Editor’s note: To celebrate National Train Your Dog Month, we got together with the Association of Pet Dog Trainers to run a series of posts through January. Read others in the series: “Dog Training Is Important,” “5 Time-Saving Tips for Training Your Dog,” “How to Find the Perfect Dog Trainer,” and “Train Your Dog in Nose Work.”
My beloved dog Nikita had passed away of cancer two days after Christmas, and I had never planned on getting another puppy. But our dog, Buzz, become despondent when we came home from the vet without Nikita, as if he knew she was never coming back. Still in shock, we reacted quickly to his whining and pacing by running out and adopting a puppy, since he would never allow another adult dog in the house.
It’s amusing to me now to think about all the years I volunteered and worked in shelters where I would give the same speech to prospective adopters about taking your time, investigating different dogs, and thinking hard about your decision — when in the end, we picked Kaylee from the litter the rescue had because Buzz seemed okay with her and that was enough for us.
Of course, once we brought Kaylee home, Buzz acted as if we had lost our minds and proceeded to let us and her know that he was displeased. After a few weeks, she was able to get his cranky old man heart to soften and play with her and relive his puppy days. But for me, the first few days with her were empty. I still couldn’t believe Nikita was gone, and I wasn’t about to get deeply attached to another dog (not that I don’t love Buzz, but he’s always been an independent, nonaffectionate dog).
A few days in, I took Kaylee to the vet and saw how shy she became. Concerned, I immediately signed her up for a puppy class starting that evening.
She was playful in class, albeit a little nervous. At the end of the class, the instructor asked us to move 20 feet away from the dogs and call them. I protested that Kaylee didn’t even know her new name and because we’d only had her three days, she wasn’t going to come. But she said to give it a try, so I walked away, thinking all the time that this was a silly exercise and as a trainer, I knew better.
I turned and called Kaylee — and like a dog in a cartoon, she came rocketing at me like a speeding train and jumped up at me as I kneeled down. I remember thinking at that instant, “Oh, damn, now I LOVE her.”
I took her into the car to go home and started to cry over Nikita, something I hadn’t been able to do since we’d made the decision to let her go in peace. It turned out that adopting Kaylee made it okay to miss my old dog and to have something new and hopeful to look forward to.
The most interesting thing for me as a former trainer was bein in other trainers’ classes and watching their students do all the things that are every trainer’s pet peeves. It gave me more compassion for both student and teacher. It humbled me when I would ask Kaylee to sit or stay, thinking, “Hey, I’ve got this — I know what I’m doing!” But she would look at me with a tail wag and a smile and turn the other way to pounce on a toy and ignore my Very Important Training Cues.
Luckily for Kaylee, I have a sense of humor when it comes to dogs, so I would laugh at her antics and tell the trainers, gosh, isn’t she adorable? And they would look at me as if I’d lost my mind and wonder why I wasn’t upset that my dog wasn’t sitting. For me, it’s never really been about whether your dog can do a ten-minute down stay or walk in military heel position. It’s always been about what a good time you can have together, and the relationship you develop. Training is about establishing communication and learning about each other and developing an agreement, if you will, about how your life together is going to be.
And Kaylee, the puppy I didn’t think I wanted, is now truly my best buddy. Even if she still ignores my training acumen to go chase a bug.
Mychelle Blake, MSW, CDBC, is the President and CEO of the Association of Pet Dog Trainers.