The difficulties of being a dog trainer revealed
My first dog training client was a my boss of many years. We were talking about my career goals, how I had worked with dogs, but had never worked with a person and their dog. She brought up how crazy her dog was and that the members in the household have accepted that an insane dog is just part of life. I asked her if I could practice with this dog. I didn’t have much experience working with dogs with behavior issues and even less experience working with clients. She agreed, and I got my first client.
After meeting the dog and members of the household, I began gathering information about the dog and their lifestyle. The dog was a rescue, some kind of Jack Russell mix. One of the members of the household adopted the dog. He was told that the dog had been rescued from a crackhouse and had severe trust issues. I don’t know how he came to adopt a dog that any shelter would have found un-adoptable, but he took the dog into his home. They thought he was a year when they adopted him, and was around seven when I met him. Everyone in the house had been bit at some point by the dog’s mood swings. They found his behavior to be unpredictable and would ‘lash out’ without warning. No one in the house had been bit lately, but only because they tread carefully around the animal. Guests were advised not to touch the dog upon entry, although the dog would enter into a fury of barking and would probably deter anyone from touching him. Whenever someone would grab their coat or their bag, the dog would bark and jump at them, occasionally nipping at their ankles. The dog has access to the backyard and therefore does not usually get walked often. Only two of the four people that live there are able to control the dog with much success. The primary caretaker had “exhausted” all training methods and had thought of the dog as a lost cause. He had accepted that he would just have to put up with a crazy dog for the rest of the dog’s life.
Prior to this weekend, I mostly only trained animals without people around, or worked under the direction of a lead trainer in a class. This was the first time I have to deal with owners who has been with a dog for about six years and assumed that this dog was beyond repair. They 'tried' using positive reinforcement, dominance, and then just gave up. They assumed that the dog ate some crack when he was a puppy and therefore had altered brain chemistry that made him hopeless. Despite being a green trainer in the face of cynical odds, I ventured on.
I never realized how awkward it is going into someone’s home, gathering personal information about the way they live and then tell them that some of the things that they are doing is wrong. After gathering these intimate details, I began giving suggestions and explaining the concept of positive reinforcement. Initially, everything that I suggested was shot down by the primary care taker. He had the dog for so long and "tried everything" that he was confident that what I proposed was either tried or wouldn't work. While throwing out suggestions, I was trying to desensitize the dog to me getting up, grabbing my coat and pretending to leave by using a clicker. It was not working too well and the dog's would bark and jump up. Since I was throwing out suggestions that he tried (although I'm sure he read about a couple of techniques, tried them himself, and gave up on them when they did not work immediately) and was doing something that wasn't working, I think he assumed I had no idea what the hell I was talking about. He started getting insulted by my responses and eventually I started thinking that I had no idea what the hell I was talking about. Finally, the thought occurred to me to remind him that I'm new to working with clients and that my suggestions were an attempt to help them and teach myself something in the process. He lightened up and was more receptive to my ideas. My confidence returned and I was able to come up with a solution that helped them out.
I believe that the dog had been denied socialization during his critical periods of development and as a result was filled with severe anxiety around people. It had taken him years to be comfortable around the humans that shared his space, but even then he would lash out and bite when his anxiety levels got too high. Two of the four people were able to control the dog by asking him to go on a chair when new people arrived. This controlled his barking fury, but he would shake and whine. The moment he was released from this position, he would go back to barking and pacing the house. Putting him in the chair was able to control his behavior, but did nothing for his emotional state. It was the equivalent to putting someone who was terrified of clowns in a room, have a clown enter said room, and tell the person to sit down and shut up. Sometimes, suppressing the behavior works, sometimes it doesn't. In this case, it did not. What I had them do instead was send the dog to the chair and give him treats. There was an almost instant change in his behavior. We had people that he usually had barking fits when they left/arrived practice going in and out of the home. After just a few tries, he was completely indifferent to people entering and leaving and was sitting on the chair focused on the handler and happily accepting treats. This was an attempt to change his associations to people moving around his territory. It was the equivalent to having someone who was terrified of clowns sit in a chair and count a stack of $20 bills as a clown came in and performed*.
I was glad I was able to come up with something that worked, for their sake and my own. They had been living with a furry little monster for some time and we were able to come up with a strategy that could give everyone control over the dog, as well as give a troubled dog some peace. I had more ideas on things they could have tried, but I had already been there for over an hour and decided it was probably best to end on a good note and got the hell out of there.
The human aspect is the most difficult part of dog training. People don't always blindly accept what trainers, which is probably a good thing. In retrospect, I'm glad I was challenged (and also just as glad that he backed off eventually) because it reminded me to always be on top of my game, and that I should be prepared for everything.
*I didn't think of the clown example until I was waiting for the train. When I got on the train, there was a clown in it! It freaked me out. I kinda hoped someone would give me $20 bills...