I debated whether I would post this or not because I know a lot of people feel very strongly one way or the other on this topic. However, I figured that is why it is such a good topic to write about. That being said, everyone, go easy on me!
This strange tale doesn’t actually begin with a dog. It begins with a horse.
I first saw Jules when I was 21 years old, fresh out of college, with no job and no prospects. He was living at a friend’s barn, but his owner wasn’t paying his rent, and my friend was about fed up with trying to cover his expenses. Jules is a retired Thoroughbred race horse, and by retired, I mean that he never raced a day in his life, because he preferred to meander out of the gate instead of sprint. He was a great jumper at one point. Then he became a lawn ornament. His owner never visited him, so he spent most of his day getting fat and dirty.
When I started taking care of him, he was suffering from cellulitis, he had a case of rain rot so bad I thought his skin was going to fall off, his teeth hadn’t been floated in God only knows how long, and his hooves were so long that they were going to cause lameness if he didn’t see a farrier ASAP (his owner had shorted the farrier too many times for him to continue trimming Jules’ feet, despite the condition they were in).
So I, in my infinite wisdom, decided to take care of him. I packed up my brushes, sponges, hoof picks, went to the store and bought a gallon of bag balm and set off to the barn to go to work. On my way, I called the farrier (who I had to explain three times to that I was NOT his owner, and I was NOT going to short him) and a dentist. By the time I got to the barn, I was sure that I was going to be telling the success story of how I rehabilitated Jules in no time.
Problem was, Jules was not on board. He had spent such a long time being a lawn ornament that the site of a curry comb had him heading for the hills at a pace that would have been appreciated in his old life. When I tried to cross tie him in the narrow cow barn, I was convinced he was going to rip the walls down. And picking up his feet to clean under his toenails? No way!
I tried all the usual methods that I had been using all my life. I pulled on his head, used a shank on his halter, leaned my whole weight into his side, swatted his rear end with the lead rope and even, out of desperation, tried pulling on his ears (though I’m still not sure what I was setting out to accomplish with that one). He still wouldn’t budge.
Frustrated, defeated, dirtier than Jules and physically exhausted, I packed up my gear and headed to my car. On the way there, I called one of my friends to vent. She laughed and said, “I told you those horses were going to beat you one day.” Then she said the thing that would forever change my outlook on training. “Look, I know I don’t know anything about horses, but, did you try giving him like a treat or something?”
Now, it wasn’t like I had never given a horse a treat before, but it was always after they had done something especially pleasing, or we’d had a long, hard ride or they nuzzled me just the right way when I was brushing them, or just because they were sweet. I had never used treats in training. Not with horses. It just wasn’t how things were done. You were the big bad human, 120 pounds or so to their 1200, and they were going to listen to you or you would hit them with a crop. That was the way of the world. But on the other hand, I had sort of run out of options.
Back to the store I went, only this time, I loaded up on every kind of horse treat I could find. I spent my last forty dollars or so stockpiling the barn with cookies. And you know what the crazy thing is? It worked. As soon as Jules got a whiff of those cookies, I no longer had to use a lead rope, not even so much as a halter was necessary to bring him to and from the barn. He would follow me around the paddock like a puppy, his head over my shoulder, his sweet breath moistening the hair on the back of my neck. We quickly established a routine. Stand like a good boy while I rub this stuff on your boo boos, and I will feed you cookies the whole time. Pick your foot up, get a cookie. Don’t kick the farrier in the head, get five cookies. Don’t run away from me when I pull out the saddle pad, get a cookie. Don’t bite the dentist, get ten cookies. So on and so forth.
Jules hadn’t been ridden in over two years when I got on him for the first time. It was nearly winter. I had been working with him for several weeks on not running away when I tightened the girth. When I put my foot in the stirrup for the first time, I was sure he was going to move and drop me on my butt. But he didn’t. He stood there like a good 16.2 hand pony. And you know what? He got a cookie.
So when I injured my back riding a horse that wasn’t Jules, and the doctor told me I would never be able to ride again, and I had to sell Jules (who I had finally obtained the title to), because he was too expensive, and I started to get more involved in the dog world, I quickly came to realize that there are two contrasting schools of thought when it comes to training. Here, I classify them loosely as “Victoria” and “Cesar”, but you could also think of them as “pushing Jules” and “feeding Jules”.
Like with Jules, I was torn when it came to Smokey’s dog aggression. I had learned my whole life that the best way to train your dog was to become the Alpha of his pack and everything else would naturally fall into place. I remember saying to Joe, when we decided to try a trainer using Victoria’s methods, that “I don’t want any of this leftwing, hippie bullshit in my house.” But also like Jules, we had hit a wall with Smokey when it came to more traditional or “Cesar-esque” methods of training.
Now look, I don’t profess to be a trainer or a zoologist or a dog whisperer or qualified in any way to say anything negative about Cesar Millan or his methods. I actually like Cesar (for reasons other than the fact that I think his accent is sexy, and he always makes me laugh), and I actually own some of his DVDs. At the end of the day though, Victoria’s method, that is, “feeding Jules”, works better with my personality. When I get frustrated and tired, I can get impatient and rough. If I am “pushing Jules” I am more likely to push harder in retaliation when he does something wrong, weakening my bond with him. If I am “feeding Jules” I am more likely to just take the cookie away.
Both times that I have been backed into a corner with more traditional or “old-school” (as Joe likes to call them) methods of training, I have turned to that “hippie, leftwing bullshit” and found real solutions. So call me an idiot if you want, call me a softie or not strong enough to be a pack leader, but I am going to go with Victoria from now on. I don’t like corners, and it seems that neither do my animals.