In his new book, Your Dog Is Your Mirror, Kevin Behan states that a dog’s issues mirror its owner’s issues, as “the most powerful emotional battery in any dog’s life is its owner’s deep inner stress.” I also remember reading on his website, although I can’t find it now, him positing (I’m paraphrasing) that this even applies to a dog a person picks out of a shelter. According to Kevin Behan, when a person picks out a dog at the shelter, that person chooses the dog whose energy—as seen in those first moments—does the dog cringe at the back of the cage? Come forward and bark? Etc—reflects something the person subconsciously needs to work on in their own life, some unresolved emotional issue.
Do I believe this? I don’t know. I don’t think I’m the reason Cholula sometimes attacks other dogs; I know from talking to her previous owner that Cholula has had this problem since she was adopted by that owner two years ago, and I wouldn’t be surprised if it got worse from her being back in the shelter before I brought her home. Also, my other, most beloved, dogs, Pundit and Ubi, never had this problem. However, I wonder if there isn’t something to his claim.
When I called Kevin to request that he provide me with a training program for Cholula after she attacked a little dog in front of our house, the primary training project he gave me was to teach her to bark on command. He said that when she could bark on command, I would be able to get her to release her fear/excitement/energy when we encountered a dog on the sidewalk before this fear/energy caused her to attack the other dog, and that this would be the key to solving her dog aggression.
Problem #1: Cholula is not a barky dog. She barks at only two things: when someone she doesn’t know knocks at the door (and this only lasts until she sees that I or my husband are calm about the entering person) and when she goes into a lunging frenzy on the sidewalk at another dog or (the one other thing that sets her off) someone whizzing by on a skateboard. Kevin told me I needed to accept that she might not bark right away but to keep working on the exercises. The exercises he gave me were simple. He recommended doing them twice a day for her whole bowl of food.
1) Tie her to a tree on a flat collar.
2) Stand in front of her with food held at my heart, and shiver my energy while telling her to “speak”
3) As soon as she broke concentration, especially by opening her mouth at all—i.e. licking her lips, sneezing, burping, give her the food and praise.
4) Repeat until she’d had her whole meal in this fashion.
5) (Optional) Try to trigger the bark by having my husband hide in the yard or on the street with a funny hat to disguise himself and jump out, startling her into a bark before she realized who he was, which I could immediately respond to with food and praise.
So it’s three months later, and Cholula has still never barked on command. My husband and father think it’s hopeless. Incidentally, Pundit, who is naturally exhibitionist where Cholula is inhibited and will bark at any excuse, got very excited about this new training protocol and learned, at 12 years of age, to bark on command after a couple of weeks of intermittently poking his nose into Cholula’s training. He was barking with such frenzied misery in the house when I took Cholula out to train her that for a while I tied him to a bush at the same time Cholula was on the tree and took turns instructing them. In this way, I managed to teach my old dog a new trick, while my new dog still gazes at me in anxious silence.
(Important admission: In the beginning, I made Kevin’s suggested training schedule a priority. However, there is no way for me to get out alone with her in the evenings until after the kids have gone to bed, and in the dark I was getting nowhere with her, energywise, so I dropped the evening training. Recently, mornings have been crazy too, so I am now working with her on this about 4 days a week).
Here’s the thing: once I really started trying to get her to bark on command, I saw how hard it was for her. Even for Pundit, a naturally uninhibited, barky, healthily assertive dog (sometimes annoyingly so), to bark when I told him to was initially mind-blowing. I could see that he knew what I wanted him to do but he couldn’t figure out how to let his energy out in a bark consciously, because I told him too, instead of as an instinctive response to whatever minor stimuli had excited him in the moment. Pundit learned when a friend came down our walk one morning as I was training the dogs, and although Pundit knows this friend well, in the excitement of the moment, he barked when I could immediately, as Kevin had told me to, tell him “speak”, praise and feed him, and the lesson clicked.
I think that Cholula knows what I want her to do when I tell her to speak. But she can’t—she lacks the courage, the energy, the will to let loose a bark into my face. She can not figure out how to do it. And the more I understand how hard it is for her, the more I believe what Kevin told me, that if I could get her to release that bark on command, I would hold the key to resolving her aggression problems.
Which brings me to Kevin’s assertion that we pick the dog that reflects something in ourselves. I used to write a lot. And then I stopped. And I wonder if there is something to Kevin’s assertion that I was drawn to Cholula in the shelter not just because of the big sign on her cage saying she was good with kids but because the inhibition I glimpsed in her resonated with an inhibition in myself that I was desperate to cast off, but didn’t know how. And so as I work to get her bark out, I also started the blog, and made a New Year’s resolution to write in it at least weekly.
So I haven’t gotten her bark out yet, and I haven’t solved her aggression problems yet, either. This is what happens on our training these days (the photos are from a morning I took her and her breakfast to the woods to train in a lovelier setting for a change).
1) I tie her to a tree and jiggle food in front of her, encouraging her to speak.
2) I’ve found that with her I have to focus just on keeping her energy up, not letting her droop into avoidance, where she walks away from me behind the tree or looks away, and the easiest way I’ve found to do this is to crouch in front of her and give her lots and lots of praise the whole time I’m telling her to speak. Kevin suggested working farther back or standing up tall, but until she’s excited, when she’ll jump on me, I haven’t been able to keep her energy flowing well from either of those positions.
3) Cholula wrinkles her forehead. I praise and give food, and tell her to speak.
4) Cholula paws the ground. I praise and give food, and tell her to speak.
5) Cholula burps. I praise and give food, and tell her to speak.
6) Cholula paws the ground more fervently.
7) Repeat until the food is gone.
Although this doesn’t sound like much, and I’m not trying to suggest its very impressive for three months work, the thing it has done is tremendously improve the passion of her pushing (Kevin’s central training technique; you can read about it on his blog (www.naturaldogtraining.com) or Neil Sattin’s blog (www.naturaldogblog.com). When I let her off the tree these days, she races up and down our back walkway leaping into me for the food with a pure energy that is tremendously exhilarating for me as well as her, especially after the tentative pushes she used to give. She flies into me now, she leaps off the ground, and I have to brace myself to keep from falling, which I know (because it happened once before, when I first had her home and tripped while walking backwards) would cause her to so cut back on her energy out of fear that it would take me weeks to bring it back up.
That’s where we are. We’re not there yet. But she is pushing and trying to speak, and I am blogging. And I hope that both of our energy is flowing in the right direction.