When I work with clients I often reference certain movies as insights into how animals learn and what the training and rehabilitation process is truly about. The “Karate Kid” is one long time favorite as in “Wax/On; Wax/Off” and then there is the “Horse Whisperer” —to paraphrase Robert Redford’s character: “Maam, I don’t help people with problem horses, I help horses with people problems.” And so, with the Oscars’ still relatively fresh in our minds I thought it might remain timely to offer an observation on the winning film as I have added “The King’s Speech” to my movie roster of how to mend a broken heart. (As an aside isn’t it interesting that we movie goers might even care whether our favorite movie or actor wins the Oscar? They already are afforded affluent and celebrated lives, why should we care whether or not they get an Oscar for the mantle? We do because we in fact have shared a profound emotional experience in their company, as removed and celluloid as it may have been, and this therefore means that we’ve emotionally projected a part of our “self” into their character and thus the award represents a validation of sorts to our emotional connection.)
As a human being I felt for the King, but as a dog trainer I empathized more with the speech therapist. And I say this because invariably when I work with the owners of problem dogs they believe that since their dog is “smart” that they perceive as its problem solving capacity should help in its rehabilitation, as if emotional repair is akin to learning a set of skills or absorbing a lesson. But consider that the King was highly intelligent and extremely well educated. He could easily grasp that childhood trauma was the source of his speech impediment and he was shown that there was no actual physical compromise to his ability to articulate given that he he could sing perfectly well and speak cogently when the sound of his voice was drowned out by music. Furthermore he understood the dire consequences of muffing a speech and how much glory could be his were he to find his voice. And yet all of that cognitive capacity was not only of no value but in fact served to compound his impasse. In an interview Colin Firth observed that the King would have rather faced machine gun fire than the microphone.
So when we’re rehabilitating an emotionally damaged dog, which really means repairing a damaged heart, we must always remember that trust is a muscle, it takes constant exercise and daily strengthening so that sooner but probably much later, the dog’s heart will one day have the capacity to bear a load that until then would break it. There were a number of points in the movie where it seemed “By George I think he’s got it” but then dishearteningly the King succumbed to his stammer as for example when his brother left him muttering incoherently during the party scene at the country house. The speech therapist collapsed along with the King but thank dog he never wavered. He kept on pushing. So this is our challenge. We must always believe in ourselves and trust in the power of wax-on/wax-off so that one day the magic will happen with peals of salvation heard to ring from every steeple in the land. If you own a dog with a troubled heart, precisely because it’s your dog, you own the luckiest dog on earth. Keep on pushing and God Save the King!