago instead and we’ve been doing a lot of work with him. And while he still quivers and drools at the deer outside my window, there are certain things he and I have come a long way with.
Like when I first got him, he would do the mundane tricks for me as long as I had one of those magical meatballs in my hand. He went through the motions. Sit = meatball. Shake = meatball. That’s all fine and dandy as long as there’s not a catball or squirrelball to choose instead. He and I were still bonding so while we liked each other fine, I was only a source of meatball for him. But over these last months, we have bonded. We have spent lots of time together and had lots of fun experiences together. And that time and those experiences have brought us closer. He has learned to trust me and want to please me. So now when I ask him to do something, he does it to make me happy, not for the meatball.
But there are 2 commands we have to work really hard on together. They are the just the absolute hardest commands in the world for this dog to obey under pressure. These commands are STAY CLOSE and WAIT. We work on it in our yard and at the park and on our walks. We go on these “off-leash” hikes with other i-love-my-dog-more-than-i-should people. But because this is such a challenge, “off-leash” for us really means that the other dogs get to be off-leash, but Woody has to drag a 40ft rope behind him so that I can stomp on it if he loses his mind and takes off running.
He’s getting better. On the last hike, I only had to stomp him a few times. And what he is learning is that the commands Stay Close and Wait mean something. Stay Close means, “Hey, you’re getting a little farther away than you ought to and if you get much farther you might be too far for me to keep you out of harm’s way.” And Wait means, “You’d better hit the brakes right now mister; you are in danger and let me catch up with you and save you before you get hurt.”
See, because I know Woody so well, I know how far ahead or away from me that he can get and still be safe. I also know things like what the trail is like up ahead and what dangers might be lurking. I know where the horse trails cross and where the creeks are, and how far from another dog we need to stay. All he knows is that something smells really good and he wants to run run run.
When I tell my friends that my dog is a flunky, we laugh. And for him, it is funny. But in my prayer time this week, I have been feeling a little convicted about my ability to obey under pressure. And I don’t think that is very funny.
I’ve been doing a lot of running myself lately. I just sold my house, am working about a million hours a week, am in the middle of a move, and am about to build a new house. So my quiet time hasn’t felt as quiet and my prayer time has been a little more rushed and a little more selfish than usual. I haven’t done a very good job at Stay Close at all. And I don’t know about you, but when I am not doing so great at Stay Close, I can’t really hear Wait very well either.
I know better, really I do. I know from all our practice together, that I actually enjoy life more when I Stay Close to God. And heaven knows that I have learned the value of Wait over the years. Too often, I have gotten too far ahead of Him or too far off-trail and bad things have happened. But there is still that part of me that likes to run run run.
Sometimes I think Woody thinks Stay Close and Wait are about control. I think he thinks that if he follows those commands, he is going to miss out on something he really wants, like furry things in his mouth immediately. But that is not what those commands are about. I don’t want Woody to miss out on anything in life. I want him to be able to explore and have fun and adventure. But I also want to protect him from the hidden dangers that lie off trail and around the bend.
And God is like that too. When He tells me to Stay Close, it is really because life is best lived in a place where I can hear His voice and be in His will and under His protection. When he says Wait, it is because I am in danger of getting hurt or missing out on the life of adventure He has in store for me. But, like Woody, I often am so afraid that I might miss something, or my sin instinct is so powerful, that I ignore His command and run run run. I am still in training too.
The very first rule in positive dog training is that your dog should never be afraid of you. Sure there are consequences to negative behavior just as there are rewards for positive obedient behavior. But your dog is a dog and he will mess up sometimes and he should never ever be afraid to come back to you if he fails to obey. In fact, nothing assures you of chronic disobedience from your dog like fear. If your dog is afraid of you then once they run (and they will,) they will just keep on running because they know the very last thing they want to ever do is go back. So those times when Woody has shot the gap and taken off for an adventure, I have had to resist the urge to form tackle him and then beat him with his squeaky dragon when he finally came back. Instead, against all instinct and reason, I do what the trainers tell us to do in these situations; I throw that little stinker a party. What that does it always show him that I am his safe place and his happy place. And it is working. Here in the last few months, he doesn’t seem to mind staying close and coming back anymore.
This makes me think of the Prodigal Son story. The father in that story could have berated his son about all his bad decision making and shamed him. He would have been justified in doing so, really. He could have very well form tackled him and beat him with a squeaky dragon. But he didn’t. And God doesn’t either.
I still get off trail from time to time. Sometimes, even when God warns me to Stay Close and Wait, I choose to not obey or I get so busy sniffing out my own trail and having my own adventures that I don’t realize how far head of God I have gotten or that I might be in danger. But perhaps the very best thing about God is that when I finally look up and realize that I am lost or too far away, I can always high-tail it back to His direction and protection.
And he doesn’t make he do it with my tail between my legs; I don’t have to be afraid of Him. Even when I have wandered really far and gotten completely lost and come back covered in brambles and mud, He doesn’t form tackle me or beat me with a squeaky dragon and I-told-you-so’s. He is always there, always waiting to show me that He is my safe place and my happy place. And against all reasoning, He throws this little stinker a party.