Guilt and Dogs
I came from a not so nice place of dog training. You see, I was raised around horses, where intimidation and confidence, punishment and work ethic, toughness and grit, were all just part of it. It was the culture. I was taught when a human requests a behavior, the behavior is to be produced, or else. In horse language, this means anything from meagerly tapping a horse with a lead rope on the shoulder, to upgrading the severity of your bit and spurs, to tying your horse around to their saddle and leaving them to ‘work it out’ by themselves in a round pen. The end results were quite reinforcing, I had lovely horses that I adored and trusted all throughout my years as a youth exhibitor. On the scale of nasty horse training, I was lucky to have actually been raised in the calmer part of the industry, if you can believe that.
My first dog as an adult, who was truly my own, Riley, was from a litter of farm dogs. He was raised alongside me while I worked 12-hour-days on a farm in upstate New York. He chased birds out the indoor arena, he caught mice in the hay room, he rode on the four-wheeler. He was easy, and a small amount of ‘do it or else’ training was all he required. Because of the lifestyle we had, he was set up for behavioral success. He took care of all his own dog needs just by living his farm dog life. He was genetically sound and there were virtually no problems to address. He was that dog that everyone wanted.
A job change and a move back to the ‘burbs later, enter Sophie, a rehomed English Mastiff who was described as ‘sometimes uncomfortable’ around other dogs. I could handle her, I thought. I was so excited to have her as my own, that I couldn’t sleep her first night home, I was so excited to get to know her the next day I couldn’t shut my eyes.
Her second week home she started attacking Riley. Each time, enraged and scared, I would run into his defense, I would grab her by her collar and slam all 140 pounds of her into the hardwood floor. (The mind is a powerful thing.) I would scream in her face. My hands would shake uncontrollably, dug into her neck. That behavior would not be tolerated. She would then lay there, on my floor, for at least twenty minutes, while I went about my business.
I can tell you, I was terrified of what she could do to a dog half her size. I was terrified of what she could do to a human. I can also tell you, at that moment, there was nothing more satisfying than to see her ‘surrendered’ on the floor in my house. I had stopped her. I had told her off. I had won.
Eventually, she would get back up and go to nail him again.
The cycle would not break. Sophie attacked Riley, I attacked Sophie.
A vast majority of dog trainers got their introduction to behavior in a similar fashion. And as an industry, we struggle with the guilt surrounding what past animals had to endure in our presence. I have put an ecollar on a dog and shocked them for not recalling, I have fitted them with slip nylon collars and applied pressure when they pulled on leash. I have tackled and held down a giant English Mastiff. These facts don’t keep me up at night, because like everyone else who has previously used inhumane, punishing, violent, and ugly dog training tactics, I was just doing the best I could at that moment. With the knowledge I had at the time, I was doing what I thought was right.
I am so thankful my alpha rolling and dominating attitude suppressed but didn’t solve Sophie’s problems with Riley (and other dogs.) She led me in a direction of learning. She exposed a crater-sized hole in my animal knowledge. She showed me that I was going to have to do something else, something better if I wanted peace in my house.
Judgment is a tricky thing. In our industry and on social media, people are constantly attacked for saying much less. And although I am not proud of the things I have done in the past, I am guiltless. They have pointed me down the path I stand so firmly on today. They help me empathize with my clients and peers. They have shaped the ideas that now swell in my head. They have led me to fantastic dogs, life-changing friendships, sports, nature, mental wellness. I will not feel bad for what was done in the past, I will allow it to continue to fuel the future.
I hope you will too.