One of the things you’ll hear a lot if you participate in dog sports with a non-traditional dog (read: anything other than a perfectly healthy and sane specimen of whatever three or four breeds dominate your sport) is “oh, you’ll learn so much from working with that dog!”
This refrain is not always as helpful as the people handing it out seem to think. Sometimes, at least for me, it’s a downright bummer. Like an apprentice who’s been knocked too many times upside the head by a particularly hard sensei, there definitely comes a time when I feel like, you know what, I would be totally okay with having less wisdom if that also means fewer bruises.
But as dispiriting as those struggles can be in the moment (and, oh, they are, they are!), there’s a good bit of truth to the sentiment. We at Team Unruly know difficult dogs — and we’re not talking about doing agility with an Aussie instead of a Border Collie. We have actually difficult dogs. Reactive dogs. Fearful dogs. Dogs with three legs. Dogs with low drive. Dogs of non-traditional breeds. Dogs of non-identifiable breeds.
And we have learned lessons from these dogs that no other dog in the world could have taught us.
Rebecca, Cerberus and Fly
(1) We were never alone.
When I first got Cerberus, I jumped head-first into the world of dog shows and competitions. In that environment, you (usually) see dogs at their best. You don’t see all of the hours of training the owners put in, and you generally don’t see really reactive dogs because, well, they don’t often get to compete. It’s easy to look around and think that you’re the only one with a “problem child” and that you don’t belong there. At first, Cerb’s fear issues made me feel alone. There we were, struggling just to keep his reactivity in check in the group ring, while his littermate brothers and sisters racked up titles. I blamed myself for our problems and felt sure that nobody else could be struggling like we were.
Luckily — amazingly — acknowledging Cerb’s reactivity and seeking help put me in touch with people who have become some of my best friends. I met Karen, my saintly trainer who changed my entire perspective on dog training and taught me pretty much everything I know about positive reinforcement training. I also became closer to all of the friends who eventually formed Team Unruly. I realized that there are no perfect dogs and that everyone is struggling with something, so I was never really alone.
(2) Just when you think you have it all figured out…
Along comes a game-changer. I learned so much from working through Cerb’s reactivity and training with him for weight pull and rally. I learned even more by working with my trainer, Karen, as her assistant for her Control Unleashed and BAT classes. I wouldn’t say that I was over-confident or cocky, but I definitely felt like I had a pretty good grip on “dog training,” in a general sense. I had worked it out with Cerb, right? I could totally do that again. So I adopted a second dog, Fly.
Game changer! Fly is so much like Cerb and yet so very different. She has fear issues, too (d’oh!), but expresses them in different ways. When it comes to things that make her nervous or afraid, I feel like I have the tools to work through that – the same practices that helped Cerb will help Fly. When it comes to teaching her tricks, though? Very, very different dog. See, Cerb now has this four-year background of positive reinforcement and shaping games. He has always been an enthusiastic (ballistic, really) participant in training. Once he realized I would reward him for trying, he couldn’t be stopped. He offers behavior after behavior until he gets the answer, and I… totally, totally took that for granted. When I adopted Fly and started working with her, I quickly learned what it’s like to have a dog with no reinforcement history. Where Cerb responds to the “pressure” of me asking for a behavior by throwing out his entire repertoire, Fly quails. If she doesn’t get the answer right on her first attempt, she just curls up and looks worried.
I don’t know if Fly’s behavior was caused by history of corrective training methods or if it’s just her personality, and I guess it doesn’t really matter: the point is that Fly requires a very different approach than Cerb, and she is challenging me to be a better trainer and dig deep for solutions. I have to take it very, very slowly with her and train in very short sessions, then give her time to recover, something I never had to do with Cerb because he will work until he drops. I often find that I will work for several days on something with Fly and feel like we’re making no progress, and then we’ll come back to it a week later and she’ll have figured it out on her own time. This is frustrating for me, but also an extremely valuable lesson that I needed to learn.
Jennifer and Pongu
As I’ve talked about at length elsewhere, Pongu wasn’t a dog that I got with competition in mind (I didn’t even know dog sports were a Thing back then, much less a Thing that would end up consuming major chunks of my life), and our journey has been a long series of struggles and setbacks punctuated with occasional brilliant flashes of joy.
I have learned many things along this road, but if I had to distill them down to three main points, they’d probably be:
(1) Patience makes possibility. Working with a fearful dog is not a quick process, and it isn’t one that lends itself to major forward leaps. Progress, for us, is always tiny and incremental; whenever I get tempted to push too far too fast, I end up setting us back (and yet I still keep doing it, because I’m an idiot). But when I can force myself to rein in my impatience and work in teeny tiny bits, we move forward. It happens in slow (often frustratingly slow!) steps, but it happens. Patience and practice have enabled my fearful dog to do things that I once believed would be totally impossible for him.
(2) Failures only affect you. Victories can affect the world. No one really cares when we NQ a Rally run (least of all me; at this point I’m only tracking to see if we NQ in some new and interesting way that we haven’t previously accomplished). But when we succeed, we can be a little spark of light out there showing that yes, you can participate in dog sports with a scaredy dog; yes, you can do it with a pound mutt; yes, you can do it force-free. All of those messages are worth creating and sending out to the world, because all of them have the potential to give people hope and improve their relationships with their dogs. That belief helps keep me going on days when I don’t necessarily feel all that excited about stepping back into training.
(3) My greatest victory is a joyful dog. I’ve had Pongu’s ARCHMX certificate sitting in an envelope on my counter, unopened and collecting dust, for about a month now. At some point I’ll take it out and put it in a frame and hang it on his Wall o’ Trophies. But it’s really not a priority anymore.
These days, I don’t generally keep ribbons or placement rosettes in WCRL; one per competition, just to hold the memory that we were there, is enough for me. I don’t worry about the points or scores except as a measure of whether we’re making progress overall. Triple Qs are nice, but I don’t especially care about those either.
At this point in the game, the only victory I really care about is having a happy dog who wants to be there with me. I want to look down and see Pongu’s face smiling back up at me as we heel off the start line together. I want to see him grinning confidently as he snaps through a left finish, or bounding along with his tail in the air on a recall. Everything I do is aimed at building a happy, confident dog who can work in the ring with joy.
I got into dog sports because I hoped they would build Pongu’s confidence. It would be a lie to say that’s the only thing I care about, of course; I do want precise heeling and high scores and a clean performance in the ring. But the biggest lesson I’ve learned from Pongu is that those aren’t and can’t be inconsistent goals — the only way I get those things is if I have a happy and confident dog at my side.
I started doing this for my dog. He started doing it for me. The point of all these games, as far as I’m concerned, is for us to find joy in this partnership and in working together to bring happiness to each other. That’s what we’re out there to win.
Kelsey and Nellie
When I was initially trying to figure out who to write about here, my first idea was to write about Lucy, my hyper-reactive dog who has taught me like 90% of what I know about training. After thinking about it a second, though, I realized that the dog I’ve had the saddest and most frustrating experiences with is Nellie, my cute little tripod pit bull. In a certain way, Nellie is probably the easiest of my three dogs: she’s a total people-pleaser, friendly with everyone, reasonable with (most) dogs, loves to train, is very easy to motivate, etc. etc. etc.,. She is also a BLAST to play with and when we’re working, everything else melts away and the rest of the world outside of me and my dog ceases to exist. Nellie and I have competed in rally and trained in flyball, and she’s always up for learning tricks and dancing around the house with me. She’s also super athletic and pretty well-structured, so doing sports should have been no issue for her. And frankly, the issue has generally not been Nellie: it has been, not to put too fine a point on it, everybody else. Which leads me to the things I’ve learned playing sports with a tripod pit bull.
(1) Try very very very very hard to think about what you CAN do, not what you can’t.
and the corollary to that:
(2) Ignore anybody who tells you what you can’t do.
I got a lot of pushback when I started thinking about doing sports with Nellie. I cannot tell you how many classes we signed up for but ultimately were not allowed to participate in: because she’s three-legged, Nellie is not allowed to compete in most rally venues (though she’s allowed to compete in APDT/Cynosport) and before the AKC’s recent rule change, she was not even allowed to test for her CGC. As a consequence, we weren’t allowed to participate in any AKC-endorsed CGC classes (because what would be the point, right? she wasn’t allowed to test!) and the first three rally classes I tried to sign up for wouldn’t let us in when they found out that Nellie was a tripod (because those classes all taught the AKC version of rally, and Nellie was not permitted to compete in AKC rally, so what would be the point, right? she wasn’t allowed to play!) I only tried to sign up for one agility class before I got discouraged: the person on the phone told me flat out that pit bulls were not appropriate for any group classes, and that ‘disabled dogs’ were not appropriate for agility, and that “maybe you should just try to appreciate the dog you have instead of trying to turn her into something else”. Oof. That one did a number on me, I admit.
On the other hand, even though I was feeling shaken and sad, I DID know the dog I had: I had an athletic, happy little dog who was in great shape, loved classes and was dying to work in some structured way. Bless the good people at the K-9 Kamikazes Flyball Team in Richmond, VA who were nice to me when I first got in touch with them, didn’t think the idea of running a tripod pittie sounded crazy, and were totally happy to help me figure out the best way to teach Nellie flyball (and were also happy to help me work out nice practical ways to accommodate her missing leg: for example, we spent one interesting night trying to figure out whether a left or a right box turn would best help her activate her core muscles which would in turn support her through the motion of coming off the box). They never once told me that this was something we wouldn’t be able to do, they never suggested just going home and wrapping my dog in cotton wool, and they absolutely rebuilt my confidence in both myself and my terrific dog. And so gradually I stopped thinking about Nellie as this problem waiting to happen and started seeing all of the things that made her an awesome sport dog. So she’s missing a leg: the important part is that my little dog is fast as heck, works incredibly hard, is beautifully handler-focused (most of the time!) and gets a tremendous amount of joy from playing with me. She also has a gorgeous box turn that would, frankly, be screwed up by the addition of another leg, and in rally, she has a lovely pivot honed from years of swinging around on her front leg when she’s trying to chase down a ball. So there!
Dealing with the nonsense of people’s low expectations has thickened my skin, and it has also given me a little chip on my shoulder. I admit to feeling a little bit of snarky pleasure when my dog runs a heat faster than a purpose-bred sporter collie or when we outscore somebody’s oh-he-comes-from-a-long-line-of-obedience-champions Golden in rally. I love, love, love blowing people’s minds when they come in expecting nothing from us and then see something great. I love telling people that Nellie isn’t some dog I bought and raised from a puppy who lost a leg to cancer: she was a chained pit bull with neglectful owners who dumped her on the street with a badly-healed leg break, and look, here she is making friends with your Aussie and then outscoring him. Now, we don’t always turn in rock-solid performances, but oh, those days we do: those are amazing days.
(3) When you do it, celebrate mightily.
For the longest time, when I showed up at a trial, I heard a lot of “Oh, you’re the one with the three-legged pit bull! Well…..how nice that you’re giving her this experience!” I knew that I was doing something right the first time I heard, “Oh, you’re the one who always picks up your dog and dances around with her when you Q!”
(4) When you don’t, try not to internalize it.
I think that frequently, people with, let us say, non-traditional sport dogs are cowed out of the ring, and that is both a crying shame and frankly antithetical to the whole premise of dog sports. It is true that too many sports and too many classes contain people who have purebred dogs from ‘traditional’ sport breeds and who give you a condescending smile when you walk in, then go back to talking to the people who they consider to be real competitors. In my experience, you can do one of two things when confronted with that: you can feel awkward and out of place and then quit the class and go back to training tricks in your living room, or alternately, you can feel awkward, push through it and then work hard with your dog to make sure that he has the prettiest heel/smoothest A-frame/best retrieve of anybody in class. I try hard to always choose the latter of those two options; being kind of a stubborn jerk helps with this.
Of course, Having Something To Prove means that it becomes even harder when you have bad days. And you will have bad days: let me just refer you to my post Sometimes Everything Just Sucks because, well, sometimes it does. The really important thing to remember when these kinds of days happen is that these kinds of days happen to everyone. It’s not just you and your imperfect dog. It is tempting to think about quitting your sport or discipline altogether. It is tempting to fantasize about how in the future, you’re going to just get a purpose bred dog that you raise from a puppy and that dog is not going to have ANY PROBLEMS EVER, unlike your current/imperfect dog. It is tempting to go hide under the covers with your dog and watch old episodes of 30 Rock while contemplating never training anything again ever. It is doubly tempting to do all these things if you’ve been hearing a constant refrain of “you can’t, you can’t, not with that dog” for a lot of your training career. But it’s also doubly important not to let those voices win. Because you can succeed and you know it: if you’ve learned Lesson One, you have a whole set of great experiences with your dog to draw on, and remembering those experiences will help you get through the bad times. You know that your dog is awesome; you have seen it. Don’t let negativity win. Seek out people who will not shut you down, learn as much as you can, and above all, just keep going.
Michelle and Dahlia
Dahlia is not difficult as in reactive, dog aggressive, fearful, hard to manage or any of the things most people associate with difficult dogs. Dahlia is, in fact, the perfect pet. But the perfect pet does not make the perfect agility dog. Ultimately, I started agility class with Dahlia because she was smart, I thought it would be fun, and she liked to leap over snowbanks. That’s it. The whole reason I started it with the most mellow dog on earth. At the first class, when they released dogs from a stay and other dogs had to remain sitting (hello impulse control!), it was mass chaos. The dogs who were supposed to stay didn’t. They took off running and it was crazy time for the dogs.
Except Dahlia, of course. Who sat in the middle of it all looking rather befuddled.
Couple a mellow personality with a complete lack of confidence and you have the recipe for agility “disaster.” I’ve walked out of classes and trials in tears as my dog simply did not do anything. So what have I learned from working with Miss Dahlia in agility for over 4 years now?
(1) Enjoy the dog you have. She’s quirky, she’s goofy. Recently she hesitated at a jump because she wasn’t sure if she should take it and once she decided that yes, she really should take it, she was too close to make a proper leap over. And so she put her foot on the jump bar and launched herself over it. And did not displace the bar. It was hilarious. It was adorable. This is the dog I have. She has rolled over at a trial when she decided it was too hot to work. She has left me in class to go to the trainer who was a 100 feet away with treats. She’s an absolutely ridiculous dog and I walk out of more classes than not thinking that at least everyone got a laugh out of her.
(2) Don’t let other people steal your joy in your dog. I know I’ve talked about this before in an older post. But I cannot reiterate this enough. If you were happy that your dog finally did an automatic sit or took the A-Frame or actually came back to you when called, don’t let someone else tell you that it wasn’t up to their standards. She’s your dog. And only you know how far she’s come.
(3) Make it fun. Dahlia was a dog who had almost no confidence and we struggled terribly in agility through our first years (I won’t lie – we still do on occasion). Making it fun for her, rewarding a lot, making it a game we play and nothing overly serious has helped her to see the joy in doing it. It’s not just a job. It’s a game she plays with her Mama.
(4) Reward…a lot. Even when you don’t think the dog deserves a reward. Even when you go out there in the trial and she misses half the jumps or blows past the dog walk or decides that the weave poles just aren’t her thing that day, thank you very much. Walk out of there and throw a party. She went in there for you. And she deserves to have the best experience of her life no matter what. She doesn’t know she didn’t Q. She had an awesome time and doesn’t realize that dropping that one lousy bar cost you the Q. So reward her, even if you don’t feel like she “deserves” it. She does. Because she went out there with you and gave it her all. Even if her “all” means weaving in between the last jump and the timer stantion over and over again until the course time buzzer goes off.
Dom and Julio
In the year that we’ve had Julio, we’ve gained an insight to some of the reasons why he was probably dumped by his previous owner. Unlike Dahlia, Julio is not the perfect pet! We’re not even trying to do anything along the lines of competing (or even going out in public!) but Julio provides a challenge at every turn. From eating underwear to peeing in the house to barking at the same two horses who have lived in our backyard for the last six months, Julio knows how to stomp on my very last nerve. But despite his reactivity, poor recall, and inability to learn anything beyond sit, down, and ‘go to your crate’, I love him to pieces. While having Herbie has been an education in bringing up a dog, Julio has provided lesson after lesson about dealing with what you’ve been given. In the last year, he has taught me countless lessons. Here are just a few things I’ve learned…
(1) It’s not the dog’s fault. This one should probably go without saying, but it’s so easy to forget when your dog has just done something really, really bad. The truth is that dogs don’t premeditate and they don’t maliciously try to ruin our lives. In Julio’s case, his past life is responsible for his issues. A lack of socialization, attention, and training really left him with a slew of problems that are very tough to resolve.
(2) Treat the problem, not the symptoms. Along those same lines, it’s important to remember that if your dog is acting out, there’s probably an underlying reason for it. For example, Julio’s destructive nature stems from his severe separation anxiety. As he has accepted that we will come back, he has gotten more trustworthy. Working with him on his anxiety helped eliminate some of his destructive behaviors much more effectively than trying to tackle all those individual problems directly.
(3) Appreciate your problem child’s strong points. Julio is an escape artist who can’t be trusted to ‘leave it’ (whatever ‘it’ may be). He’s reactive with other dogs and skittish around certain new people. Sometimes, I’m not sure he’s actually housebroken. BUT, he’s also the sweetest dog I’ve ever met. He’s a cuddle bug. He is easy to exercise, and isn’t demanding more activity all the time like Herbie does. He’s loyal and tolerant and hilarious. He brings so much joy into my life and I can’t imagine not having him. When those chocolatey eyes stare into my soul, it’s worth losing all that underwear (and that one t-shirt).
(4) Grade on a curve. Herbie was always a good learner. As a result, I got into the habit of looking for perfection. To get the treat, you have to do what I say (the first time). With Julio, I’ve had to let the standards slide a little bit. For example, ‘high five’ for Herbie means put your paw squarely and enthusiastically on my hand. For Julio, ‘high five’ just means ‘something about my foot’. At first, that was good enough. I had to learn to reward the little steps that form the bridge between ‘I’ve never heard that command before’ and ‘I know what that means!’
(5) No two dogs are the same and you have to be flexible in your methods to match the dog you’re working with. I think that’s pretty self explanatory.
Lindsey and Raiden
Raiden is the dog that every trainer never wants. He’s stunning, with a command presence in the show ring that judges comment on after awarding him Best in Show. A champion at 8 months, Best in Specialty Show and Best in Show winner at 9 months and with a German Excellent Select rating the day he was old enough to step into a Sieger ring. “I couldn’t take my eyes off him,” I’ve heard on countless occasions while taking group win pictures. Raiden wins by sheer presence- he commands the attention of the judges so they can’t look away at any other dog. He may not be the best (he’s enormously oversized) but he’s got the attitude. And in case you think he’s just beauty, Raiden has brains too. A spectacular working dog, he had the most impressive drive to work that made him a coveted asset of my search and rescue team. The head K9 trainer on the team, an ex-police K9 handler, was the head of the Raiden fanclub. My schutzhund trainer tried to bribe me weekly to sell Raiden to him, offering me two and three German Shepherd puppies in exchange for Raiden. He is a dream to see in action, clearing schutzhund blinds, completing variable surface tracks at a dead run, and with a precision to his obedience that led us to a high-in-trial obedience score one schutzhund trial.
Of course, all that only happens on days that I can convince him to behave enough to not try and eat every other dog around. And, to be perfectly honest, that’s not very often. For every group win we have, Raiden has at least 4 ring excusals. He’s the kind of dog reactive that results in instant euthanasia if he were to land in some sort of animal control facility. The sort they don’t even attempt to place in a home. To have a dog with the most amazing skill set, the kind of dog that could easily compete at the WUSV World Schutzhund Championships the day after completing a 40 mile track for a missing child in the most remote backcountry, but not be able to take him out of the house because he’s so extremely reactive? It’s a trainer’s worst nightmare. But he has taught me a number of valuable lessons.
(1) You know your dog best. If I had a dollar for everyone that’s given me advice or opinions on Raiden- I’d be a millionaire. From all outward appearances, Raiden looks like The Hulk. Either that or an 8 foot tall Olympic triathlete. He’s massive for a German shepherd- a lean 110 pounds, tall, thin, with hulking shoulder and thigh muscles. When he reacts he does it in style. Hackles up all down his back, barking, lunging, snarling, foam flying from his mouth. I’ve been told I need to ‘show him who’s boss’ and ‘dominate him’ countless times *eyeroll.* I’ve been told that I need to not tolerate his ‘bad’ behavior, and give him a firm correction. I’ve had people tell me I just need to enforce a solid sit/stay and he’ll give up trying to gobble up every other dog. Not once have I ever had anyone hit the nail on the head on the first try. My dog is *fearful.* Inside his mind he’s a timid, quivering, nervous, anxious ball of nerves. At home, he’s a giant marshmallow. He’s soft, he doesn’t like yelling, he wants to be softly stroked, have his head massaged, and have his belly rubbed. He’s the complete opposite of what you’d expect from just looking at him. And not one of those above recommendations would do anything but make his problems even worse. How do I know this? Because I followed all the other trainer’s advice in the beginning. I would try to argue that he was just a soft, sensitive, fearful guy, and people would look at me like I’d grown 6 heads. 110+ pound dogs aren’t fearful! What do they have to be fearful of? Show that dog who’s in charge! His problems got worse, and it’s taken years to undo what careless advice I should have ignored because- I know my dog best.
(2) It’s ok to be fearful, nervous, or anxious. It’s ok to not be social. It’s ok for your dog to not be a cookie cutter dog. This was a big one for me. At first I saw this as a problem that needed to be fixed. Let’s work on this until you’re dead tired! We’re going to tackle this every day until we get this right! In all reality- it’s perfectly ok for a dog to be a bit leery of things. Forcing the issue can make it worse. Not every person likes everything, and we can’t expect the same of dogs. We can pair good things with scary things, do LAT and BAT and behavioral interventions, but at the end of the day, if Raiden just doesn’t want to be happy around other dogs, but is perfectly content to ignore them if they ignore him- that’s good enough for me. He doesn’t need to be social. It’s not a prerequisite to life. With years and years of hard work, we’ve gotten to this point in Raiden’s life. He’ll ignore other dogs if they’ll ignore him. And that’s fine with me. I don’t have a lunging, snarling wild animal anymore, and as long as other people respect personal space and listen to my directives to keep their personal dogs in their own personal space, we can lead perfectly productive lives.
(3) Know your dog’s limits. This goes along with knowing your dog best. I’ve had Raiden for nearly 9 years- I’ve worked him in all sorts of various sports, dog rings and situations. I know his limits, and I know how to keep him from hitting that threshold. And as such, I have to be his advocate. Raiden gets nervous when lots of people come over unless he can be calmly introduced to each individual person. Not always possible, so he stays put away during family get-togethers. I have a walk-in closet in my office with (strangely enough) a window in it. We’ve outfitted this closet with vinyl flooring, frosted film on the window to let in light but not let Raiden see out, and an extra-tall iron pet gate across the door. This is Raiden’s ‘safe room.’ When people come over, Raiden gets put in here. (Also- when we leave the house, as Raiden suffers from pica and will swallow anything he takes a fancy to). When people come over and want me to let him out, or want to see him/play with him/irritate/antagonize him, I have to have to wherewithal to stand my ground. No, Raiden doesn’t need to come out and come play. No, you don’t need to meet him, or show him off to your friend you brought along. No, I most definitely am NOT taking out the bite sleeve for a ‘demonstration.’ Know your dogs limits, and keep them from reaching it.