Sophie came to me from the Humane Society. I had hoped that her high energy and prey drive would make her my next disc dog. I brought her home and began training the basics. She learned so quickly! I thought picking up on disc would be a piece of cake for her so, enthusiastically, I brought her to Phoenix Area Disc Dog’s next play day. We immediately had problems. She became VERY aggressive, throwing her head over the shoulders and backs of the other dogs. She stole their discs and held them in her paws with an “I dare you to come get it” attitude. She chased and tackled the other dogs.
I brought her back to play days a few times, and each time her behavior got worse. She started fighting with the other dogs and when she lunged and tried to bite 2 different people, I never brought her back.
At home, our walks got shorter and shorter because she seemed to give off an air of hostility toward other dogs. Instead, I kept her in the yard and walked her early in the morning to limit the number of people and dogs we would encounter. If I saw someone else coming toward me with a dog, I changed my direction because Sophie would growl and bark and lunge at them. I was so afraid she would bite someone.
Taking her out in public became so stressful for me that I just stopped doing it.
I tried pet store training. Sophie learned all of the skills but still tried to dominate all of the other dogs. Loose-leash walking was not something I was comfortable with. The trainer tried to sell me things like harnesses, gentle leaders, and even a muzzle. I tried all of these but they didn’t change her behavior, only the way I dealt with it. I attended a “reactive dog class” with a world renowned trainer. I learned a great deal about reading Sophie and recognizing what stress looks like on Sophie, but in the end I was told, “You may never be able to take her out with other dogs.”
Saddened, we went back to playing only in the back yard and to our early morning walks, where Sophie still pulled me around the park and lunged at every bird, bunny, cat, and squirrel.
Then, I got an opportunity to train with Sit Means Sit. Because of her history with aggression towards dogs and people, she started out wearing a muzzle. After a few weeks of classes she had progressed enough to come to class without the muzzle – a huge milestone because the muzzle was MY crutch. When the muzzle was on, I knew she could not hurt anyone. Without the muzzle I knew I had to rely on Sophie and the skills we had learned together at Sit Means Sit. I was scared to death that Sophie would hurt someone or start a fight with another dog. I was nervous and tried very hard to keep her away from everyone else. I cringed when certain active dogs would choose a spot in class next to her. I held her leash in a death grip, waiting for trouble to start, but it never did. Sophie handled each of the dogs with no more than a glance, waiting calmly on her place until it was her turn to try the exercise.
This morning I took her out for a walk and saw a person walking towards us. Instead of changing direction to avoid the person, I decided to try to walk past. My grip on the leash tightened as I choked up on it, giving Sophie only a few short inches. As we passed, I prepared myself for lunging and growling. Sophie trotted right by, barely acknowledging the other person. “Whew!” I thought, and promised myself that when we passed the next person, I would bring Sophie to heel and loosen my grip on the leash. Around the bend came our next challenge – and this person had a dog! Taking a deep breath, I put Sophie on the outside, called her to heel, and we passed each other. Sophie turned her head to look at the dog, but a quick tap of the collar brought her focus back and we continued on. I let out a sigh of relief and felt so proud, but I didn’t have much time to celebrate, because coming right for us was Sophie’s nemesis – a Boxer.
Sophie has never met a Boxer she liked. “Just trust your training,” I kept repeating to myself. I noticed a change in Sophie as she spotted the dog. Her tail came up, her ears were erect, and she was leaning forward. I decided that a sit would be better than trying pass while walking. Quickly, I tapped the collar and commanded the sit. Sophie complied and remained in place while the Boxer passed. Her nose was working overtime as she sniffed the air but she held her position, because (say it with me) “Sit Means SIT!”
I was elated and let out a whoop so loud, the Boxer and owner turned around to stare.
I know these sound like small accomplishments, but they are HUGE to me. Now I can take Sophie out and feel confident that she and I can handle the challenges that we meet.
Thank you Toni and Elsa for helping me to help Sophie. I strongly feel that Sophie had it in her all the time, but needed me to learn how to convey it to her.
Your expertise and patience in teaching me has made such a difference in our lives!
My new training mantras:
1. Trust your training
2. Sit means sit!