Desperation: we have all been there. If you read my last article, you would know that I needed help in a very bad way. While I was fully committed to Finn’s well-being, what I had tried on my own was not working. But, I am a trainer. How could I not know how to train my own dog? Well, do the math. Finn came into my world 12 years ago, and I have been training dogs for 10 years. Everything I have learned about dogs and communicating to them, I learned while Finn was in my home.
Finding the help you need. We started our journey to find a trainer in Ohio, where we lived with friends and their two dogs. Within minutes of arriving in his new home, Finn was off to eat dressers, torture our friends’ maltese mix Bailey into playing into the wee hours of the morning and buck around like a bronco with my roommate’s undergarments hanging out of his mouth as we chased him shouting, “Finn no! Finn stop! Drop that!”
The first few minutes of our class, the trainer had my nutty puppy performing “sit”, “down” and walking in a perfect heel on leash. I was mesmerized. She handed me the leash and told me, “do it.” Finn gave me an expectant, then bewildered, look as I flailed my arms around, saying, “sit, sit, sit.” His head bobbed up and down. He jumped around a little, and still I said, “Sit, boy sit, sit.” He got bored and jumped on another student. The trainer then proceeded to shout over and over to me (like repeating commands was working so well), “You are doing it wrong. No, not that way.” She never told me how to fix what I was doing wrong that prevented my dog from responding to me the same way he responded to her. I suffered through two classes. My stomach churned so much on the way to the third that I decided to play hooky and take Finn for a long walk through the park. We never went back.
We moved to Chicago, and I still recall seeing the signs that said “Curb Your Canine” and worrying that a police officer would take Finn from me because he was tearing through the streets every time I walked him to the park for one of his three daily hour-long fetch sessions. He was also growing stronger and more persistent in his pursuits. Some might say “stubborn,” but there was never an obstinate tone to his behavior; he always seemed to be having fun no matter how unbelievable naughty he was. A neighbor who seemed to know a lot more about dogs than I recommend a choke collar to help me keep him safe when walking through the city. Finn pulled so hard that he passed out from the pressure of the chain on his neck. I still hit myself on the head.
We signed up for another class. I had such high hopes when the trainers talked me through what I was supposed to do rather than cursing at me. My elation was short-lived. Two days before our second week of class, on a relaxing Sunday night stroll, Finn was attacked. I saw four eyes coming at me, and even in the dark I could tell the woman had no control of her two dogs. We had nowhere to go. It was all then a blur, growling, barking, snarling, and I could feel Finn try to get away then come back as if he were trying to protect me. It all seemed to take forever, but it finally stopped. I am still not sure how. The woman raced away without even an apology, something I did not even register until later. All I cared about was Finn. I bent down to comfort him and see where he was hurt. We were both violently shaking, and as I felt his body for wounds, my hand bounced around from the intensity of his panting. There were no visible wounds, but I knew my goofy boy was hurt, and it would take time for him to heal. I wanted so badly to talk to the trainers and see what they could suggest to help him. However, as we entered the room for class, Finn snarked so viciously at another dog in class that the poor dog excreted his anal glands. If you have never been privy to that smell, be very grateful. We were politely asked not to come back to class.
I understood why we were not welcome in class, but I had a dog who needed help, desperately. So, I started researching other trainers to help us. I talked to a gentleman who seemed knowledgeable and was very professional. After I gave him the low down on what happened to Finn, he told me he could help. Relief! Then he explained that I may not like how he did it. He? But, I thought, wasn’t I the one Finn was supposed to listen to? The trainer further described how exactly he would use a shock collar to tell Finn that barking and growling at other dogs was not acceptable. At the time, I was clueless about dog behavior, but I could feel tears roll down my face just hearing the words “shock collar” in the same sentence as my dog’s name. I may have been naïve, but every ounce of my being screamed that shocking my dog was not the answer. I thought that if Finn was acting out because he was afraid, why would I shock him? I wanted a sweet and well-behaved dog, but I was not going to subject Finn to misery or myself to anxiety.
Weeks later, I found the Anti-Cruelty Society and the amazing patience and skill of Mary Scheffke, who allowed us to work outside the room until Finn had enough skills to keep his cool around the other dogs. It was hard work, and I certainly had moments when I saw great progress, only to become frustrated that we were not making enough. But, I loved teaching him so much that I continued on with classes and was amazed at how he learned to trust me when confronted by stressful situations.
It pains me to think that others might choose cruel techniques because their dog’s behavior is so out of control they feel helpless and often downright dislike their dogs. Training is work, but desperation does not mean you lose the right to ask questions. If you have a physical response to anything a dog professional says, speak up, get a second opinion, ask “why.” Every website paints a picture of how wonderful a trainer is, but if something sounds too good to be true, ask if you can watch a training session. Request examples of what the trainer does when the dog is bad or does not respond. Again, if something does not feel right, do not do it. I had a client who watched a”training” session that was so horrific that she called the police. Trust your gut. The road has not always been easy teaching Finn, and we definitely have had some bumps in the road. However, despite a little detour with an unkind training device, I feel good knowing that I chose to teach him what I wanted rather than hurt him. And, I found a career that I love along the way.
Photo courtesy of Rhonda Holcomb.
Article edited by the lovely and talented Brinda Gupta.