When my husband and I first brought home our new puppy, I knew we were in for a ride. What I didn't know is that we were about to embark on a journey of self-discovery as well, one that would teach me more about myself than I ever imaged a puppy could.
Salinger, a 3-month-old Golden Retriever, was larger than I remember 3-month-old puppies being, and extremely energetic, but I decided it was the excitement of the change in his life that was causing him to behave so erratically. That first week, he gnawed on our fingers with such vigor that I was afraid he'd chew them right off. He ran around in circles in our small living room until he exhausted himself and fell asleep in a big caramel-colored mound of fur.
Then came the damage.
While potty training him was relatively easy (we confined him in the kitchen, so he quickly learned to "hold it" until we took him outside), teaching him to stop chewing on our belongings was a great deal harder. We followed the advice of friends, training articles and even a veterinarian or two, but could not get him to stop destroying things: wooden place mats, the handles of kitchen utensils left on the table, his stuffed and plastic toys (demolished), the odd shoe, my new Calvin Klein eyeglasses (found destroyed inside the mangled case), his leash, his lovely basket-weave dog bed (and the foam pad), and finally, the corners of the kitchen cabinets.
"He'll grow out of it," everyone told us. "Be patient."
Calling in a pro
We exercised him frequently and kept up our attempts to train him. He did grow, but it wasn't out of chewing, or out of the erratic behavior. As his size doubled, then tripled, he continued to chew, and began pulling on his leash when we took him for walks. When he was a little tyke, it wasn't a big deal that he pulled on the leash. As he grew to be 50 pounds of muscle and fur, then 65 pounds, we knew we had a problem. I had bruises from my daily walks with him. I began to shy away from him.
The chewing continued. So, when my husband and I moved into a small duplex with a backyard, he was relegated to the yard, where he continued to destroy things: window caulking -- 3 tubes, our new garden hose, a large wooden shovel handle, the door to the storage shed (which he tore right off its hinges), garden gloves, redwood lattice fence panel, newly re-upholstered vinyl lawn chair cushion, dryer vent (on house), cable cords on side of house, telephone cords under house, crawl space screen, bag of paint roller covers.
Needless to say, we finally called in a dog trainer. Salinger -- our large, 9-month-old, 70-pound dog -- was out of control, and we needed help. Mike Herstik of K-9 International came to our rescue.
We began a 10-week training course (at our home and yard) that taught me exactly what I, as a dog owner, was doing wrong, and how I could modify my behavior so that Salinger would start listening to me. Below is a rough sketch of my experience in the form of a training journal.
Weeks 1 - 2
Mike Herstik showed up and immediately dubbed Salinger a wild beast. Salinger jumped at him and refused to listen as Mike attempted to get him to sit. "First things first," Herstik said. "In order to train your dog, we'll need the proper tools."
Here is the list of items Herstik recommended I purchase:
• common metal "choke" chain collar. While controversial, Herstik explained that these collars do not hurt dogs when used properly, but deliver the right kind of gentle "correction" necessary to prevent large dogs from dragging their owners down the street during walks.
• soft training treats (not crunchy, as biscuits and noisy treats are distracting)
• long leather lead (leather leashes are softer and easier to handle than nylon leashes, he explained)
• large plastic (not metal) crate, for containing Salinger when we could not supervise him.
• "clicker" or other aural training device (for a standard praising-sound)
In the end, the choke chain collar was not effective. Salinger continued to pull me along on walks, so a "prong" collar was necessary. A prong collar is a type of choke chain with "spikes." Because of its appearance, this collar is quite controversial. The spikes do not pierce the dog's fur, or ever cause wounds. They are merely meant to tighten on the dog's neck when he pulls, thereby recreating the sensation puppies feel when their mother closes her jaw around their necks in correction. That, Herstik explained, is how mother dogs teach their pups not to nip at her.
The first two weeks, Herstik taught me that I must never praise Salinger for performing a command until I have released him from that command. By saying "good dog" even when Salinger only "sat" for two seconds, I was teaching him that it was OK to perform his commands as he wished. Herstik also introduced me to the "clicker" method. I was skeptical about our chances of succeeding, but I dutifully worked on some basic obedience with Salinger, with little success in the beginning.
Weeks 3 - 5
Under Herstik's supervision, I tried taking Salinger for walks, using the prong collar, leather lead, clicker and training treats. Slowly, day by day, Salinger began reacting to my commands: "easy" (to keep him from pulling when we walked), "sit" (and staying seated until I released him with the word "OK"), and "down" (again, staying in a full down position until released with "OK"). After he executed each command, I clicked on the clicker (to praise him) and fed him a soft training treat.
Feeling much better about my relationship with Salinger, I began practicing commands with him at every walk (morning and evening), correcting him with a tug when he pulled on the leash, praising him with a clicker and food when he obeyed commands. Soon he was staying seated until released from a sit. While he still tugged at the leash, I didn't feel as out-of-control as I had been feeling in the past. During one session, Salinger & I sat (with trainer) at a sidewalk cafe and had coffee. Salinger seemed to understand long-term "down" -- in other words, he stayed down, though my foot had to remain on the leash to remind him to stay down. He did not go racing after the pigeons that taunted him, nor did he knock the table over to get at the poodle walking by with its owner. Later, when I recounted the story to my husband, he could hardly believe it. We tried the prolonged "down" at home, in our living room, and it worked! We were true believers.
Weeks 6 - 7
Major transformation. It felt as though we had traded our dog in for a new one. He was behaving very well. It was as if he has learned to learn.
Mike Herstik used a very apt metaphor to describe the situation. He likened Salinger to Helen Keller before her teacher, Annie Sullivan, came on the scene. In the beginning, Helen Keller could not learn because no one could get through to her. What Annie Sullivan brought with her was persistence and the belief that she could get through to Helen.
Was Mike Herstik our Anne Sullivan? In a lot of ways he was, because I think my husband and I were so frustrated by our failure to communicate with Salinger that we stopped believing we could train him. Mike knew training Salinger was possible, and gave me the tools to be persistent in my attempts to reach Salinger.
At this point, Herstik began teaching Salinger what he calls "compulsory down" -- which means that no matter where Salinger is, no matter what he is doing, he will go "down" when commanded. To achieve this, we took Salinger to the park and put him on two long leashes at the same time. I held one, Herstik held the other. We let Salinger walk a bit then gave him the command. If he did not obey, we "helped" him by pulling down on our leashes at the same time. Salinger had no choice but to obey. Once down, he got a click and a treat. After about three or four tries, he was going down on his own. This command worked later on at our local dog park, even though Salinger was right in the middle of chasing one of his doggie buddies! It was amazing. I swear I saw people nod in appreciation of what a well-behaved dog he was.
Weeks 8 - 10
During this period, Herstik began teaching Salinger (and me) how to perform a proper "heel," in which Salinger stays right by my thigh as we walk, and he stops when I stop. It was tough going at first, but he began getting it toward the end of week 10. In fact, he did it so well during one of the last sessions that Herstik said he was performing a perfect "competition" heel.
In the end, all I can say is I wish we had called a trainer a lot earlier. As the training session grew to an end, my husband and I found ourselves with what once seemed so impossible -- a well-behaved dog.
Our relationship with Salinger has changed, too. Because of the training (which is on-going, actually. I have to constantly reinforce what he's learned, or else he could lapse into his old behavior patterns) Salinger has regained indoor privileges. He now sleeps by the side of our bed, sits at our feet in the living room while we read or watch television, and accompanies us to outdoor restaurants and cafes on a regular basis. He sits when told to sit. He goes down immediately, no matter what he's doing. He's the dog we always wanted, but were afraid to wish for. And as an added bonus, he has actually stopped chewing on things, all but his own toys. Maybe he just needed to know we believed in him all along.