If I Knew Then What I Know Now

By Bob McMillan

If the Hound of the Baskervilles ever needed a stand-in, my dog Cuchulain would have pushed to the head of the line. A Scottish deerhound/Irish Wolfhound mix, he was a 130-pound guided missile of shaggy black fur, crazy long legs and very big teeth. The day he started rushing at strangers and snapping is the day I began to seriously rethink my approach to dog training.

“No really, he’s not aggressive,” I reassured them shrilly. I was a little less convincing than the dog looking them level in the eyes with a growl you could feel in the soles of your shoes. So yes, I was completely delusional. But…how could this be? Owning a giant devil dog was never the plan. He came from an accidental litter of mixed hounds. I took him as a favor to a friend. I had no idea he’d become the size of a buffalo. And he grew on me. Cuchulain shared my couch and my bed. We were friends. We went everywhere together. He was urbane and witty. He played dog jokes and was a pretty jolly guy for a massive carnivore. Surely just another crisp snap of that choke chain and everything would work out fine…

Cuchulain

This was the 1990’s and the state of dog training was in flux. I was just hearing faint talk about something called clicker training and assumed it was about entertaining the dog with perky sounds between breaks in actual training. My shelf was full of books that warned that if I didn’t stay strong and be the alpha dog, it was only a matter of time time before Cuchulain’s innate need to seize control of the household would kick in and we’d have to turn the keys over to him.

Like many dog owners, I’ve evolved. My next dog, an Irish wolfhound named Finn, flourished with positive training. I say this not just because he’s a gracious companion I can take anywhere. Or because he patiently greets the children and grownups who flock to meet him on every outing. It’s because from the time he was a 10-week-old puppy, force-free training has been the basis of an ongoing conversation between my giant friend and I. Finn caught on fast that when he repeated a particular action, two amazing things happened. There’d be a crisp “click” from the toy clicker in my hand. And, there’d be treats, right then and there. And when he showed he knew what to do to get a treat, I attached a vocal cue to tell him when to do it. And those crazy treats just kept on coming. Those sounds from the human weren’t just some kind of sad attempt at proper barking. They directly affected Finn. This intrigued him. Finn started listening and watching me. Intently. And the treats parade rolled on, followed closely by an eager, happy hound.

It was positive training, clicker training, and here’s why I’m so sold on it: Living in the human world is stressful and confusing enough to a dog. And then there’s those rules that so often make no sense whatsoever to a canine. Obedience is rarely a question. You can force a dog obey your rules with prong collars and shock devices or just by jerking hard on that choke chain around his throat. But it’s a fearful obedience. And a fearful dog, a defensive dog, a dog cornered in a crazy world beyond his control often becomes a biting dog. Most of us get dogs to be our companions. Mr. Hyde isn’t much of a companion.

Or… your dog can learn your crazy rules and keep his dignity without fear. When there’s mutual trust, affection and respect, such a dog blossoms. Finn has. So have my two other rescues. They can express themselves without fear of retribution. They can make mistakes without being jolted with electricity or strangled. You begin to see who your dog really is when they’re not too scared or suspicious of the erratic human to let their guard down and just be themselves. Positive training creates relationships, not lifers coping by desperate means in the Big House. A bond is established. It’s the natural order. Your dog knows you’re his mentor and protector, his reliably secure base from which to explore the world and come home again. A clicker isn’t simply a training tool. It’s a skeleton key to unlock your dog’s mind and full potential.

I failed Cuchulain. He led a diminished life, starting the day he gave his first outraged yelp in obedience class the first time I snapped that choke chain. He became progressively antisocial. If the human closest to him could be so casually cruel, he wanted nothing to do with the rest of our kind. When he’d had enough and became unsafe around people, our walks became furtive and limited to early mornings. We never traveled with Cuchulain. There were no force-free trainers near us, no one to help me correct the course I put him on with training that in its day was considered perfectly reasonable. Despite my growing skepticism, the dominance theory told me I must step in and show him who’s boss. I did one day when he was standing on his back legs, plucking a banana off the top of the refrigerator. I tugged his choke chain. And he sank his fangs up to his gums in my palm. And then ate the banana while I bandaged my wound. If there was a boss in the room, clearly it wasn’t me. Also, he’d trained me not to jerk on that choke chain ever again.

In this tale of two dogs, Finn is the clear winner. He’s affectionate and expressive. He’s taught me as much as I have him about communicating with another species. And always I’ve wondered who Cuchulain might have been if I hadn’t listened to so-called experts who insisted that dogs only understand brute force and that we, their owners, are just the ones to use it.

Bob McMillan is a newspaper editor and columnist who lives in the foothills of Middle Tennessee with his Irish wolfhounds, rescues and cats.

7 comments

  1. This is such a wonderfully written piece, thank you so much. I think there are many of us that began training our dogs “back in the day” and today still feel a little ashamed that we could have done that to them. I understand why we did, but it’s still sad. I’m thrilled that we have positive ways of creating long, fun, creative, and healthy long relationships with our dogs today. Thanks for this article I’m passing it along to all that I know!

  2. I had never hired anyone to train my dogs before and I don’t think they were all that bad of a dog. ( well, maybe my dog Pooh, who wouldn’t let Uncle Mac back in his own house) . However, after we moved to South Texas and we adopted a pup from the feed store, we thought he must be properly trained. My husband hired this woman who immediately started yanking Rascal’s neck with that choker chain until he was constantly yelping. She insisted we do the same and although Rascal wasn’t really behaving well, we kept “training” him-at least until we just gave up on his being too hardheaded and none of like the “fear” training. In time he attacked every UPS or FEX EX truck that entered our gate. Any person in a uniform was someone he needed to protect us from. We found out about the biting part when the phone man came to install a new line. Poor Rascal spent many days in “lock up” at the vet because he had bitten someone. I always detested that lady and her yanking that chain around my puppy’s neck. I protected him to the eventual end after we moved a few times- my last house I bought because it had a covered patio and a large yard for Rascal to live out his days. We feel that tainted Chinese made dog food caused him to develop kidney failure and he eventually passed on to a happier doggy heaven. Melissa learned from that woman on how not to train a dog, and my Granddog, Stella, is about the best behaved dog I have ever been around. Thank goodness for the newer methods that don’t instill fear in an animal. Loved this article!

  3. Thank you for sharing your story. There were tears in my eyes as I read your story thinking about my first dog. What a wonderful transformation you have done with your own dogs and also with the dogs that people entrust you with. My first dog was trained by an aversive trainer and I did not know better. Although, I took the tools off of her, the damage was done. I never had the relationship with her that I felt I should have. She lived to be 13 1/2 and lived a nice life but never quite had that connection. After she passed and 6 months later, I got another dog. This time I heard about positive training and found Victoria Stilwell, “It’s Me or the Dog”. I grew to love her and watched and studied her techniques. I decided to start training my new puppy with her techniques. She was a superstar at it and the relationship began. She has only been trained without force. I then decided I would love to be a dog trainer and show other people how to train their dog and educate them about force-free training. I went to school, educated myself and now I own a company, and I am on Victoria Stilwell’s Positively Dog Training Team. It is amazing at what we can do and teach when we have been there…. 🙂

  4. Oh I love this blog. It brings a big lump to my throat. I am a ‘crossover’ trainer/behaviorist from those dark days and know the damage I did in the name of ‘training and ‘being the boss’ to my two dogs – a Rottie and a GSD. I believe I precipitated the early death of my GSD -from jerking a choke chain. At only 6 years old she died. She collapsed, paralysed from the neck down. It was then I happened upon a revolutionary idea (although still at that time entrenched in wolf-pack theory), to let your dog work things out for himself and to use rewards. Force-free. I now have five dogs and seldom even need to say ‘no’.

  5. I only have two words to say and they are “THANK YOU”! If only we all knew then what we know now, but I guess that’s what evolution is all about.

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