Confessions of an imperfect dog trainer
By Laure-Anne Visele, Aug 2014.
About the author
I am a dog trainer and canine behaviour therapist. I graduated in Zoology, certified in dog training, then got a postgrad specialization in applied animal behaviour. When I am not training dogs for OhMyDog! (dog training school in The Hague) or helping rehabilitate them, I read and write about dog behaviour.
My dog Rodgie is my business card. If he behaves like an idiot, I look like one. And we’ve had our fair share of idiot moments.
At the beginning, I would roll up my sleeve to ‘fix’ the latest gem, so quite a few things got tidied up over the years:
- A crippling can’t-leave-the-house fear of traffic. -> He now barely notices trucks screeching by.
- Panicked about other dogs. And I mean really mean ‘panicked’. He would run back to the car, crossing busy streets and all, to avoid being sniffed by another dog. -> Now he calmly checks them out and calmly walks past if he doesn’t like the looks of them.
- Less than perfect toilet training. -> He is now flawless.
- Whining the entire meal to get a morsel. -> We’re down to a couple of whines for Xmas dinner and other grand occasions.
- Refusing to turn the street corner because ‘something scary has happened, might have happened, or is dead certain to happen there’ (if you trust his body language). Our nightly walks were spent hoping he wouldn’t put on the stops. -> He is now a right hero of the night.
- Eating his weight in horse poop, daily. -> He now does such a beautiful distant leave that he’ll trot to it, and proudly look at me for a reward. Part of me feels the fool and part of me feels it’s frigging adorable.
- Rolling over in cow dung (don’t ask me about his “roll in cow dung and tuck in horse manure” philosophy). -> He now stops the microsecond I ask – even if he’d started to dive in.
In other words, I am proud of my guy. I am proud of our relationship. I am proud of what we’ve achieved since we picked him up from the shelter. Don’t get me wrong, he’s a complicated dog. He comes with a set of instructions, but that’s part of him and I’ve learnt to accept it.
The only thing is, ‘complicated’ can be a synonym for embarrassing behaviour. And yet I feel the pressure, as a dog trainer, to have a perfect dog. I try to do as I preach: “Be happy with the dog you have” but the nagging feeling is, well, nagging. Rodge will execute the fanciest move but needs a hundred thousand gazillion hours of training to get off the couch reliably.
Here’s another one of his sins: jumping up. If I remind him on time, he won’t do it. But he’ll be all over someone if they put their hands in their pocket and am not paying attention. It started when this guy in regularly gave him food up high, just as he was jumping up. I asked the guy to quit it for what also feels like a hundred thousand gazillion hours. He eventually did, but the habit stuck.
I wouldn’t mind so much if behaviour change wasn’t such a huge undertaking with Rodge. He has been great at teaching me to train as if you can train my dog, you can train any dog really. So yeah, I picked a dog with baggage and I knew what I was getting into. So once the urgent stuff was out of the way and I saw how slow he was to learn some stuff, I stopped undertaking new training project lightly. Inevitably, I let some imperfections slide. Combine this with the fact that, after 5pm, the last thing I want is to train my own dog. I want to kick back and not think about training until the next day.
Sure his quirks make dinner invitations with colleagues or students a little embarrassing. But when I think back to the list of problems we tackled, the remaining imperfections fade into insignificance. So yeah, unless I constantly do a ‘leave it,’ he will smell inside your handbag if you leave it on the ground. He’ll probably steal food if there is any in there too. Live with it.
Accepting beats feeling guilty
Learning to accept some of these imperfections was part of my growth as a trainer. I figured it would beat feeling guilty and frustrated. He won’t be a ‘teacher’s child’ as Bina Lunzer put it, and I can live with that.
When I come clean, most people use this Dutch expression: “The plumber’s pipes are always the most clogged.” My Dutch is iffy but you get the gist. Paradoxically, as soon as I started taking it all less seriously, I felt more like rolling up my sleeves again and tackling the most mortifying ones. I was in this ‘pick-your-battles’ mindset when the most sinister problem started rearing its ugly head.
When you don’t feel safe at home
When I first got him, he was petrified of men. We worked on that a lot and now he happily trots to complete strangers hoping for a treat. At night, he was still a little jumpy, but nothing extreme. But then he gradually started slipping back.
He would get startled if my husband came back home in the dark. At first, he would come to his senses if my husband then spoke to him. But then wouldn’t even recognize my husband’s voice anymore and he’d just stand there, alarm-barking at my husband’s shape in the threshold. It was like he’d forgotten who my husband was. It only happened at night, and at first very sporadically, so we decided to wait and see.
But then, it started getting worse fast. So we used Desensitization and Counter-conditionning, of course. But things didn’t get better. We tried Grisha Stewart’s BAT but that backfired as we botched it up . We even started working with another technique (Synalia Alliance Training System, really interesting stuff too) but it soon became clear we were making a mess of things.
Screwing up and getting urgent
Being so emotionally involved, I made tons of bad calls: my timing was off, I didn’t instruct my husband properly, my husband ended up rewarding at the most inappropriate times and the whole thing became an unpredictable mess for the dog. We were creating more problems than we were fixing.
It kept slipping down this nasty slope until one night, Rodge outright lunged and snarled when my husband tried to put on his leash. The problem had officially become very urgent, and I went from dull worry to a sheer panic.
We noticed that we’d let things slip so my husband was careful not to move an inch at night without warning me to warn the dog. It had started happening every – single – night. A problem that used to happen once every blue moon.
An emotional journey
I went through all the stages my clients go through:
- I trivialized it
- I hoped against all hope it would get better by itself
- Because it worsened gradually, I failed to see how badly things had slipped.
- I didn’t even consider getting help. Isn’t that insane? I didn’t know you could get help. Me?!
- It took me forever to pluck up the courage to contact a colleague, then I didn’t know which one to contact as there’s so many subtly different currents and approaches even among force-free trainers.
- During the consult, I was petrified they would judge me – they didn’t. They were wonderful. But still I was petrified.
- During the consult, I was hell-bent on not believing the techniques would work. I was so scared of another disappointment as I felt I had (wait for it) “tried everything.” These are the very words every single client tells me. Word for word.
- After the consult, it took me A MONTH to open up the recommendations report: I knew that if it didn’t work we would have to contemplate the heart-wrenching next step. So I finally opened the report and immediately closed it again. SEVERAL DAYS to read a report? For an urgent problem?
- When I finally had processed the report, I half-heartedly put one recommendation into place but quickly declared it wouldn’t work. My evidence for this belief? I wasn’t seeing instantaneous results.
- After a few days of this paralysis, I asked the behaviourist to just kick my behind into action. They kindly complied.
- Now that I’ve started putting some of this stuff in motion, I feel more hopeful and empowered and it’s not anywhere near the mountain it seemed.
What strikes me is that I have said and thought and done precisely the things that my clients say and think and do. This despite being trained to deal with compliance hiccups. What a unique lesson this has been: now I know what I ask of my clients. I had always been theoretically empathetic to their struggles, but now I had a taste of the real deal.
I took him to a vet behaviourist who confirmed what I already knew: he is declining cognitively and he is a very anxious dog to start with. We are putting him on meds to take the edge off the anxiety – so he can finally absorb our D&C efforts – and to slow down the progress of dementia.
And of course, we ARE rolling up our sleeves and putting the behaviour modification recommendations into place now now that each step doesn’t feel like such a drop in the ocean.
We have turned a critical page as I have had to seek professional help for my own dog’s behaviour for the first time in my career. But at least we’re going in the right direction now, and we’re being supported by wonderful professionals.
I hope we can accompany him in the last chapter of his life with as much calm and harmony as possible, and restore some trust in our home.