Tuesday, August 04, 2009


Working at a dog school is the best job ever. It combines pretty much everything I love – training dogs and figuring out new ways to handle particular dogs and particular dog related problems, and human psychology: fine tuning my people skills, learning how to get through to different personalities in the most effective way. The hardest part usually isn’t the dog stuff.

Leo and his owner are my latest challenge. Leo is listed as a Bernese Mountain Dog mix, but looks like a tri-coloured retriever. He’s nine months old, hyperactive as all hell, and newly adopted by White Haired Lady, a 60 something woman with her own set of issues. Leo is a high energy guy with extremely bad manners. He exists in a constant state of overexcitement, lunging out at dogs, and bodyslamming into people. He’s good natured, but his approach to everything is throwing himself at it. He’s a big dog, and still growing. He pants, he whines, he barks, and he pretty much never relaxes.

White Haired Lady is a tough nut to crack. On her first night in class, I smelled booze on her breath. She comes solo every week – no kids or husband in tow to watch and encourage her. Maybe they exist or maybe they don’t, but they’re not there supporting her at doggie school, and I get the feeling it’s just her and Leo – if not physically, than emotionally for sure. It’s like this dog is all she has.

She clearly loves her dog, petting him constantly, telling him what a good boy he is. Anyone who knows anything about dog training, knows that petting and praising shouldn’t happen when a dog is acting up. This basically reinforces the bad behavior. The owner thinks that they’re soothing and comforting the dog, helping to calm him down, like a person would a baby or a small child. But dogs are not children. Think “I love it when you whine, Leo, keep it up!” Think “Gooood boy! That’s just greaaat that you lunged out at that little puppy – what a good boy you are!”

It also gets the dog hooked on constant affection. Leo demands it, and he and old White Hair are in a horrible loop – he acts up, she pets him and loves on him. He can’t go a few minutes without attention from White Hair. He’ll lean on her, he’ll break commands, throwing his body at the end of the leash, physically moving her and forcing her to reposition him, and then she’s praising him and giving him some love. He won’t sit still unless he’s being reassured and has her hands all over him. He’s got her wrapped around his little finger.

And of course, Leo’s lady is guilty of another dog training no-no: repeating commands. “Leo, Sit!....Leo! Sit!...SIT!....SIT!!... LEO, SIT!!!!” And as she gets more and more exasperated, Leo is having the most fun of his life, squirming around, enjoying the attention and energy he can suck out of her.

The class Leo is in is mostly full of puppies, and most of them happen to be small dogs. Leo is the largest, the most boisterous, and by far the worst behaved. On their first day, it took about thirty seconds for me to notice what was going on. Leo needed a different kind of leadership. Time to talk to old White Hair.

I calmly suggested to her she might try withholding the caresses and soothing words when her dog is going apeshit. I explained that this just conveys to the dog that she likes that kind of behavior out of him. She listened intently, nodded, and seemed to get it. “Oh really? That’s interesting. That makes sense. Ahhhhhh…. Hmmmm.” I almost saw the lightbulb going off above her head. And then, not two minutes later, she couldn’t help herself – hands all over him again. I’d gently remind her, and she’d subsequently ignore me. It got to where Leo’s thrashing and whining and lunging was completely disruptive to the other dogs in the class. You could see the irritation on the faces of the other dog owners, who were doing their best, but with a fifty pound dog coming flying into the face of their pups every couple of minutes, it was not ideal.

This is when I suggested White Hair might give a Halti a try. This is a head collar that generally gives the owner more control over the dog. I could see she was getting self conscious about all the attention I was forced to give to her and Leo compared to the other dogs in the class. She snapped at me and waved me off. “I’ve tried that. I can’t even get it on him. He’s a good dog. He’s fine everywhere but here. He really is! He’s just overstimulated.” (Uh, duh. Clearly. But she still needs to control her dog.)

On their second day, she showed up ten minutes late for the class, and waited outside the door, Leo thrashing wildly, making high pitched moaning noises as she struggled to manage him. I met her outside, and she was already at her wits end.

“I just don’t think this is the place for us. He’s unmanageable! It’s too stressful! He’s so unhappy here.”

Leo was anything but unhappy in class. He loved it – it was a non stop party for him. Dogs to play with! People to pet him! But White Hair was unhappy – she was embarrassed and frustrated, and she was pretty much ready to turn around and walk away. I looked at poor Leo. He isn’t a bad dog, but old White Hair was basically making him more neurotic by the minute. Poor guy.

Mustering up all my patience and "calm-assertive energy", I mentioned again about the Halti. I told her I knew how she felt, and I did. Siris was a hundred times worse than Leo the first day I set foot in an obedience class. “He’s the worst one in the class – none of the other dogs behave like him”, she said, daring me to disagree with her. I didn’t. “You’re right – he is the most energetic, and the most out of control – but if this is his problem area, that’s why you’re here. This is what he needs.” She was skeptical so I kept talking. I believe in him, I believe in you, blah blah blah. I had to pretty much give the lady a motivational speech before she’d step into the room. She was still fighting me, but she joined the class, begrudgingly.

During the Sit-Stay, the goal is to get about 30 seconds of time with the dog in position. White Hair settled for about five seconds out of Leo before she ended the exercise, ignoring the teacher’s instructions, and launched into the most exuberant praise ever. The rest of the room maintained their Sit Stays, and Dorothy politely reminded her that we needed to achieve some time and that we weren’t finished. “No, we were finished,” said the lady, clueless. “He already did it, he did a good job.” Some people. She went about doing every command her way, with little to no regard to the instruction, and ignoring our tips and advice wherever possible.

Finally, I was able to convince her to let me try Leo on a Halti. I tried a new trick of mine, asking if she “would be open to" me trying out Leo with the new collar. When you ask someone if they’d be open to something, it’s hard for them to say no without looking like a closed minded, argumentative idiot. If the Halti didn’t work for him, I would drop it, I promised. And to be honest I was a bit unsure as to if it would work, given her account of her past attempts, but hey, it’s not like I had anything to lose.

I used food to introduce Leo to it, slowly, and I was calm but firm. He didn’t fight me at all, as I put it on him – if anything he relaxed. When we started walking, he did try the usual things dogs do when being introduced to a Halti – the ragdoll routine, the lying down, rolling around and trying to paw it off his face, the bucking around like a bronco. I just encouraged and kept walking, and Leo transformed before our eyes. He stopped his whining and the crazed and anxious look vanished from his eyes. When I was walking him, he was paying attention to me; his tail was wagging, and he was alert. He was under new management, and if he could talk, he probably would have said “thank you.”

White Hair, seeing the results, couldn’t argue. She finally softened. I let her try walking him with the Halti, and coached her through it, giving her more encouragement than I thought any human would ever need. She started to get it – she still jerked too much, and stopped when the dog stopped, but Leo was manageable, and she was learning. She told me stories about adopting Leo and she asked me about my own dog. We laughed together. For the rest of the class, Leo did great, and White Hair’s confidence increased. She would not be leaving the class after all. I felt like a million bucks. Moments like these are why I love this job so much.

The lady is absolutely still the most high maintenance and infuriating client I’ve had to deal with in a long time, and she’ll probably continue to ignore advice and do things on her own terms in the coming weeks. But we did right by her dog, and here’s hoping life gets easier for the two of them, for Leo’s sake.

You’re a smart boy, Leo. Be patient with that human of yours - she’ll get it eventually.

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