Rocky was a large male boxer. Powerful, stubborn, hyper, and completely neurotic.
Rocky’s owners could not take him for a walk. He was out of control. He would pull, lunge, bark, leap in the air, snap at all manner of things – up to, and including, people. He was nervous about everything…wind chimes, people, cars, birds, cats, trees or leaves blowing in the wind, other dogs, and a host of other common, everyday things.
A skilled Rookie
This was my earliest and first official “dog whispering” session at a client’s home. I say whispering because whenever I deal with problematic dogs and need to help alter behavior naturally (by infusing calmness mixed with normal societal rules that apply to dogs and humans) I would hardly ever choose “training” (no matter how advanced). Dog training is usually a terrible idea when attempting to prevent, reverse or eliminate poor behavior because dog training in essence is just the addition of obedience and tricks and often in exchange for payment or punishment. Thus dog training (even done well) does NOT mean it will subtract problematic behavior!!! (I fully understand this info may be shocking to many of you. But it’s true nonetheless. Let’s continue.)
I decided I was going to take Rocky for a walk. The walk would be an attempt to get him to heel (walk loosely beside or slightly behind me without lunging and attacking anything). I wanted to get him heeling so he could bond more naturally with me, burn off excess energy, and learn to follow me and then his owners. The owners wanted to be able to walk him normally without all the insanity and aggression, drama, and without the public embarrassment, the outright danger and liability, and the excessive wasting of the dog’s energy and the frustrated owner’s energy.
The dance begins
To start I had to somehow get in the door without being bitten as this was also another of Rocky’s many issues. Rocky was territorial. He loved his family but was dominating everything he could and doing it out of nervous over-excited energy. I tried to remain as calm as possible as they greeted me at the door with Rocky right there. Please keep in mind, Dear Reader, that I did not know nearly as much back then as I do know but was “jumping in the pool” and taking a risk. As I look back I realize that it was quite a risk I took because this dog was an excitement junkie hooked on fear and aggression.
Learning to Ignore is powerful stuff
He lunged for me as I came in the door but his owner had him on leash and pulled him back. I went into introductions all the while attempting to ignore the threatening and aggressive body language of the dog. Ignoring a dog can be a great safety measure when dealing with certain displays of aggression, fear, and escalated energy. The ignoring is a method learned from watching older dogs and how they handle and raise younger pups. It is the puppy who acts excited, foolish, and is initially an energy-waster. That excitable behavior is the total opposite of how a more mature, socially-adept dog would enter a territory or meet another dog or pup. This statement should instantly bring to your minds the question of how you meet and greet other dogs or puppies that you encounter, and also consider how the trainer you may be considering meets and/or greets your own dog or pup! This can be quite telling. Are we acting calmly, like a leader? Or are we imitating and acting like puppies ourselves?! Are we pumping up the dog or pups’ energy?! If so please keep in mind that that is very poor leadership on our part and completely opposite of nature’s way!
Continuing…I was able to come in the door without getting mauled. We spoke for several minutes on how to calm and lead a dog, mother nature’s way, the differences of dog training and dog whispering (for those readers that don’t know, I can do both methods but dog “whispering” or whatever you want to call naturally communicating calmly through space and energy -if done correctly- is much more natural, calming, and beneficial for the animal and our relationship with it and it always succeeds socially where other forms of training and behavioral mod. do not!) We spoke of other useful info all while Rocky was on leash and close by yet not close enough to bite me. I was purposefully stalling as I gave all the vital info concerning their dog and this allowed him to calm down and deescalate.
Stepping up to the challenge
Then it was time for me to conquer fear, test my skills, and take the beast outside! I asked that my clients initially just watch from the porch or stay inside altogether because Rocky was at a high level of aggression. He would act worse if his owners were around or watching him and he would use them socially as backup for his manipulations and misbehavior against me – basically, he would get more aggressive with me and any others we encountered. (Dogs are skilled manipulators of their owners and, in particular, their owner’s emotions and eye contact.)
I remember when I went to take the leash from the husband, Rocky kept lunging up in the air in a wild attempt to bite my hands and arms! When I took hold of the leash (and my destiny for the next several years) his claws raked and scratched me as he clutched onto whatever flesh of mine he could find. He was flailing and attempting to bite me and bite the leash or whatever he could get his teeth or paws on! This may not sound like much to many of you but I have had scars that have taken close to a year to heal up just from a dog’s gripping claws!
Today when I look down at my forearms and hands I don’t see any scars from Rocky’s claws. There is, however, one small scar from his teeth under the fleshy part where my right hand meets the wrist! I remember my blood was flowing freely on that session.
I continued to let Rocky waste his energy as he attempted to bite, snap, nip, scratch, throw himself on the ground, bite the leash, and twist like a whirling dervish. Some time later I felt he was calm enough to begin the walk. This is another point in time where being extremely sensitive to the dog’s body language and energy comes into play. You have to be super observant and patient yet active and willing to push the envelope. We need the dog to go beyond the fearful or neurotic comfort zone. Fortunately for me I’ve been an extreme animal nerd my whole life and have a well developed eye.
Growing up I lived in Massachusetts, Florida, Maine, and Maryland. Very different states with different animals. I was able to catch frogs, toads, mice, lizards, snakes, turtles, and of course we owned several dog breeds over the years, many differing reptiles, some amphibians, a couple cats, and the occasional bird or rabbit.
As a child my first official pet was a box turtle named Speedy. I got Speedy when I was around five or six years old. My dad drove me to this run-down home that was converted into a too-cramped pet shop in a small Maine town. It was jam-packed with creepy crawlies and furry bodies around every tight turn. I was fascinated. I remember seeing some python or boa almost bursting the sides of the dirty glass aquarium it was in, a raccoon in a wire cage, a skunk or two, and of course, loads of birds and reptiles.
Looking back, I can now say that Speedy actually had a great effect on the course of my life. To my curious young mind this animal perhaps was a left over dinosaur that I could handle and study. I clearly remember feeding him raw hamburger, bananas, strawberries and other salad stuffs. I picture him walking around our apartment in Maine so many years ago. I recall misplacing him once and then discovering him later in my clothes closet. Upon his death we buried him in an empty Girl Scout Cookie box. I still hold the opinion that his casket was just a bit too small but it was a great memorial service to honor a unique pet.
Working for a living
When I got my first job at fourteen it was at a pet store. Clara’s Tropicals: a small pet shop specializing in tropical creatures in Maryland. The first thing I ended up bringing home was a juvenile green iguana. I named him Sam. A few years later I had acquired another. Sam and Max were kept within a hand-built, custom, six-foot-high cage. I’d make them a salad everyday. As the years went by my animal collection and my knowledge grew. I added a friendly Pac-man frog named Newton. (Most horned frogs are not friendly. They are an interesting species of frog that actually bite people and have teeth! This actually makes them very unique as most amphibians do not.) Newton was the bane of many a goldfish.
My second job was also at a pet store. House of pets. This store was not nearly as nice as Clara’s but I got to mess around with and care for caimans, tegus, monitors, rats, boas and pythons, chameleons, turtles, ferrits, and several other critters. I was learning a ton about animal husbandry (through self education and intelligent observation) and occasionally handling some serious animals that did not desire to be handled by anyone. Some of the caimans would snap at you if you weren’t careful and the tegu lizards and the monitors can be down right nasty! There were some creatures I would only handle with gloves (Tokay gecko and a large green vine snake come readily to mind).
I also had acquired a bearded dragon named Roy. Roy ate crickets like there was a coming famine. We supplemented his diet with some salad and the occasional baby mouse. He was very docile and I will, even to this day, recommend bearded dragons for those of you considering a lizard for a pet. I know for certain there must be thousands of you out there reading this fine blog and thinking something to the effect of, You know what would really complete my life…if I only had a docile enough lizard sitting on my shoulder right now. Well, now you know what my pick would be.
I was going to go further into the other animals and all the differing breeds of dog that my father would bring home for the family (usually free or extremely cheap and found from ads in the newspapers) but several of these pets did not last long in our house. These intrepid animals would live with us often until they showed a problem or a behavioral issue was discovered and then they soon found themselves back in the paper and or in another home! We never mistreated them but many certainly didn’t have too long of a stay with us. Although this is not recommended for the animal – it did afford me, during my childhood and teenage years, vast exposure to many differing breeds and personalities. Due to the length of this post let’s just get back to Rocky the aggressive boxer and suffice it to say I was “good with animals” shall we?
A Dangerous Walk
We made quite a pair walking down the street. After bearing the brunt of Rocky’s claws all over my forearms I was bleeding. Rocky, after fighting me on leash and twisting like a crocodile going into a death roll, was heavily panting and frothing at the mouth. I’m pretty sure his tongue had tripled in size. Somewhere during all his rearing up and flailing, his teeth had snapped forward and cut my wrist. I determined then and there that I was going to either bleed out or we could strive to have a normal stinking walk. I would die trying. We pressed on.
Utilizing good movements to stay away from his snapping maw and scratching claws I would patiently ride out Rocky’s explosive tantrums. Whenever his energy needed a moment to rebound, we’d be off walking down the sidewalk as if nothing ever happened because I would instantly begin walking again making him heel. There were several times he threw himself fully on the ground. That was usually after he launched himself fully into the sky. (bratty dogs will do this when they are used to controlling their head and are not getting their way.) I needed to walk him for his owners and he desperately needed to calm down and learn that the entire world wasn’t in his control and it also wasn’t that scary either. So whenever he’d have an energy explosion and flop around and struggle like a prize Marlin on a line, I’d make sure he wasn’t able to bite me. I’d ride out the storm and then, as quick as a jackrabbit on a date, we’d be off once again side by side like old chums out for a casual afternoon constitutional. (Over the years I zero in on “where the dog is” at the current moment in it’s life and with it’s owners and “where it is” psychologically and then distinguish that from “where it needs to be” to achieve normal or calm balance. This is necessary in order to achieve great results for both client and dog. This sort of vision, I believe, is key for leadership in any endeavor or area of life in which one requires real growth. The ability to move from “where you are” to “where you need to be” must never be undervalued.)
Eventually we were both tired and bleeding and sweaty (dogs do sweat despite what you may have heard. They sweat from their paw pads). Rocky had settled down due in large part to an iron will and decent dog-handling and we got through the difficult time all without bribing or beating (no need for positive reinforcement and no need for punitive either)! He was heeling beautifully when we arrived back to the client’s home. They were amazed. I was happy. Rocky was calm. He was respectful towards me and now trusted me. We were able to touch one another much more freely. I would greatly build on this in future sessions with Rocky.
I then experienced a sort of glow, I suppose. I’m not sure whether the clients noticed or if this sort of thing even shows from the outside or on my countenance at all, but I’ve noticed this happens in my life internally whenever I am able to achieve something wonderful. A burst of renewed energy (maybe joy) wells up within me. I had done it. I was a professional trainer, albeit very inexperienced, and had truly helped this dog and the results were plainly there for everyone to see. It all happened within our first hour together.
Remember to read my HOT Listed book on dog language and dog and human behaviors, Dog Myths: What you Believe about dogs can come back to Bite You! by Garrett Stevens