Why Am I a Positive Dog Trainer?
Updated: Mar 24, 2022
I am a Positive Dog Trainer because of Gerald; this almost-five-year old Australian Shepherd / Coonhound mix of awesomeness. We joined forces about 4 years ago, when he was just 5 months old. He is only the third dog I've ever lived with and the first I've known since they were a puppy. Before we get to him, however, there's a little backstory.
My first dog was Willy, a rather large Italian Greyhound (Biggie Iggie). I adopted him from the Italian Greyhound Rescue when he was five years old. He was removed from a horrifically abusive home and we just got along from the beginning.
We did very little formal training. Early on I tried a few things I found on the internet, but Willy shut down anytime I tried. I chalked it up to his past and his being a "soft" dog. Honestly, once we figured out house training, he was an easy dog to live with. He lived to the ripe old age of almost-16.
A few weeks after Willy passed, I found this photo on the Denver Dachshund Rescue and Transport's website. I didn't think I was ready for another dog, but the photo ... that photo. He looked so lost, like he knew his people were going to show up any minute. And so ... Jasper entered my life. Jasper was also about five years old when we met. He had lived with a family in Texas and I guess their living situation had changed and he was surrendered to a high-kill shelter. DDRT brought him up to Colorado to find a new home, which I was honored to provide.
Jasper's early days with me weren't as easy as Willy's early days had been. While Willy rarely made a sound, Jasper in his Yorkshire terrier / Dachshund mix glory, was a barker. Not knowing what to do, I started looking for a trainer who could help us. Hours of Jasper's barking while I was at work each day, on top of my learning the trombone at the time, wasn't making us the most popular folks in the apartment complex.
I did due diligence in my search. I am nothing if not thorough when I am researching. But dog training is a very confusing world for the uninitiated. I didn't realize how important understanding a potential trainer's training philosophy was. I found a highly respected (rightfully so) training school with great reviews. I set up an initial meeting and I was very impressed with their professionalism, knowledge, and love of dogs. They explained they were "balanced" trainers, meaning they used both positive rewards and corrections in their training. That sounded intriguing, I mean more is better, right? These were good people. I can't say that enough. So I enrolled Jasper and myself in their beginning obedience class.
Jasper and I were the stars of the class. We did the hours of homework (yes, hours) we were given. Jasper's "stay" and "sit" and "heel" were the envy of the other teams. I was so focused on doing well, and to my credit, on doing the best for Jasper I could. I didn't see what the training was doing to him. He was becoming obedient but he wasn't happy. But I didn't see it ... well, that's not true. I saw it, but I thought the trainers knew much more than I did, so I ignored it. But this photo from my Facebook page talked about how Jasper didn't seem thrilled about going to class. I should have listened to myself.
A year or so later, I was able to move into my first house, with a HUGE backyard. I figured it was time to add another dog to the family. I combed all of the adoption sites and one Saturday morning this photo showed up on my screen. Gerald was up for adoption at an event at a local PetCo that day. I was there in 45 minutes.
I had never had a puppy before, let alone an Australian Shepherd / Coonhound puppy. I immediately fell in love with his exuberance and whip-smart intelligence, but I was in over my head. My house is right by a large park and I imagined how lovely it would be to walk my new puppy through the park, as he frolicked with the other dogs. HA! He was a nightmare on leash. I knew I needed help.
My dog walker at the time, gave me the names of some really good positive trainers in town. I read about them, but I had it in my head that Gerald was a tough nut to crack and I felt the folks I had taken Jasper to were going to be the right fit. I signed us up, and we began the same process Jasper and I had gone through. I had a large backyard now, so the early exercises were much easier to fit into my schedule. However, Gerald being a precocious puppy, didn't take to them at all. I figured this meant he really needed them, and I doubled down.
During our third session we were working on "heel." Gerald was on a slip-lead, which is a cloth rope leash that goes through a metal loop. This gives a slip knot type loop that goes on the dog's neck. If they pull, the slip knot tightens ... and tightens ... and tightens. It's the same mechanics as a choke chain.
Class that day was particularly hectic. They had moved into a new building and the front door went right into the classroom and the office was off of that. During our class there were several deliveries. We also had a trainer in training in our class and a new demo dog whining in a crate. It was a lot. Gerald was way too distracted for a "heel" so I stopped and knelt down to talk to him and tell him it was okay. But the trainers yelled at me to keep moving, that he was playing me, and he'll figure it out if I just keep moving. So I did. I barked out "HEEL" as I dragged my beloved confused pup around that training room until he melted into a puddle of his own urine.
We never went back. I never got my money back for the remainder of the classes I had bought and I didn't care. I told my dog walker about this the next time she came by. She was so relieved. She said "I didn't want to say anything, but Gerald was getting worse, not better." She didn't blame me, she didn't say "I told you so." She just gave me a brochure for Noble Beast Dog Training (they rock), a larger positive training company in town. I made the call and they sent out the most amazing trainer, BEX.
She came to my house with handout after handout about the science behind positive training. She showed me how I could use treats and praise and this weird clicker thing to encourage Gerald, to let him know he was doing a good job. BEX showed me I didn't have to drag my dog around until he gave up and "obeyed."
It took a while to repair the damage I had done to my relationship with Gerald. We continued to take classes at Noble Beast. I signed Jasper up for classes, and when we added Fritz to the family, he took classes as well
BEX and the folks at Noble Beast literally changed my life. I started out as a clueless dog owner who just wanted to do right by his dogs. I believe I made every possible mistake ... TWICE ... and with grace and science and empathy they led me to a much better place. I was sold on positive training.
So when I wanted to volunteer in the rescue world, I made sure I found a rescue or shelter that only used positive training. Luckily I found the Dumb Friends League. I went through their classes and joined the Head Start program. I gained confidence as a trainer, working with four or five new dogs every week. After a year-and-a-half and over 300 dogs, I realized this is something I could actually do. If I could help folks avoid the painful mistakes I had made, that would feel pretty good. So I found the best training academy I could, the Victoria Stilwell Academy for Dog Training & Behavior ... and here I am.
I am happy to say Gerald and I have a strong relationship. I'm still in over my head (he is SO smart) but we look forward to our training sessions now. The time we spend training strengthens our bond, it doesn't tear it down. At the end there's a little video of Gerald learning "roll over." You can hear Jasper in the background. Jasper loves training now too, he's always eager for his turn. We all love the time we spend together when we train. Gerald gave that to us.
Now back to the subject of this post. I'm a positive dog trainer not because of the dogs (although they're a huge part) but because of the humans. I know what it's like to be in need of help and what it's like to make some really desperate choices. It doesn't feel good. If I can be somebody's BEX, I'll feel like I've given back a little to all the folks and dogs who've given me so much.