From Domination to Cooperation: How a rescue dog changed my life and inspired me to become a Dog Trainer February 2021

I grew up with cats. It wasn’t until I was 27 years old that I would adopt my first dog, Shadow the husky mix and my life would change forever!

Before adopting Shadow I knew next to nothing about dogs. I was excited to learn how to train him but I assumed the methods were universal and agreed upon amongst trainers - you either knew how to train dogs or you didn’t. Boy was I wrong!

The day I brought him home

Adopting Shadow was exciting. All I knew was that I wanted to rescue a big, black dog with pointy ears. I searched Pet Finder for a few weeks and ended up seeing two dogs I wanted to meet at Toronto Animal Services. One was Shadow, a found stray husky mix, and the other was a greyhound/lab mix. When I walked into the kennel room, Shadow was standing there, looking at me and wagging his tail (despite many other dogs barking like crazy), the greyhound mix was cowering at the back of his kennel. To a newbie like me, the choice was clear… I took Shadow home that day.

I started taking him to the fenced dog park the very next day as I was under the impression ALL DOGS LOVE EACH OTHER ALL THE TIME. Lucky for me Shadow did love other dogs but he also seemed under-socialized and confused about how to interact with them. His over-the-top dog play at the park started tipping over into dog fights and before long it was happening every time we went (lucky for me again, he has a very “soft mouth” and despite his many fights he has never seriously hurt another dog, not even once). This is when another dog owner told me that Shadow was an “Alpha male” and needed a strong leader, just like Cesar Millan. I replied “who?”

Shadow at the dog park in the very early days - the bad-ass looking spiked collar I bought him didn’t help his image when he started getting into dog fights and I quickly stopped using it when I suspected it might hurt other dogs during play.

And so my adventure into dog training began, I walked straight home and excitedly looked up Cesar Millan. I marathoned a few seasons of his show and I watched all of his seminars I could find on YouTube. I wanted to BE HIM.

I also had the advice of friends in my ear including things like:

I do want to do a quick shoutout to my only friend who saw his behaviour for what it was and replied to my assertion that Shadow pulled on-leash because he was dominant by saying “I think he is just excited.” Little did I know that she was absolutely 100% right.

And so I attempted to train Shadow using dominance based training methods. I was calm and confident with my body language, I made the “Tssst” sound when I wanted Shadow to stop doing something, I popped his leash when he pulled, and I “alpha-rolled” him (sometimes for pulling on-leash but mostly for fighting other dogs at the park).

I remember none of this helping, Shadow continued to pull on-leash and get into fights at the dog park. I also remember I didn’t enjoy the training and I felt inadequate as a pack leader. The very last time I alpha rolled him was on my way to the dog park after a lot of frustrating pulling. I just wanted him to submit to me so badly that I attempted to flip him over on un-even muddy ground without thinking. We both ended up falling and getting covered in mud. I felt confused and dumb but we continued onto the park. As soon as we walked in and Shadow got into a dog fight. As I grabbed him to break it up, he bit me (known as a re-directed bite). He only bruised me a little bit but I felt shocked and I took him home and bawled my eyes out.

That experience motivated me to enrol into a group training class with a company called Follow the Leader. At the time I only chose the class because they offered a discount to anyone who had rescued a dog, but later I did notice and like their slogan “Be nice to your dog.” I am so thankful I ended up with them because I learned very quickly the power of using high value food in training. The first class I arrived with big, hard treats in my pocket and Shadow barked the whole time. The 2nd class I had small meaty treats in treat pouch and by the 6th class Shadow was one of the top dogs!

Me and Shadow graduating from our first group class

Unfortunately I still didn’t realize that the dominance theory was a myth; I didn’t know the theory originated while studying captive wolves and not domesticated dogs. I continued on believing that dogs care about being the alpha and that certain behaviours were clear indicators - especially when Shadow put his paw on me. This is a sad way to relate to a dog and it caused me pain to think about it every time he pawed me.. I didn’t want him to try to dominate me and I wondered why he was always trying!

As time went on using my new found training method, reinforcing behaviour I like and managing the environment to prevent behaviour I don’t, I saw a major change in Shadow! He learned to walk on a loose leash in the city and dog park fighting basically ceased (more on that in a future blog post). I was so impressed that I remember wondering why Cesar Millan didn’t use more treats on his show.

After 4 months together in Toronto, me and Shadow moved to rural New Brunswick for 6 months and I encountered a whole new set of challenges, the main one being his off-leash skills in un-fenced areas. Shadow is a husky mix, and he acts like it. He was the type of dog who did not care at all about keeping tabs on humans if he was free to run. He used to disappear, sometimes for 5 min, sometimes for 1 hour, and it was incredibly stressful. At one point I even looked at e-fencing kits. It is kind of funny actually, I was so ignorant about what an e-fence was that I didn’t realize I needed electricity to use it.. and at the time I was living completely off-grid in a tent, without electricity. Thankfully I had to focus on training instead. That summer we made some progress but a reliable recall was one of my biggest struggles with Shadow and the main reason I am attached to my GPS trackers now. I am proud to say that Shadow has been 99% reliable off-leash for the past 4 years and has become more reliable than my border collie (who was always so easy off-leash she didn’t get much official training)!

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When we moved back to Toronto I decided to get into dog walking for a change of pace (I had been a jeweller for 9 years prior). I am embarrassed to admit that the first version of my website, iloveyourdog.ca read something like “I use a little bit of Cesar Millan dominance mixed with a lot of positive reinforcement!”

To get into dog walking one of the things I needed was pet first aid training. I signed up for a full-day course put on by the same force free trainers I took the group class with. During one of the breaks I was talking to my trainer and I mentioned dominance. He simply made note that there is no valid science to back up the dominance theory and left it at that. He was kind and compassionate and a seed was planted. When I got home I looked into it further and what I found blew my mind.

I read a paper by the wolf biologist David Mech entitled “Whatever happened to the term Alpha Wolf” about how he had retracted his original research based on captive wolves studied in the 1940’s. Once he spent time studying wolves in the wild, he discovered that packs are not formed by an Alpha wolf taking charge and dominating other wolves, rather the wolves live in family units where the oldest breeding pair (the parents of the other wolves) are the pack leaders. Any breeding pair of wolves automatically becomes alpha wolves (a lot like a nuclear family). There are no character or personality traits involved in becoming an alpha.

Furthermore I learned that in places with large feral dog populations, dog's do not even form packs! Female dogs may take many suiters and male dogs do not stick around to help raise pups as wolves do. It seems safe to assume that dogs are actually NOT pack animals, though they certainly seem to be social animals and capable of forming deep bonds.

I could go on further debunking “alpha dogs” or discussing where the word dominance has it’s place, but I won’t - if you would like to learn more please check out David’s Mech’s paper on page 4 and/or the American Veterinary Society of Animal Behavior’s position statement on the use of Dominance in Dog Training.

The simple idea that “dogs do what works” began to make sense to me. I started to think about Shadow’s behaviour in a new light, especially his oh-so persistent pawing behaviour.

What happens immediately after Shadow paws at me? What is the immediate consequence of this behaviour? Most often, I pet him. Shadow likes to be petted and so the pawing behaviour was reinforced and maintained. He pawed at me simply because he wanted attention, and guess what, I love to give him attention! What a beautiful thing his pawing actually was and I find it sad that for so long I couldn’t see it as an endearing form of communication. Not to mention all the other typical “dominant” behaviours I could now see in a new light:

 

Once I had the “ah-ha” moment my relationship with Shadow, and all dogs, changed forever; there was no longer competition between us, there was only cooperation. I felt like I understood my dog’s behaviour and could actually communicate with him clearly, humanely and enjoyably!

Something else happened though, I became angry. I felt betrayed. Why would Cesar Millan do this? The answer is not totally clear but I did realize that I was obsessing over a reality TV show, and they are simply made to be as entertaining and profitable as possible. Positive reinforcement based dog training, where the dog is kept under threshold and feeling safe the whole time, is a lot less entertaining to watch. This is not to say that Cesar's methods don’t work - they absolutely can, especially if done properly with good timing and technique, but just because something works does not mean it is the best or most ethical option. When Dominance methods work it is because they use physical force, pain or the threat there of. Any living being can learn to change their behaviour to avoid pain, but when you use it to motivate there is a risk of side effects such as fear, aggressive behaviour, and don’t forget the potential long term physical health risks.

WARNING: This video contains swearing

As time passed a new behaviour problem cropped up: on-leash reactivity. I wondered if I my days of harsh training, leash popping and constant “Tsssting”, contributed to it. Shadow started snapping at dogs if we got close to them when on-leash and that grew into him barking and lunging at dogs from even farther away. The force free trainer mentioned in class to feed dogs cookies when they see other dogs coming so that your dog thinks about “cookies in my mouth” when they see other dogs. That made sense to me and so I tried it, without asking for specifics or hiring him for a private lesson, for 2 years. I fed Shadow treats when I saw other dogs coming but it didn’t work; well, I should say it did work but only if I got the treats out fast enough to distract Shadow. If he spotted the other dog before I could show him treats then he would “go off” and lose interest in treats completely. Walks were challenging and I felt panicked every time I saw another dog coming.

I ended up enrolling in a short online course on leash reactivity. This was invaluable as I learned that I was making a crucial but simple error in my training which was, I needed to wait for Shadow to see the other dog before I reached for my treats. The other dogs have to predict treats in order for Shadow to see them as “good news”. Starting the next day I was careful to act normal when I noticed dogs, but to watch Shadow for the moment when he noticed them. As soon as he did I marked that with a “YES - Good boy!” And then generously fed him high-value treats. It was only 1 week later that I saw a major improvement. We got out for our first walk of the day and soon after leaving the apartment Shadow started looking ahead excitedly and then looking back at me. He did this a few times and in my pre-coffee state of mind I was confused but I looked up ahead and realized there was a dog walker about 50 feet ahead with a group of 6 dogs. Shadow was happy to see them and expecting treats! My heart exploded with joy and he got a lot of treats. This is how our walks started to go on the regular, and eventually including Shadow even loving when other dogs barked at him. In fact Shadow now helps play the role of the stimulus dog to help other leash-reactive dogs. I learned this technique is known as counter-conditioning, wherein a stimulus with a negative (bad) association is changed through training to a positive (good) association. The funny thing is that I also counter conditioned myself! Dog walks went from stressful to exciting. Instead of avoiding and dreading seeing dogs I actually hoped to see them and actively sought them out so we could keep practicing! This is around the time that I realized I wanted to get into dog training. Not only did I want to save other dog owners from the confusing dominance misconceptions that I suffered from, I wanted to share the astounding power of the proper execution of force free training methods.

 

To sum up what happened next, I signed up for a couple short online dog trainer courses, and I began to read books and blogs as fast I could. I found my head spinning with so much information, some of it conflicting and some of it confusing. I eventually decided to take a big leap and apply to the Academy for Dog Trainers, an online but very intense 2 year course that covers animal learning, behaviour problems, fear and aggression, client counselling, critical thinking and more. I was accepted and began a more organized and formal education that I am beyond grateful for. During the course I used dog walking clients to practice training and submit my homework videos, and I also shadowed Canine Good Neighbour prep classes at When Hounds Fly for a few months (a force free training school in Downtown Toronto that focuses on clickers). At the end of 2015 I closed my dog walking business in Toronto and moved to Haliburton County with my husband. I soon after graduated from the Academy with honours and opened up my dog training business here in the highlands.

Becoming a dog trainer was harder than I expected and not something I had planned, but I truly love this job! I love helping humans and dogs improve their relationships. I often look at Shadow and thank him for coming into my life and helping me find this new and extremely fulfilling career path. As he ages (he is around 11 years old) I am doing my best to spoil him and it makes me happy to offer him the dream-life as well as inspire and teach others how to do the same.

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