Yet another piece – well a short series – I wrote for the local paper and am sharing here in an expanded form.
“Well what would you know about living with problem dogs? You’re a trainer! Your dogs must be perfect!” I sat down, and looked at my client. “No, my dogs are not perfect. Far from it! The difference is I have the skills to live comfortably with my dogs. My job is to teach you those skills.”
I have had dogs take cabinet doors off the hinges because they could not manipulate the baby locks. I had dogs learn to open gate latches. I have had dogs chew inappropriate things, soil crates, fight, resource guard, counter surf, pull on lead, bark at “stupid” things, dig craters in yards, etc. What is the big difference between a trainer, and our clients? The skill set to work through the less desired behaviors: modifying them while still meeting the various needs of the individual dog. For example, “I know you love to dig, my garden is off limits but here is a great digging patch I made just for you!” Let me introduce my current dogs:
Foster is an almost 8 year old Shetland Sheepdog. Though he looks like a toy, Foster is not as snuggly as people think he has to be. Foster, due to a couple unavoidable incidents involving irresponsible dog owners and a child, became leash reactive and distrustful of strangers. It took careful work to bring him back and now he likes to be dusted off and every now and then do a fun show/match with his girl.
Ravyn is lower confidence. She enjoys going a few places but is no social butterfly no matter what we did. Ravyn’s confidence will come back if she feels secure. She just needs things a little slower than some other dogs. However, when she is comfortable someplace, she is a really sweet dog. She has done dog safety demos and has her UKC Championship and is a world-class ratter in our back yard.
Splash developed some undesired behaviors at a relative’s house in regards to other dogs. I recognized the behaviors and causes. Choke points such as doors were issues for her. Splash would attack dogs as they exited to go into the yard. When we lost one of our seniors to cancer, Splash came to live with us. Splash has since gotten a herding instinct certificate and is getting back to showing. The worst of her issues are managed and if there is a regression, I do some remedial work. She still has a couple things I want to improve but she is a sweet dog.
Uhura is my daughter’s dog. She is an adolescent Standard Schnauzer. Her activity level and drives are more than many people realize this breed can have. Uhura is a fun dog but what many would label headstrong or even dominant. She is very sweet but also rugged. Uhura is a lot of dog for her size.
This past winter, Uhura and Foster decided to stop getting along. Foster can be a crank. He is hypothyroid and that can affect moods. Uhura, an adolescent, stopped listening to Foster’s “Back off you booger!” Well after a couple days (during which I had begun management and work), there was a solid chomp! Uhura was being a goof. Foster snuck under her and grumbled. Uhura’s goofiness changed. Foster is half her size. In less than three seconds, things went south. It happens. These are dogs who will react to things. I will give a spoiler. Foster and Uhura are back playing and travelled very well together to an event in Pennsylvania. Uhura is responding to his signals to go away and Foster is less reactive to her. But it took fast action and work. Before you state this was a dominance thing and Uhura was trying to overthrow the older pack leader, understand that dominance in dogs is a myth. Dominance between dogs is a myth. I highly recommend reading Barry Eaton’s work on this or this lovely piece: The Truth About Dominance.
What I (and we as a family) did will be shared in the near future so you can see why when trainers and behaviorists say certain things must be done, it is for a reason. I will also share stories about past and current dogs and how I changed what many would call undesired or even bad behaviors into things we could live with.
Back to the original topic: no dog trainer’s dogs are perfect – and my gang is a perfect example.
Karen Peak owns West Wind Dog Training and The Safe Kids/Safe Dogs Project in Prince William County.