Thursday, January 05, 2012

National Train Your Dog Month, or: Baby, You're Just Getting Started

One year, one week, and three days ago (not that anyone's counting), we brought a new dog into our lives. Our lives have yet to go back to normal. In fact, normal is no longer on the menu. It's like saying, Just wait until this hurricane passes by, and then we'll get back to our tea and scones. Oh, wait... Crap, there went the house.

So when I heard that January is National Train Your Dog Month, I cracked up laughing. Train Your Dog Month? Around here, 2011 was Train Your Dog Year. And now that we're in 2012?

Welcome to Year Two.

I've been training my own dogs since I was 14. I once housetrained a Great Dane puppy during a Tennessee mountain winter, when all he wanted was run back inside and curl up next to his best friend the space heater. ("Why are we freezing out here?" he seemed to say, shivering, with plaintive puppy eyes. "You never use that corner of the bedroom anyway!")  I even taught a Siberian Husky to heel reliably off-leash. In case you didn't know, a husky off-leash is generally a husky headed lickety-split for the hills, all treats, commands, and prior training be damned. Bottom line: I'm no newbie. So when we fell in love with a completely untrained, fearful 10-month-old German Shepherd puppy, I actually had the nerve to think: How hard could it be?

What I didn't get: There is algebra. And then, there is quantum physics.

Meet quantum physics.

Our first clue that we were in over our heads came just a couple of hours after bringing Roxie home. We took her for a walk in her new neighborhood; it was a sunny day, birds were singing (OK, maybe not--it was December), but still, everything was going swimmingly. Then she caught sight of another dog a block and a half away. And she turned into this:

No, she didn't turn into a Border Collie (although that would've been a seriously cool trick.) But you get the general barking/snarling/lunging picture. When it was happening, somehow we never had the presence of mind to take the actual Roxie's photo for future blogging documentation. Instead, we were pulling on her leash shouting, "NO!" and "STOP THAT!" and (if other people were within earshot), "WHO IS THIS STRANGE DOG WHOSE LEASH IS INEXPLICABLY IN OUR HANDS?"

Worse, even after other dogs vanished from sight (people very sensibly getting the hell away from a 65-lb completely insane German Shepherd and her obviously incompetent owners), Roxie would still keep barking and lunging. For, like, minutes. Nothing we did could get her attention. She was quite simply bonkers.

At first, we consoled ourselves that it was just nerves. Roxie had spent the entire 10 months of her life at her breeder's, only to be whisked away by strangers to a completely new environment. We'd already discovered she was terrified of bare floors and stairs, two elements which make up approximately 90% of our house. We joked that she was like an orphan raised in a Catholic convent, and here we'd taken her outside the walls to meet Baptists and Lutherans for the very first time. There were bound to be rough spots.

But while her other issues got better, the leash reactivity (technical term for bonkers) never did. Weirdly enough, she did great at day care. The staff even told us she was one of the sweetest German Shepherds they'd ever had. But anytime we took her out on a leash, she exploded at the barest glimpse of another dog. All my dog experience, all the years I'd counseled my veterinary clients on puppy raising...nothing I knew made the slightest difference.

I was utterly gobsmacked. And upset. Our idea of a second dog had been some sweet darling to keep our older dog company, to adventure out with us to dog parks and on road trips to the mountains and the beach. Instead, here we were with a dog we couldn't even take for a walk around the block. What have we brought into our house? we wondered. And now what the hell do we do?

Taking her back to the breeder wasn't an option. If we--two veterinarians with decades of dog experience between us--couldn't work with her, then how could we expect anyone else to? Nope. Warts and all, for better or worse, she was ours.

Enter Allison, professional dog trainer and sanity saver. Leash reactivity is one of the most common behavioral issues dogs have, she reassured us. And yes, there's hope. If you're willing to do the work.

We had no idea what that work would entail. But we were about to find out.

Next: BAT. No, not the baseball kind. You'll see.


Art Edwards said...

Oh, this had me giggling. Meet quantum physics, indeed.

Ours is eleven, and was a snap to train. I don't think I can do another one after her because it's only going downhill. I say that, but I know it will happen.

Andrea said...

This made me laugh too. Also, it makes me feel better to know that you guys, with all your experience, are also befuddled by the aggressiveness-while-on-leash dealio. Brio lunged at a five month old puppy the other day. Nothing I've tried so far works. So of course I'm a member of an eager audience looking forward to hearing all about BAT, whatever the heck that is.

Christine Fletcher said...

Art, our older dog was so easy to train, her nickname was "The Practically Perfect Puppy." Not that she's smart; she's actually pretty dim. Maybe it's her limited imagination that keeps her out of trouble.

And of course you'll have another dog. How can we do without them, the smelly, shedding, pillow-destroying darlings?

Andrea, yes, the learning curve was steep. Still is, some days. I had no idea this issue was so common until I started talking to other people about it. I hope the coming-soon posts will help!

Lisa Nowak said...

Wow! I have nothing but admiration for how you've stuck with this difficult (but I'm sure awesome in other ways) dog. I've always been impressed with people who have the patience to tackle training. I've know so many dog owners who didn't bother to do anything with them. And that gives dogs a bad reputation.

Roxie sure is a cutie. I hope you're working through the rough spots and getting to enjoy more of the perks now that you've found a good trainer.

Christine Fletcher said...

Hey, Lisa -- I've always found training fun; it's a blast to see the light bulb go on over a dog's head when they figure out what it is you want them to do. Roxie has been tough, but she's an absolute sweetie, which counts for a LOT. Stay tuned for more...