A Dog Training Manual as Memoir

Eventually I will write this book. The whole thing. Not sure when “eventually” will turn into “soon” but it will happen. I’m sharing it now, prematurely, since the rest of the book hasn’t been written yet, as a way to keep myself honest. If I do a spoiler alert then I really truly have to write the rest of it — right? Good winter project, perhaps.

Because I have a number — ok, a LARGE number, in some folks’ opinions — of notyouraverage dogs, training is a huge part of my life. Call them working breed, high drive, or just plain INTENSE, my dogs are not like “normal” dogs. Their needs are different and their responses to “normal” stuff is different. Training isn’t suggested or important – it’s critical to everyone’s survival. But I am not much of a dog trainer, not in any organized or thoughtful way. The book — once I write it — is about living with these dogs: surviving, thriving, enjoying, screwing up, and learning how to live in harmony and relative peace with beings that seem to take great pleasure in destruction of all things humans care about. What follows is the introduction… I think.



Walking around the pond with the whole family off leash, we came upon a dead, semi-disemboweled toad. Several family members leaned in for a closer look. Without missing a beat, I commanded “Leave it,” in a clear, unemotional but unequivocal, tone. I commanded like a pro – accustomed to giving such directives and fully expecting to have them obeyed. The one small glitch? I was talking to my husband.

Training my dogs isn’t something I do. It’s something I live. Training isn’t an activity separate from daily life, as poor Mr. Toad’s demise demonstrates. Everything that happens on this mountain where we all live is fodder for a command. Every day, every moment I’m with the pack, we’re teaching and learning and those roles are fluid. My approach to having well-behaved “trained” dogs is not something I could lay out in a training manual, and this is not a “dog training” book. I figure out, convince, cajole and mold my dogs into beings I want to be around all the time. As my husband is fond of saying (albeit with regard to weight loss): It’s a lifestyle, not a diet and exercise plan. What I do with my dogs often ends up “training” them, but that isn’t exactly the goal. The goal is happy, safe, dogs and a relatively tolerable household. Given that I lived in a one room shack with five large, high drive dogs for three years, I’ll admit it can be a tall order.

The impetus to write this book was born of reading other dog training books. You see, I do wonder what I’m missing by not training my dogs the “normal” way. I’m endlessly curious about dogs. Coyotes and wolves too, but because I live with dogs, and there’s tons written about them, I tend to read about dogs and dog training. I’ve read a few classics and learned something from each: Patricia McConnell’s The Other End of The Leash and Suzanne Cloutier’s Bones Would Rain From The Sky were consumed when I adopted Hawkitt, and he benefitted from the expertise I gleaned from these authors. A year or so later, I devoured On Talking Terms with Dogs: Calming Signals by Turid Rugaas in an afternoon. I love looking up from my iPhone at the breakfast table (yes, I’m that kind of jerk) to see my husband using these signals (I taught them to him) with our newest challenge – Peeka.

However, it was reading Jean Donaldson and Kevin Behan side by side that made me decide to write my own book. Your Dog is Your Mirror and The Culture Clash could not approach dogs and training them from more divergent perspectives, yet both authors speak with great authority and conviction, seem knowledgeable and experienced, and boast extensive successes. Both speak in absolutes, and the books are full of always/never language and unwavering assertions. They seem so certain of their techniques, methods, and the theoretical underpinnings thereof, and back up these assertions with reams of “proof.” And I believe them. I am not insinuating that either one of them are blowing smoke. I think these two wildly different approaches are both yielding consistent success. Put plainly, I think they are both right. And maybe they are both wrong.

I use neither of their approaches with any consistency at all, and in my 10 years or so fostering and adopting pointy-eared Belgian and Dutch shepherds I’ve created a number of obedient, fun dogs out of frightened, abused and nearly feral wrecks. I am open-minded, but absent-minded. I’m not unwilling to try a new technique and see how it works, if I can remember all the steps. But I can’t always spit out the correct dog’s name, much less “perform” steps or apply techniques in an organized or consistent manner. My life just isn’t like that. I need commands because of bears and porcupines, not tunnels and teeter totters. I need dogs that are safe with me and my lifestyle, which is a bit rough and tumble to say the least. And my eclectic mish mash of McConnell, Cloutier, Karen Pryor, Donaldson, Behan, and many others seems to work. I let the dog, the unique individual in front of me, dictate how we come to live in harmony.  Ok, maybe not dictate, but at least participate. The dogs and I work it out – I demand, they comply a little, I bend a little and we end up somewhere mutually acceptable.

Where am I going with this? If Donaldson’s Skinnerian behavioral approach, Behan’s energetic paradigm, and my chaotic bumbling all work reasonably well most of the time with most dogs, what does that really say about dogs and training them? I believe it bespeaks of a heresy: most methods work. Most approaches, no matter what the philosophy behind them, regardless of whether they’re based on research or intuition or hogwash, work.

Yes, you read that correctly. I think most people, no matter what they do, manage to train their dogs about as much as they want to, sometimes much much more. Sometimes folks give up after experiencing precious little success, but I think the fat part of the bell curve is full of folks who’d describe their training experience as “yeah, I did ok. We got most of what we needed to do accomplished.” Most people manage to establish that outdoors is for bathroom functions, and a sit-down-stay-come that works in at least 75% of situations. Maybe even polite leash walking. For many people, that’s plenty. And they get there using every method and technique under the sun. I’ve met quite a few clicker fans, and seen incredible results. Some people use food treats for everything, and have that treatbag on their belt at all times. Flawless dogs reported. I trained my very first dog exclusively using leash corrections (it was the 1970s so don’t get your panties in a knot), and he was perfect (he was also a German Shepherd Dog and a damn good one at that). Every one of these approaches has its cheerleaders and its naysayers. And I think all of them work.

But back in the second paragraph I promised you that this wasn’t a dog training manual. That’s because the “how” of getting a dog to do our bidding isn’t interesting to me. Seems like there’s plenty of information out there about the “how” and plenty of options. Wanna get Fido to do something? Try a technique. If it doesn’t work well enough, try another one. Figuring out how to teach a trick so that a dog will perform it is not interesting to me. Once I am sure I’m not being cruel, I’m also equally sure that eventually some method will work. Trying to get a dog to stop engaging in a behavior is more challenging to me, but that too is the realm of “how” – and again, try a technique. If that doesn’t work, try another one. In the vast majority of cases, something works.

But the “why” of dog training – now that keeps me up at night. Not why train your dog at all (I just rolled my eyes and smacked you upside your head), but why dogs comply. Why do dogs trade their agenda for ours? I am outnumbered and outgunned when I walk my pack. They are stronger, faster, and much more lethal than me. They could do whatever the hell they wanted to, and I couldn’t stop them. They have to know this. They are not stupid or insensitive to my impotence. But when they explode after a deer, I can reliably get them to hit the brakes and return to my side immediately. I have nothing to offer them for that act of trading their agenda for my own. I don’t have a treat or a toy or even much of a response. But they do it. They leave prey animals alone. They do “tricks” like “high five” or recently Hawkitt climbed a tree, just because I asked him to. I use no incentive, no reward, no punishment. I just said “hey Hawk, go climb that tree” and whaddya know – he did it. My question is: Why? My endless fascination is with the willingness of my dogs to do make this trade – their agenda for mine – and that’s what this book is about.


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