Dog with Santa hat by the Christmas tree.

December is here again and, with it, the final countdown to the end of one year and the beginning of another. There’s a reason the ancient Romans named the next month, January, after their deity Janus, the god of both beginnings and endings.

He is usually depicted with two faces, one looking forward and the other backward. As December passes, we’ll be moving head-on into Janus’ backward-looking face, at least metaphorically, as this is often a month of reviewing the year gone by. While I tell people that we should live in the moment and never dwell on the past, there is one time when looking both backwards and forwards can be the best and only way to find balance with our dogs.

That time is when we don’t seem to be moving forward at all, and are feeling nothing but frustration at our progress with our dog. It can be like climbing a tall mountain, having no idea how much farther we have to go, and not being able to see the summit ahead of us anyway because it’s lost in the distance.

I chose that metaphor specifically, though, because while you might not be able to see what’s left of the mountain above you, if you turn around and look down you can see everything that’s behind you, all the way back to the beginning of your climb. Look at how your dog is behaving today, then think back about how she was behaving before you started working with her. That difference is your progress.

Take Time to Pause

Now sometimes it may seem like you haven’t come that far at all, and one step up can seem like nothing compared to the rest of the mountain. But the important part is not that you haven’t reached the summit. It’s that you’ve started the journey. If it doesn’t feel like you’re going anywhere, that’s okay, because right now is the perfect time to take a little break from climbing up and take a look at where you’re standing right now.

For example, maybe your dog is still doing his business in the house even though you’ve been working on that. Every time you come home to find a little present or turn around to see him marking something, it may feel like a huge setback, but that’s when you have to ask yourself, “How much worse was it?”

Did your dog used to have accidents seven times a week but now it’s five? Great. Five still isn’t zero, but it’s also less than seven. And so is four, and three, and so on. Once you start to notice these little bits of incremental progress, then you can start to pay attention to the circumstances around them. What did you do differently on those days when your dog didn’t have an accident? What did you do on days that he did?

While huge breakthroughs in fixing our dogs’ misbehaviors are wonderful and very encouraging, it doesn’t always happen that way. It can seem like nothing has improved, but that’s only because we’re trying to see the top of the mountain and not watching the ground recede below us. It’s like dieting. If you only weigh yourself once a year, it can look like you’ve had a sudden huge success or failure. It’s only when you check your progress daily that you can see those incremental movements, then take steps to keep going in the right direction.

So here’s what we’re going to do. If you’re having issues with your dog, you’re going to make this New Year’s resolution: “I am going to fix my dog’s misbehavior in 2017.” But you’re also going to get a head start on it, and here’s how.

Starting now, at the end of every day write down three sentences. Two begin with “Today, my dog…” The first sentence is going to be a list of everything “bad” your dog did. The second is going to be a list of everything good your dog did — or everything bad you’ve been working to fix that your dog didn’t do. The third sentence starts “Tomorrow, I am going to…” and ends with whatever problem you’d like to deal with or good behavior you’d like to encourage.

Bad: “Today, my dog ate my favorite shoes and jumped on my daughter.”

Good: “Today, my dog did not bark at the mailman.”

Plan: “Tomorrow, I am going to work on the jumping problem.”

Repeat every day, and that’s how you get to the top of the mountain without giving up the climb in despair. In watching the past become the future like this, you’ll be better able to focus on the now and make it to your destination.

Stay calm, and keep climbing!

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