The Journey to Here: Guest Blog Post by Katie Virtue…Enjoy!
December 09, 2012
We interrupt our regular programming to bring you this special blog post by me: Katie! I’m an apprentice with Follow the Leader and some of you may have taken classes that I assisted. Normally you hear me talking about leash walking, or basic positions, but today I want to talk to you about the topic that defines me as a trainer, and that’s being advocates for our dogs. Bear with me, as this is a long post but it’s a story that I need to tell. Kudos to you if you make it all the way to the end!
One thing we always tell you in class is to question everything we do. We encourage our students to read widely, and train wisely. If you don’t like or understand something we’re doing, don’t follow us blindly. Ask us why we do what we do, and how we can tailor our techniques for you and your dog. We may know a lot about training, but at the end of the day, you are an expert on your own dog. It’s your job to be your dog’s spokesperson in every aspect of its life. This is a lesson I wish someone had taught me long before Jon and Danielle ever did. Allow me to explain.
I have a four year old great dane named Scarlett, and she is without a doubt the love of my life (ssh, don’t tell my boyfriend). From the day she came home to me, I vowed that I would do everything I could to start her off on the right foot so that we could eventually do therapy visits to schools and hospitals together. It was a really nice dream, but sadly, it was a dream that never came to reality. Far from it. And it’s my own fault. I failed to stand up for my dog, and I am still paying the price.
Scarlett was a terrible puppy. Actually, that’s not entirely true. She was wonderful in the sense that she peed and pooped outside, slept well in her crate, and loved people and dogs. But she was terrible in the sense that she had endless energy, pulled like a mack truck on leash, and liked to jump up and bite my arms in play, leaving painful bruises. Constantly. By the time she was seven months old I’d had enough and decided to send her to my breeder’s for a board and train. The thing about board and trains is quite simple: you’re not there. The person who has your dog is free to do what they like, and there’s nothing you can do about it. How can you stand up for your dog if you’re not there? I knew my breeder used things like alpha rolls and shock collars, and the decision was mine to leave her there. I regret it every day. I know she wasn’t abused, in fact, they loved her very much. But they unwittingly did a lot of damage. Just because their training philosophy worked for their dogs, it didn’t mean that it would work for mine. And it didn’t. In fact, things got so much worse once she came home. A switch had flipped and it was downhill from there.
As part of Scarlett’s continued training, I was told to buy a shock collar for the dog parks and stop letting her greet new people because she was so focused on everyone else when she should have been focusing on me. I blindly followed every word of advice I was given, even if I didn’t particularly like what I was doing. What I did like was the sense of control that I got after having gone so long without any control whatsoever. But it soon became apparent that my formerly loving puppy was at risk for biting a dog or person.
Suddenly she was engaging in fights at the dog park (due to the negative association to other dogs, thanks to the shock collar and prong collar) and was lunging at people on the streets for getting too close to us (due to lack of socialisation). She didn’t trust other dogs, other people, and most of all – she didn’t trust me. I wanted to be her best friend, but in her eyes I was unpredictable and mean. The exact opposite of what I wanted to be. And all because I didn’t stand up for her when I should have, and blindly followed training advice from someone who really doesn’t know the first thing about it. Why would she trust me after all that? I wouldn’t trust me either.
It got to the point where we couldn’t have her interact with our friends if they came over to visit us (we had moved in with my boyfriend Guy by this point) and meet her for the first time. She would bark and growl and thrash around in her crate like she was ready to attack. We had to start walking down the middle of the street for fear of encountering a person or dog. We quickly got a bad reputation in the neighbourhood for having “that dog” and something had to change. I was thinking she’d have to be returned to the breeder or be put down, and I didn’t want to see either of those things happen.
This is where Jon and Danielle came in. Guy took her to the park every day and would chat with Jon about training. He’d come home and tell me what he learned and I’d respond that it made sense but I didn’t think it would work for Scarlett. All of a sudden I started questioning things, mainly because the things Guy had learned from Jon challenged what I had already believed to be “right.” In other words, they challenged my idea of control, respect, and dominance because they suggested patience, partnership, and mutual respect instead.
After a particularly ugly incident where I tripped on the sidewalk and Scarlett decided to blame an innocent bystander by lunging at him, Guy suggested that we call Danielle. He had gotten her business card from a dog walker who has since become one of my closest friends. Feeling defeated, I agreed.
The day Danielle came to my door is the day our lives changed. She shed so much light on what was happening, and gave us lots of tools for management and treatment. What impressed me the most was that she admitted she didn’t have all the answers but would do some more research and keep working with us. If a professional trainer can keep learning, why couldn’t I? We enrolled Scarlett in a class at Follow the Leader and on the very first day, Jon told us to question everything he was doing. Question everything? Why hadn’t I thought of that earlier?! It’s such a simple concept and yet it was so hard for me to do in the past. So much of what I’ve gone through with Scarlett could have been avoided if I had simply stood up for US and not allowed myself to be bullied into doing things that felt unnatural or uncomfortable.
After a few sessions with Danielle and a few classes at Follow the Leader, I threw myself into educating myself on dog behaviour. I really became familiar with the tenets of positive reinforcement training and quite honestly, I fell in love with the stuff to the point where I quit my publishing job and became a full-time dog walker and training apprentice. More importantly, I felt free. I felt free to love my dog again, and to be true to myself. From there, Jon and Danielle went from being my trainers to being my close friends and mentors. I learn so much from them, and you know what? Sometimes they learn from me too. Because they question everything – including themselves. Being a good dog trainer isn’t about having all the answers – it’s about learning, adapting, and evolving. I didn’t know that until I met them. I can now respect someone who admits they don’t have all the answers. I can no longer respect someone who claims they do.
Scarlett still has some stranger danger that requires close management (so if you see me out walking her and I cross the street to avoid you and your dog, I’m not being mean, I swear). But the successes (no bite history being #1!) we’ve had with her could probably double this already very long blog post, so I’ll spare your weary eyes. Just know that I’m actually crying as I type this (I’m an emotional girl), but I assure you that they’re tears of joy. The big loving dog snoring beside me with her head pressed against my lap is truly my best friend and I love her very much. I’m pretty sure she feels the same way! I feel forgiven for my weaknesses, which have now become my strengths. In both my personal and professional lives, I stand up for dogs. I encourage you to do the same, starting with your own. We’re always here if you need guidance.