Sunday, May 9, 2010

Dog training (and the belly of the whale)

Yesterday we had our first official private dog training lesson for Maxwell. I know I haven't mentioned the fact that we were planning this until now because, frankly, thinking about this was getting me pretty emotionally worked up. Now that we've conquered session 1 of 3, though, I can say that I am happy we went ahead and chose to work with this specific dog trainer, and I feel a little better about Maxwell's behavior already.


But to understand why we're having Maxwell take some private training lessons we have to go back in time...

Puppyhood
When we adopted four-month-old Maxwell he was energetic but generally great. He loved all people and all dogs, and at the dog park he would run around with the best of them, and the big dogs would appropriately put him in his place and get him to calm down (a little).

Maxwell's first night home

A month later we enrolled Maxwell in a puppy training class (called "Puppy Kindergarten," kind of pathetic, I know) where he got along with everyone, met his buddy Bailey, and generally followed the rules. He also learned his basic commands (sit, stay, leave it). He did well.

During that summer we walked that dog like nobody's business. We took him out on at least three legitimate walks a day, not just your average trip outside to use the bathroom. We made sure to socialize him with all types of people and all types of dogs. Everyone loved Maxwell and Maxwell loved everyone. He was a friend to all.


Older puppyhood
When Maxwell was about a year old we enrolled him in a dog obedience class, beginner level. This was another group class where Maxwell did OK, but more importantly, he got along well with all the dogs, from the annoying little ones to the cute little ones to the dogs his size and larger.



Fast forward: Third birthday
Over half a year after we adopted Doc, and as Maxwell got close to his third birthday, he started showing signs of aggression with dogs his size and larger. Occasionally on our walks Maxwell would spot a dog from a distance and start baring his teeth and making a guttural growl. Now, we are talking about a small minority of dogs that would cause this reaction, because there are few dogs we encounter on our walks that we don't already know and that are Maxwell's size or larger (he is, after all, 85 pounds and unnaturally long). I got worried, but Matt usually walks Maxwell, and these bad encounters were rare, so we decided not to take immediate action.

See, Maxwell listens MOST of the time...here's his birthday cupcake cookie resting on his paw before we allowed him to eat it.



Three weeks ago: The belly of the whale
Picture this: Three weeks ago I'm all dressed up and ready for work, running a little late but not worried because I don't have any students coming to my classroom that morning. So, I put the dogs on their leashes and take them outside for a two-minute walk to let them pee one last time before I drive off.

We enter a common area of our neighborhood across the street from our house. Another dog, an unfamiliar boxer that is about Maxwell's size, turns a corner with his owner just as we are entering the area. With full force Maxwell pulls me (and Doc) toward this other dog. I am holding on to Maxwell's leash for dear life, envisioning a vicious fight followed by a lawsuit should I let go. Fortunately (or unfortunately) the scene concludes with me getting pulled into a tree, a tree that ends this scene, and a tree which had just the night before been surrounded by a pile of fresh mulch. I plummet face-first straight into the mulch with my arm wrapped around the tree. I am bleeding, I am bruised, I am stunned, and I am wishing the other guy and his dog would walk away. They do, and then my rage comes out full force.

I pull Maxwell (and Doc, who is quietly going about his business) into the house. I traipse mud throughout every floor of our house as I start crying somewhat hysterically. I call Matt and say, "We are getting a dog trainer, and if that does not fix this dog, then..." well, the rest was kind of mean.

I was picking mulch out of my hair and my ears (I wish I was kidding) for the rest of the day.

I could not tell this story without getting really angry, so I kept it to myself at first and then started slowly telling some friends, who shared their own dog experiences.

Starting training
In the meantime, Matt asked the owners of our favorite local family-owned pet store for some trainer recommendations. After contacting each person recommended, we decided to go with the lady who charges the least per hour, even though her hourly fees are greater than Matt's hourly wage and mine combined.

I'll share more in upcoming posts about the progress (or potential lack of progress) we make with Maxwell through these training sessions. Right now the trick of the training game, in a very Dog-Whisperer-type way, is for Matt and me to display confidence as we walk Maxwell, and to somehow physically convey that confidence through the leash. Now on our walks, instead of Matt walking Maxwell and me walking Doc, we're trading off halfway through the walk so we each practice with Maxwell. So far we are off to a good start, and I feel a little better.

Now if only I can come up with some ways to get paid as much as a dog trainer.

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