The Dog Talker Speaks
By Sandy Herzon
The Dog Talker Speaks!!!!!! Is Mitzy's story from the trainer's point of view.
The email from Carol Aspen read, “Please help us with our dog, we are at wit’s end with her. She runs away from us and does not come back when we call her! What can we do to get her to come back?”
Having been into the dog training business now for over 3 decades, I knew full well that the above “complaint” about the dog was only the tip of the proverbial iceberg. Rarely is there just one problem, instead there is a very serious and complex set of issues in the actual relationship between the owner and the dog that actually precipitates these “unwanted behaviors”.
So now put yourself in my shoes or maybe better said, my chair, how would you answer this email? Keep in mind that I receive this exact same query about 10 times a week!!!! Yes, you read right, close to or maybe more than 500 times a year, the same question /problem, not from the same person mind you, but the exact same problem over and over again.
Okay, you probably figure that I have a pat, generic answer, one of those ready-made cut and paste answers from an existing file, that all I need to do is click once or twice and presto I send off an answer to heavens knows where, to heavens knows who and to heavens knows for what dog!
Well, that certainly would be the easy way to file another case as “solved”, unfortunately that method would solve absolutely nothing. Yes, all those dog owners have a serious problem but the real problem is that there is no one ideal answer. There is no quick fix to this serious problem, because to solve the problem, we have to identify the cause.
Why the dog runs away is a very complex issue in itself, why the dog does not come back when called is another case all by itself and each of those situations have multitudes of causes. This is similar to saying that you have a headache and you take an aspirin for it, but you really have no idea what the problem was that gave you the headache in the first place, you only treated the symptom and not the underlying problem, a condition that I refer to as the "aspirin syndrome". Same thing in this case, we know the dog runs away and does not come back when called, what we have not identified is the cause for the 2 unwanted behavioral patterns that seem to repeat themselves with continuing and increasingly frequency. Figure out the reasons or causes and you are on your way to finding solutions.
Well, my answer to that particular email was the following:
In order for me to address your situation, I would have to evaluate your dog on a personal/canine level. I would need to determine why your dog is running away and then why it is not responding to you.
After several back and forth emails, the owner decides to call and speak to me over the phone. She identifies herself as the owner of an 18-month old female Golden Retriever and then the skies opened up followed by a deluge of problems, failures, and dismissals from trainers and from training classes, untold damaged to furniture, baseboards, wiring, TV remove controls, cloths and anything else for that matter. The “bad” list was painfully long and the patience for the dog was worn dangerously short.
There was a tone of utter urgency in her voice, coupled with extreme anxiety, frustration, and total betrayal by the dog, plus a feeling of shear disappointment in the whole year and a half of the dog-ownership fiasco.
This was not the way it was supposed to be, you research for the proper breed, you then set out to find the most reputable breeder, you purchase the dog from one of the top Golden breeders in Florida, you do everything by the book, every book in print for that matter!
You obtain every single piece of training equipment that every so-called “expert” recommends, you even hire 4 or 5 trainers to figure your dog out and train it to behave and be socialized and yet here your are 18 months later and you have one calamity after another, one embarrassment after another. You are no closer to doggie paradise than the first time that you were kicked out of a Puppy Learning Class at 5 months of age!
That fateful first phone call is followed up by several more calls, the old “feeling out process” as I call it. The dog owner needs to know that they are dealing with someone that might be of some help with their dog. There had been so many dismissals and failures with other trainers and dog classes, so many “people in the know” with advice and seemingly magic solutions, so many recommendations for this and for that and yet there is very little to show for 18 months of major trial and error and in this case, mostly errors.
The third phone call that I receive from Mitzy’s owners was the charm, for they have decided to drive 3 or 4 hours down to my farm for a private evaluation and hopefully a working session with their “problem Golden child”, as Carol Aspen, Mitzy’s owner referred to her.
Evidently I have somehow convinced them to at least make the long trek to the boonies where I have lived for the last 33 years. For those not aware where I have grown old, my 5-acre farm/home is adjacent to Everglades National Park in the southern part of Miami-Dade County.
They arrive right on time for their appointment after their 180-mile trip. I await each and every working session client in the same manner as I have done for the last 20+ years of private one-on-one training. I sit quite a distance off from the front gate of my property, a prefect vantage point to see the owner and dog interact with each other without my influence. This “first encounter” provides me with lots of information about the dynamics of the owner/dog relationship. It is probably the most important part of my assessment/evaluation of the dog.
I deliberately take my time in walking out to the locked gate, which gives me ample time to witness the interaction between dog and owner. Most of the time, it is the primary owner that brings the dog in for training and this is the most important relationship to observe, for this is who needs to be in control of the dog the most.
As I write this article, I remembered seeing quite a spectacle unfold before my own eyes. Both front doors of the car opened up simultaneously and the man scurried around to the back passenger side as quick as he could move. The lady in the front passenger side had exited the car and was waiting for the man to arrive there before she attempted to open the rear door. From my vantage point I could see that the dog was strapped to the back seat belt with some type dog harness.
The woman opened the rear door as the man was seemingly bracing for the dog’s exit. His attempt at securing the dog was poorly timed, as the dog leaped out of the car while still fastened to the seat belt. The dog’s outward thrust shoved the man backwards about 3 feet from the car. The seat belt gave a bit and allowed the dog to tumble out of the car headfirst onto the grass area next to where the car was parked. In an attempt at restraining the dog, the lady tried closing the car door, pinning the dog to the car with the door, allowing the man to recuperate long enough to embrace the dog and clip a leash onto the dog’s shoulder harness, while at the same time, freeing it from the car’s seat belt. The scene was reminiscent to a tag team wrestling match.
In order to give myself more observation time and not seem rude in not going out to the gate, I made a cell phone call to my wife and talked for about 3 minutes. During this short period of time I watched in shear amazement as this 20-month old Golden Retriever terrorized two grown people for what seemed like an eternity. During those few minutes, the dog created such a ruckus, that all my own dogs and those from about 3 blocks away were in a community howling session, akin to wild dogs or coyotes howling at the moon.
The dog lunged forward at the leash at will, pulling the man pretty much in what ever direction she set herself to go in. She would scratch out with her front paws as most males do when they mark their territories, then she scratched out with the rear paws with rocks, sand and grass flying in all directions, especially towards their car.
The lady was yelling at the man in a very high shrilled voice to control the dog, while the man was yelling at the dog and yanking at the leash with as much might as can be mustered in a situation as this. The dog spun both of them around and wrapped the leash around the man’s legs, while the lady grabbed at the collar in an attempt at securing the dog from knocking the man down. It was time to intercede here and I quieted my dogs with one command and headed out towards the gate to quell the three-way disturbance. My loud voice command stilled the Golden Retriever long enough for the two people to gain control of her and get her and the man unwrapped from the leash.
The dog had already sighted me and had heard the “Quiet” command to my dogs and from her body language I could detect that she was in “alarm” mode as I approached the gate. Her awareness was keen; as she watched every approaching step I took in their direction. Her ears were pricked as forward as a Golden can hold them, as she listened for every sound coming from my way. She turned her head slightly to one side as I stopped about 6 feet from the gate and she watched my body posture and then she made eye contact with me. At that precise moment, I spoke to all of them in a very low-pitched voice by introducing myself. I kept the conversation going by giving out some very specific instructions about entering my property once I opened the gate.
All three listened intently, which brought about a decidedly and welcomed lull in the quarrelsome-like atmosphere of a few seconds before. It was very apparent to the dog that I had somehow taken control of her pack and she more or less followed the lead of what was occurring to her and her pack members. The uncertainty of the new environment, the seemingly leadership qualities emanating from the man inside the gate had piqued the Golden Retriever’s interest.
“Once I open the gate, come in with your dog and release her as I will close the gate behind you.” Were my specific instructions to the three-some about to enter my domain. Although the lady questioned about letting her loose, I immediately usurped her sense of control and instructed in a more affirmative voice what it was that I wanted to happen. Once again, the dog turned towards me and scrutinized my body language further; by her quizzical look I could tell that assuredly this was not the usual order of how the chain of command was followed in her pack. Somehow, this new "human" had taken control from her and her pack members, especially from the real vocal member of her pack.
Once inside my property, I promptly pushed the button to close the electronic gate behind them. I waited while the man bent down and unclipped the leash from the harness and set the dog free.
I turned to walk towards the chairs some distance away and the man and woman followed me there, as the dog made a large sweep of the front yard away from us, all the while watching what was transpiring with her pack members and myself. Upon reaching the chairs, I instructed them not to make contact with their dog, as it was very important for me to observe how the dog accepted its new surroundings and how it adapted to the environment of another pack’s territory. I told them that she had already figured out that I was the leader of the pack and that was a very good sign.
As I conversed with the owners, I could surmise that they were dubious about all this “canine psychology mumbo jumbo” as Carol later stated. The owners had reason to be doubtful, having read up on most of the popular dog books and having listened to several dog trainers and yet none of the dog psychobabble was working for their dog.
I kept an eye on Mitzy as her senses were on full alert and full recon mode. She had checked out how far the fences were all around the front yard and from a distance she had accounted for the 8 dogs in the front yard. She had stopped at every single spot that the 8 females had urinated 2 hours earlier. She even identified who the top bitch in the front yard was by urinating right on the exact spot that my alpha bitch Connie had marked previously in the day. She went back to that exact spot two more times and remarked it herself.
Eventually she made her way over to where my dogs were housed and made contact with each dog there. Of course there was a fence separating her from all of them, so she used the fact that they could not follow her as a “win/win game”. The posturing was not dominant aggressive, but rather instigative as in “come and chase me”. As some of my dogs became frustrated in not being able to chase her, they all started to bark at her.
“Quiet” in a very stern voice quieted all of my pack immediately. Although she went back to the Labrador's pens again, none played the game with her as before and she lost interest in them and soon made her way to where we were. As she made her way over, I watched her out of the corner of my eye, making eye contact with her when she was about 10 feet away. I could see from her submissive posture, that she knew exactly who I was in these parts. I relaxed my dominant posture slightly and she then came right up to me. She had “read” the signs correctly from me and from my pack and territory.
I commented to Bob and Carol on how “dog smart” she was. I explained about the evaluation and how I did not have to do any physical evaluation of her, as I knew exactly who she was and what her role would be in a pack of dogs.
The conversation that followed was one of those “good scenario, bad scenario” situations.
The good scenario was that she was definitely trainable; the bad scenario was that there were major changes that had to be made and that most of those changes actually involved the owners and their environment.
I explained that their dog was “High Activity Drive”, a fact that they knew all too well. What they did not know was that it was something that she was born with; it was an innate trait, stamped at birth. It was a role that she was destined to live with and act out as a contributing member of her social pack. That it was a great attribute to have if she was a member of a pack of dogs out in the wilds of Africa or Australia where wild dogs still roam as they have for millions of years.
This High Activity Drive came with the ability to see, hear, smell and feel at higher ranges than some of the other pack members. She was also gifted with uncanny speed and mobility and she could probably out run and out jump most other dogs.
The Aspens agreed with each and every one of my assertions. They contributed at how she would wail at sirens way before they heard them and how from inside the house she knew that Bob had turned the corner with his car four houses away. How she could jump over a 6-foot fence without touching the top rail, how she could run circles around every single dog at the local dog park. How she could dig up the sprinkler’s underground pipe exactly where it was and that pipe was 2-feet deep! How she could bury something and weeks later go “crazy” digging it up exactly where she had stashed weeks before.
Yes, she displayed all the classic traits of High Activity Drive, all meant to make her survive as part of the grand scheme of “survival of the species”, but how was all this information going to help her adjust to simple suburban living in a relatively small territory, mostly as an inside the house dog.
As a dog trainer, my job is to first determine what makes an individual dog tick. Establishing what “temperament drive” a dog possesses is paramount in prescribing any behavioral modification. Discovering the ailment is the first step in order to cure an ill. With Mitzy, it was very simple to determine her personality type as she displayed those characteristics to a T.
Although the Aspens had provided Mitzy with a great, loving home with all the amenities imagined, it was this over-indulgence in satisfying each and everyone of Mitzy’s whims that were causing major angst in their relationship. Mitzy’s High Activity Drive nature created a never-ending desire for stimulation from her environment and those in it. Her attention span is extremely short, as she is pulled in many directions by her extremely heightened senses of hearing, scenting and sight, coupled with the Aspen’s endless desires to please the dog created a vicious cycle of “high expectations and utter disappointments”.
The diagnoses were complete and this was the easy part. The main problem was not the dog; in fact the dog was a piece of cake with my favorite lemon icing on it! The biggest problem in this dog/owner equation was the owners!
There is a book that states that there are no bad dogs, just bad owners. No, the owners were not bad dog owners, not bad at all! Instead they were good dog owners, way to good! Overly indulgent with their dog in a human way and totally clueless about how dogs act/react to the environment around them.
The training for the dog was simple, set an example as a leader and the dog will follow suit. Easier said then done, unless you are familiar with dog pack mentality and can actually execute the proper body language for the dog to understand that you are the leader of the pack and that it is a subordinate and must follow the lead.
In this case, Mitzy was very keen as to how the pack rule worked and she immediately and without question (actually without challenge) fell into the “ranks” of hierarchy as dictated by the top dog, which of course was me. Within minutes of establishing the rules with her, she understood the comfort zone set up by perimeter training.
The comfort zone is the area around the trainer to the length of the leash. So, if the leash is a six-footer, then the comfort zone extends out up to six feet in any direction and absolutely not any further, not even an inch! The leash is always kept in a slack mode, never tout, where the dog is pulling on it.
This is where stationary perimeter training comes in, for if the dog does not respect the distance that the trainer has allowed it, 6 feet in this case, and the dog takes one step beyond the length of the leash, a correction then is sent to the dog via the leash.
The correction is a light snap of the leash in a whipping action accompanied with a vocal correction, in my case I use the word “easy” to define the end of the comfort zone with the verbal command in conjunction with the physical snap. In order to correctly apply the snap, there must be some slack created before snapping the leash. Take note that this is not pulling the dog back into the desired perimeter; rather it is a snap created by loosening the leash towards the dog with an extended arm and then snapping the leash as if it was a whip, as soon as the snap is administered the leash goes back to being into the slack position. So it is slack, snap and back to slack!
The master effect of this routine is to make the dog understand that you are in control of the comfort zone and you will dictate all the actions that occur within the distance of the leash. Once the dog understands that all is well inside the comfort zone as long as it follows the trainer’s lead, conversely if the dog decides to dictate any unwanted action, it will come to understand that a penalty will be assessed for the transgression. Of course the penalty in this case is the snapping of the leash and the verbal correction.
With time and repetition, the dog will react to the verbal correction and the snapping of the leash will diminish until it will not be necessary to administer at all as long as the dog responds as close to 100% to the verbal command. Of course, refreshing your authority with a reminder snapping of the leash once in while will re-establish who the leader is.
The next step taken after it becomes apparent that the dog has accepted the mentality of the routine, the perimeter will then will move, as the trainer will initiate a forward motion vocal command. I use the words, “let’s go” to mean to move with me in an informal mode. Informal mode shall constitute staying on the left side of the trainer at half leash length as opposed to a formal “heel” command that will imply staying right next to the trainer's left heel.
If the dog does not follow the trainer’s lead with the forward motion command, a slight snap forward is administered in the same fashion as given when the dog reached the end of the comfort zone. Slack, then a snap and back to slack, the only difference here is that the command for not following is the words, “let’s go” repeated a second time, but with an urgent tone to it. Each succeeding command/correction has to have a more severe tone to it then the preceding one in order to derive the desired effect.
If the dog forges too far ahead and the leash becomes tout, then the “easy” command is given with a slight snap of the leash. Same goes with the dog going away to the sides and also lagging behind, with each case the dog is given a snap of the leash and a verbal "let's go" is commanded. Notice that we are not "asking" the dog, we are commanding the dog using a tone of voice that elicits respect and implies authority.
As simplistic as this procedure looks and sounds, for new dog owners implementation is a real problem as most are not used to keeping an eye on their dogs at all times and more often than not the dog lurches forward constantly at the leash, pulling and dragging the owner around. Although they have seen how perimeter training works with their dog, they do not see how it is put into play, as their timing is way off and so is their consistency in correcting the unwanted behavior. The main problem is that the identification process is very poor due to lack of experience in working with another species, compounded by the fact that most people treat their dogs as if though they were humans*.
In addition, most of my first time clients will create obstacles and barriers, laden with guilt on treating Poochie in a "demeaning way" by not wanting to snap the leash on them or by having to command them as if they were "second class citizens" or how they "just want a well-behaved dog and that they don't really want to become dog trainers". All these statements and feelings are what has caused the dog to take over the situation and has created an angst feeling between it and the owners, however the owners want there to be a magic solution without admitting that there is a problem with the relationship. This is what I refer to as the Aspirin Syndrome up in the first couple of paragraphs of this essay. Take a pill and the problem will go away, works well with a headache, but as of yet that pill has not been created for treating our expectations/disappointments with our canine friends.
*We will let that sleeping dog lie for the time being and address that situation in another essay at a future time.
MORE TO COME TO COME IN A SECOND INSTALLMENT.
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