Something a little different that I'm considering submitting somewhere, though I've never done anything like that before. Any feedback appreciated.
When I saw my dog in his pen at the Humane Society last year, asleep on a pile of other puppies, all rubbery limbs and floppy ears, he was so cute I felt my ovaries cramp. "This dog loves to nap!", enthused his internet profile. Well, what a coincidence! This girl loves to nap too!
My sister and I brought him home and named him Tsunami. How funny a sleepy, lazy dog named Tsunami would be, we thought. Strangers would chuckle as they stopped to scritch the ears of our intelligent, well-behaved, soporific mutt.
The first thing Tsunami did in our house was pee on the rug, despite the lovely grass he'd walked through in order to get inside. Fortunately, we were renters who disliked our landlord, and hated our nasty, bongwater-stained carpet. And he also came when we called his brand-new name, and immediately fetched his new red ball. By the end of the night, he even asked to be let out when he had to go to the bathroom.
We knew from the shelter staff that Tsu had been found abandoned outside a vet's office on Christmas day, skinny and shivering and pathetic. Obviously, there was a Christ metaphor there somewhere. This dog would be magical! We would take him to public schools and cure the phobias of urban children! If only we hadn't had him spayed; he could have sired Seeing Eye dogs!
Flash forward to a scene at the local dog park, one month after his arrival at our house. Tsunami is four months old, and no longer so skinny and forlorn. His beautiful shepherd markings are starting to come out, especially the black mask on his face. We are all basking in the attention that owners of puppies get in urban dogparks. It's like being the parent of a newborn, minus the stretch marks and aching breasts. The older dogs are gently schooling our pup when he gets too nippy, but we're not nervous. We're "by the book" dog parents; we've exposed him to all kinds of people and situations, not comforted him when he was frightened by loud noises and strangers, made him pee in the same spot every time with a firm "Get busy!"; we are certainly not going to interfere in the establishment of a canine hierarchy. Submit, over-intellectualized little pup! It's natural!
Everything's clicking. Tsunami jumps up on another dog owner. Cute in a puppy, not so in a 75 pound dog! Curb this behavior now! the books caution, reasonably. I gently tug on the leash and say "down". The dog tumbles over backwards and begins screaming in agony.
Have you ever heard a dog scream? Especially your own sweet-smelling, puppy-furred, 20-pound little darling? It's a terrible, primal sound. All of the other dog-owners in the vicinity hustled over, their cowering canines in tow. A kind soul drove us all to the animal hospital through dreadful Washington rush-hour traffic.
Tsunami's leg was badly broken. The vet said he'd be in a cast for at least six weeks, and that we should keep him as still as possible while he healed.
Have you ever tried to keep a puppy still? (the shelter people had lied, by the way; Tsunami did NOT like to nap. Tsunami liked to get a running start across the living room and leap over the back of the couch, and to follow us around biting our pantlegs as we tried to make dinner.) Or keep his cast from getting wet, in February, in the northeast? It's not easy. It was during this time that we learned that Tsunami was part hound; his loud, sorrowful baying would follow us down the stairs of our apartment building every day, after we locked him in his crate and left.
This is also when the balance of power in our house shifted.
Tsunami was no longer allowed off leash, ever, or to run. He had to be carried up and down the stairs. He certainly wasn't allowed to jump on anything or anyone. Our careful program of incremental exposure to new things--our elderly couple next door who walked with canes, our black downstairs neighbor, the shrieking kids who walked by every day on their way to school--was derailed. Every stranger presented an opportunity for him to jump up and hurt himself more.
To compensate for these lost pleasures of puppyhood, we let him sit on the furniture at home. He started sleeping in my sister's bed, instead of just in her room. We bought a million toys, and let him dictate play-time. We started whispering and turning down the TV when he dozed.
We were puppy-whipped.
My sweet puppy outgrew his cast twice before it was finally removed. The day we let him off-leash again, he still hopped around on three legs. His nose-to-crotch reunions with other dogs were raucous and joyful. But a new slew of problems developed.
Our now six-month-old, 50-pound dog had never been taught to heel because of his injury. He hadn't spent enough time around kids, and had decided that he didn't like them. He was no longer particularly keen on men, especially black men. He looked at us with blank incomprehension when he told him to come.
In the house, he barked sharply at us when we weren't paying him sufficient attention. My sister was his special target, and he would stand in front of her and bark at her face every night, imperious and supremely irritating. Her attempts to quiet him and eventually to make him submit by alpha-rolling him were met with stony indifference. The book said your dog should be scared of you and avoid you for a half-hour or so after a proper alpha roll, but Tsunami would merely stretch and saunter away, coming back to bark again a short time later.
We moved into a new house, and things got worse. Tsunami lunged and snapped at the neighbors every time we left the house. On car trips, he would charge the windows and bark viciously, teeth bared, head bumping the glass. He snapped at my hand one when I reached back to calm him. The neighbor kids asked about him all the time, and shrieked and ran when they saw him. I didn't blame them; I kind of wanted to run myself.
Inside the house, he was a sweet dog, sleeping on my lap and following us from room to room. But if our neighbors were out when we left the house, he was reduced to a savage, snarling demon, barely held in check by his leash. We were stressed out and embarrassed and worried. We enrolled in training class.
It's cold in February in Washington. It was 11 degrees the day of our first class, which the instructor insisted on holding outside. My hands froze, and chafed against the leash, which I had to hold with both hands and all my might. During a relatively calm moment, when my sister was paying attention to the trainer, Tsunami lunged at a woman walking behind them. The woman was startled, and fell down, crying. The trainer suggested that we get a muzzle. The other dog owners smiled at us with pity as their purebreds mastered the sit command.
The next few classes were no better. Tsunami would do some commands brilliantly, but only when he wanted to. Walking him was still an exercise in misery. I became the crazy person who swears and mutters to herself when I was out with him. In class, my "firm tone" would have to edge into a near-scream before he'd pay any attention. A teenage guest, there to observe the class before his mother let him get a dog, waited until the end to greet Tsunami and was rewarded with a bare-teeth lunge for the face. In the car on the way home, I cried. Tsunami whined softly and licked my ear. He smelled like vanilla and metal. When someone passed the window as we waited at a stoplight, his barks shook the car.
Where was the dog who would sit by my side on the patio at Starbucks? Who would let kids pet him? Who could be trusted to wait outside the store while I ran in for a minute? The books said that there were no bad dogs, only bad owners. But what else could we have done? I began to worry seriously about what would happen if he were to bite someone, and what we might have to do to make sure that never happened.
But gradually, the power shifted again. We got him a good choke collar. On the first nice day of the year, one of the trainers from class spent a half-hour with him, making him heel over and over. That afternoon, he lunged and barked at someone on the street when I was walking him and I decided to have it out with him. I pulled him into a strict heel and marched him up and down the same block twenty times, until he was stuck to my side like glue. I never praised him. Breakthrough! Suddenly, we could walk the dog without needing physical therapy afterwards.
We found a collar that automatically sprays citronella oil toward his nose when he barked, and its effect was immediate and profound. Car rides were completely quiet. And without the ferocious barking, there were no more raised hackles and belly-growls either. This morning, I walked my boy out of the door, and there were men AND children on the porch next door, and they were talking very loudly. He didn't bark or pull once. In the car, my eyes got a little misty thinking about how far he'd come, and he whined softly and licked my ear for a minute before settling down again the back seat.
I know the work isn't done. He's not the dog I though he'd be, and when strangers ask to pet him while he's on leash I smile and say, He's very protective so it's probably best if you don't. He has a friendly, sweet face so I'm anticipating saying that a lot. We're going to keep working on greeting strangers appropriately. The trainer finally said that some of his behaviors are characteristic of shepherds, which was music to my ears. I know it's our responsibility to train those behaviors out of him, but at least she wasn't saying that it was all our fault.
It's hard to not be as nice to my dog as I want, but the payoff--being in public with him again--is well worth it. He's a worthy adversary and having to learn how to dominate him has made me respect him more. I owe it to him to make him a good dog, and I think he's finally on his way.