This is a short story of Eva, a dog I trained for only a week. I was fired by the client because I use treats to train and don’t just make their dog obey.
I got a call from my vet to see if I was interested in taking on a special case. He normally doesn’t call me for referrals, he just forwards my info to his clients and they in turn contact me. This particular dog is so aggressive that he wasn’t sure if I wanted to have the client contact me.
Eva is a 4 year old German Shepherd Dog whom the owners have had since she was a puppy. The vet’s office has to double muzzle her when she comes in because she is so aggressive towards people. She has a history of multiple bites to people. There is nothing medically wrong with her. Her owners are in their mid 80’s (yes, 80’s!) and they just can’t control her anymore. Before I could say it, my vet said he felt it was just too much dog for them.
Slight tangent here: What breeder in their right mind would sell a couple in their 80’s a German Shepherd Dog??? These people have never owned a GSD or anything close to that breed in their life. What happens to the dog if these people don’t make it to their 90’s? So I find part of the blame in poor Eva’s life with the ‘breeder’ (more than likely a puppy mill).
I told my vet to please give them my name and number; I’d like to help them with Eva.
Forward a week later and I get a call from the wife. Between her accent and the connection on the phone, it was difficult to understand exactly what was going on. So I scheduled a consultation and we’d see what I could do to help them.
At the consultation I learned a lot. One, this dog is fearful of everything and her way of dealing with it has escalated to bite first to get rid of person, vacuum cleaner, etc. She barks, growls and lunges still, but that period of time has shortened because in her mind it just isn’t effective anymore.
Two, this couple had no idea what their dog likes. I asked them what motivates Eva. They gave me blank stares. Okay, what will she work for? What does she enjoy? Again, blank stares. You have a working breed that is only allowed outside to go potty and doesn’t have a job or anything to do? I didn’t tell them this last sentence, but I couldn’t believe it. How can you have a dog since she was 8 weeks old and not know what she likes. Yet, you tell me she’s your baby. This was a BIG clue that I should have picked up on as to the kind of relationship they had AND wanted with her.
Their first trainer they loved, but he moved out of town and so they hired another trainer. This last trainer they felt was too nice and she’s been working with Eva for 2 years, 3 times a week. I thought maybe she was a dog walker and I misunderstood. No, she started out as Eva’s trainer, but lately they reduced the pay and she only does dog walking.
So, what did you like about this first trainer? Eva obeyed him completely, there was no hesitation. I asked next, did she ‘obey’ anyone else or just him? Oh, just him and they smiled. For anyone that doesn’t know, this means he used force-based training. Force-based training means that he used some form of hurting Eva so she would comply. It also means that Eva will only do what he says because she doesn’t want to get hurt again. Whereas, when others give her cues, she doesn’t have to comply because she won’t be hurt by them (nor rewarded when she does comply). This guy isn’t going to be with Eva 24 hours a day, so how in the heck is it effective for the long term?
We agreed that I would work with Eva Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays with the goal of Eva being comfortable with guests in the house; in particular, their house keeper. Currently, someone has to be home the entire time the house keeper is there.
Day 1: Eva tries to attack me twice. The second time she bit my purse; no punctures, just saliva.
Day 2: I have the owners put a muzzle on Eva so that I can first get her comfortable with me. I discovered that Eva is very treat motivated. Yea!!! Now we’re onto something. Eva is getting to know and trust me.
Day 3: Eva comes right up to me and no longer barks, growls or lunges. I’m the treat lady! We can now work with the house keeper, who for the first time got to within a foot of Eva without barking or showing any signs of stress. Yea, we’re making significant progress.
Day 4: I’m fired! I’m told they want a trainer like their first trainer who makes Eva do what they want. They don’t want someone who uses treats. Yes, the wife told me that exactly: no treats, force Eva to obey. I asked her again: So Eva only obeyed him, right?
Me: So how is that effective training if she doesn’t do what is asked of her by others?
Wife: It doesn’t matter, that’s the kind of training that we want.
I told her that her dog is very fearful of people and that Eva now deals with it by being aggressive. The training I’m doing with Eva is for the long-term. She didn’t believe me that Eva was fearful of people. I could quickly see that she had made up her mind and so I left.
Every time Eva saw a person, the husband yelled at Eva to be quiet and yanked on her choke collar. Well, no wonder she hated people. If every time I saw someone and I got yelled at and hurt, I’d hate people, too.
Let me put this in another way. You have a child who is afraid of the dark. When you turn off the lights, he starts to cry. Are you going to yell at him? Shock him? Push him? Grab him? No. You’re going to help him build a different emotional state so that he can be confident in the dark. It may take some time. But since it’s dark half of each and every day, you realize that this is for the long term, that your child needs to feel comfortable in the dark.
Learning is the same whether it’s a dog, a whale or a human. If force-based training worked, you’d see trainers doing alpha rolls to orcas to make them submit. If you want to elicit a particular behavior, you let the dog know (reward) that’s the behavior you want. I never once heard any praise for Eva, only shouting and leash jerks.
When I left Eva’s house, I felt a sense of failure. I can’t control other people, yet it still was a hard lesson. The next time Eva bites someone, it may be her death sentence. And it’s not Eva’s fault, it’s her owners’ fault. They have been shown and given alternative, positive methods and they still chose traditional, force-based training. I wish I could say this was a nice old couple who are just in over their heads. But I can’t. Anyone who prefers to use aversive training for their dog isn’t nice.