My Dog, My Teacher

I’d forgotten the simple truth of dogs: they are our greatest teachers. When you work with a dog, you must learn your own lessons first before you can teach a dog his lessons.

Some of you know that after two years of being dog-less since Shadow, my German shepherd’s death from cancer, we chose to add a new German shepherd puppy to our home. I wasn’t prepared. Not one bit. You see the calendar pictures of puppies and think, “Aw, how cute” and expect a cuddle buddy.

Instead, you find yourself sleep deprived and caring for a voracious velociraptor who is intent upon destroying your home and your sanity.

Between sleep deprivation, my constant anxiety (a holdover from childhood), and reading too much online for my own good, I was a nervous wreck.

The internet is both a blessing and a curse. It’s a blessing because at a moment’s notice I can access the equivalent of a full library of research. I used to depend on my public library’s collection for research; now the world is at my fingertips.

It’s a curse because any yahoo can write anything (present company excepted), publish it, and have it seem like gospel truth.

I made myself absolutely crazy the first two weeks with my new puppy by reading all sorts of advice. I felt pressured to do what the ‘experts’ said but all the experts said different things. How was I to pick out the best bits if I didn’t know who to trust?

My sister said look at Cesar Milan’s site. My friends gave me the names of local trainers ranging from one who jumped immediately to tough love to another who preferred game play. Our dog’s veterinarian gave me the card of a local trainer and said that behavior and training wasn’t his field so he could only answer my veterinary questions. Fair enough. I felt that I didn’t know how to raise a puppy and that if I did something wrong I’d have a 90 pound ferocious mess of a dog on my hands in a few months.

Ridiculous, I know, but this is where my thoughts went. “If I make a mistake now and don’t do the right thing he’s going to be Cujo.”

My husband said, “Forget about the experts. We raise this dog as we mean to have him. We’ll be fine.”

I tortured myself by reading every single online forum about German shepherds. It seems as if I’d added a maniac to my family – hadn’t I?

I’d forgotten the truth of internet forums: NOBODY POSTS GOOD THINGS THERE. You only read the horror stories. Everyone who shows up to a forum looking for advice is desperate. If you read forums on dog problems, you end up reading all the crazy stories and scaring yourself.

I realized I was like a mother who, bringing home her newborn baby, worries that if she doesn’t do every single thing perfect he’s going to turn into a serial killer.

All the forums and articles made me more anxious. I read all sorts of advice that included:

  • Crate training is a MUST for your dog (No, it’s not. It’s completely optional. People have been raising dogs for hundreds of years without crates and in some countries today including Finland and Sweden, it’s actually illegal.)
  • You can housebreak your dog in just two weeks! (Not likely).
  • Never say NO to your dog.
  • Start training now.
  • Don’t train until he’s six months old.
  • Teach bite inhibition.
  • Don’t teach bite inhibition.
  • You definitely need a professional trainer. (Maybe yes, maybe no. Depends.)
  • Don’t feed your puppy rawhide. (Our vet said it’s fine.)
  • Don’t let your puppy go on hikes! Long walks are bad! It will ruin his joints and set him up for hip dysplasia later! (No evidence of this. Our vet said it is fine.)
  • Don’t take your puppy walking on a leash on the street until he is 6 months old or he can catch something horrible and die. (No, our vet said it is fine. Just no boarding kennels or dog parks or places with a large concentration of dogs until Zeke is 6 months and completes his vaccinations.)

Thirty some-odd years ago, I had helped a woman retrain an off-track Thoroughbred. I exercised her horse, helping instill consistent commands to turn a racehorse into a pleasure hunter. I’ve ridden horses, trained horses, and worked with rescued dogs.

I had forgotten the big lesson: to work with animals, you must know yourself. You must be confident. Have a plan. Reward. Punish fairly. Never harsh discipline. And leave time for play, in whatever way the species plays, because all work and no play makes for cranky animals (and people).

There is no right or wrong way to raise a dog. The only wrong way I know is to abuse an animal. The rest? It’s an enormous canvas of gray area.

I read an article by, of all people, a Navy SEAL and Meagan Karnes, a woman who trains Belgian Malinois for the armed forces. Both said the same thing in different ways and it really resonated with me. I’m paraphrasing it here:

When a puppy is young, it wants a leader, not a mother. It had a mother. You have to step up and be the leader. Not alpha (that’s old-fashioned thinking that’s been debunked) but a LEADER. Leaders LEAD. Never give a command to a dog you don’t intend to follow through on. Lavish with praise, use the lightest amount of correction and graduate up. Find what motivates your dog. Work with him daily. Be consistent.

Yes. This is what I had forgotten. I needed to be a leader and rise to the challenge if I wanted this young pup to become the wonderful companion dog I sought.

There is no right or perfect way to raise a puppy, a horse, or a person. I’ve ridden horses that were Western trained who had to be taught English riding style. I’ve ridden green horses who knew very little and needed consistency to understand and grasp the rider’s commands. I know how to do this.

Perhaps someday I may need a trainer or an expert to help me with something and I now have a list of people whose training styles I like and respect and think might work for us as a team if we want or need them.

But I might not need them. We may just be fine on our own. The majority of people raise great dogs in their home with love, kindness, and fairness. I can, too.

We are learning together, one day at a time. Meanwhile, I’ve removed all the bookmarks to all the forums where all the people with problems go.

Maybe someday I’ll be one of those people and need advice and help. But today is not that day.

Today, I choose to trust myself, learn from my dog, and become a better human being because of it.

God gave us a great gift in our relationships with dogs.