This is #2 in a series: “Dirty Secrets Revealed: Confessions of a Professional Dog Trainer”. You won’t want to miss Confession #1, “How I taught my dog to pee in the house”.
I vividly remember the day I first met Haley. I was at the Quarter Horse Congress in Ohio and a woman had an expen full of fluffy bundles of sheltie love. The large female caught my attention right away as she stood on the backs of the other puppies to get to me first. A good fit with my male cattle dog, I thought. And so it was.
Haley and Blue got along great. Haley became my best friend, and I became her student. She was smart as can be, and learned everything I taught her in blazing fast time. Me, I wasn’t such a fast learner.
Our biggest challenge was Haley’s shyness with strangers. She never met a person who deserved her trust right off and only a handful of people earned the privilege of being in her inner circle of friends. In her first few months with me, she was terrorized by new people coming into our house. Blindly panicked, she would run as far away as she could, usually with instant shooting diarrhea as she ran. Buying a 16 week old puppy who had never been out of her kennel wasn’t the best idea, I guess. But it was meant to be. And, sometimes logical decisions just don’t cut it, right?
Off to puppy class we went. She was the star student. On to beginner obedience class, and again, she was the star, winning 1st place in the little class fun match we had graduation night. The ‘stand for exam’ was a problem, but she trusted me enough to hold her position, since I could stay really close at that baby level.
So, now you’re probably thinking: “so…where’s the running away thing?” I had the same thought too. Even back then. We were so close and such a good team, I can’t even imagine she would run away from me when I called. But she did.
It was a small issue of Trust in specific circumstances.
I was only trying to do my job of keeping her safe. And to properly socialize her. And to continue on with what I imagined would be a brilliant run in dog obedience trials. This would be my first try at dog performance, after many years of training and showing horses. I was an eager learner and jumped right in with both feet!
It started with me working at getting Haley comfortable with being close to strangers. I used lots of treats, play, praise, sweet talking and kind leadership. It’s hard to believe now, but the technique that I used was unheard of at the time. It was all about strict obedience back then. I was advised to put her on a leash, correct her when she did not do as I told her, and give her a ‘good girl’ and a cookie when she did. That I should ‘make her’ accept people and ‘force her’ to accept being petted because she was told to. Wow, right?
Using my love and kind respect for animals along with plain common sense, we blazed our own trail. As I worked on helping Haley to become comfortable with people, I would call her encouragingly towards me in order to get her closer to the people that were standing near me. The method I used allowed her to move in or not, and when she did, she was rewarded and praised. The one problem with this method was that I called her to move in towards me, instead of simply allowing her to move in at her own discretion.
Hmmm…did that enhance or diminish her trust in me?
Do you think that helped or hindered her willingness to always come when I called her? Yep, I was inadvertently teaching my dog NOT to come when I called her. I didn’t know!! Crazy, right? Details, details!!!
It had no effect on our “performance” recall. But a definite effect on our every day life. The really important part.
She was a herding breed dog. That means she was attracted to moving animals and had a desire to get them under control. Not such a good idea when the animals are horses, including mares protecting their foals and horses who don’t particularly care to be chased by a little dog and know how to use their hooves to express their opinion.
Our fencing at the time kept the horses in just fine, but did nothing to keep dogs out. At about 6 months old, Haley decided rounding up the horses was in her job description. As soon as any of the horses started to run, she took off like a shot, under the fence and into the pastures. Running, barking (she was a sheltie, what did you expect? they bark) and having a great time. And there I was, calling her back, yelling at her in my panic to keep her safe, all to no avail. She was busy and no way she could listen to me.
Besides, what kind of a choice was that: have fun chasing the horses or stop and go back to a crazy woman who is yelling and acting like a primate on a case of mountain dew?
Right, no real choice there at all. Again, I was ‘teaching’ her not to come when I called her every time I yelled out her name. <sigh>
Even though our obedience recall was awesome, our obedience training did have an undesired effect on our life. There’s that trust thing again. The stand for exam was an important element of getting a CD title at that time. Hard for a dog that doesn’t particularly like strangers getting that close, much less touching her.
At one point, we had a major setback.
I had worked so carefully to build up her trust in me, so that she could use that trust as her courage to stand strong while allowing a stranger to touch her. I remember the day so clearly. The obedience instructor said it was time to teach her not to lean away or step back from his approach on the touching part of the stand for exam. So he said I should support her under her flank to hold her steady, preventing her from leaning away. She had been standing in place, but leaned back, shrinking away from the touch while holding her feet in place. Apparently, not acceptable.
So, I held her in place with a second leash wrapped around her flank while he approached. When she leaned away as she always did, she felt me holding her in the back and then she panicked. That was the first time she felt trapped and she instantly tried to flee. Bucking and twisting against the pressure front and back. It was only for 2 seconds, but the expression on her face is one that I remember clearly to this day, 20+ years later.
I had resisted all of the other advice that was thrown at me up to that point. “Why didn’t I foresee how she would react to this?”, “Why did I decide to do this?”, I asked myself over and over. I cried for two weeks about the decision I made to take that advice. And, I cried for the loss of trust between me and my beautiful, sensitive dog.
Then, I pulled my head out of my ass, wiped the dirt off my face and got back to having fun with my dog.
It came back. The trust, I mean. We worked it out and went on to get our CD with beautiful mid to high 190’s … in spite of the small leaning back from the judge during the stand for exam. I accepted that as part of who she was. A very brave, very young dog who was courageous enough to stand there in spite of her discomfort. Take the points off. We are so happy to give up those points!
Oh, and let’s not forget another part of the ‘Run Away’ story: me being the fun spoiler. You know: those times when your dogs are happily running around, playing, chasing, wrestling and otherwise enjoying life…but you need them in the house because you have to go to work or something. So you stand at the back door and call them in, indicating urgency with your unpleasant tone of voice and demeanor. One quick glance in your direction, and any fun-loving puppy just spins off in the opposite direction, right?
Thank goodness Haley and I had a solid thing going on for the most part. Haley came to me when I called most of the time, because she really wanted to be with me. But some times, always when it was most important, I would catch that brief glance in my direction just before she turned and ran in the other direction to do her own thing. Chase horses. Play keep away. Run away from people I wanted her to meet. Stay out longer. That was my girl. Doing exactly what I taught her.
Eventually everything worked out.
At 8 or 9, Haley became the official greeter of visitors to our farm, eagerly running up to everyone and politely but insistently requesting a cookie or some petting. No more running away from strangers!
I could count on Haley to come when I called her over the years, but that was mostly because I learned not to call her unless I was sure she would come. No point in creating a sure-to-fail situation, right? Yep, I learned that setting up my dog and myself for success made life much easier for everyone!
Haley was my companion for 17 glorious years. I say that she stayed around so long because I was such a tough nut to crack. Sometimes it just takes longer for some people to learn, ya know? Of course, deep in my heart, I hope she stayed because she loved her life with me and was happy.
Her last couple of years she couldn’t hear, and her sight was diminished. She wore a bell on her collar so I would know if she was on the move and in which direction. I spent quite a bit of time running after her, arms outstretched, thankful she was slowing down in her old age so that I could reach her and guide her to go in a safer direction. It was so funny.
I would hear her bell: tink, tink, tink and see her softly trotting the wrong way down the trail on our morning walks because she didn’t know which way we went.
There I’d go, jogging towards her, arms reaching out, trying to touch her butt so she would know where I was. I still chuckle when I picture myself hurrying to catch up with her several times each day. And I still miss her so!
Moral of this story:
We CAN recover from mistakes. Sometimes patience and allowing time to do it’s magic is the best training tool we have. Don’t be afraid to stand up for what you believe in. “The Journey” is where our successes are found, and where our learning takes place.
With a trusting partnership, anything is possible!
After Haley and I earned that very special CD, we ended our ‘obedience’ career. There was no help available for someone who refused to use prong collars, ear pinches and corrections. The next step required dumbbell work. If you’ve never seen the (old school) methods to “properly” train the dumbbell and article work, count yourself lucky. It involved pinching your dog’s ear until they cried out, then shoving the dumbbell into their open mouth. Hold the mouth closed and praise. Repeat. Add the command to the process and there ya go. I hear that some folks still use these methods today. Hard to believe.
Haley and I went on to have a fun and successful agility career. We were amongst the first wave of agility pioneers in the U.S. It was a blast! Boxes of ribbons and trophies have gathered dust in the attic from those days.
I went on to learn from the sea animal trainer folks who did clicker training. Much better! I did find a woman who was breaking trail, teaching obedience work using R+ (positive reinforcement) and I worked with her for a bit, just to learn more about the training methods, even though I had lost my taste for obedience work.
We, as a community, still have lots of pavement ahead of us.
Positive Reinforcement isn’t an end to the evolution of dog training, it’s a beginning.
Partnership-driven training for dogs and their people is on the horizon. I’m on a mission from DOG … to make the world a better place for dogs and for people too!
There’s something liberating about being in the front line with the wind blowing through your hair, you know what I mean?
Mistakes? Recovery? An interesting journey? Share your story. It’s OK. Mistakes mean learning is happening. Be brave!