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HOW A DOG CHANGED MY LIFE

By Janice Hicks

(As published in the Association of Pet Dog Trainer’s Nov/Dec 2000 Newsletter)

I guess you could say I have always been a dog lover. My first words as a small child were "woo-woo" meaning dog of course; my first stuffed animal was a Dalmatian called Jingle Woo Woo (he had bells in his ears) and he was with me always. When I was very young, in bed at night with Jingle Woo Woo clutched to my chest, I would pray that he would turn into a real, live, panting, kissing, barking companion. Much to my dismay, every morning I would wake up to the disappointing truth that Jingle Woo Woo was still just a toy. Every birthday and gift-related holiday a puppy was on the top of my gift list. My parents finally relented and when I was 8 years old, I got Christopher for Christmas.

Chris was some sort of Collie/Shepherd mix and I loved him more than anything. Beginning Christmas morning I began training my new dog. I taught Chris how to walk on a leash, sit and give paw using Ken-L Ration biscuits as rewards for responsive behaviors. I remember locking us in the family bathroom (no distractions) to teach him to sit and give paw and each time he did it right, he got a treat. I was thrilled. Chris would never have been confused with an obedience champion but he was good companion that lived a long (17 years) and happy life.

As I grew up and moved out on my own, while I still loved dogs and would cuddle those that I met on the street, my life was too hectic to have a dog long term. Over the years, certain dogs came into my life, but ultimately, I would have to find them good homes because I just did not have the time to spend with them. It wasn’t until I was nearing thirty years of age that I finally felt I was responsible enough to take on a permanent, life-long, four-legged, furry companion.

Being an educated adult and not the innocent child of 8, when a dog was in my life, I felt it necessary to turn to the experts to "learn" how to train a dog. I went to the library and got books on basic obedience instruction. In the 1970s and 1980s, those experts told me to put a choke chain on the dog, jerk, and pull and force the dog to do the behavior I wanted. Only after I had forced the dog to do what I wanted, was I to tell the dog he was a good dog. Lucky for me, the dogs in my life during this period learned in spite of my forceful training methods and for the most part were very good companions.

My first exposure to formal obedience was with my adopted basset hound, Bob, in 1988. It was a nightmare. There were at least 30 people with their dogs (all ages and temperaments) in a big auditorium. The obligatory choke collars and leather leads were passed out, no treats were offered, nor were they even suggested as a training tool. To teach our dogs to heel, we were instructed to pop the dog if the dog got in front of us, or lagged behind. Each person and their dog then took turns "heeling" around the room. Well, Bob walked fine the first time around, the second time he was a little less enthusiastic and by the third time, he must have thought that this exercise was a waste of good canine energy and I am sure he was tired of getting popped with the choke every time he ventured a foot ahead or behind me. Bob laid down and went dead weight. The trainer instructed me to drag Bob around the room with the hope that the discomfort from the choke would get Bob up and running. For those of you who don’t know basset hounds, they can be pretty stubborn. Bob allowed me to drag him around the room, but even though his eyes were bulging, he made no effort to get on his feet. We never went back to that class again.

On his own, Bob eventually learned to walk nicely on a leash, but he was never fully house trained, grabbed anything he could off the counters (once he ate 6 pounds of raw rib eye steaks that were meant for a dinner party, his stomach was so full that it literally touched the ground when he stood up), he bolted out the door every chance he got and he liked to climb on people’s heads when they were sitting on the couch. I look back now and realize that Bob’s shortcomings were my fault as I always focused on what he did wrong, instead of showing him what was right. . Unfortunately for him, my training enlightenment came too late to fully benefit Bob, he died from cancer when he was only 8 years old.

In 1995, after undergoing back surgery, I was in a physical rehabilitation program and had the opportunity to see therapy dogs at work I was awestruck and decided that I wanted to do therapy work with a dog. I thought that Bob, who was 7 at the time and his canine sibling Duffy who was 10 years old were too old to learn "new tricks" and I visited local shelters for several months looking for a young dog that might be a good therapy dog. That is how Harley Girl came into my life and changed it forever. To take a quote from Monty Roberts, Harley was not just a learning experience, she was my university.

Harley was identified at the local shelter as a Rottweiler-Australian cattle dog mix, 7 months old and possibly an " alpha" dog. (I later came to discover that Harley is actually a Louisiana Catahoula Leopard Dog, but that is another story entirely). I fell in love with her at first sight. After being given the third degree by the shelter folks and with the help of my vet’s endorsement that I was indeed a good "dog mom", I adopted Harley and brought her home to meet the "boys". It was almost a disaster from day one. Harley was indeed an alpha dog and while she loved people, she could be very dog aggressive. After a few skirmishes with my old dogs, a friend suggested obedience training to try and get Harley under control. Although I cringed at the thought, recalling my previous experience with Bob in a training class, I also realized that something had to be done or Harley would be going back to the shelter.

Luckily for me (and Harley), the basic obedience class we enrolled in was a small class and used food as a motivator for good behavior. She quickly learned that certain behaviors got her pieces of dehydrated hot dog and she was more than eager to please. However, even though she was learning basic obedience exercises, her dog-aggressive behavior was still lurking under her people friendly exterior. After finishing the first obedience class, we began looking for other places to continue our training and eventually got bit by the "obedience bug". Once that happened, I did not want just a therapy dog, I wanted a competition obedience dog. But I still had a dog with aggression problems towards other dogs, which would make therapy work or competition difficult, so I sought the help of experienced dog trainers.

The various trainers I approached to help with Harley’s aggression problem, told me to correct her using a pinch collar for going towards another dog. Some trainers told me to do alpha rollovers to show her who was the boss. Others suggested the use of a shock collar. Additionally, as we progressed in obedience training towards a competition level, these same trainers told me that harsh corrections were needed to guarantee reliable performances in the obedience ring. And what did I do? I pulled and jerked, yelled and rolled her over all because the "experts" told me this is the way it was done. And what was the result? Harley no longer gave warning growls before she lunged, her aggression seemed to escalate, she even jumped out of a second story bedroom window to get at a dog that was walking in front of our house. She also began to hate competition obedience, her whole body would sag when we entered the ring. She would do the exercises, but it was obvious she was not having fun.

During this time, I "managed" the aggression problem by keeping Harley away from other dogs and keeping my fingers crossed that during off leash heeling or sits and downs that she would not bolt to go after another dog. When I started training her for open competition, a trainer told me that I would have to ear pinch her so that she would know that she had no option but to retrieve the dumbbell. I couldn’t do the "ear pinch" myself, so the trainer put Harley’s ear between her thumb and the ring from Harley’s collar and the trainer squeezed as hard as she could. Harley still refused the dumbbell and looked at me with soulful eyes that questioned "why are you letting this person do this to me?" I couldn’t stand it and decided that wanting to compete in obedience trials did not justify inflicting so much pain on my dog. I thought our competition days were over, but I still had an aggression problem to deal with so I continued to seek out a trainer that could help us.

In 1996, I met Lori Waters. I learned that Lori used to be a correction based trainer, but she now used something called operant conditioning to train dogs. In other words, Lori was a "clicker convert". She had German Shepherds who excelled in the competition ring, but what impressed me the most was that her dogs were happy, even when they were working. Lori suggested that I start focusing on rewarding good behavior instead of just correcting Harley’s bad behavior. She told me to read a book titled Don’t Shoot the Dog" by Karen Pryor. A funny thing happened when I read that book, I realized that there was a better way to get what I wanted from Harley, a way that made sense.

I began reading every book I could find on positive reinforcement training methods and operant conditioning. When I wasn’t reading books, I was watching videos by Ian Dunbar, John Fisher, Patty Ruzzo, Gary Wilke and other positive reinforcement trainers. I started attending seminars by the likes of Dr. Trish McConnell, Terri Arnold and Jean Donaldson.

I utilized what I learned from these operant conditioning gurus and Harley and I started the training process over from scratch. Harley quickly caught on to the clicker and she began to perform basic obedience tasks – heeling, sitting, down, etc., with a bounce in her step and her tail wagging. It was obvious she was happy and having a good time. The real break through came the night I put the evil plastic dumbbell on the living room floor, sat in a chair and waited. It took Harley almost 45 minutes to show any interest in the thing that was the source of so much pain months earlier. When she looked at the dumbbell I clicked and treated her. We did that several times and then I upped the ante. Now she had to approach the dumbbell to get the coveted click and treat. Through the magic of shaping, by the end of the evening, Harley was bringing me the dumbbell, her tail wagging the whole time.

In addition to re-training the obedience exercises, I used operant conditioning and systematic desensitization to modify Harley’s behavior towards other dogs. Instead of punishment, she was rewarded for non-aggressive behavior when another dog approached. We started slowly with strange dogs 20 feet away from her. As we moved closer to a strange dog, if she showed the slightest bit of concern, I knew I had gone too far too fast and we backed up.

Her attitude towards other dogs changed dramatically. Her attitude change was clearly evidenced several months ago, in an agility class we were attending. An Australian Shepherd got away from her owner while Harley and I were running the course. The Aussie, who had gone after other dogs in the class on prior occasions, came charging at Harley, barking and snarling, with teeth bared. Harley, who was off leash, was about 8 feet from me. Knowing that I could not get to Harley before the Aussie did and with my heart in my throat I told Harley to sit, stay and watch me. The Aussie was right in her face, but she did not move and kept focused on me the whole time. After the other owner got control of his dog and while I was lavishing Harley with kisses and treats, the instructor came over and said "I thought you said Harley was dog aggressive?" I replied, "she is" and the instructor just shook her head and said "she sure fooled me". I could not have been prouder of Harley that night than if she had won High in Trial at an obedience competition.

After working through her problems, Harley did get her therapy dog certification and has visited nursing homes bringing smiles to the residents’ faces. She has placed 1st, 2nd, and 3rd in novice obedience competitions. We are currently working on her open title and have started showing in agility competitions.

Now I know I said that Harley Girl changed my life and you are probably thinking that yes, my thoughts on dog training changed, but did that really change my life? In a way it did. Harley showed me that operant conditioning really works, with both obedience training and modification of bad behaviors. Even though I have loved dogs all of my life, because of Harley I found a better way to relate to dogs and I discovered that dogs are really my passion in life. I began working with Lori Waters, the trainer who introduced me to the better way to train a dog. For the last 2 years I have counseled owners who have dogs with behavior problems and I have taught basic obedience classes using operant conditioning and positive reinforcement. I volunteer at a local animal shelter and with Angel Guardian Basset Rescue (in memory of Bob, who could have been trained if I only knew then what I know now). I do this as my effort to keep dogs in their homes and to help their owners establish a rewarding relationship with their canine companions. I show the owners that there is a loving way to train their dogs and change their dogs’ bad behaviors. I just recently quit my job as an attorney to follow my heart and to devote my life to my real passion – dogs. So yes, Harley did change my life and for the better.

One final note that I think shows I may have come full circle. After Bob and Duffy went to the Rainbow Bridge to wait for me, I adopted two other "problem" dogs – Spencer, a yellow lab and Jesse, a German Shepherd. While I did not start training them in a locked bathroom like a little 8-year old girl did one Christmas morning 37 years ago, I did start in a room, with no distractions, lots of treats and of course a clicker.

 

Janice Hicks

U-CD, U-AgilI, Harley Girl, , CGC, TDI

U-CD Spencer’s Mountain of Dreams, CD, FDCh, TDI

Legend of Jesse Jaymes, CD, TDI