Your choice affects your dog’s choice — a lesson I’m reminded of everyday. (Image credit goes to Lili Chin.)
Way back this winter, when Chalo started having growly reactions toward other dogs, I made the mistake of correcting him for it. Traditional wisdom and all the training books I’d read as a kid in the ’90s told me firm discipline was necessary, so I spoke sternly and used physical corrections with a choke collar. Surprise: in just 48 hours, it became so much worse. A little growliness turned into full-on explosions of snarling and lunging and raised hackles and high emotions. The changes were happening so quickly it frightened me. This was not a dog I recognized. So I backtracked, devoured every bit of reactivity literature I could find on the internet, and soon wondered if, in Chalo’s mind, the situation looked very different. To him, it seemed to be, “Every time we see a dog, my person gets worried and bad things happen. She becomes a person I do not recognize. I need to growl more to make that dog go away, and to keep bad things from happening.” My whole perspective on the issue changed — or at least, made me more receptive to alternatives, out of desperation and concern that I was singlehandedly ruining my dog.
The next day I approached it differently, with a soft, open, patient mindset and a bag full of cheese. And in one session, Chalo was sitting quietly and sweetly, twenty feet away from the golden retriever who previously sent him into a growling frenzy.
In one week, he was walking past yards of snarling, lunging, barking, frustrated dogs with the same sweet, quiet, expectant look on his face.
Today, Chalo hasn’t growled at another dog in months.
I definitely don’t propose that there is any one-size-fits-all training method for every dog, and everything I don’t know about dogs could fill several rooms several times over. But Chalo teaches me so much, all the time: how to be a better teacher, how to approach problems creatively, how to be patient, how to motivate. So many canine behavior problems are misunderstandings, rooted partly in a failure of human imagination and empathy. And that is fixable. That can change. Chalo continues to show me what I need to give more of, not just in dog training but in life in general — reflection on my own actions, and consideration for how we all can be shaped, battered, or buoyed by the world around us. Dogs can make us better, and this dog is making me better.