Many years ago, I was presented with the opportunity to give a little abused Miniature Schnauzer a home. I was hesitant. I had lost my previous Schnauzer a year prior and it was such a painful experience when she died, I wasn’t sure I was ever going to be up to opening my heart that wide again. I agreed to go take a look at her, however, because I really did miss having a little creature with a wiggling butt greet me enthusiastically when I came home each day. I missed the companionship. I missed the joy a dog brings into one’s world. The laughter. The fun.
So I went to the house where she was being fostered to check her out. The moment I walked into the room, she made a bee-line for me, jumped up on my legs with a happy smile on her face, declaring me to be her “mom.” She went home with me that very evening.
Maddie was in bad shape. She had had so little interaction, she didn’t even know her name. But this allowed me the opportunity to rename her. She had been covered in ticks and fleas and was so horribly matted when she was rescued, she had been shaved down to the skin, beard, furnishings and all. Because of this, she barely looked like a Schnauzer. She had also been badly beaten by her previous owners. If you moved very fast around her, she would roll over and shoot a stream of urine through the air, so great was her fear of being hit. As a result of the mistreatment she suffered, she was destructive. Her first day at her new home, a brand new house I had recently moved in to, she dug a hole in the linoleum floor of the utility room. Thus, she launched a reign of destruction, destroying books and pillows with abandon, along with anything else she could put in her mouth or sink her teeth into. I despaired, fearing I wasn’t going to be able to handle her violence. She was very submissive to me, but otherwise, she was a terror!
So began my discipline plan. I wasn’t mean; she had already experienced far too much of that in her short life. But to try to teach her that certain behavior was acceptable and other behavior wasn’t, I would scold her and sometimes grab her by the collar and give her the recommended two finger tap on the nose to let her know I meant business. I had to remove everything from her reach each time I left the house, and even then, she usually found something to get into or to destroy. I would tell her she was a bad dog with a very stern, disappointed voice. I would look at her with a frown and rejection plastered on my face, placing my hands on my hips as I towered over her, when she misbehaved. I was firm and consistent, believing repetition would teach her to leave forbidden objects alone. But instead of improving, instead of learning, she actually seemed to be getting worse.
That’s when the light bulb went on. That’s when I decided to try a different approach.
This little girl dog was 1-1/2 years old when she came to live with me. During her previous lifetime, she had been horribly beaten and left in a small wire crate out in the owner’s yard. Schnauzers don’t develop a winter coat and they don’t shed in the summer, so they don’t have any defense against the elements. This is why they are inside dogs. But Maddie had been made to endure extremes of temperatures and conditions that should have killed her. She had been scolded, disapproved of, rejected, disciplined, and hit. The one thing she had never been was loved.
And so began my new plan, a deceptively simple ploy. I was going to love Maddie. No. Matter. What.
When she did something that was even slightly praiseworthy, I let her know I was delighted with her. I told her I loved her and often stroked her tenderly, for no reason, demanding nothing in return. Any time I could reward her for a small action of positive behavior, I did. I spoke to her with soft, loving, comforting words of acceptance. I cradled her, touched her gently, and made over her. When she did something awful, I gave her a quick look of disappointment – which always caused her to cringe, duck her head, and tuck her little cropped tail – but I never spoke to her harshly or tapped her nose with my fingers ever again. I continued to remove everything from her reach that I could if it was something she might be tempted to destroy, but I started to leave a few paper towels out for her each day. I wanted her to have something she could tear up if she felt the need. And she did. Almost every day. Inevitably, I would come home to a pile of shredded paper towels, ripped into tiny pieces, left laying in the middle of the floor. But that was all she destroyed. Slowly, I returned a pillow or two to the couch, to the bed, or I left a book on the coffee table, a decorative item on a low shelf. She tore up the paper towels and left everything else alone. I bragged on her, letting her know how proud I was of her for learning and for being so good. She flourished.
I applied the same method to teaching her to do her business outside. It wasn’t long until she was completely housebroken.
Not very long after I put my new plan into play, I found I could leave anything that couldn’t be eaten out within her reach. She wouldn’t touch it. The only sign of her previously destructive behavior was the consistently shredded paper towels. Every day, she would tear up two or three of them, releasing her fear and anxiety. I had more and more opportunities to praise my little rescued dog. And she continued to blossom.
She had been with me over six months before I heard her bark for the first time. She saw a bird in the yard and when she barked at this intruder, I realized she had finally come to think of my house as her home. It was now HER yard. She was feeling more secure. She knew she belonged and was accepted.
As time went on, she improved even more. She was always a shy and submissive dog. She especially feared children, fast movements, and loud noises continued to terrify her. But she stopped spraying urine through the air, tending rather to hide or cower. The beatings had damaged her neck and roughly 8 months after I got her, she had to have neck surgery to repair the injury. The surgery was successful. She continued to rely on ripping up her daily supply of paper towels when she became anxious. Such a small concession. In every other way, she was one of the best dogs I’ve ever had. She never touched anything she wasn’t supposed to touch. Until she was old and her kidneys failed, she never had an accident in the house. She was sweet and innocent, fun and funny, loving and totally wonderful.
After a couple of years, I would occasionally come home to find the paper towels untouched.
Roughly 3 years into our relationship, she rarely ripped them up. I still left one out for her every day. For the rest of her life. Just in case.
Reflecting back on her life, I realized that discipline, expecting a certain level of performance, demanding, shunning, disapproving…none of that had a positive impact on Maddie. It just made her feel awful and so she behaved worse. It reinforced the mistreatment she had experienced in her earlier life. It told her she wasn’t worth it. That she didn’t have value. That she didn’t matter.
The thing that transformed her was love.
Interesting, isn’t it? We are all treated harshly. We are required to perform and are disciplined if we don’t meet everyone’s exacting standards. We are often judged and rejected, found worthless and wanting. Some of us are beaten and abused. We may have physical injuries and scars or only invisible emotional wounds of which no one else is aware. All the hate in the world won’t rescue us. All the rejection in the universe won’t whip us into shape. Maybe, just maybe, the only thing that will save us is the same thing that saved Maddie.
Maybe love is the only thing that will transform and rescue us all.