As I’ve adjusted to retirement, it’s been yet another opportunity for personal growth and coming to know myself. I’ve become more aware of my need for connection and interaction with others. Also, I need a reason to get up in the morning – I need to interact with other living beings on a regular basis. This may sound odd for a person who’s been divorced for 33 years, and often described as a “fringe personality”, but it’s true. Fortunately, in the last few years I’ve come to interact with dogs well, especially my German Shepherd, Bella. In the process, I’ve come to enjoy other dog people. Given this segway, I decided to embark on training dogs as a retirement adventure. I found a school for dog trainers close to my house, that was accessible and affordable, and eagerly waited for several months to begin the 12 week intensive course in an Academy for Dog Trainers.
The course was divided into three main segments of four weeks each. The first was Basic Obedience, next was Intermediate Obedience, and the last was Advanced Topics. My initial intention, and enrollment, was for the entire course. I was committed for the “whole enchilada”. I was told, and it was clearly stated, that the course was demanding. This became a reality quickly as 32 of us, some from as far distant as India and the Bahamas, came to the Academy with a common love of dogs. As my days settled into a pattern synchronous with the Academy, I quickly found myself putting in 12 to 14 hours each day, about 70 to 80 hours per week. It can be amazing to fall into a routine where one’s heart is the driving force. However, these demands, no matter how hearty, can become overwhelming to the point of imbalance at best, perhaps dangerous to personal safety or well being.
Initially, Bella was given a pre-course assessment and deemed unsuitable for the first session of the course. She had already been trained, and was proficient at Basic Obedience. I was then assigned two rescue dogs, each of different temperaments, in order that I experience as much of a variety as possible in terms of dog training. The dogs that I was assigned, that I would get to know intimately, were purely a roll of the dice. And so it was that one of the dogs was a maniac, the other a neurotic. My maniac, estimated to be 10 to 14 months, appeared to be a Husky/Chow mix, and was incredibly outgoing, confident, and full of himself. He was extremely curious, driven, playful, and loveable. He was a handful at every turn. The second dog I was assigned, Leonard, was a neurotic, shy, and fearful character. The cards in the hand that I was dealt were from two polar opposite ends of the spectrum.
I was initially told that Leonard was a “fence jumper”, an escape artist. He had raw sores across his front legs. I was told that the sores were probably from someone putting a cone on him backward, in order to keep him from getting out of the fence. Eventually, as I got to know him, I realized that he was extremely frightful. The slightest shift in the environment could startle him, and in that state of excitement he was capable of jumping and running. I figured that the frightful element was probably part of what had determined his plight as a rescue.
It’s easy to cap, or redirect, an exuberant dog that is highly motivated, such as my maniac. It’s difficult, and can be nearly impossible, to generate drive in a dog where there is little or none. Taken a step further, when the shy and nervous dog has been “shut down”, their life force repressed and abused, they may never come out of it fully. It was obvious that Leonard was of the latter ilk. As I came to know him, I realized that he had been “shut down”. His effort at life had been quashed to the point that he was in a deep shell, hesitant to experience or try anything new. I decided to take a different approach with him, over and above simple training. I decided to focus on our relationship, I wanted to engage and encourage him. I put most, at times all, of my effort into pulling him out of that shell. I probed the course of chiseling away at, and opening up, the core of who he really was.
His name wasn’t initially Leonard. But we changed it. It happened one day while waiting to go out onto the Agility field. We were sitting around, several of us with our dogs, and the remark was made that he was starting to look better. I shared a few details about what we’d been doing together. We had walked in the field, and he started to run. In the field was the only time I ever saw him take interest in a toy. He was, for a few brief moments, playful and capricious. It was true, there was a brilliant side to him at times. It was in stark contrast to the side of him that seemed to take over any time we entered the Training Building. I could tell that he hated the Training Building. He became his old self, the one that was shut down. He did obedience when asked, mostly. Actually, obedience training was something he endured. At any rate, several of the girls noted that he had changed, and was starting to shine. They decided that his name should be Leonard. And so it was, from that moment forward, that we called him Leonard.
There are many approaches to dog training. Each approach becomes a school of thought for the trainers that embody the methods therein. There is the “old school” of “yank and crank“, which is becoming outdated due to it’s use of pure force and pressure, seen as inhumane by evolving standards. There is the purely positive approach, which has its place, albeit limited in certain situations. Then there is the balanced approach, or “Balanced Trainers”, supposedly somewhere in the middle, incorporating a variety of tools from rewards to corrective measures. The Academy where I was enrolled was of the Balanced Trainer approach. However, when considering that there was a rank and file of novice trainers, matched with a full spectrum of rescue dogs that were thoroughly green and raw, then given four weeks to bring all of the above into the harmonious rhythm of a marching band, one can surmise that there would be disharmonious moments.
Leonard had a knack for creating disharmonious moments. It wasn’t that he was unruly, much to the contrary. He was always personable and connectable. However, he came to dislike being trained in Basic Obedience. In fact, as I stated above, he hated it. He was resistant to some of the commands, and as he came to trust me his position of choice was at my feet. I continued with the approach of gaining his confidence and trust, hoping that he’d continue to emerge from his shell. We walked in the woods, and he slowly came to prance and dance. I took him onto the Agility field, where I was able to coax him into negotiating each and every obstacle. Agility is an excellent sport for dogs, it engages them and builds confidence. Leonard had a difficult time with the tunnel at first, but soon came to like it. In fact, he would go in and refuse to come out. Finally, in a moment of exasperation, I crawled into the tunnel with him. From that moment on, we were BFF, best friends forever.
One of the training tools, a method of communication with the dog, is pressure. They are systematically taught that forms of pressure on the collar can be released and removed by their compliance with the request being made. Leonard did not respond well to pressure, in fact it tended to push him further into his shell. Therefore my use of pressure had to be very judicious and compassionate. I took extreme care in this balance of coaxing him out of his shell, using rewards, and the light punishment of pressure that he would respond to when necessary. This was the most difficult part of our relationship.
Dogs are inherent gamblers. Their wager, in any interaction, is “how much can I get away with?”, “what’s in it for me?”, or “how far can I push it?”. I came to realize this syndrome with Leonard. I realized that he was playing me as far as he could in some of the obedience commands, particularly the “down”. Granted, it’s a difficult position for most dogs, it is a position of vulnerability. In all this, dogs also crave, demand, and respond to certainty, routine, and authority. And so it was between Leonard and I with regards to the “down”. He pushed me to my limit, and I finally pushed back. Given all of the above, I came up with a plan. My plan was to take Leonard for a walk in the field behind the Training Building and “generalize” the down command. So, one bright and sunny morning, away we went. We walked for about a quarter mile across the field, reinforcing the mechanics of the down command, about every 10 paces. I would command “down”, then mold him into position. When we were all the way across, we turned around, and repeated the entire process for the full quarter mile back to the kennel. Finally, at the end of this process, his resistance to this command faded and he performed on cue. We had “come to Jesus” on the “down”.
And so we came to the day of reckoning, the four week Obedience Test. I arrived at the Academy at my usual 5 AM. After my typical roll out, I worked each dog lightly, more of an effort to review, reinforce, and connect with them. I decided to test Leonard in the morning while he was still fresh. I rationalized that my more energetic “maniac” would still have plenty of steam for the afternoon test. If all went well, this would be a light day, and we’d spend the weekend celebrating our triumph after all the effort and grind that we’d endured. It had not been an easy trek. Indeed, the long days and mountain of information had brought us into many difficult moments. At any rate, I felt confident that I had done my best, that I was well connected to my dogs, and that we would do well.
The beginning of the test seemed to go well. There was a slight hiccup in the “place” routine, but Leonard sat upon command and stayed for the duration of the trial. Then came the “down” part of the test. Leonard was in a sit at my left side, in the standard heel position. Upon request, I authoritatively issued the “down” command. I could see from the corner of my eye that he did not move. I was told to “down” him again. I turned in his direction, and our eyes met. More authoritatively, I said “DOWN”. Neither his eyes nor his body moved, we remained with our eyes locked for a brief moment. He simply refused to “down” upon demand. I was told to remove Leonard and myself from the training area. We stood contritely on the sideline, and watched in disbelief as the test proceeded for those who were more successful.
I could tell, when the test was finished and we were at the moment of Final Reckoning, that something was terribly wrong. I had gone over the math in my head, and had calculated – on the edge of panic – that we were sure to have passed with enough points garnered from our stronger sections of the test. However, when the assistant tester took us aside for a conference, I knew that we were doomed. We had scored 52 points out of 100. We needed at least 60 to pass. Both Leonard and I were now members in the Rank and File of Life’s Failures. I was told that we could retest in 48 hours. I was too shocked to have a reaction other than quietly leaving the Training Building and finding a reclusive place for the both of us to cower.
Life has a way of periodically shaking and shocking us out of our comfort and predetermined expectations. I had just been forced into one of those moments. I was in a complete state of exhaustion from all the effort I had put into this failing endeavor. My entire world had been rocked. I was at the point where I could only think of what to do next, within the framework of the immediate moment. I managed to put Leonard back into his run in the kennel. I then made it to my truck. I took Bella out of her crate, and the only thing I could think of was to go down to the creek. I had previouysly found a remote and refreshing place down by the creek that had become my sanctuary. I often took Bella down there to grab a moment of solitude and communion. I was now direly in need of one of those moments, so away we went to the creek.
Some decisions make themselves. One’s position within a set of options becomes more and more limited based upon seeing clearly those options that are not workable. So it was for me at this particular moment. I was fixed in clear memory of the moment that Leonard and I had locked eyes, and he had refused to down. I didn’t realize it at that specific moment, but he was showing me the clear path forward. It was as if the entire Force of the Universe was embodied within his 52 pound frame, and melding into me that we were of One Mind and Heart. He was telling me that, no matter how I approached it, he did not like, nor could he be forced, to do Basic Obedience. As I weighed my options, I realized that there was no amount of force, or pressure – nor coercion of any type – that I could apply to him within the next 48 hours that would change our position in the Rank and File of Life’s Failures. Further, I realized that if I went that route, it would be OVER AND ABOVE the 70 to 80 hours per week that I was already enduring. All these conclusions came effortlessly within about 10 minutes of clarity by the creek. I was on a hell-bound burn out course, and I could not bring myself to force Leonard to crash and burn with me.
Still in a state of shock, and capable of making only one single decision or three minutes of action, whichever was smaller, I put Bella back into her crate in the bed of my truck. I then walked directly into the front office of the Academy and requested to withdraw. I filled out the paperwork, and returned to my truck. Bella and I drove home, and I took a nap. It was WONDERFUL to relax. It took days to decompress from the pressure cooker that I endured at the Academy. I have not looked back, but I have thought about the dogs and my classmates. I can only hope that they fare better than Leonard and I. Or should I hope that they fare as well as we have?