My first rescue, a brilliant female German Shepherd that looked liked a coyote as a puppy, came from Austin’s infamous (at the time) Town Lake Animal Center. Back in the 1990s, anyone could walk unescorted into the dirty chain-link cages and handle the animals. This was my first introduction to being around kenneled, stressed-out animals by the dozens. It began my “on-the-street” canine handling skills. I named the shepherd puppy Hannah, and she proved to be an amazing dog. Hannah was a delight to train minus one bad habit: no matter what I did, she pulled hard on the leash. She grew to nearly 70 pounds, and the bigger she got, the harder she pulled.
I took Hannah to a puppy class, and, just like in the belated manners class that I had taken with my Rottweiler, everyone had their dogs on metal choke collars. Like many owners, I never paused to ask the trainer why in the world I would put a device on my dog that existed to choke her into compliance; I just wanted Hannah to stop pulling. I needed that “fix-it-quick” miracle. I permitted a trainer to be the expert, and I trusted everything she said simply because she called herself a dog trainer. It never occurred to me to ask about her credentials.
Hannah as a puppy.
Anyone in the United States with zero credentials or licenses can declare himself to be an expert trainer or behaviorist, and he is legally allowed to handle your dog. It isn’t like that in other countries, such as in Germany, where dog trainers must past a comprehensive test before they are allowed to handle other people’s dogs. Germany, Norway, and Switzerland have all passed Animal Welfare Acts, as has the United States, but ours lacks substantial punch to truly protect dogs against shoddy and painful training. Hiring a dog trainer in the United States puts the onus on the dog owner to do his research and find a truly competent, experienced, force-free trainer. A good place to begin that search is via the Pet Professional Guild’s directory (www.petprofessionalguild.com/PetGuildMembers). Pet owners can join this organization for free and can obtain free educational materials without even joining.
In the puppy class with Hannah, I skillfully “popped” the collar when she surged ahead of me. She kept doing it, so my pops became more severe, and the instructor praised me for my rapid-fire good timing.
Sweet Hannah: perfect in all respects except for pulling on the leash, which was a human problem, not a dog problem.
Annie and puppy Hannah.
I noticed that Hannah shrank back each time I popped the collar, and that gave my conscience a ping. However, the pain to her neck and my frustration with her unwanted Herculean pulling did nothing to decrease the pulling, so the instructor fitted Hannah with a spiky “pinch” collar. She pulled straight through that as well.
I learned about a head-halter device that goes around the muzzle and allows the handler to lead the dog much like a halter on a horse does, but Hannah didn’t get the memo on how to be a good horse-dog, and she yanked even harder. She threw herself to the ground in frustration the first time she wore it. Shamefully, by then I was so frustrated with her that I dragged her down the paved road while she was down on the ground, frantically trying to get that tightness off her muzzle.
Like too many owners fed false information from self-proclaimed experts about why dogs do what they do, I honestly believed Hannah was disobeying me on purpose and that she knew damn well that her job was to walk politely on leash. I was terribly wrong. The real issue was that I didn’t have the knowledge of how to stop her from pulling and to teach her behavior that I did want from her.
A head halter can be a helpful tool for encouraging good on-leash behavior in some dogs.
Dogs’ mental abilities have been compared to those of a two- to three-year-old child. Dr. Stanley Coren, professor emeritus at the University of British Columbia, said in an interview with Live Science that dogs’ “stunning flashes of brilliance and creativity are reminders that they may not be Einsteins but are sure closer to humans than we thought.” Coren discovered that average dogs can learn 165 words, including gestures and signals, and that dogs have a basic understanding of math and can count to four or five. Our smart canine companions show spatial problem-solving skills, and they show emotions such as happiness, anger, and disgust.
Some dog owners and trainers still want to believe, erroneously, that dogs are trying to usurp their humans’ power and dominate humans. Others make a fortune selling the idea that we must dominate our dogs before they do it to us—this seems to tap into a certain segment of dog owners who want or need absolute control over an animal that has no ability to input how he feels about that. It’s silly to believe that dogs want to be our rulers if for no other reason than we humans are in charge of dogs’ lives from start to finish.
Scientific study is beginning to show that dogs co-evolved with us, and some scientists now declare that we would not be what we are today without dogs’ evolving alongside us. Other scientists believe that dogs in fact domesticated us. Either way, we have a long, shared history that could go back as far as 32,000 years.
The outdated and scientifically squashed idea (called dominance theory or pack theory) that a dog is attempting to dominate a human is harmful to both human and dog. Dominance theory originated from studies in the 1970s of captive wolf populations. The unrelated wolves were forced to live in small, enclosed areas and were observed by scientists as living in a hierarchal community in which aggression would be displayed from time to time to secure limited resources. From there, a huge and incorrect leap was made that Because dogs descended from wolves, dogs, too, must have a pack hierarchy. However, dogs are not wolves in the same way that humans are not chimpanzees. Dogs are simply not trying to dominate humans. Even the original scientists who suggested dominance theory in these captive wolves have stated that their findings are incorrect and unsubstantiated and do not apply to dogs.
Hannah lets foster dog DJ know that she does not appreciate him being in her space.
Dogs end up in shelters for myriad reasons.
Now, back to Hannah. After dragging my beloved German Shepherd home after yet another stressful walk, I entered the house in a foul mood and told my husband that I would never walk Hannah again—it was just too much of a struggle! It was too embarrassing to be yanked down the street by a dog. Luckily for her, fate intervened, and we had the opportunity to purchase a 100-acre ranch outside of Austin. We bought it for the dogs, truth be told. We fenced the property and, voilà—problem solved. Hannah now had 100 acres to run on and no longer needed a leash.
Unfortunately, this meant that Hannah never did learn to walk politely on leash. More importantly, I never learned how to teach her not to pull.
After Hannah, I returned to the death-row animal shelter in downtown Austin countless times to pull large-breed dogs off the euthanasia list. Working or volunteering in a shelter is a thankless job. It can sour even the strongest among us because of the volume of unwanted animals coming through the doors every single day. The onslaught of unwanted dogs is a never-ending tidal wave that threatens to drown those brave enough to try to stop it. It is impossible to not feel discouraged as you learn why people dump dogs that they say they can no longer keep. Reasons include:
• He got too big.
• He ate the sofa.
• We are moving.
• He barks all day.
• He pulls on the leash.
• He jumps on people when they come to the house.
• She kept having puppies.
• We’re having a baby.
None of the foregoing reasons are caused by dogs’ attempts to dominate their humans. Many of the unwanted behaviors that owners cite for abandoning their dogs are, in fact, natural behaviors from the dog’s point of view. Many others are awful behaviors that come from the human end of the leash. I decided to become a trainer in large part to offer resources and education to owners who were facing these and other common issues with their dogs. With my (very patient) husband’s help, I fostered more than 400 dogs and found them good permanent homes. I taught basic manners to all of these dogs and puppies, and, in return, they gave me a well-rounded education in canine communication. I also got a front-row seat to the many health issues that can befall puppies and adult dogs. With so many foster dogs, I became well-versed in canine health care, just as I became friends with many local veterinarians. I saw them weekly!
As a trainer, I’ve probably worked with more dogs in just one week than the average dog owner owns in a lifetime. If you add the knowledge that I’ve gained from shelter dogs, I have worked with just about every breed and nearly every possible mixed breed, including many of the so-called bully breeds. It does take skill to walk into a kennel, observe a stressed-out dog of unknown history, and decide within a few minutes whether the dog is a good candidate for a rescue program—or whether the dog is safe in that moment. I was generally spot-on in my assessments, and not one of these homeless dogs ever bit me, despite their high levels of stress. I learned to approach them in a way that helped them trust me. In later years, I formalized my education by going through a dog trainer’s academy and getting several national credentials. While I value that education tremendously and feel that formal education is crucial to be able to call oneself a professional trainer, nothing has taught me more than shelter dogs. They fine-tuned my ability to quickly and accurately understand what a dog is trying to communicate with his body language.
Two events cemented the end of my fostering dogs. One blistering-hot Texas day, I was making my hour-long drive home from a high-kill facility with a litter of five cute, fluffy puppies that would have been euthanized that day had our nonprofit rescue group not pulled them. There are always too many dogs, and shelters are sometimes left with no other options when the tidal wave of incoming puppies and dogs overwhelms the available space. In fact, the Humane Society of the United States estimates that as many as 400,000 puppies are surrendered to shelters each year.
I wearily drove home, happy at least to have saved the little darlings in my backseat until I saw something on the street corner that crushed my delusional moment of elation. An unkempt man was selling Labrador Retriever puppies for $250 each out of the back of his truck on the busy highway intersection. At the stoplight, I counted ten puppies. The parent dogs were not present, most likely because they were on a puppy-mill farm, being bred many times over so that this huckster could make a high wage off the puppies.
Zeke, one of the many German Shepherds Annie fostered over the years. He came to her with an eye blinded by buck shot.
Selling dogs on the side of the road did not break local laws. Did he even have to get a permit to sell live animals? He did not. He didn’t bother with home checks or veterinarian references. He didn’t know if the new owners would take care of the puppies for life or if they would dump them as soon as the puppy chewed on the carpet or when they had to move or when they had a baby. Just one of those female Lab puppies and her offspring could go on to create 67,000 puppies in six years. My five pups (who would soon be spayed and neutered) in the backseat did nothing to offset what this unscrupulous person did every weekend. There were far more humans like him—breeding for money with no concern for the welfare of their puppies—than there were rescuers like me. I was deflated, tremendously sad, and outnumbered by a long shot.
The final straw happened shortly after that. One of my favorite animal control officers (ACOs) in a tiny rural town called to tell me that she was overrun with springtime puppies. There are certain months of puppy onslaughts that every rescuer tries to prepare for and learns to loathe. One of those times is when Christmas puppies are dumped in February and March.
Toby sat in rescue for two years, and he destroyed several foster homes. His new owner enrolled him in nosework classes with Phenix Dogs, and he is now a content and non-destructive dog.
The ACO asked if I could hurry out that afternoon and save as many puppies as our rescue could handle. Her boss happened to be the local sheriff, because many small towns shunt animal services to the police department. This small-town sheriff was no friend to animals—or humans, for that matter.
I found the ACO inside the small shelter with her back to me, standing by the washing machine that she had bought herself. All of the kennels were empty. I wondered if all of the puppies were outside in the small yard that she had fenced in herself. She answered my question without my even having to ask it. “There are no puppies. No adult dogs, either,” she said, sobbing.
I was confused. She had called me just that morning, asking us to rescue up to seventeen puppies. “Did another group have space for them?” I knew how unlikely that was, but my brain was not able to quickly process what I was just beginning to understand.
“It was the sheriff. He came by this morning and said the shelter stunk. He said he hated barking. He directed me to euthanize all of the dogs or be fired,” the ACO told me.
“Even the puppies?” I gasped.
I was done as a rescuer that day. So was the ACO. We both had nightmares about those dogs that she had to put down, one by one. And she was fired a few weeks later anyway. I learned, bitterly, that there are no community awards or rich investors for those who seek to help the countless dogs and puppies that land in shelters.
Toby the terrier, relaxed and calm after his weekly nosework class.
Helping through Training
After years of working with shelter dogs and seeing their plight up close, my path became clear. I could help the influx of dogs being dumped in shelters by becoming a trainer in an attempt to stem the tide, even a little. I had to wade through years of horrid training advice—much like the average owner must now do—before I became the professional positive-reinforcement trainer that I am today. I wish that anyone who works with living, breathing, feeling animals had to sign the same Hippocratic Oath that doctors do, promising to do no harm.
I searched for a dog-training school in central Texas that had solid credentials, which proved hard to find. I did decide to go through an intensive course at a Schutzhund-based dog-training academy because the instructors had a track record of titling dogs in the sport of Schutzhund. I knew that I would learn how to use forceful training methods, but I accepted that because I felt it important to understand all of the training methods available to a professional trainer, even the ones I disagreed with. I knew I would emerge from the school with a thorough understanding of which training methods appealed to me and which did not.
In the Schutzhund-based approach, students spend months learning how to use every kind of collar that uses pain to teach dogs, including the shock collar. Once, a large male German Shepherd ran away from his trainer, who ran screaming behind him while remotely turning the shock collar all the way up to its highest level (some collars can go as high as 80 milliamps; pain begins at .15–2.0 milliamps). The dog burst into our training class and chomped on another student’s Corgi. It was awful for all of us, but it was most horrific for both of the dogs.
Many dogs end up in shelters through no fault of their own, just like this cute puppy Annie pulled from a central Texas shelter.
A few days later, a large-breed dog—also trained on the shock collar—nearly killed a young kennel tech who reached for the dog’s water bowl while cleaning his kennel. The dog grabbed the tech by the neck and missed her jugular vein by mere centimeters.
After putting a shock collar on the foster dog that I trained while in the program (a requirement for graduation) and after seeing so-called “red zone” dogs run right through the highest shock—I put down the remote and never picked one up again.
We did happen to get one brief class on clicker training, and that little device and the science behind it gave me back my passion for helping dogs learn how to exist in a human-run world. Clicker training is a method of positive-reinforcement training that uses a small clicker to mark the exact instant that the dog is performing a wanted behavior. We click (which means “yes!” to the dog) and then reinforce with a tasty treat. Eventually, we fade out the use of the clicker and keep dispensing treats randomly for desired behavior that we want the dog to continue.
In two decades, I graduated from that intensive dog-training academy, learned about canine behavior from some world-class trainers and behaviorists, and obtained countless hours of hands-on experience with troubled dogs. I became certified as a professional trainer through national certifying organizations, and my trusty clicker is still my most frequently used go-to tool. I’d like to share not only what I’ve learned along my journey but also the most current discoveries on how to help troubled dogs. Before we get to solving the conundrum of aggressive dogs, we must take a look at what does not work and why.
The clicker provides a way for the handler to “mark” a desired behavior at the precise moment the dog offers it.