Why I’ve Gone to the Dogz

It’s been two years since Tom and I brought Emma the Beagle home from the North Shore Animal League. She had just come onto the floor after a whirlwind ten days: first she was spayed at a kill shelter in Tennessee, then she was transported up to New York, and then she underwent dental surgery to repair the teeth and jaw she damaged while chewing to escape her cage in a puppy mill. Emma was one of the first dogs we saw on the adoption floor, and we instantly fell in love. The next day our girl hit the road again — lying in a crate in my Mini Cooper as we drove four hours through torrential rain to our condo in Alexandria, Va.

Caring for Emma has completely transformed my life.

Tom and I had been parents to two wonderful kitties — Briscoe and Curtiss — for 12 years, until heart disease and asthma took both of them away from us. I became a pro at giving Lasix injections when their lungs filled with fluid and placing a tube over Briscoe’s cute little face multiple times a day so she could inhale steroids to control her asthma, but that work was nothing compared to the time and money Tom and I have put into Emma’s mental and physical health.

Information Overload

The amount of information available to dog parents is overwhelming. You’d think that tons of books, TV shows, blogs, and the availability of scores of dog trainers, vets, groomers, shops, and doggie daycare/boarding businesses would make raising a pup a snap. But no.

There is a terrifyingly massive amount of bad and/or contradictory information out there.

The shelter told us to not use any “aversive” training methods on Emma, because she was very timid, so I kept that in mind when I looked for ways to help her. Cesar Milan had said that we should walk through the door first to make sure our dog respected us, but that silly suggestion was decidedly unhelpful.

On our first full day home with adorable Ems, Tom and I thought it would be fun to take her for a walk a few blocks to Trader Joe’s. Two hours later the three of us came home exhausted. Walking out the door ahead of Emma was no problem for us, because she sat inside frozen in terror. She was afraid to walk past our kitchen, through the doorway, down the hall, into the elevator, out into the tiled lobby, through the front door, and then onto the sidewalks filled with people, bikes, strollers, and dog after dog after dog. And then, of course, there were cars and buses and motorcycles whizzing by.

Emma’s response to all of it?

Butt attached firmly to the ground. No movement. Terror spelled across her furrowed brow and enormously wide eyes.

Nothing we read or watched had prepared us for this problem, so we brought in a “positive-reinforcement” trainer the next day. The transformation that occurred was incredible.

The Power of Food

Our trainer Dolores came loaded with a bag of tasty treats for Ems. It was an orgy of freeze-dried lamb. Dolores and I crouched down and, with happy Disney-character-type voices, encouraged Emma to take a step or two, and when she did, FEAST! When we came across people on our walk, Dolores handed them treats to feed Emma. When a bus came nearby or a bike or a *gasp* STROLLER: lamb Lamb LAMB!

An hour later, Emma was scrambling across rocks along the shores of the Potomac River with a high waggy tail and a smiling face. She was licking her lips when new people walked by because, well, LAMB! Hard to tell whose face was beaming brighter: Mine or hers?

Along the way I discovered the dark side of dog training.

Aversive Training

First we met a man who asked if Dolores was a trainer at the “leading” dog-training school in Old Town. She said no, and he said, “Good! They destroyed my dog. He was so happy before they put a prong collar on him and yanked it to train him, and he has never been the same since.” Dolores handed him her card and then some lamb treats for Emma, and he was more than happy to help our girl with her Walkies.

Up the path a little more we encountered two women power walking. They cooed at Emma, and Dolores asked if they would give some treats to her.

“Wait,” they said in horror as they jumped back. “You’re a trainer from [same school as mentioned by the gentleman above]? We’ll stay away. Sorry.”

Dolores: “What? No, I’m not. We’re just helping this little girl overcome some fears, and so we’re asking people to give her treats to help her out.”

“So it’s ok to approach her? We always get yelled at by those other trainers if we go near their dogs.”

I was floored. I remembered the warning from NSAL that we should not use aversive training methods, and within an hour of my first session with Dolores, I had learned of a dog and two humans whose psyches were altered from that type of training.

That was my spark.

A New Mission

It’s been nearly a full-time job getting Emma healthy and helping her live happily in the human world. And honestly, I’m so grateful to her for showing me how many dogs are being mistreated and how many dogs like her just need some love, some toys, and some food.

I’ve spent the last two years reading books, watching videos, and attending conferences to arm myself with the knowledge to train Emma the “right way” — the humane way — and know “the wrong way” when I see it. As a freelance writer, I’ve been able to write stories on topics I want or need to learn and then share my newfound knowledge with readers of The Washington PostThe Bark magazine, and even the Association of Professional Dog Trainers’ Chronicle of the Dog.

Today I’m a student in Jean Donaldson’s well-recepected Academy for Dog Trainers. I’m doing it to continue helping Emma overcome her fears, to gain more knowledge for articles and perhaps even a book, and to help as many dogz and their peoplez that I can along the way.

Thanks, Ems!