Mistakes can never be undone, but sharing them sometimes prevents others from traveling down the same remorseful road, while also revealing how a person becomes who they are today. Often, people question why I have such a deep-seated aversion to using physical corrections on my dogs, or why it took me so long to discover the joys of working with a dog in any sort of dog sport. Before Leah, Toby, and Meadow came along – Nick and I shared our hearts and our home with an abused Doberman named Harley. He was our first dog, and he taught us a great deal about dogs – mostly, what not to do. Below is a candid story about Harley that I’d like to share with you, a regretful look at my first foray into the world of dog training.
By Donna Owczarek
Harley’s adoption agreement stipulated that Nick and I were to take him to sixteen weeks of obedience school, and his foster mom also encouraged me to try competition obedience with my new Doberman.“He’s very smart and would be good at it,” she said.
Although I knew nothing of dog sports, the suggestion intrigued me. I said that I would think about it, and then enrolled at one of the obedience schools she had recommended. While waiting for the first block of eight-week classes to begin, I began training Harley on my own.
Since he already knew several commands, including “Sit” and “Down,” I asked him to perform them each day, rewarding him generously when he complied. The training seemed to be going well, except that I found it difficult to walk him with the nylon choke that his foster mom had given me. Harley was powerful, and whenever he spied a squirrel in the yard, he either wrenched me from my feet, or the leash from my grasp.
My sister, Christine, suggested, “You should try a Gentle Leader, it’s the only way I can walk K.C.” A Labrador mix, K.C. was quite strong.
After Googling the device, I ordered one in Harley’s size, and from the moment I fit it over his head, I discovered that he could no longer drag me around the yard. I began taking him for daily walks around the neighborhood, delighted by the degree of control the head collar lent me.
My delight died a few weeks later, when I proudly led Harley in the door for his first day of school. Even before introductions, the head trainer snatched the Gentle Leader off his head and smugly informed me, “He is not a horse!”
“But, he’s stronger than me,” I protested.
“That’s why you’ll train him.”
She fitted Harley with a dominant dog collar – a nylon choke that’s worn snug and high on the neck, where a dog is most sensitive. Knowing that Harley overpowered me while wearing the similar choke collar we already owned, I handed the leash to Nick, unable to mask my disappointment. “I guess you’ll be the one training him.”
I sat on the sidelines to observe the lesson, and that hard wooden bench became my station for the remainder of the classes; the place where I bore witness to the horrors that are done to our best friends, all in the name of ‘training.’
During that first class, the owners were required to walk around the room with their dogs at their left sides, in the ‘heel’ position, while the instructor barked at the students, “Check him back!” This meant that a dog had moved past his owner’s left knee, and the owner needed to yank their dog back into the proper position.
We shared the class with several other owners and their dogs, and whenever one of them pressed too closely, Harley made it clear that he did not like strange dogs by lunging at them, teeth bared. Each time this occurred, Nick had a hard time regaining control.
Cries of “Check him back!” continued – most of them directed at my husband.
After walking around the room in the above manner for about fifteen minutes, the dogs were required to sit in a line. If any of them dared to move from their spots, their owner was instructed to, “Step forward and pull up on the leash.”
Harley stood several times, and each time Nick corrected him as told, forcing him back into a sitting position by exerting pressure around his windpipe until he complied with the demand.
Finally, class ended, and we headed home with our newfound ‘knowledge.’
I put aside the Gentle Leader and attempted to teach Harley to “Heel” like I had witnessed in class. Practicing in the backyard, I jerked on the leash whenever Harley tried to pass my left leg and commanded him to “Heel!” After repeated attempts at getting ahead of me, only to be checked back in place, Harley had enough. He grabbed the leash in his teeth and tore it from my hands, taking off at full tilt to run along the fence with Adel, the Rottweiler that lived behind us.
When I demanded that he stop, he completely ignored my calls.
By the time I corralled him, I worried over my lack of control, and envisioned what might have happened if he had broken free on a walk, and spied another dog. From then on, I decided to stop walking Harley around the neighborhood, at least until after he was trained.
In between classes, Harley’s world shrunk to the size of our yard.
The next class again began with heeling exercises, and this time, Nick tried holding a treat above Harley’s nose to keep him at his side.
“Stop luring your dog,” the trainer commanded.
Nick slid the treat back into his pocket and went back to yanking on the leash, which appeared to have no affect on our straining, lunging Doberman.
Annoyed, the instructor stepped over to them, grabbed Harley’s leash from Nick, and said, “Here, let me show you.”
She led our dog to the middle of the ring, and when he went to pull ahead, she jerked the collar so severely that Harley erupted in a gasping and coughing fit that lasted several minutes. While I watched in silent horror, Nick walked over and angrily retrieved Harley.
“He shouldn’t have reacted that way,” the trainer said apologetically, attempting to rectify her actions. “He must’ve been strung up at one point and probably has tracheal damage.”
Nick and I both felt sickened by the incident; however, it had been made quite clear during Harley’s adoption that the organization would take our dog away if we breached our contract. Besides, the trainer claimed she had not expected such a reaction; surely she would not have hurt Harley on purpose. The following week, we dragged him back to class.
While the head trainer busied herself arranging canines in a line, her assistant walked over to my bench and asked, “Does Harley know ‘Down’?”
“He sure does,” I boasted. Then I described how I had been practicing it regularly at home and giving him treats whenever he listened.
“Oh.” She frowned. “Then he still needs to learn ‘Down.’”
I looked at her quizzically. Had she not been listening to me?
She pointed to the line-up of dogs. “Watch.”
The teacher instructed the students to say the command “Down” and then immediately step on the leash, which issued a sharp correction while yanking their dogs into position. I watched as Harley struggled to get back up, and the trainer told Nick to walk up the leash, towards our dog, literally forcing him to the floor. Despite the horrendous pressure on the back of his neck, Harley fought to remain sitting, his front legs straining in a push-up position.
“Push him down at his shoulders,” the trainer called from across the room.
Nick pushed downward, but Harley refused to budge. Finally, the trainer stormed over and shoved Harley to the ground.
“And that is how you teach ‘Down’,” the assistant informed me. “He needs to ‘Down’ because he respects you, not because he’s getting a treat.”
The next day, while dutifully practicing my lesson at home, Harley refused to cooperate. Mimicking what I had learned, I started walking up his leash. For the first time, my Doberman fixed me with a hard stare, and then showed me the gleam of his teeth.
I backed away, afraid.
Afterwards, I decided to leave the majority of training to Nick, whose work schedule did not allow him much time to practice. This meant Harley was trained mostly in class and, not surprisingly, made little progress. By the sixth session, when the trainer noticed that Harley continued to charge at the other dogs, she headed towards Nick carrying a medieval looking device, a metal collar that containing two inverted rows of blunted spikes.
“I’d like you to try a prong collar on him.”
When Nick looked at her doubtfully, she explained that the tool would be better for Harley since it had a limited slip action and it could not tighten around his throat as much as the choke collar.
“You need to give him a correction, so he knows you’re in charge,” she argued.
Reluctantly, Nick agreed to try.
The next time Harley lunged at a passing dog, Nick gave him a firm correction just as he had been instructed. Within seconds, Harley began coughing and gasping, nearly as severely as when the trainer had led him to center stage. When my husband removed the offending tool and handed it back to her, I could see the barely contained anger smoldering behind his eyes.
In the car he spat, “I can’t believe I let her talk me into putting that on him.”
As he steered the car from the lot, Nick apologized softly to Harley, who laid quietly on the back seat, no doubt wondering why we kept insisting on bringing him to such a horrible place. Yet, unaware that other methods existed, we continued. Even worse, I continued to subscribe to the trainer’s primitive ‘you must be the boss’ mentality. Because Harley had already growled at me once, I convinced myself he had dominance issues, and it was that line of thinking that led me to make a grave mistake.
One day, after returning from a trip to the yard, I paused in the living room to talk to Nick’s mom, Alys, whose basement we resided in at the time. Harley spied her cat, Fuzzy, lying nearby, and started to stare. Realizing the imminent danger, the cat dashed away, and Harley bolted after her – nearly yanking my arm from its socket.
I jerked back on his leash and bellowed, “No! Leave-it!”
Harley spun around – and snapped at me.
After a moment of stunned uncertainty, I grabbed Harley by the muzzle, and smacked him once, right across the top of it, while snarling, “Don’t you ever snap at me!”
Luckily for me, Harley laid his ears back, but did nothing more. My hands trembled from fear as I dragged him down the stairwell and secured him in his crate before returning upstairs.
Alys looked as pale as I felt. “I think you handled that well,” she said. “I’d have been afraid.”
“Look at me. I’m still shaking,” I said, before reciting the rhetoric I had been fed, “but I had to let him know that I’m in charge.”
Perhaps Harley should have bitten me, because spared retaliation, I continued on in my ignorance. The first eight-week session ended without further issue, and Harley received a diploma stating that he had satisfactorily completed basic obedience. In my eyes, he was no better behaved than the day he first began.
When the trainer informed us that the remaining eight advanced classes could be taken as drop-ins, which meant we did not need to adhere to a strict schedule, Nick and I found it increasingly difficult to drag ourselves to class. If not for the contract that we had agreed to honor, we would have pulled Harley completely. When we did show up, Harley’s behavior remained volatile – he defied lying down, continued to pull, and charged at the other dogs – snarling and snapping.
One day near the end of the sixteen weeks, the trainer took us aside and solemnly advised us that a shock collar was the only way to teach Harley to stop lunging at other dogs.
When we refused it, she continued to pressure us, “He’s a danger to other dogs, and potentially to children on bikes and skateboards. You need to correct his behavior before you have a serious incident.” Nick started to argue, but she interrupted him, “It’s really not as bad as you think. Will you at least let me demonstrate what it feels like?”
“Fine,” he said, his voice belaying his uncertainty.
The trainer set the collar on medium, and we took turns holding it while she pressed the remote. I thought it smarted a bit, however, Nick, a martial artist well versed in pain, proclaimed that it did not hurt him at all.
Breaking down our resistance, the trainer pressed, “You’re not going to be able to change his behavior if you can’t correct him – and the choke collar and prong collar are too much for his sensitive neck.” After reading our faces, she added, “This would be more humane.”
Nick looked at me. “What do you think?”
I hesitated, not really comfortable with putting a shock collar on my dog. Yet the trainer made it sound like it was our last chance to rehabilitate Harley. Besides, it really hadn’t hurt that much, not any more than the shock you might receive when touching a light switch after walking barefoot over a carpet.
The trainer fitted Harley with the collar and held onto the remote.
“Keep the leash attached to the slip lead and walk him past another dog,” she instructed Nick, “that way, he won’t associate the collar with you. When he lunges, I’ll press the button.”
Nick did as told, and as expected, when he neared the other dog, Harley charged.
From across the room, the trainer issued the shock. I’ll never know if she turned the setting higher than she had shown us, or if the shock felt significantly stronger against Harley’s fragile neck than it had in the palm of my hand. In either case, the unthinkable happened.
When Harley felt the shock, he spun around, snarling and snapping – at Nick.
Disgusted, Nick removed the collar and apologized to Harley for the last time. After that day, we begrudgingly finished the remaining few classes, but refused any suggestions. In class, Nick used the slip lead, but at home, I went back to using the Gentle Leader, not wanting to ‘train’ my dog further. Not only did I feel terrible about what I had allowed done to my dog, I developed a severe mistrust of dog trainers, questioning any and all advice from that day forward. Additionally, I gave up on any notions of competing in obedience with Harley. If that was what it took to compete – they could keep their ribbons.