For many people dog training is a hobby and even a passion. For me dog training has been much, much more. I knew I was going to be a dog trainer from a young age. When I started working with dogs at 14, I believed that training was all about what I did to the dog, not what the dog did to me. Boy was I wrong! Over the last 30 years, as I’ve learned to open myself up to what the dogs and the process have to offer, training has become a life journey, full of lessons, revelations, and even spiritual transformations.I first took leash in hand in a formal way in 1976. In those days one started formal obedience training when a dog was 6 months old. Approached this way pups had 6 months to get out of control, become destructive, and otherwise form a ton of bad habits. Then one went to a training school and, through physical correction, told one’s pup how bad it was. Spirits were broken, but dogs got “trained”. People were taught how to be good technical trainers. There was no heart in the process, but the methods seemed to work.
A proficient technical trainer certainly describes me at that time. With my little Cocker Spaniel, Samantha, I got a Utility Dog title. And I mean it when I say it that way—I got it—because, by the time we got to that level, little Samantha had no desire to be with me when I was in training mode. She worked because I forced her, not because she enjoyed it. I had taught her to hate obedience training and she never changed her mind in the fourteen and a half years she lived.
With my next dog, I was blessed with a soul mate in the form of a Bernese Mountain Dog. Mika took me on a journey of major lessons, some very painful. At six months Mika could barely walk due to hip and elbow dysplasia. I began learning about soundness, and that, without it, a dog’s life is compromised. To heck with my plans to show and breed, the orthopedic specialists felt Mika would not make it to her first birthday without four separate surgeries to “make her right.”
I elected not to put Mika through any surgeries. I loved her with all my heart, but the procedures were too invasive for my comfort level. I trusted my gut and looked elsewhere. Acupuncture and supplements combined with her tremendous spirit and will to live gave Mika the pain relief she needed to live a full and mostly active life for her ten years. During that time we earned our CDX together, and she became the number one Bernese in the country in obedience. That was the first major lesson Mika taught me: question the experts and be open minded about alternative approaches to health.
The second major lesson Mika taught me was in training: not all creatures will simply lie down and accept hard, physical corrections. Some fight back, and rightly so. I now faced doing painful things to a being I loved more than myself, just in the name of training. Mika clearly showed me that she would not tolerate this treatment. Was she a “bad dog” for not giving in? No, she was a wonderful, willing, loving, and very bonded dog that told me to quit hurting her. She was right, and I had to find other ways to achieve my training goals.
Nomi expanded the training revolution that Mika had begun. Another Bernese, she entered my life as a rescue dog. Nomi had been abused and had difficulty trusting. I never formally trained or showed her, but her lessons to me were clear: if I put unfair pressure on her, she would distrust me and run away. Hmmm. I started to rethink my training methods and corrections, as they just made Nomi worse.
Finally, after arranging a co-ownership, I bred my first litter. Kyla was my pick, and what a wonderful soul Kyla was. Kyla pushed my thinking even further, and I made huge advances in my knowledge of holistic approaches to canine health. I switched Kyla to a raw food diet at one and a half years, and her health improved dramatically. She went from a dog with an average amount of energy to a dog that had a healthy zest for life and a special sparkle in her eye. I was now understanding that, even though Kyla never acted “sick” prior to her food change, she just didn’t feel as good as she could have when on a dry commercial food. A truly healthy dog has vibrancy. Kyla also introduced me to many more holistic approaches—chiropractic, herbal medicine, and homeopathy to name just a few.
I was now on my own with training. I had decided I no longer wanted to do what instructors told me to do to my dogs in order to train them. I experimented with different methods—food, toys, playing. I had a patient teacher in Kyla, and she rewarded me for my efforts. On the day we finished her AKC Championship, she had her obedience debut and tied for High in Trail with a 198.5. She went on to be the number one obedience Bernese that year with much higher scores than Mika had ever earned. I was seeing that I did not need to continually correct my dogs to be successful. In fact, I was now more successful because I didn’t always correct. I still had a long way to go on my journey, but Kyla had showed me to a clear path.
Kyla lived to a few months short of twelve, a nice lifespan for a short-lived breed. To put this in better perspective, her mom lived to six and a half, her dad to ten, and both of her siblings to about eight. With Kyla’s long life, I started seeing first hand the benefits of a more holistic approach.
As the years of training ticked away and I continued to work with dogs both personally and professionally, I found myself changing. I knew I was a good technical trainer, but something was amiss. Part of the problem was me struggling with the remnants of the old training methods, figuring out how to move beyond forceful collar corrections to make dogs do what we want them to do. The other part of the problem was me starting to question the “you have to do this” attitude. In the midst of this struggle I started to question myself too. What exactly did I want out my relationships with dogs and what was the best way to achieve that?
The next four dogs have also been Bernese. Clearly I’ve become addicted to the breed! These four also happen to be mother, son, and two grandsons. The training and life lessons expand with each of these generations. Grandmother Hoshi, who had her CDX, AKC Championship, and was a group placer (owner handled of course!), was a wonderfully unique individual. She kept me in check. If my demeanor appeared forceful, she barked, growled, and avoided me. She could not tolerate anger in life or in training and would clearly let me know where my emotions were heading. Hoshi pushed me still further toward the reality of working with my dogs rather than imposing my will on them.