When I adopted Cooper, I dreamt of all the fun things we would learn to do together. Agility and therapy work were my top two goals. When he lunged at a guest one month after his adoption, I realized I was in over my head, and I had to refocus our goals.
The priority became keeping Cooper, guests, and other animals safe. Every noise and sight seemed to set him off: voices, car horns, gunshots, seeing someone walk past the house, animals in our yard, you name it. My husband and I were committed to keeping Cooper, even when so many people told us to give him away and get a new puppy. They called him “difficult” and sometimes it was, but we were in the position to be able to make changes to our lives to help him grow into a happy adult. If you have ever owned a dog that would bark and lunge, or cower in fear, then you probably already know what I am talking about.
I had just started my schooling to become a professional dog trainer, so I certainly did not have any behavior experience. Cooper ended up being the best teacher that I could ask for. Here is what he taught me.
It is okay to get frustrated. We all have bad days, and animals do as well. While we try so hard as owners to correctly prepare for every training situation, there will be setbacks. I would curse at myself, cry, and doubt my ability if Cooper lunged or became upset in any way. That is when I decided to record our training sessions.
I was able to look back at all of the subtle signs that he was giving me that I didn’t pick up on when I was working with him. After all, he told me that the situation was too confusing or too difficult, well before he lunged – I wasn’t fluent or quick enough to understand what he was saying just yet.
The key to Cooper’s success was teaching him that the world was not so scary by changing his emotions during very structured training sessions. We learned how to do this together, and it is because of him that I can help clients and their dogs do the same.
I figured out that it was necessary to celebrate the small successes. Cooper’s behavior did not occur overnight (there were signs that I did not pick up on when I met him at the shelter but so clearly see now as I think back to those memories), and a drastic improvement was not going to happen overnight. However, the tiny successes, which can seem so insignificant, are what I needed to focus on.
For example, the goal was for him to be comfortable with someone entering my home, but first, he needed to be comfortable seeing them outside from over 25 feet away. If he couldn’t handle 25 feet, then there was no way that he would be successful at 10 feet.
Instead of being discouraged by our slow pace as he decreased the distance from 25 feet to 10 feet over multiple sessions, I started to celebrate the small achievements. His relaxed body language, hearing the person speaking and checking in with me, choosing to walk away instead of lunging forward were just a few. I ended sessions feeling proud and excited for the next, and as a result, Cooper also walked away from the sessions in a good mood.
I started to keep a training journal. It allowed me to look back at how far we had come and to see behavior patterns. I noticed that Cooper did not do as well during a session if it had thundered the night before. Discovering this helped us avoid setbacks by not continuing the pattern of training after a storm.
I learned that owning a dog with behavior concerns does not define me as a failure. “How can you be a dog trainer and have a dog that I can’t pet?” You might be surprised how often I heard that. I tried not to take offense as I politely explained that a dog’s behavior could never be “fixed” or “cured.”
I was a successful owner because I managed the environment to ensure that Cooper was not exposed to situations that he was not yet ready to handle, I set realistic goals, and I helped him reach those goals through positive reinforcement training.
Cooper made me a better handler. He pushed me to improve and grow into the behavior consultant that I am today. He taught me patience, and he helped me understand that just because a dog is lunging doesn’t mean that he is necessarily a bad or vicious dog. He might just be scared on the inside, and it is my job to help him learn that the world is not such a horrible place.
One of the most challenging life lessons that I learned is that it is okay to say “goodbye.” Cooper became suddenly ill at nine years old. Diagnosed with sepsis possibly caused by a tumor that perforated his intestines, we had a choice to make. Put him through surgery to repair the perforation and then have him spend the next 5-7 days at the emergency vet or let him go. Even with surgery, there was less than a 50% chance that he would walk out of there. If he did, he would likely experience multiple organ failures (which is why the recovery time was so long), and there was a possibility that he would need a feeding tube when he went home because some dogs don’t want to eat after such an ordeal.
The surgery was costly, but we were prepared to open multiple credit cards and take out loans to pay for it. Our concern was the emotional toll that staying at the vet for seven days would take on him. We knew that he was terrified and emotionally shut down just being there in the first place. Covid exacerbated the situation because we were not allowed to go inside with him.
Forcing Cooper through the surgery and recovery would have been incredibly selfish of us, so we made the heart-wrenching decision to let him go.
After his passing, I continued to learn.
I learned that it is okay to feel a bit less stressed because we no longer had to be worried about what might happen if our management failed. I felt incredibly guilty for feeling that, but I would go back and do it all again if it meant we could have Cooper back without the life or death illness.
I learned that there is no day like today. I started learning various activities with him over the years; the most recent were nose work and precision heeling. Life always seemed to get in the way, and even with the best intentions, we never finished. I am committed to taking a break from my day-to-day obligations and setting aside more consistent time for my pets. I never want to feel regret like this again.
I finally learned what a “heart dog” is.