(Update February 2015: The sad truth is that we were the ghosts mentioned in this article. We have since learned that correction-based training has a high rate of triggering fear aggression. Spencer’s aggression got worse and worse as we worked with this trainer. Luring crows and then punishing him for trying to chase them was cruel. “Correcting” him with a choke chain when strangers came near taught him to associate other people with pain and fear. Although he has made massive progress since this post was written through positive methods entailing no corporal punishment, we are still paying the price for these early mistakes. We were the ones who extinguished that light in his eyes. We have managed to win back his trust and relight his inner fire, but it breaks my heart to read how misguided our actions were back them.)
One of the hardest things about adopting a dog from the shelter is having no information about his history. What we KNOW about Spencer begins on 27 March 2012, when he was picked up by the dog pound. We can only surmise what the first 18 or so months of his life were like. Sometimes there are little hints, like ghosts appearing with a message from the past.
Since Spencer was neither tattooed, nor had an identification chip implanted, and was abandoned in the street half-blind, we can assume that his previous owners were not very responsible.
At the same time, he has such a sweet temper and generally seems to want to obey, even if he doesn’t always understand what we’re asking him. He also responded so quickly to commands about sitting and laying down that we suspect he had some early training. But we don’t know what form it took.
I mentioned in an earlier article that this weekend’s lesson was good. That doesn’t mean it was easy for either Spencer or me. We are currently working on teaching Spencer that he should never take the initiative to establish contact with a third party, whether it is chasing crows, saying hello to another dog, or approaching another human being. The crows are a major training aid. The trainer attracts them with kibble and then my job is to keep Spencer under control and eventually get him to ignore the crows and focus totally on me. This is both physically and mentally challenging.
At some point when we were doing this, the trainer jingled the choke chain attached to his belt, and Spencer reacted badly. The trainer noted Spencer’s fear of the collar, and Greg told him we had already noticed the same thing.
It was very hard to get any collar on Spencer in the early days. He eventually got used to that, but then the trainer recommended a choke collar for the training sessions and walks. The instant I took the choke collar out of the bag, it jingled and Spencer fled into another room. So for ten days, we jingled the collar at random times, left it on the floor with treats inside the circle and similar ways to make it less scary. Finally, Greg called him, and with relatively little resistance, managed to get it on. Now Spencer sits or lies down obediently while we put it on, because he knows it means he is going for a walk. But it is a big difference when the owners you love and trust handle a scary object and when another person who you don’t know as well does it.
Since that lesson, Spencer has been off balance. He lost the joie de vivre and playfulness that were becoming dominant last week. He is suddenly afraid to go into his crate on command, as if he thinks we’re going to close him in there. He charged a man in the park yesterday morning. He doesn’t want to play very much. Last night when he wasn’t obeying Greg’s command, Greg lifted his hand to grab Spencer’s collar, and Spencer cowered as if Greg was going to hit him.
So we don’t know exactly what ghosts we conjured this weekend, but they are clearly not happy ones. This week we are trying to help him rebuild his confidence by demonstrating that even if we have to be tough with him sometimes, we love him and won’t hurt him.
This morning’s walk was better. He was not nearly as on edge as yesterday, but he still hasn’t found that bounce in his step, and it’s kind of heart-breaking.