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Lessons from a First Dog


Some of you may have noticed (or not), that I’ve not been quite as active as usual on Facebook or social media the last couple weeks. If you are reading this, I know you understand that my relationship with my dogs goes far beyond training partner (and approaches codependence).

As a result, I tend to take it very hard when one goes ahead without me. Very hard. Like lying on the bathroom floor, clutching his collar, and weeping for 2 days (maybe a little longer).

Everyone deals with grief in their own way, and my way is “wet washcloth”. 

Two weeks ago, we helped my oldest dog, Sam, through the final gate. Sam was the first dog I owned as an adult (using the term “adult” very loosely). I snuck him into a college apartment without paying the pet deposit (even then I was a maverick). He has been with me through college and graduate school, boyfriends and break ups, moving multiple times, marriage, childbirth, and raising my first human puppy. This dog has been with me for literally half my life. I’m still trying to wrap my head around that. (Because if I’m 26, I must have brought him home when I was 9, which means I must have been a child prodigy like Doogie Houser. All of that is true.)

But this isn’t meant to be a sad or depressing post. Sam gave me many gifts, and put me on the path to the person I am today. He introduced me to clicker training and the emotional rollercoaster of living with a reactive dog. He showed me the simple pleasure of laying on the couch, snuggling, and smelling your dog’s paws. (They smell like Fritos, and I love them for it.)

Now that I’m past the wet washcloth stage (and moved on to slightly damp washcloth), I want to take time to reflect on some of the important things that he taught me in our 17.5 short years together. 

1. Supervise is a verb. If 1 human year equals 7 dog years, 5 human minutes equals 35 puppy minutes in the amount of damage that can be done.

2. Arousal and aggression are closely linked behavioral states.

3. A prong collar can often increase arousal, and may even induce a dog to redirect on the handler. (single event learning for me!)

4. It is possible to love a dog so much your chest hurts, and be so frustrated and embarrassed that you really want to just leave him tied to a parking meter somewhere. 

5. Having strangers feed your fearful dog treats is not the most effective technique to treat aggression, and can even backfire… sometimes spectacularly.

6. Choice is a POWERFUL reinforcer in it’s own right. 

7. I can train a dog to retrieve beer from a fridge faster than a computer engineer can build a robot to do the same. 

8. If you pick on your dog enough in heel position, he’ll flip around and complete a heeling pattern on your right side. And you can still qualify (at least in UKC, with a kind judge) that way.

9. All behavior is modifiable. Even mine.

10. You can screw up a LOT and your dog will still love you. He may not give you the toy back, but he will still love you. Dogs are the most forgiving species on the planet.

This is really just the tip of the iceberg. So many little daily lessons, many of which I’m not even consciously aware of. But for now, this is a good start. So I’ll leave it at that.

Run free, Sammy. You changed my world. See you at the bridge. 

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