Wednesday, December 14, 2011

Boot camp

The Beast is the first dog that I have had since I left my childhood home over 17 years ago. Which is why I read about three or four books about dogs before he came home. Which is also why I figured that I should hire a dog trainer.

Most people looking for a dog trainer probably have to shop around. They might undertake an extensive Google search or ask fellow dog owners for advice. But not me. Nope. I lucked out. 'Cause one of my best friends married a dog trainer.

My buddy's wife is so much more than a dog trainer though. She operates her own business out of her 17-acre ranch, which includes a doggie day-care, basic and behaviour-based training, rehabilitation of dogs with more severe and challenging issues, and boarding. All of these services are firmly rooted in pack philosophy. She is the Alpha, and her family - including her own three balanced dogs - assist her as she teaches appropriate social behaviours to others by integrating them into her pack. Whether your dog is there for a day or whether he is there for six months, he will benefit from her firm but fair leadership, plenty of exercise and socialization in a wide open space, and integration into her own family home so that he receives all the attention that he needs and deserves.

Hubby and I have taken advantage of her expertise on a number of occasions. Before the Beast even came to live with us, we talked to her about what we should do to get ready for such a high-strung breed. Within the first two weeks of having him, we enlisted her for an initial training session, and she came over to our house and taught us how to walk him properly. We've emailed her with S.O.S.'esque messages over the past seven months seeking advice on how to handle some of his less pleasant behaviours, like barking non-stop whenever someone approaches our house. And we've waited for the opportunity to board him with her so that he could be whipped into shape, boot camp style!

I call it boot camp because as part of the boarding experience, each dog gets a one-on-one, twice daily 15-minute training session, tailored specifically to their needs. But the training doesn't end there. Whether it is walk time, playtime, or feeding time, the Alpha is never far and is always ready to deliver an important life lesson in the form of a correction for bad behaviour. Whereas some owners are prepared to cut their dog some slack if they disobey (guilty) and others are prone to get really frustrated and yell a lot (ashamedly guilty), that doesn't happen here. This trainer stays calm and in control at all times, but doesn't let her canine clients get away with any untoward behaviour. No barking unnecessarily. No trying to control all the other dogs. And no jumping up and down in wild excitement for no good reason.

If you remember this post and this post, and this... well, most posts really, you can probably see where this is going...

Suffice it to say that we were excited to enroll our little soldier in some quality time with Alpha. You see, although hubby and I have worked with him a lot - and have even made some significant and noteworthy (if I do say so myself) progress - we know that there are aspects of his behaviour that still need work (like the barking - I really do have to write a post all about the barking one of these days...). And while we aren't naive enough to think that all it will take is a one-week stay with a top notch trainer to turn him into an angel (that would truly be a Christmas miracle), we also know that she has knowledge and tools far beyond what we possess, and that at the very least, she will lay down a good base upon which we can build.

Christmas gave us the opportunity we were waiting for. Neither of us could help but smile a little as we drove him out to her place on December 19th. I do believe that hubby even looked at him at one point and said, "You have no idea what you are in for, buddy," with more than a hint of glee in his voice as he said it.

Over the next eight days, we spent quality time with my family, eating too much, exercising too little, polishing off too many bottles of wine, playing too many mindless video games with the nieces and nephews, and spending too much money on Boxing Day. The Beast, on the other hand, spent eight hard core days of learning the rules of balanced and healthy doggie behaviour. And through email updates every couple of days, as well as a post-boarding debrief session that lasted over an hour, I gather that he found his "vacation" more challenging than I found mine...

So first, the good news. Hubby and I were assured that the Beast quickly integrated into his new "pack" without difficulty. That he enjoys being around humans and dogs alike and that he is very social. That he is a smart boy and that he learns quickly and easily. And that he has excellent name recognition, even from a distance.

But... For every positive statement, there was a "but"... Like:
  • The Beast quickly integrated into his new pack without difficulty, "but" he gets very excited and too wound up around so many dogs. He can't control himself. As a result, he could be a little annoying to some of the more submissive dogs; or
  • The Beast is super smart and picking up on commands very easily, "but" he keeps pushing to see if I will let him get away with something. He tests every single rule and everything with him is a fight until he realizes that I won't let him win, which sometimes takes a very long time; or
  • The Beast will look up at me the minute that I call his name, "but" he will only make his way to me on his own time as opposed to when I want him to come.
In other words, I've got my hands full with a dominant, excited dog (I knew that), who feels the need to control every situation (I knew that too), and who thinks that he is top dog (yeah... I hate to admit it, but I guess I knew that too). 

Which is why he won't stop barking when someone comes in the house. And why he won't pay attention to me in the dog park when he is hyper focused on something else, like another dog. And why he only comes when I call him about 60% of the time. And why he pulls on his leash rather than walks nicely beside me whenever we are heading off to someplace that makes his excited. Because I am not yet firmly established as his pack leader, and so he decides to control me.

As excited as I was when I dropped him off about all of the great things that he would learn during his sojourn with Alpha, I couldn't help but feel a little bummed as I was standing there listening to her tell me about all the things that he still needs to learn. More accurately, my ego was a little bit stung. Wasn't I doing anything right? I mean, I did get him to stop his Tasmanian Devil routine during his feedings. And I did get him to run nicely alongside me when I go out for a run or a bike ride. And I did get him to stop yanking my arm out of the socket when we go for a walk, even if he does pull when we get closer to a park. And I did get him to be relaxed when he's in the house, even if he is a crazy, frenetic monkey when we are in a dog park. None of that was easy, but I did it. Where was my recognition for that?

As we drove home, armed with some brand new tips and instructions for the Beast's continued training, he rested peacefully in the backseat (likely ecstatic to be safely back in the arms of humans that he could control) while I sulked a little. Until hubby intervened.

"What's the matter? Aren't you happy to see the Beast? You haven't stopped talking about him for eight days!"

"Of course I'm happy to see him," I said. "It's just that I don't like not being good at something, and I feel like I'm not very good at raising the Beast. You heard her. He was a handful! He was probably driving her nuts! What if she thinks that I'm a bad dog owner? What if she doesn't ever want him to come back? I feel like I've done nothing right and like I have to start back at the beginning!"

"Wow! You got all of that from our conversation? Because here's what I heard. 'He pushed the envelope for the first couple of days, but once he learned the rules, he was great.' And she didn't say that you were a bad dog owner or that he is a bad dog! And her list of things to work on wasn't exactly huge either. And it included all the things that you asked her to help us with. Maybe you're overreacting."

I really hate it when he is right...

And he is right. Now that the Beast has been home for a couple of days and I've started to see some success with some of the new tips I got from the trainer, I can see that I can have more and more success with this dog. Yes, I have done things right, but I also have to keep going with his training because it's not a time-limited process.

So I need a boot camp too.

Which is why the Beast and I are now enrolled in more training sessions with Alpha. So she can whip us both into shape!