I love dogs, that’s a given. Dogs gave me the only love I received during a rough and neglected childhood, and I owe them a large, lifetime thank you.
After two decades of rescue work, I was bone weary of seeing dogs put down for doing nothing more than exhibiting canine behavior, such as growling in a warning or eating a couch while stressed all alone for eight hours a day. I became a serious student of canine behavior, but that wasn’t enough to help my dog friends; I had to also learn human behavior inside and out because it would be the human owners of difficult dogs who would decide their fate.
I took up dog training because of those countless walks through a kill shelter looking into the eyes of the dog prisoners behind the cage bars. I knew I was their last chance, and I suspect the dogs knew that as well.
I felt like a warden walking past the death row inmates. Whichever dog I pulled that day would go on to a great life through the nonprofit rescue I worked with. My emotions were always conflicted going inside a “shelter” (most, in truth, were merely a concrete cage that served as a waiting room for a dog’s turn with the needle) because I would leave there with a few living dogs, but as soon as the door shut behind me, I knew many, many more dogs were being prepped for their deaths. One shelter I pulled from even conveniently built a crematorium right next to the kennels, making it even easier to do away with the countless unwanted dogs.
I train dogs because I have nightmares about the piles of dead dogs I’ve seen in black bags behind shelters.
I train because dogs are sentient beings and they deserve a chance to try to adapt to what we humans demand from them.
I train because I got tired of crying about the endless amount of unwanted and untrained dogs and their fate. I got angry about the heartlessness of thousands of humans who thought nothing of dumping a dog when the dog was no longer convenient. I got angry about the senseless over-breeding of dogs. My anger fueled my study of canine behavior. I train so as to be a lifeline to “man’s best friend.”
Many times over the past 20 years I had to take a break from rescue. Sometimes my heart couldn’t take it a day longer. I usually took a break after one too many trips home from the shelter with a litter of rescued puppies in the backseat and I drove by someone legally selling puppy-mill pups on the side of the road. That person had undone all the work I was doing. I was wasting my time and my hope. The tidal wave of incoming unwanted dogs is greater than the flow of dogs getting out of a shelter and finding good homes. I often feel that I am drowning in dogs.
I regularly take breaks from training, too. It’s never because of the dogs. They are resilient and willing to learn. It’s the human behavior that does me in and forces me to walk away from training. A trainer friend recently received a text from someone she never met, which said: “You never got back to me, so I put my Lab down today.” The owner couldn’t even wait 24 hours for a return call from a busy trainer and then tried to blame the dog’s death on that trainer. We know we aren’t responsible, but it still hurts.
Our job in helping troubled dogs really is a matter of life and death, for the dog. Because smart scientists are finally researching canine behavior, we have wonderful new tools to assist dogs who don’t cope well in the human world. My anger about and sorrow for dogs are just under the surface, and it comes bubbling over when I show concerned owners just how quickly we can help their aggressive dogs and they choose to take them to the vet anyhow and have them “humanely” killed. We give criminals in many places “three strikes,” so why can’t we do the same for dogs who have never done serious damage to a human? It’s the least we can do for them.
A few good dog owners keep bringing me back to training, like the 73-year-old grandmother with a reactive Border Terrier. She learned clicker training for her dog. Together we transformed a terrified, screaming, lunging terror at the end of the leash to calm, happy, well-adjusted family member who is now able to go to agility classes. Another owner rescued a starving Rottweiler who was being chased by coyotes. They paid me to put basic manners on their new friend. This dog was emotionally shut down and had the saddest, dullest eyes I had ever seen in a dog. Was he heartbroken or was he in physical pain? I asked the owners to take the dog to the vet to rule out a medical concern before we progressed with his training. They picked the dog up from the kennel the very day I asked for a medical review.
The dog was hypothyroid, had Addison’s Disease, and at some point in his life suffered a broken pelvis that had fused itself back together. A few weeks after proper medication, he was a brand-new dog. He became a joy to train and a joy for his owners. They went the extra mile for him and he responded with the full vigor and love we all know canines are capable of. They decided to get him trained as a therapy dog. Human saves dog and dog goes on to help humans in need. It’s enough to keep me in the training game … on most days.
Read more from Annie Phenix: