Let’s be up front about something: I’m a worrier. It’s pretty much “my thing.” I worry about car accidents, I worry about money, I worry about people dying, I worry about my own death. I worry about my dog getting cancer or needing a knee replacement or being shot by an armed intruder. Some of my worries are realistic, but many of them are not – well, realistic in that they happen, but unrealistic in that these things are not statistically likely to happen to me. At least not all at once.
So when I decided I wanted to get a dog, I worried about a lot of things. Would I have time to exercise him? Would he destroy any of our valuable possessions? Would he get along with our cats? Was I “good enough” as a dog owner to handle a large bulldog – would he be aggressive towards people?It turned out most of my worries were totally unfounded. Cerberus has chewed one non-dog item in his entire life (although, to be fair, it was one of my fabulous purple boots). I’ve found plenty of time to exercise him, though I often wish I had more, and he seems perfectly content to sleep at the base of my desk when I have to work. He and the cats are best friends. Well, one of the cats. The other one hates him and frequently bullies him into the corner, where Cerberus will sit until I come along, move the cat and tell Cerb it’s okay to come out now. He loves people and happily wiggles up to those he knows for treats and cuddles, though he’s appropriately reserved with strangers until he gets to know them. Nothing that I worried about before bringing him home ever panned out. It was something I never even thought about.
When I thought about my “future dog”, I imagined all the things I would do with him. We would romp and play. He would have fantastic doggy play dates with my friends’ dogs. We would go to shows and see his brothers and sisters and everything would be peachy-keen – seriously, all of these thoughts were colored a pleasant, hazy orange in my creative mind. Things would be Mayberry-like. In retrospect, this was really naive on my part. If I wanted a love-everyone, go-everywhere, sniff-everydog kind of dog, a male bulldog was probably not the right choice. But I had made up my mind. Cerb was coming home with us.For many months, that’s just what it was like. Cerberus was a very submissive puppy. We would go to the dog park and he would rumble along behind all the bigger dogs, trying to keep up with them as they ran and played. When they sniffed and licked him, he would roll over and squirm. We introduced him to my father’s two miniature schnauzers and they “kept him in check”, or so I thought – everything I had read about puppy socialization said it was important to let older dogs correct young dogs for rudeness, so I let it happen. In retrospect, I think I probably allowed my puppy to be bullied, all in the name of “socializing” him. He was so sweet and submissive, I figured it would always be this easy.
Around 11 months of age, Cerb started growing up a bit. I recognized his rebelliousness as the much-feared “teenage” phase of a young dog’s life. He started ignoring commands, pulling us around, playing too roughly, and barking at other dogs. I felt prepared to handle this – after all, I had read all the books! We instituted a NILIF (“Nothing In Life Is Free”) policy and made him work for privileges. We went back to basics and strengthened his “sit”, “stay”, “down” and “come.” We upped the exercise and he started going for runs with my husband. I dusted off my hands, patted myself on the back, and told myself I was doing a good job.
Not long after that, he got into his first “fight” with another dog. I use the word “fight” in quotation marks because I don’t want to fear-monger. Cerberus has never drawn blood on another dog. There were no cuts or puncture-marks, no stitches, no emergency vet bills. I have always stepped in before anything escalated to this point. What I could see, though, was that my young dog would stare intensely. His tail would stiffen and bristle. His hackles would raise. He could not be called off once he had crossed over his threshold, and he would give chase. There would be a lot of noise and confusion and I would separate him from the poor other dog and we would leave wherever we had been – the park, a friend’s back yard, wherever. I think that the lack of injuries points to the fact that he was a young, inexperienced dog who was “reacting” rather than “aggressing”, technically, but also to his very good bite inhibition. He would try to sit on the other dogs, to push them down, to control them, but he didn’t immediately try to hurt them.At this point, I was scared. Really scared. I probably overreacted in many ways and, looking back, I know that I made some bad choices. I immediately stopped taking Cerberus around other dogs. Sure, he hadn’t hurt any other dogs, but it was just a matter of time, right? We couldn’t afford to be sued or to pay someone else’s vet bills and, more importantly, my conscience couldn’t bear for my dog to hurt another dog, so I isolated him. I started telling people we couldn’t come out to play because Cerberus “isn’t good with other dogs.” Privately, I started looking for a trainer who would work with our “aggressive dog.”
I found one. He had a lot of credentials – impressive credentials, to me. He agreed to give us a discount on his (expensive) in-home behavior evaluation. One sunny afternoon, he came out to our home and we went down the street to our local park. He took Cerb’s leash from me and walked him around. “Sit.” When Cerb ignored him, he got his collar yanked. He looked at the trainer in shock and crouched. “Sit.” Yank. Cerberus sat. “See, he needs to know you’re the boss.”
I nodded my head, watching my dog and trying to squash down the feeling of dread that was bubbling up in my stomach. By the end of the lesson, Cerb was heeling nicely, sitting, sitting down, coming when called… and looking miserable the whole time. He slouched along beside the trainer, heeling, yes, but looking like the sky would fall on him at any moment. The trainer fitted him with a shiny silver prong collar and instructed me to work with him every day. This is what we would have to do, he told us. This was how things would have to be.
I tried it. I tried it for a week. We would go out for walks and I would yank his collar to keep him in line, every yank sending shockwaves of sadness, anger and resentment through my body. After a week, I just couldn’t take it anymore – I threw the prong collar in the corner and I cried and cried. I couldn’t keep up with this training method. I couldn’t stomach it. But what choice did I have? If I couldn’t go along with this, was my dog destined to turn into a dog-eating monster I had no hope of controlling?We tried another obedience class, another prong-collar, crank-and-yank experience. Again, I saw that my dog had flashes of brilliance when under another handler’s control. They could heel him past and around other dogs without issue. They could make him sit and listen even when surrounded by other dogs. They saw me flinch away from other dogs when we walked by them and laughed, telling me I had to buck up, be confident, be strong. But I couldn’t. I was terrified. I didn’t have the brute strength to muscle Cerberus around and I didn’t have the iron will to stick to this training method. It didn’t even seem to be working – it worked when the other trainers did it, but when it was up to me, I was never able to time the corrections properly and they didn’t seem to do anything, anyway, especially when Cerb was in the middle of a meltdown.
I tried another approach. I Googled “positive trainers” and tried to find people who used these mysterious clickers and bridge words and all these seemingly new-fangled things. They gave me Gentle Leaders that rubbed the fur from Cerb’s nose. They marveled at Cerb’s obedience and used him as an example for the class, showing his lovely sit and heel, then had me go back to the corner where he wouldn’t react to the other dogs. I was always the first to arrive at class and the first to leave, hurrying in and out with a vice-like grip on Cerb’s leash, walking him away when other people approached us with their friendly dogs, and hating myself the whole time.
At some point, I think I gave up. We stopped going anywhere. We stopped going to shows – being in the ring frayed my nerves until I felt like my skin was on fire. I turned my face away from the stares of other dog owners when Cerb reacted and I had to drag him away. I resigned myself to the fact that I had an aggressive dog who could not be trusted and that somehow, somewhere, I had failed. I couldn’t tell you where, I couldn’t tell you what I should have done better, but I knew in my heart I was a failure. I thought about rehoming Cerb with someone more skilled, someone better than me, someone who could manage this dog and help him reach his potential. I resented him, I was ashamed of him, I wondered if I had made a huge mistake, but most of all, I loved him. My heart ached for this dog who wanted so badly to be good but didn’t know how, and I didn’t know how to help him.
Then I met Karen.
I met Karen Ryder through a mutual friend at the time (a friend who was a bad influence, but that all got sorted out in the end). This mutual friend invited me to weight pull practice at Karen’s farm and I went along, dragging my feet the whole time, already embarrassed and dreading Karen’s reaction to my terrible, no-good, very-bad dog:“What a schmoogie-bear!”
“What a good dog. He’s beautiful.”
This dog? I looked at the monster on the end of my leash who, in turn, looked at Karen with his soft brown eyes.
That day turned my life around. It turned my dog’s life around. Karen is a positive-reinforcement trainer who uses almost no corrections with her own dogs. She has titled dogs in almost everything I can think of and seems willing to try anything once. She has the patience of a saint and she loves my dog. She is his Auntie Karen and he is her Schmoogie.
Karen taught me about bridge words – not just what they are, but how they work. She taught me about timing. She showed me that Cerberus is willing and eager to please me if only I would tell him what I want. Before meeting Karen, I was constantly telling my dog what I didn’t want. Everything was NO, STOP, DON’T. It was no fun for him, no fun for me, and not productive in the slightest. Karen taught me how to say “Yes!”, how to shower Cerb in rewards, and how to throw a puppy-party when he nailed a new task. She taught me how to teach Cerb to use his body and his brain. She taught me how to use psychology and knowledge of dog behavior in the places where I had been using muscle.
Cerberus is still dog-aggressive.
We’re working on it.
We play “Look At That.” We get close to his threshold and back off. We reward Cerb for not reacting. We distract with high-value treats. When he has a meltdown, I stay calm and remove him from the situation, and then I sit and take stock. What happened? Where did I drop the ball – what could I have done differently to protect my dog?
I’m not going to say it’s been easy. I had to spend some time grieving for the Dog I Wanted, that Mayberry-esque dog that probably doesn’t exist in real life. Then I stopped moping and accepted that I got the Dog I Needed. I got a dog who has challenged me beyond belief but who has given me more happiness than I ever expected. I got a dog who makes me pull my hair out minutes before making me cry with happiness. I got a dog who tries to eat other dogs but grooms and nurses orphaned kittens. I got a dog who pulls 3000lbs on a wagon and then hides in the corner because the scary cat won’t let him go by. He’s an exercise in contradictions and I love him for it, because he had forced me to be a better trainer, a better dog owner, and a better person.To anyone out there struggling with a difficult dog: I hear you. I hear your tears and frustrations, your worries, doubts and second-guesses. I hear your thoughts about giving up, about rehoming, about quitting. I hear your shame when people talk about “bad dogs” and “bad owners” and “Why did she bring that dog here?” I hear your fears about taking your dog to new places. I hear your exhaustion and weariness because even the simplest damn things become so hard. A walk around the block with your dog feels overwhelming. I hear you.
I also hear your dog. I hear a dog who loves you and needs your guidance. I hear a dog who is scared and doesn’t know how to channel that fear except to shut down or react explosively. I hear a dog who is trying to hard to communicate with you, but you’re just not hearing him. I hear a dog who needs structure, who needs management, who needs compromise. I hear a dog who is begging you to try one more time, to ask for help, to reach out to others for support and to turn a deaf ear and blind eye to people who look down on you when you are struggling.
I hear you and I hear your dog, and I hope that you can learn to hear each other, too, and find a solution that works for you.