A Great Day to be a Dog Trainer

Most of the time I enjoy helping people train their dogs so much that I feel almost guilty getting paid for it. Still, even the best job can get frustrating at times. Sometimes I get a really difficult class or a stretch of trying clients at the same time that I fall behind in paperwork, and start to look at work as a chore. At those times, I like to remember cases – or even just small moments – that can remind why I love what I do. I had one of those cases just recently. It was a simple case, but one I won’t forget soon.

Donna (not her real name) called me about her dog “Sasha’s” aggressive at the doorway and in their yard. She had just nipped the UPS man. Donna has 3 children and was very concerned about having an aggressive dog in the house. I had the family send me some information about their dog’s behavior, and I went to see them. The 3 kids – aged between 8 and 13 – greeted me very enthusiastically. They all participated in our discussions of Sasha’s behavior, paid close attention to my explanations of what was going on, and worked very well on the exercises I showed we practiced. Their commitment impressed me.
Sasha turned out to be a shy but basically very sweet dog. She knew several commands. She played wonderfully with the kids. She responded as well to the exercises that we did to address her problems as any dog that I’ve ever seen who came to me with similar issues. That didn’t surprise me.

In reviewing Sasha's history I’d learned that a few simple things were doing a lot to provoke Sasha’s aggression. Sasha’s family, following advice from friends and the internet, had been responding to Sasha’s growls either with “alpha rolls” (forcing the dog over on her back and staring into her face until she “submits”) or by grabbing her mouth, holding it closed, and sternly saying “No!” They had also been allowing Sasha to continue coming to the door when guests arrived, holding her collar and scolding her for barking. This predictably increased Sasha’s nervousness and her aggressive behavior. They also had an electric fence with the boundary running right alongside the sidewalk, where Sasha regularly practiced aggressive displays towards passing pedestrians. I see many dogs who – after a few months of such frustration – burst through the boundary to bite someone, even though they had never demonstrated aggression before an electric fence was installed. Sasha’s problems had definitely been created by her owners.

I explained the changes necessary to help Sasha and showed everyone how to teach her to greet guests appropriately. The dog and her family performed wonderfully. Near the end of our appointment, the family’s middle daughter tentatively asked, “Sooo…does this mean we get to keep Sasha?” Her dad responded, “It sure sounds like it,” which the kids greeted with cheers. “Today’s just the first step, though,” he added. “We all need to do the work if we want to keep her.” He said that without any prompting from me, filling me with confidence for Sasha’s future.

I had no idea going in that the possibility of re-homing or euthanizing Sasha had been discussed with the kids. Most parents wait until after they’ve seen me. I suddenly understood why the kids had been so uncommonly focused on the task at hand. They knew what was at stake. I’m a sucker for kids. Seeing kids lose a beloved pet is one of the worst things that happens in this job. Getting to see their reactions when you tell them they get to keep a dog, on the other hand, is the kind of experience that keeps me going.

The cause of Sasha’s problems made this case doubly inspiring. These loving dedicated owners had a dog who really wasn’t that difficult. Her problems were the result of a lack of education and the prevalence of really bad dog training advice. That bad information could have cost these kids their dog and Sasha her life. There’s no better motivation for getting out there to spread accurate information.

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