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People Minding Dogs

DSC01524I read a powerful blog post today. It was written by my friend Colleen, a dog trainer and owner of The Enlightened Canine.

It reminded me of how awful a dog trainer I had been at 15 or 16 years old, when I got my first dog, a Sheltie named Alicia. I was inexperienced and filled with all the wrong knowledge about training dogs. Alicia wore a choker chain and I used it. Being a sheltie, she was extremely smart, so I didn’t use it often, but I still used it more than I should have (I would never use one now). What must she have been thinking? How did it make her feel? What cues was she giving me that she was afraid?

Much to my shame, I tried to use these techniques on my brother’s dog, a Chow-Lab mix named Remy, right around the same time. I remember taking him a walk around a lake in our neighborhood; a place frequented by runners and other walkers. Remy was strong (and still is at 14 years old!) and hard to control on a leash. I thought using his choker chain to excess would teach him to “heel” like it had for my dog Alicia. It didn’t. But, what did happen is a gentleman, who happened to be walking by and who had been watching my “training techniques” with Remy, made a comment. I don’t remember the exact words he uttered to me over 20 years ago, but I do remember being ashamed because he was right – I was jerking the dog around and it was not the way to train a dog. Why do I share this story? Because we all make mistakes as new dog owners (or experienced ones), but it is up to us to try to do better. To learn how to be a good dog owner. To do our research. To understand our dogs. To treat them with kindness and respect. They trust us implicitly. How can we not do our best to learn training methods that bring out the best in our dog – and ourselves?

The words spoken by that one man were enough to make me want to learn how to do better. I have learned a lot, but I am still learning. There is so much our dogs can teach us if we just watch and listen.

I recommend reading Colleen’s blog. I think it has some powerful messages for all of us dog owners – new or not.

  1. June 9, 2009 at 5:28 PM

    Thanks so much, Mel. Experiences such as the one you had with Remy can really change a person’s perspective. I had a similar experience and it haunts me every time I think about it. Before I became a dog trainer, my first dog as an adult was a wonderful dog, but her nose got the most of her every time we’d go for a walk. I always found myself dragging her away from compelling smelling spots instead of being able to teach her to come away from them on her own. Some days I was more impatient than others, and found myself yanking her away hard – because I was late or I had to get back home to do more important things or something else was taking precedence. Once I started taking dog training classes with her and eventually became a trainer in my own right, I of course learned how to train her to do the right thing, but she was still very difficult to walk as she got so very distracted by interesting scents. By that time, she’d built up a long-standing habit of pulling and resisting. When she was 11 years old, my vet diagnosed her with a neck problem which seemed to come from out of nowhere – it got so bad, when T tried to turn her neck just a little, just to curl up to go to sleep, she’d scream in pain, and it would make my stomach drop every time I heard her. Eventually she improved, but it took several weeks for her to do so, and I became convinced that my years of hauling her around and her resisting my attempts to do so had finally come to a head in this sudden painful malady. Perhaps it was simply old age catching up to her, but I cannot be convinced that my actions didn’t play a large part in my beautiful girl being put in terrible pain. When I get frustrated now with the behavior of dogs I have today, I try to check myself and check my frustrations, focusing on them and on teasing out good behaviors. Some days are harder than others – and these are the days my actions matter the most.

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