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  #11  
Old 04-06-2013, 09:34 PM
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Trixy and Peaches were litter-mates, prim little maltese-poodle mixes with cream-colored fur and big brown eyes. They were cute as buttons. Andy and Lila were chiropractors, well-off and very busy. They had gotten tired of listening to Trixy and Peaches’ barking. When I arrived, it was immediately apparent that the dogs suffered from Small Dog Syndrome; they had gotten away with doing what they wanted whenever they wanted to do it since they were puppies. When I sat down, Peaches was in my lap instantly, trying to lick the roof of my mouth. Trixy settled on Lila’s lap, and growled when Andy sat beside her. When he paid her no attention, she snarled and lunged at him. He told her to knock it off, and put her on the floor. There were clearly some problems here, but strangely barking wasn’t one of them. I’d heard exactly three barks when I came to the door, and not a peep since.

“They bark ALL THE TIME,” Lila explained. “Did you hear them when you came in?”
“…yes?” I answered. I’m sure I looked confused, and said I’d only heard three barks.
“Isn’t that a little out of control?” Andy and Lila weren’t weirdos. These were their first dogs, and yes, they had piercing maltese voices, but they were well restrained about using them.

Having reassured them that there was nothing unusual about a dog barking at a knock on the door, I duly put their concerns on my list of what we were working on. In my notes, it says, “Barking (???)”. Then we moved on to the big problems. I told them I knew they’d called me for the barking, and we would work on that. But I pointed out the snapping incident, in which Trixy decided that Andy shouldn’t be sharing either her couch or her mom. And I said that, while she was being very friendly about it, Peaches had stuck her tongue in my mouth. I asked them, “If these dogs were ninety pound rottweilers, would you be letting them get away with this?”
“No, of course not!” Andy exclaimed. A look of realization dawned on both humans’ faces.
“Why not?”
“Well, they could hurt someone,” was Lila’s answer. Andy said, “It’s rude. Embarrassing.”

Bingo! From this moment forward, I told them, they now had two ninety pound rottweilers. This was to dictate the way they behaved toward the dogs from now on. The dogs would no longer have their own chairs at the kitchen table(!), they would be eating on the floor. They weren’t to treat their parents’ midsections as bouncy castles. They would ask permission before they jumped onto the couches, and sometimes their request would be denied. They would not be supplied with table scraps when they put their sweet lil’ feet on dad’s leg while he ate. And they most certainly would not snap at him when he sat down on HIS couch next to HIS wife.

We discussed time outs, and made a list of what constituted a time out-able offense. Digging in the bathroom trash was high on the list. While explaining how to properly implement time outs, I told them what would happen: Peaches would be playing with used Kleenex, and she would be promptly put into time out. When her time was up, they would let her out, and she would go directly back to the trash. It would be her first move. She would be testing, I explained, to see if that’s really what got her in trouble. By the second session, Andy and Lila had decided I was psychic. Apparently, events had unfolded just as I said they would. I told them it was just experience, and explained to them exactly why it happened. Dog behavior is, to an extent, pretty predictable. I had seen dozens of dogs do that exact thing. It wasn’t psychic powers, I said, just pattern recognition. There is no such thing as magical dog psychics, or miracle trainers. I told them in no uncertain terms that there was nothing special or supernatural about understanding dogs. It just takes patience and practice, and they could do it too.

We instituted the attitude change, and then we started on obedience. Andy and Lila picked out the tricks; I didn’t care what we were teaching, but I did care that these parents earned the respect of their pups. We worked on sit, down, stay, come, and heel. The dogs tested mom and dad’s resolve continually. They would suddenly refuse to do what was asked, hoping they might still get a treat. Lila would issue a command, watch her dog pointely not follow it, and turn to me. “Just wait, she’ll do it,” I’d tell her. After a moment, the dog would obey. It wasn’t worth losing her treat over! Then Lila would turn to me, eyes wide with astonishment. “Definitely psychic!” she’d say.

We took a walk around the block to work on heel. The rules here were easy: when the leash was loose, the dogs could walk along. When they were taut, mom and dad made like a tree and froze until they got some slack back. If the dogs were pulling, they got nowhere. When they walked nicely, they got to go on. Lila and Peaches were lagging behind me, Andy, and Trixy. I would go back and forth between them, encouraging their progress. At one point, Trixy pulled her leash tight, and Andy froze.

“Perfect!” I said.
We waited for Trixy to make the right decision. After about thirty seconds, Andy asked, “What do I do?”
“Count to five,” I said.

Right about five seconds later, Trixy let her leash go slack. Andy was absolutely gobsmacked. After that, there was no convincing them that I wasn’t psychic.

After that first day, I never heard Trixy or Peaches make another noise.
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Old 04-07-2013, 02:04 AM
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Training dogs has taught me a lot about myself. I never counted patience among my virtues, but I have discovered a boundless patience for dogs, and an ability to extend it to those humans who love them. I have found that I fall desperately in love with my clients’ dogs more often than not, and their success is bittersweet when I know I’m no longer needed. I don’t mind taking the cuts and bruises that come with enthusiastic work with young or undereducated dogs. I’m a worrier, and will keep myself up nights with concern for a dog I’ve never met. I’ve seen how beautiful and rewarding a relationship with a dog can be, and I genuinely believe every human and every dog should have the chance to experience it.

Oskar taught me something I had never expected to learn.

Two trainers before me had recommended euthanasia. I’ve worked with several dogs who were declared ‘hopeless’ by other trainers, and have never agreed. I’ve made progress where they gave up, and I had let it go to my head. As Oskar’s third trainer, I knew I was contacted out of desperation. I knew he didn’t have many chances left.

Oskar lived with Mary and her three little girls. The youngest girl was three and the oldest nine. Mary’s boyfriend David was there for our appointment, and as I entered the home, he held Oskar back with some difficulty. Oskar wore a heavy-duty harness and a muzzle. He was a striking German Shepherd, and reminded me instantly of a photo from a breed book. Except the photos were not roaring, snarling, and straining at the muscles of a large, full-grown man. A dog in full, serious attack is an awesome and terrifying sight. Oskar showed no restraint, no hesitation, and no control. Had David released him, he would not have backed down.

He had bitten three people: David, one prior trainer, and Mary’s oldest child. After removing the muzzle and placing Oskar in the yard—where he proceeded to slam his body against the back door—David showed me his scar. It was on the back of his left calf, about three inches above the ankle. Mary’s daughter’s scar was on her shoulder, where Oskar had grabbed and shaken her before David had torn the dog away. Both bites had required stitches. The trainer had been bitten in the arm, but the family believed the damage hadn’t been severe. It was notable that the bites on David and the little girl had happened from behind. Oskar wasn’t defending himself, or overreacting to intimidating human behavior. We would see bites to hands that had reached to pet him, or the face of a child who had gotten too close. David had been walking through the kitchen, when Oskar came from an adjoining room and grabbed his leg. The little girl had been playing on the floor while Oskar lounged on the couch with Mary and David, when Oskar leapt down onto her. There was nothing in his upbringing or medical history to explain it.

People tend to believe their dogs lash out with no warning. In reality there is ample warning, many people just don’t recognize it for what it is. Humans and dogs speak different languages, and we are masters at misinterpreting or ignoring them. They tend to forgive us, but occasionally a miscommunication results in the dog using a signal he knows we can’t ignore. In these instances, everyone needs education. We humans must learn to recognize these warnings, and remember that our best friends have mouths full of the biological equivalent of carpet knives. The dogs, for their part, may need help with fear, anxiety, or reactivity. And all parties need to reestablish trust.
Nervous or fearful dogs may react badly when I enter their homes, and I certainly don’t blame them for it. I’d never been bitten, because I made it very clear to these dogs that I understood and respected their communications, and asked them to give me the tiniest benefit of the doubt. That slight hesitation, coming from the part of their brains that was programmed to respond to humans, was all I needed to work with. I wouldn’t overstep their boundaries, and they would keep their teeth to themselves. I allowed them to dictate the pace at which our relationship developed, so that I might earn their trust. I’ve done this many times.

With Oskar, that tiny sliver of doubt and hesitation was nonexistent. It made no difference to him whether I was willing to listen or not. It didn’t matter that he was muzzled, or that David held him back. At the first opportunity, he would come for me teeth-first.

I spent about an hour talking with Mary and her family, while David held Oskar and the girls played on the rug. I continued to silently send Oskar all the signals I could: I’m not a threat, I’m not here to hurt anyone, I respect your space. Finally, I told David to let him go. I had to see if my messages had been received. Maybe Oskar was reacting to the restraint itself, a behavioral phenomenon called barrier frustration. Once he was released, it was possible that he would charge and threaten me, but precisely because there was nothing stopping him, he might not bite. Then again, he might, but I had to determine whether he was capable of feeling that tiny misgiving about his decision. I was willing to take a bite to find out if the sliver was there.

There was no hesitation. Oskar took one step away from David and launched himself at my face. I raised my right arm to protect myself, and Oskar obligingly grabbed that instead. He gave me one firm shake before David was on him, pulling him back. In his frantic state, Oskar turned on David, latching onto his arm. This was displaced aggression; Oskar wasn’t ‘out to get’ David, but his frustration at being denied his intended prey had caused him to lash out. David wrestled the muzzle back onto Oskar and led him to the backyard. David got away with scratches. I was bleeding badly.

The speed and ferocity of the attack were astounding. I excused myself to my car, where I keep a first aid kit and an extra shirt, just in case. Oskar had penetrated my zip-up hoodie sleeve and the sleeve of a long-sleeved tee-shirt to leave three large punctures on the outside of my right wrist. I cleaned and bandaged myself, traded out shirts, and returned to the house.
Mary was beside herself. I assured her that I was fine, that it had been my choice, and explained my reasoning. I told her I believed we would need some major work here. It was going to be extremely difficult to get Oskar to give us just that sliver of hesitation. We were looking at daily work, and a huge time commitment. And I didn’t know if it would ever be safe to leave Oskar with her children. There had been too many accidents already. We couldn’t afford another one.

If we went ahead with our training, it was going to start right now. We would have to be on the same page at all times, and I would be counting on her to stay consistent when I was not around. I didn’t tell her that Oskar was ‘dangerous’ or ‘aggressive’, because those words are heavily burdened with incorrect connotation in the training world. I did tell her that he was very ill; he did not behave like a dog. There might be something physically wrong with him, or it might be entirely mental or emotional. We needed to get him to the vet and get a clean bill of health, and then we needed to start training in earnest.

Mary didn’t know if she was able to devote the time needed to work with Oskar herself, so I offered her the card of a colleague. John bred and trained GSDs for schutzhund work, a dog sport which famously involves protection work. I told Mary that John’s dogs were some of the best trained animals I’d ever seen. They demonstrated incredible control, attention, and respect. His training methods weren’t cruel, they were just extremely strict. I knew that in special cases, he would accept a troubled dog for several months of training at his facility. John was also about six-foot-eight, and maybe two hundred fifty pounds. He could take a bite, if need be. But he was pricey.
I had given her two options: an investment of her time with me, or an investment of her money with John. She was a single mother of three—she had very little of either. I did not give her the third option, because I knew she knew what it was. I doubted medication would be enough to normalize him. Oskar wouldn’t survive a shelter, nor a rescue. They couldn’t give him to another family, and they couldn’t keep him.

Before I left, I contacted John and told him to expect Mary’s call. He was cheerful as always, and thanked me for the head’s up. I called him again when I got back to the car, and explained the situation. He said he would see what he could do.

I spoke to John several months later at an event for behaviorists. He told me that he’d spoken to Mary for some time, and helped her to make the decision we all knew had to be made. As far as he knew, Oskar had been put to sleep. When I got home, I cried for a long time. Not long after, I took a long hiatus from training.

The scar on my arm is a continual reminder that, even though there was nothing I could have done, I failed Oskar. Between my lack of a kenneling facility, John’s economic demands, and Mary’s lack of time and money, we had all let him down. None of us had done anything wrong. Oskar’s circumstances had killed him, through no fault of his own. To this day, I believe Oskar had a severe chemical imbalance, probably genetic in origin. Unbalanced German Shepherds have unfortunately become more and more common. But I think of him often. I work harder every day (on a sliding scale or, in certain cases, for free) because I couldn’t help Oskar. He was a beautiful dog, and he deserved better. Oskar taught me persistence. He taught me that I have an obligation. I owe it to him to make a difference in as many lives as I can.
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  #13  
Old 04-07-2013, 08:58 AM
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You really, really should consider putting these stories into a book! I would buy it!!
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Old 04-07-2013, 05:54 PM
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Quote:
Originally Posted by Snark View Post
You really, really should consider putting these stories into a book! I would buy it!!
^THIS

You are VERY VERY VERY good at writing these stories out. I was super disappointed there weren't more!
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  #16  
Old 04-07-2013, 07:30 PM
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There's more yet! Had to actually train today, so I didn't have much time for writing about it.
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