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Author’s Note: There will be more to come on Smokey’s Story, but do you remember when this blog was about training? I looked back through my posts and realized I had sort of forgotten. So here’s one! 

In the spirit of full disclosure (speaking of disclosure, have you signed this petition yet? http://www.change.org/petitions/veterinarians-fully-inform-us-before-vaccinating-our-dogs-and-cats) I would like to say a few things.

As most of you know, I’m not a professional dog trainer, but I have trained my dogs to do many things. In the past two and a half years I have been privileged to share my life with three fabulous German Shepherd Dogs. In that time I’ve learned a lot. I’ve learned that you can train a ten week old puppy with megaesophagus how to eat and sit still for twenty minutes afterward while standing vertically without the use of either treats or force. I’ve learned that you can train a rescue who came from a deplorable situation to trust other dogs and you with lots of patience and chicken. I’ve taught dogs to sit, stay, down, come, speak, bow, count, flip objects off their noses, roll over, play dead, howl, spin, give paw, hand target, object target, by to me, away to me, reverse, run obstacle courses and herd sheep (kind of).

Here’s Smokey balancing a clicker on his nose, one of his many impressive tricks.

And right now? Right now I’m learning how to get a dog to overcome an intense fear of people.

Shelby’s fear and associated reactivity could have come from a plethora of places. Fortunately, I’m pretty confident it’s not medical. After a full physical, a slight blood work scare and a follow-up urine sample, it looks like Shelby is a-okay medically. Thank goodness!

There are a lot of other possible causes for this behavior, genetic, vaccine related and failures in training being among them. There’s one thing that I know that it isn’t – some kind of hard-wired desire to show me she’s the “alpha” in our “pack”.

How do I know that? Well, let’s say, arguendo, that the opposing party’s (the dominance or alpha dog theory trainers) beliefs are 100% correct. Let’s take their ideas as fact and view this situation in the light most favorable to the other side.

Cesar Millan, in his article “How to be the Pack Leader”[1] sets down some criteria outlining how you can become the pack leader for your dog:

1.            Own the space in which you live and let your dog know it.

2.            Take your dog on a walk before you feed him.

3.            Make your dog wait to play, travel or eat.

4.            Do not reinforce anxiety, or anything that is not a “calm-submissive” state.

Well, our name is on the loan for the house, but we don’t technically own it, the bank does, but we pay the mortgage. So we basically own it. Okay, just kidding (not that we don’t pay the bills but that a dog could understand that). I believe what Mr. Millan means when he says this is that you should be confident in your surroundings, and probably that you should walk ahead of your dog or that the dog should walk next to you nicely on lead. We do that. We are always confident and quiet. We have taught Shelby to walk nicely next to us on lead in almost any situation, through the use of treats and praise, but we won’t tell Mr. Millan that. When Shelby does not walk nicely on leash, we turn around or change direction and reward her for following us. If by owning your space, Mr. Millan means that you should walk out of a doorway before you dog, we do that too. We don’t do it to assert dominance or status; we do it because it’s safer. Having Shelby lie down and wait means she won’t barge out the door to chase the neighbor’s cat and possibly get hit by an oncoming car. It also means that in the winter when it’s slippery she won’t charge forward to go play in the snow, causing me to slip on ice and break my face. Different reasons, same result.

We definitely do number two. It’s hard not to do number two with our schedule. As soon as Joe gets home, he takes Shelby on a walk, then brings her in and feeds her. For practical reasons, this is the way we operate, and she actually won’t poop if we don’t, so we have that covered.

Shelby almost always has to wait to play, travel or eat. Before we throw the toy she must lie down. Before she gets out of the kennel, she must lie down. Before she goes out of the house, she must lie down. Before she goes chicken or rabbit chasing, she must lie down. Before she gets dinner she must lie down. Before she gets a treat, she must, well, not always lie down, but she must do something. She gets a treat for lying down and then she gets the ultimate reward – getting to do whatever it was that she had to lie down for. And, added bonus, now she uses a lie down to tell us what she wants, “Mom, look at me, I’m lying in front of the door because I have to go out.” “Mom, look at me, I’m lying in the doorframe of the kitchen because I want to chase the kitty.” “Mom, look at me, I’m lying with my shark in my arms because I want you to throw it.” The list goes on.

Here’s the one that I think positive reinforcement trainers get nailed on every time. But I think most of the opposing trainers are thinking of it all wrong. When Shelby barks at a stranger, we don’t reward her for barking, we back her up, further away from her reaction zone. When she is quiet, she gets a click and a cookie. She’s definitely not in a calm state, but she isn’t barking. We are not rewarding the anxious state, and that’s not how you should see it, instead, we are rewarding the work that she is doing in not barking. It’s along the lines of “fake it till you make it”. After she has gotten enough cookies for being quiet, she is more likely to repeat the “being quiet” behavior. Without the added arousal of barking (which elevates the FEAR and increases the influx of all kinds of hormones and chemicals that incite rage), she is quicker to calm and feel relaxed. Eventually, the “relaxed” behavior gets reinforced, and then we are, indeed, doing as Mr. Millan instructs, we’re just taking another baby step to get there (and using treats instead of collar corrections). It is, certainly, a slow process, but by not throwing in more arousal by correcting her and introducing fear or at the very least, frustration, it can actually go quicker than the method espoused by Mr. Millan and many others like him, with much less chance for redirected aggression later.

Dun dun dun – the tongue flick, a clear sign of fear and/or anxiety. Shelby is alerted and about to react to a stranger. But the stranger stopped, right here on the edge of her flight zone. She stayed lying down and not barking, she did get a bunch of cookies for that.

So looking at the evidence, you can see that we, using positive reinforcement methods, are still “pack leaders” as defined by Mr. Millan. Therefore, Shelby’s fear cannot be related to “dominance” or social climbing or our failure to be the assertive pack leader that she needs us to be.

As a matter of fact, if it weren’t for the sometimes excessive use of force, positive reinforcement trainers and Mr. Millan wouldn’t be as far apart as they are. Though we look at it differently, we actually do use some of the very same techniques. However, the physical force, the collar popping, the hanging, the choking, the kicking, the poking, the prodding, the harsh verbal corrections and the alpha rolls are simply something we are never going to see eye to eye on. If you look at the evidence above, hopefully you’ll understand why. It’s simply not necessary, no matter what theory of training you choose to subscribe to and/or label yourself with.

In some ways, maybe it would be easier on me if I could subscribe to these ideas. Life would probably be simpler if I could just stand in front of her, collar pop her when she barked and throw an alpha roll in for good measure. Life would certainly be easier if I ate before her and didn’t allow her to sleep on the bed (especially while she is rocking the cone of shame, try sleeping with that thing in your face all night!). Bingo, bango, problem solved, no more scary Shelby. And yes, I know I’m oversimplifying the subtleties of some of these techniques.


The problem is though, that it’s not “scary Shelby” and “poor me”. It’s “scared Shelby” and “poor her”. I have to make the best decisions for my dogs. Unfortunately, those aren’t always the easiest decisions for me. It wasn’t easy to put down a ten week old puppy, but it was the right thing for Dusty. It wasn’t easy switching out a choke chain for a harness, but it was the right thing for Smokey. It wasn’t easy to look that vet tech in the eyes and tell her it was okay for her to stop trying to resuscitate my dying, four year old dog, but it was the right thing for him. And yes, I know for a fact that what Shelby is going through isn’t going to be easy to train away without force, but it’s the right thing for her.

In a lot of ways, I’ve failed my dogs. I failed Smokey by not being as informed about the vaccines he was receiving as I should have been. I also failed him by trying to teach him to trust through coercion and pain. I’m sure I failed Shelby at some point to make her so fearful of strangers. I accept that guilt and bear it accordingly. But I will atone through doing the right thing for her now, not by doing the easy thing for me.

So if you want to call me weak, go ahead. If you want to say I’m not a strong leader, feel free. If you want to keep telling me I’m an elitist who can’t put her puppy in its place, there’s a document that is the foundation of this country that says that you can. But here’s what I have to say – I am a leader, and I am a trainer, and I lead by example and teach by sharing my mistakes and how I’ve corrected them. Criticize the way I train my dogs all you want, but never doubt for a second that I always, always think first of what’s right for my dogs.