Spunky doesn’t give a damn: A YEAR IN THE LIFE OF A DOG-TRAINING CLASS
“If you act like you’ve got 15 minutes, it’ll take all day. If you act like you’ve got all day, it will take 15 minutes.” —Monty Roberts,
aka the Horse Whisperer
I am sitting in a lawn chair, one of those green kind that come in their own knapsack with the drawstring. You know the type; some have cup holders and leg rests. Mine’s not that fancy, but it’s a might better than what we used to call a lawn chair, those metal framed things with the nylon cross-straps that always seemed to buckle at the least opportune time.
My dog Chance, a 6-1/2-year-old male bearded collie, is a few feet in front of me, meandering while the instructor lays out the exercise. I’m to gently push him away — get him to back up a bit and give me room, as if I were at home on the couch while watching the Cats get waxed at Vandy or something and I need him to quit hounding me for pizza.
He’s on a slack leash and I bring him closer before I shoo him away. “Out,” I say. “Out.”
“OK,” the instructor says, “turn your chair around so your back is to him.”
These chairs are light, so this maneuver comes quick and easy. With the new orientation I cannot see the dog. I don’t know what he’s doing, but part of the point of the exercise, and dog training in general, is that I’m not supposed to react hastily or pay too much attention to him. The point of the training — which I’ve heard a few times by now, and which I’ll hear many more times in the coming months — is for him to pay attention to me.
I hear laughter but resist the urge to turn around and see what he is doing. My classmates, however, cannot contain themselves. They are busting up, because he has just let me know what he thinks of this whole thing by urinating on my chair.
“Cary,” Sam the trainer intones, sounding distinctly Canadian, “what do you think he’s saying?” I hear the relish in his voice.
I don’t know it at the time, but Chance is telling me our relationship needs a lot of work.
Let’s face it — dogs are a pain in the ass.
They bark and howl and whine and slobber and dig out from under fences (or jump them). They shake and shiver when you take them places, see a stranger or hear loud noises.
They scratch floors and woodwork and people, and roll in mud and eat poop. They get on the furniture and hog the bed, and they are opportunistic little scavengers who will eat your lunch if they can reach it, or pretty much anything else if they can’t.
Sometimes they attack other dogs. Sometimes they attack people. In extreme cases, they have been known to kill both.
And yet, they are with us, in our homes and backyards. Civilized societies chose that reality a long, long time ago. We do love our dogs.
But what do we really know about them? We know what we think we know, what we’ve been told or come to assume by various means, but how informed can our thinking be when we are not dogs?
How, then, to think like a dog, that is the question.
It is a frigid Saturday morning in January, and it is strange to see dogs inside a hotel meeting room, with its requisitely drab wall-to-wall carpeting and windows that look out on a nearly empty hotel parking lot as wispy snowflakes flutter and swirl.
I am here with a handful of people, mostly women from around the region, who have committed to a year’s worth of dog training — one weekend a month throughout most of 2007. Several dogs are staged in crates in an adjacent meeting room, where they bark and whine incessantly. Two German shepherds are loose in the main room, making concentric circles, clockwise and counterclockwise, around the man we’ve all come to see. He is Sam Malatesta, a 44-year-old Italian Canadian from Beeton, Ontario, a solid 12-hour drive from Louisville.
Sam wears several hats. He breeds high-end German shepherds, and if he thinks you cut the mustard he will sell you one. He works with security dogs, and he also trains regular dogs and rescue dogs — any kind, really — using his own whelping box theory, a training template built around eight two-day sessions that mimics what happens between a mother and her puppies during the first eight weeks of their lives.
Like most everybody with an interest in dog training in the latter half of the 20th century, Sam read about the famous Koehler method. He didn’t care for it, though, because of its emphasis on forced submission. He thought there must be a better way, and he’s spent the past quarter-century crafting his own idiosyncratic method, which espouses the simple idea that through proper training, your dog will want to please you as opposed to submitting compulsively through negative reinforcement.
Sam has come here ostensibly to train dogs, but those of us gathered in this room quickly understand it is we humans in his sights. He is blunt to a fault, with a knack for reading and analyzing dogs and, more importantly, their handlers. Often (always?), we also learn, his analysis about the source of a dog’s particular problems points squarely at the handler. This makes him both an effective trainer and not everyone’s cup of tea.
We start with a long discussion as Sam writes on a dry erase board and the group members scribble notes and interject questions. I see furrowed brows all around. We are introduced to some of Sam’s catch phrases, which will become mantras:
“Your dog will look at you when you’re worth looking at.”
“Do you know what your dog knows? Does your dog know that you know?”
And, “Who’s the dog? What makes you think your dog is gonna do anything for you if you have your lips planted firmly on its butt?” (Translation: The dog should kiss your ass, not the other way around.)
Eventually we do hands-on work, starting with an exercise that involves getting your dog to follow you back and forth on a 15-foot lead, or “longe” line. For now, we use food, small treats that help ensure they pay attention. This is temporary; by the end of the class, we should accomplish the exercises without food.
The dogs work one at a time in front of Sam and the group, which lends its own kind of stress/performance anxiety. Chance does OK; he follows me fairly easily, but when Sam directs me to drop the leash, walk away and call him, the dog pretty much shuts down and stays put. I get impatient, but Sam admonishes me to not worry about it, saying we have given Chance more than he can handle for now. It’s a common handler mistake. I leave on Sunday confused, over-stimulated and convinced I’ll never get this.
Dogs are among society’s most prominent and controversial topics. They are a big money industry, with fancy products, celebrity trainers and factions within factions. Dog issues touch public policy, and there is a wide range of thought about how best to deal with strays and dangerous dogs. In Louisville, of course, the latter has been a hot topic since the Metro Council began struggling with how to deal with dangerous dogs after two human maulings in 2005.
That debate initially focused on banning pit bulls, which troubled the many people who rightly understand dog problems as people problems, and morphed through various stages before being passed and then revised. Currently, the city’s dangerous dog ordinance includes no breed ban, but it has remained controversial. A lawsuit is pending that alleges the ordinance gives too much discretion to the director of Metro Animal Services in determining which dogs are dangerous or potentially dangerous. The suit also challenges the director’s right to inspect people’s homes.
Dog advocates say legislation can never address such dog problems, but education can. There are no quick fixes, clearly, but over time, many municipalities have added an educational component to animal control policy. A Metro Council subcommittee, charged with revising the city’s dangerous dog ordinance last year after it passed at the end of 2006, interviewed several people who work with progressive programs, including Bill Bruce, who heads animal services in Calgary, Alberta. In a phone interview, Bruce tells me his department is financially self-sufficient because more than 90 percent of Calgary citizens understand the issues and willingly pay licensing fees. Bruce also says it took nearly 20 years of concerted public education to reach that point.
The Louisville class is a disparate mix of people who share a common love for dogs. After a larger turnout in January, the group waxes and wanes as people come and go and visitors drop in for one weekend, friends from Michigan or Ohio who just want to hang out or bring a foster dog that needs the Sam touch. We end up with a core of seven handlers with 12 dogs — three bulldogs, three schnauzers, an Australian shepherd, a white German shepherd, a shepherd-golden retrieverish mix, a Doberman, a dachshund and a bearded collie.
The mornings unfold slowly as we shoot the breeze and eat donuts. Sam sits quietly, watching the dog-human interactions, picking up situations he’ll challenge us on later.
“Whadya got?” he’ll ask, meaning, What’s been going on since the last class?
Our list of issues, both dog and personal, is individualistically broad.
Vicki Bradley, who breeds bulldogs in Newburgh, Ind., brings three dogs: Spunky, her strong-willed but even-tempered prince, and his bitches Bonnie and Star. The girls fight constantly.
Marilyn Llewellyn, from Boonville, Ind., works with schnauzer rescue. She brings three of her own: Arthur, her ambassador dog, Maggie Moo (aka the “green-eyed devil”), a biter who must be sedated to be groomed, and Mitzi Lynn, a nervous dog who’ll take off running given the chance. Oh, will she.
Mary Beth Greene of Galena, Ind., works with white shepherd rescue. She brings hers, Alaska, a nice dog who hangs out under the chairs during class but occasionally lunges at the bulldogs if they pass too close, and Maizey, a sweet mixed breed who is easily spooked but eager to please.
Etta Ruth Kepp of Lexington, Ky., works with rescue groups, and favors Australian shepherds. Sam advises that Lucy, her 11-year-old diva whom she describes as neurotic, is too old for training, and says Etta should just pamper her. Etta Ruth opts to work with Vegas, an enthusiastic but green 2-year-old Aussie mix.
Erin Truelsen of New Albany brings her lovable but stubborn dachshund, Augie. She and husband Chris just want to have guests over without him going ballistic.
Lauren Howard, who helped assemble the class after having worked with Sam elsewhere, brings her sweet and goofy Doberman, Jaxon, for a return engagement. He has already passed the training once.
Oh, and Chance? I describe him as a pleasant dog, docile and low-key. Sam, however, says he is a manipulative jerk who uses his good looks to get away with being lazy. We both agree he is an avoider who does not like being pushed. That timidity may actually make him a target of other dogs, Sam says, so we have to build Chance’s self-esteem and confidence.
A primary tool in establishing yourself with your dog is the longe line, a training lead that is much longer than a typical leash. Sam says the idea is that the dog never makes it to the end of the line.
“Turn and call your dog,” Sam directs a handler. “When he comes, wait till he stops and looks at you, then praise him and pet him once — five cents’ worth — and give him a treat.”
It takes months to grasp how to time my turn so Chance doesn’t fully tighten the line. Another key challenge, Sam points out, is to watch closely for that fleeting glance from the dog. Miss it too often and the dog will write you off.
One Saturday afternoon, to foreshadow how we’ll add stimuli in later sessions, Sam tells me to toss an empty milk jug at his German shepherds. Smart guy I am, I throw it too hard and it hits his older dog firmly on her snout. She doesn’t flinch. I buy lotto tickets on the way home.
The weather refuses to break and it gets old working in hotel rooms. One day we get stuck in a glorified foyer, through which some hotel guests must pass to reach their rooms. With people and dogs sitting around the perimeter, there is barely space to turn around. I notice that when Sam works the dogs, he occasionally gets his feet tangled in the line but ignores it and keeps working. When I trip over the line, my heart rate goes up.
To keep things interesting toward the end of the day, Sam fetches Demon from his van. Demon is a male German shepherd with people aggression, and Sam uses the opportunity to demonstrate how he handles a tough, scary dog. He takes small, slow steps, one at a time, his hand firmly on Demon’s collar. He bends lower and comforts the dog, speaking softly and stroking his shoulder. Demon rears up and tries to shred Sam’s face. He misses this time, but bites are an occupational hazard. Later, the class will learn this firsthand.
One of the bigger challenges of dog training, it seems, is cutting through preconceptions. Who hasn’t heard a long list of half-truths and outright lies about dogs?
“What I see is that a lot of owners want a dog to see and feel what they see and feel,” Sam tells me. “If you want something to be bonded to you, you really have to meet halfway and understand how they would see things first. How a dog sees things, in some cases, is the opposite of how we see things. A dog does not reason. A dog will react.
“Nineteen years ago, I was with my teacher and I noted how controlled our protection dogs were. I wondered why people with pets didn’t have that. He said it’s because they put their hearts before their mind — they make it an emotional thing. If you put your heart first, you can have problems with being too gentle or too firm, and you end up resenting your dog because of a lack of results. … A lot of people put the onus on the dog — my dog did ‘XYZ.’ I help you see how your part has helped that happen.”
Screwed-up dogs come in a few predictable archetypes, but whether it is shyness, anxiety or aggression, it likely stems from insecurity, which Sam believes necessarily arises from human involvement.
“If you ever watch a mom with her pups,” he says, “she says nothing and yet they follow her unconditionally (no matter) what you try to do to those puppies. All mom has to do is move and they’re right there. If you follow this, it shows you the template of socialization, it shows how you’re supposed to behave, in a detached loving sense, it shows that you reward dogs at certain times based on certain behavior, and that there’s time away from one another” to regroup.
He is talking about the crate, and one of the recurring themes among our group is that most of us think crates are mean, or at least inconvenient. The importance of this tool will also become clearer throughout the year, although there will be holdouts.
Derby comes and goes, and soon we are staring down the barrel of the Fourth of July. We have worked the dogs outside for a while now, and it is getting hot, which, of course, provides yet another learning opportunity.
The good news is that things are making more sense. We work in increasingly busier parks with joggers and bicyclists and noisy children on playgrounds. We ride bikes down sidewalks while pulling our beloved pooches, gently turning into them to teach them how to follow our movement. We see Spunky, Vicki’s male bulldog, pee on her chair after Chance does it to me. We see Sam ride Vicki out about her undying adulation for Spunky, and tell her how she is causing her females to fight by not treating them as individuals.
We learn how to have our dogs approach other people, and other people’s dogs. We learn about the three inner circles. The small one in the center is where the handler is dominant; the dog should sit there at your side. The next line out is where the dog should stop unless you give it permission to go forward, and the outer line is the one the dog should never cross without you, because nothing beyond it (squirrels, anyone?) should matter to your dog. Sam tells us how to imagine those lines in the grass — he says the dogs see them, why can’t we? — and we put duct tape down on a parking lot to make the circles graphic.
We use the taped-off area to train. Someone gets in the middle with a dog while other dogs and handlers walk in the middle and outer circles for stimuli. A visiting pit bull gives Chance the stink-eye. I surmise that this otherwise well-mannered foster dog, which was bred to fight but never did, simply has a problem with cuter dogs, and I keep a stink-eye out for him. And I think about getting down on all fours to really see things right, dog-like, but the pavement is just too damn hot.
We hear a lot about how dogs want to be alpha and all that. But Sam explains repeatedly: Dogs just want to be free. To be free, they must be led by their masters. They do not want to be in charge. If you force them to be, because of inattention or over-accommodation or general ineptitude, it is stressful. A stressed dog will act out and do something we’d classify as stupid, like biting a child or shredding your mini-blinds or eating your mother-in-law’s tongue.
Sam tells us that before the camp ends, we’ll be able to let our dogs off-leash without fear of them running away. As Marilyn works with Mitzi Lynn in a park by the Ohio River, he asks her to cut the anxious schnauzer loose. Marilyn does, and the little grey dog makes a beeline down the riverbank. She covers serious ground before she is caught and returned, no worse for the experience. We are not so sure about Marilyn. Later, she confides that this incident nearly discourages her from continuing the class.
Sam realizes she is upset but he doesn’t buy the reasons, and he does not accommodate Marilyn with sympathy. Even though he laughs and goads her, he doesn’t see it as callous, he tells me, but as a learning experience: The more stressed the handler, the more stressed the dog. It is a truism that has just played out before our eyes; experience, the teacher.
Next week, in the final part of “Spunky,” things get more stressful as the group works toward final exams.