In 2002, Willie was a year old German shepherd running loose on the streets of Austin, Texas when animal control caught him and put him in the pound. He went unclaimed and unadopted and was scheduled to be euthanized, but on his last day the Austin German Shepherd Rescue picked him up, drove him north thirty miles to the Triple Crown Academy for Dog Trainers and left him there for the students to train.
That was where I met him. He was one of several dogs assigned to me as a student to train. He was an underfed, ragged looking, long haired shepherd that looked more coyote than German. He wasn’t loose on the streets without reason. He liked to have staring contests with other big males that would quickly escalate to outburst of barking and lunging on the leash, and he was also skittish around strangers.
We were allowed to have one of the dogs assigned to us stay with us in our rooms, and after I’d been working with Willie for a few weeks, I chose him. The first time I let him up on the bed, he tried to lick my face, but he did it with such determination that it was half lick and half bite and accompanied with loud, nervous whining. It wasn’t for the faint of heart and I’d put money on this behavior being what got him left unclaimed at the pound. An 80 pound dog licking your six-year-old’s face like this would send most households into fits.
The instructors at Triple Crown were big proponents of pinch collars. This was over ten years ago, so I don’t know if they still are, but they were also big on the training clicker paired with food. Their method was the carrot and the stick, the biscuit and the pinch. I was familiar with the pinch–my mom had trained our childhood dog with a choke chain–but the clicker was new to me. By graduation I’d become proficient in the use of both.
Many of the students were adopting one or more of the dogs assigned to them. Of the dogs assigned to me, a pitbull/Lab mix named Tuck had already been re-homed, and Willie’s rescue organization had found a young woman interested in adopting him. As graduation approached, I was planning my next dog, the one I would get that would help me in my new line of work as a dog trainer. I wanted a demonstration dog, a biddable golden retriever that loved people and other dogs, not a skittish, dog aggressive German Shepherd that nipped when he licked my face.
One of the finals at Triple Crown for the trainer certification was a full size agility course, including weave poles and teeter, and Willie ran it almost clean–I had to repeat a command–and got the highest score on the course in the class. Afterward, someone asked if I was going to adopt him, and it wasn’t until I answered yes that I decided to, issues and all. I’d grown attached to him, a sort of respectful détente. My unspoken fear was that after being adopted by the young woman, he’d exhibit his aggression at another dog or a person and end up in the pound again, this time without the second chance at Triple Crown. He helped me pass the class and I owed him, but the truth of it was that he wasn’t done yet with teaching me things.
It was when I brought Willie back to Boston, where I lived at the time, that his aggression and skittishness became more the norm and less that occasional outburst. Triple Crown used the training clicker to teach a dog agility, but their solution to aggression was the pinch. Boston has the third densest population in the nation, and Willie and I were living right in the city, so I had plenty of opportunity to practice my skill with the pinch. The more I used it, the worse his behavior got. Dogs no longer had to be nearby to set him off, but even just across the street could do it.
I was at a loss, so I started researching alternate methods to address aggression in dogs. I watched a seminar on aggression by Kathy Sdoa that made sense to me based on my experience with the clicker. The gist of it was that you desensitized your dog to what set him off through the use of food and training, so what used to be a trigger became a prompt for a trained behavior, such as sit and look at me. For Willie, this would mean that every time he saw a dog, instead of being told to heel and getting jerked on the pinch, he’d get a biscuit and a happy response from me at the sight of the other dog. This meant not him not wearing a pinch but a buckle collar instead.
When I realized I was reluctant, even afraid, to give up the pinch, though I knew it was the right thing to do, I had an epiphany that using the pinch had more to do with my need to feel in control, as if Willie was some kind of extension of myself and my ego that I could control, than to do with him learning anything or the two of us developing the mutual trust I wanted. In those days, when there was a trait about myself that I didn’t like or I did something foolish, I would criticize myself. This didn’t solve or change anything, if anything it was the equivalent of rubbing my nose in piddle and only made me feel worse. It was intended as incentive toward self-improvement–though when has beating ourselves up ever helped?–but was pointless punishment reinforcing my emotional status quo, much as the pinch was criticism and punishment for Willie that also solved nothing and only made him feel and behave worse.
The real beginning of my education as a dog trainer was when I took Willie’s pinch collar off for the last time. Instead of the instructors at Triple crown being my teachers, Willie was (and maybe he had been all along).
Now with a decade of positive training under my belt as hindsight, I can say I took a dog just beginning to show reactive behavior toward dogs and people, and through the use of the pinch collar, turned him into a fearful, aggressive dog that was difficult to take anywhere.
The process went like this. Willie would see a dog and get excited because he wanted to say hello, sniff some butt like most dogs. I’d get tense and shorten his leash. He’d get more excited as the dog got closer. I’d command Willie to heel and start enforcing the command with jerks on the pinch.
Willie learned that the sight of other dogs meant pain, so he started barking at them at first sight to make them go away, and I confirmed what he thought by jerking him around on the pinch when he started barking. The worse he got, the worse I got. The poor dog.
A puppy like Fleegle, that has been taught with positive methods, when asked to do something he doesn’t understand will offer up the latest thing he’s learned. Whenever I ask him if he’s ready to do some training, he offers a sit, then a down, and then scoots backward on the ground with his head cocked to the side–“Is this what you want? Gimme the biscuit.”
Whereas a dog like Willie that has been trained with pain won’t want to make a mistake and will offer nothing. It took Willie a long time to trust that I wasn’t going to punish him if he offered up something new when he didn’t understand what it was I was asking from him, but he did eventually. We have a game where I hold a small biscuit in my lips and he takes it with only a hint of tickle from his whiskers.