I love ancient proverbs, and it is good idea to know many. They can give us answers at just the right moment. One excellent proverb is: “Rotten wood cannot be carved.” There are others I have found useful, too.
What does that mean in the dog training world?
First, to me, it means that sometimes, some people, you just can’t help. I’ve had students that I couldn’t help. The cases I’m thinking about were those people who had already decided how their dog’s problem needed to be solved, and whatever I had to say went in one ear and out the other. I’ve had to walk out of some appointments because of this. For example, one couple had a fearful Standard Poodle. I started out explaining the first steps to dealing with their dog’s fears. Their answer? We’ve already tried that; we want something else. Of course, they hadn’t tried that, they had tried something barely resembling that. I had a complete solution and had only gotten onto the first steps that needed to be taken. They couldn’t get past that point, regardless of several attempts to explain the differences between what they had tried and what I was recommending. I had to walk away. “Knowing is easier than doing.”
It can also mean that sometimes, some dogs, you can’t change. I can’t make a puppy into an adult with training. Only maturity can do that. I can’t make one breed of dog magically turn into another breed. I can’t undo years of abuse or neglect with 5 easy lessons (and no one else can, either). I spoke to a woman a few years ago who was clearly high when she called me. She spoke so fast; her staccato talking was like listening to an old typewriter. Her male dog didn’t like men and had put a few in the hospital. Her other dog fought with this dog and was pregnant and about to deliver a litter. She called me on a Friday, to see what could be done with her male dog since he had attacked and injured her boyfriend before. At that time, the dog had intervened when the boyfriend had been battering her. This dog had been with her for years, and around her previous abusive boyfriends and had seen a lot of domestic violence. Her boyfriend was getting out of prison on Monday, and she wanted to do lessons over the weekend to fix the problem. I had to walk away from that one, too. “You can’t wrap fire with paper.”
One of the hardest things in life is seeing what is right before you, instead of seeing what you are highly motivated to want to see. I have had lessons dealing with bitter and angry couples on the verge of divorce, and the dog is caught between them and acting out. I can’t fix their marriages, and I therefore can’t fix their dogs. I’ve had to walk away from those situations, as well. “A bad spouse is one hundred years of bad harvest.”
Dogs are often put into impossible situations. Sometimes things are so rotten you can’t make it better, and you must walk away. I’ve had to walk away from a number of animal rescue efforts and organizations. For my entire career, I have been an active advocate of animal welfare. There are many bad actors in the animal sheltering and rescue world. I have written and spoken on this topic many times. You can put a lot of time, heart, and effort into futile efforts at reform. Sometimes you have to walk away, because “rotten wood cannot be carved.”