I wasn’t born a dog trainer. No one is. I have, like many of you, a deep compassion and love of animals — and of dogs in particular. And, like some of you, my childhood was not a rosy one but instead full of neglect, so I looked for love and companionship from dogs. They always delivered both.
Perhaps as a consequence (of the good kind) from that rough childhood, I am sensitive to the needs to animals. I am also an outspoken advocate of humane training protocols for dogs, in part because I know how awful I felt when I was mistreated by the adults who were supposed to be looking out for my welfare.
I am sharing this with you, dear readers, because I want more of you to feel empowered to speak up on behalf of your dogs. I’d like to tell you the story of how I, as a young dog owner, found my voice on behalf of my dog.
I’ve shared my life with many German Shepherds. Before I became a certified dog trainer, I routinely took all of my dogs to a puppy class, mostly for exposure to a new environment that included other puppies and dogs. I tried a wide variety of classes. Because anyone anywhere can say he is a dog trainer, most of the classes I attended were unorganized and chaotic at best. One in particular was also physically harmful to puppies.
I took one of my German Shepherd puppies to a local puppy class offered by an actual K9 police officer who trained the local police force’s German Shepherds. I mistakenly bought into the worn-out idea that just because someone trains a police dog, that makes that person a good trainer for pet dogs. It doesn’t. I have nothing but respect for police canine dog handlers and trainers. However, they train specific things in their working dogs, just as I train specific behaviors in pet dogs, and being an expert in one area does not necessarily create an expert in the other area.
I was not living with a police dog, nor did I need my dog to do the things that a police dog does. I had zero need for my German Shepherd to chase down and bite fleeing criminals or sniff out narcotics. I just wanted him to have early, positive exposure to new people and dogs, and of course I wanted a well-mannered dog.
I went to one session of the class and never returned after what happened to my puppy. The instructor, for some reason, wore his gun on his belt, even though he was dressed in plain clothes and was off duty as our pet dog instructor.
The police officer/pet-dog class instructor wanted to show us how to teach a “heel.” He asked if he could use my dog as a demonstration. I felt but ignored that internal wise voice inside of me that worried how this man might handle my sweet, sensitive, and super-willing-to-mind-me puppy. I felt sick as I handed the man my dog’s leash. It’s hard to speak up in a group where everyone is looking at you. Besides, a part of me thought he chose my puppy because he was so well behaved!
“First of all,” he announced. “You have the wrong collar on your puppy.” He removed my flat leather collar and put on a choke collar. I still said nothing, even though I hated those collars because they work by inflicting pain. My puppy was such a lovely boy, and he had learned quickly to not pull on the leash when he was wearing that flat collar.
Then the trainer YANKED on my vulnerable puppy’s neck by way of the leash attached to the choke chain. He yanked hard. The puppy hadn’t been doing anything at the time — just sitting beside the man. Apparently that wasn’t good enough, because when the man began to walk forward and the puppy didn’t move out quickly enough, he gave a hard YANK on the choke chain collar.
My puppy squealed. I woke up. I stepped in front of the man wearing a gun on his hip to teach a puppy class. I told him to take his hands off my dog. I yanked the leash out of his hand, threw the chain collar off my puppy, picked my leather flat collar up, and walked to my car. I never returned, as that man had no right or reason to treat my great little puppy like that.
I saw the rage in his eyes as I defied him. I did not care. My dog went on to be one of the most obedient German Shepherds I have ever loved. His name was Duncan, and I trained him to do everything I wanted of him with kindness and solid human guidance. He never again had a painful collar on his neck. He never squealed in pain again.
The pitiful and harmful idea that one must bully a dog to show him “who the boss is” is so outdated that it would be laughable if so many people didn’t still believe it and preach it — even though it was completely, thoroughly, and scientifically squashed a long time ago.
The onus to protect your best friend on four legs sits squarely with you – the owner. Before you let anyone work with your dog, please read the “Top 10 Questions to Ask Your Dog Training Professional Before Your Hire Them,” by the Pet Professional Guild.
You can read more success stories from everyday dog owners who removed their dogs (even dogs with bite histories) from harmful training practices and learned a better way to resolve behavior concerns in my spring 2016 book, The Midnight Dog Walkers: Positive Training and Practical Advice For Living with a Reactive or Aggressive Dog.
The book includes stories of a German Shepherd who pulled so hard on-leash that her owner bought a 100-acre ranch so she could run off-leash; a reactive Border Terrier who once had water sprayed in her face, but is now, with all positive-reinforcement training, an AKC Canine Good Citizen; and a Great Dane who suffered through three months with a trainer who wanted to “break him,” after which the owners switched to positive training, resulting in a dog who is able to walk in town without going ballistic and is learning to trust humans again.