The Confession

Woman kneeling for Confession

Photo courtesy of John Keogh under the Creative Commons license AT-NC

Despite the best of intentions, we failed Spencer miserably in the early days of having him. We hope we’re on the right path now, but we remain haunted by that troubled start.

We combed the internet diligently trying to learn about dog training. We knew that with such a large, powerful dog, it was a question of basic civic responsibility to have him under control. We tried to make sense of the jumble of information we found. We were eager to start training him from day 1, but we couldn’t take him to group classes because of his medical issues (other dogs can get aggressive when they see the Cone of Shame).

We asked the vet’s assistant if she could recommend any trainers. She gave us two names. She described one as being more of a traditional disciplinarian and the other as being more treat-oriented. Despite my misgivings about the disciplinarian, we called both. Only the “treat-based” trainer called us back. After a short phone call, we met in a local park for an “evaluation” of Spencer. At the end of the long session, he said that Spencer was a “brave chien” (good dog), but totally unstructured. We had seen nothing in that session that hinted this would be a bad fit. He seemed to truly love dogs and they seemed comfortable with him. He gave us some recommendations on upgrading our leash and collar to better resist Spencer’s weight and strength, including a choke chain, but we didn’t think anything about that as he assured us the choke collar wasn’t meant to hurt the animal, just to make a noise that would alert him to wrong-doing.

Our first sign that something was wrong came when we brought the collar home from the store. Spencer had come into the room out of curiosity to see what was in the bag. As I pulled the collar out, it jangled, and he immediately disappeared into another room. We decided not to force the issue, and for about 10 days, we left the collar laying on the floor with treats in it, let him smell it and various other ways of letting him become comfortable with the collar. One day, Greg called Spencer to him and gently slipped the collar over his head. And then Spencer did something he had never done before (or since). He laid his head on Greg’s knee and looked up at him poignantly. A few minutes later, he did roughly the same thing to me: laying his head on my shoulder (I was in a recliner) and looking at me earnestly. We had no idea what he was trying to communicate. Looking back, I wonder if he was trying to say, “OK, I’ve trusted you to put this on me. Now I’m trusting you not to hurt me with it.”

Starting at the next lesson, the trainer asked us to “correct” Spencer by giving a short flick of the wrist when he did something we did not want. The goal, he said, was not to hurt the dog, but to create pressure and a sound that would mimic how the mother dog corrects her puppies. That seemed like a far-fetched parallel to us, but he was the expert, right? When I expressed my doubts, he responded that if it hurt Spencer, then Spencer would bark or react in some other way. And he then demonstrated by firmly correcting Spencer with no reaction from the dog other than to look meekly at him and follow, with his head and shoulders lowered.

The other thing that struck us as odd (and this might even have happened at the evaluation) was that he chided us for praising Spencer for spontaneously doing something we approved of. In his view, initiative of any sort was bad. Well, he must be right, because he’s the trainer…

At the end of that first lesson, Spencer started barking at the trainer, who was standing several metres away and directly in front of us. The trainer frowned and told us this was “malsain” (unhealthy). And from that point forward, Spencer’s behavior started to get worse and worse. I have to admit that my heart was not in the collar corrections, and I tended not to use them so much in between lessons. Perhaps not surprisingly, Spencer’s behavior was much worse during his lessons than the rest of the week. After all, seemingly every time we got near someone in the park, we’d yank on his collar, and the trainer was actually setting him up for failure: the trainer would use treats to attract crows, and then when Spencer’s hunting instinct kicked in and he started to chase them, we were supposed to yank on his collar. He must have wondered what came over us on the weekend that we became such ogres.

I was feeling increasingly uncomfortable with our trainer and what we were putting Spencer through. I cried at every lesson the last month. The trainer responded, “Your dog will either make you cry today while you gain his respect or tomorrow when you are at the police station because he has bitten someone.” I truly do not believe it was intentional, but he was manipulating our vulnerability and lack of confidence to make us psychologically dependent on him.

We had more and more conversations about whether to stop seeing him. We started to research other trainers. Greg was worried about leaving him before we had identified a trainer we liked better. And then at our last lesson, the trainer suggested that because Spencer was such an extreme case, we might want to think about trying an electric shock collar. We never saw him again.

But that wasn’t our only failure. When we first got Spencer, he would growl to let us know he was uncomfortable with something. One night, he growled when Greg went to pet him in his bed. Not knowing any better at the time, Greg punished him. Although I showed Greg an article afterward about why you should never punish a dog for growling, the damage was done. Spencer stopped growling when he was uncomfortable and became one of those rare dogs who give no warning signs before charging. (We’ve since gotten him back to barking first, but we’re still working on growling.) Here’s the thing that we learned too late: growling is good, because the dog is talking to you instead of being actively aggressive. It signals that the dog is uncomfortable and gives you an opportunity to fix the underlying problem.

Another episode happened when we were seeing a specialist about Spencer’s eyes. The guy is a highly skilled ophthalmologist for dogs. He was also a very large, imposing man with a booming voice. When we went into the examination room, he approached Spencer to look at his eyes. Spencer was scared and started to back into a corner. Instead of retreating, calling Spencer to him and giving Spencer the time to become comfortable, the doctor kept moving forward. Finally, when Spencer couldn’t back up anymore, he snapped at the doctor, who smacked him on the nose and yelled, “Hey! I’m in charge here.” We were in shock. He then looked at us and said, “I thought you said your dog was nice.” To our shame, we didn’t stand up for Spencer because what did we know? He’s the vet. He’s supposed to be the expert about animals, not us. So we docilely got out Spencer’s muzzle and the vet examined him with no further incidents. When they performed the operation, I stayed with Spencer, holding his head until they had sedated him, and he was perfectly well-behaved.

Is it any wonder that although we set out with the best intentions, Spencer doesn’t trust us to introduce him to people who won’t hurt him? What does he know about intentions?

These are our crimes against dog-manity. These are the sins for which we try to atone every day. The most bitter lesson that I’ve learned from this is that apologies are meaningless. There is a reason that Catholic Confession is followed by acts of penance. Your words may signal an intention, but it’s your follow-up that matters. I’ve apologized to Spencer a zillion times, but he has no idea what those words mean. It’s been nearly a year since we left the bad trainer. Spencer has recently been making stellar progress. It’s like he is finally beginning to believe in us again. And as he begins to believe in us, so do we.

I will never, ever forget what this year has taught me:

  • Leadership is about inspiring trust, not about imposing your will.
  • Our humanity is measured by how we treat those who are weaker than us and dependent on us, not in how we act towards those who have power over us.
  • When authority and your gut feeling are in conflict, listen to your gut. Those feelings are there for a reason.
  • Just because someone is silent, it doesn’t mean they aren’t suffering.
  • Never let the relationship become secondary to the goal.

I’ve been meaning to write this post for a long time. It’s a necessary mea culpa, another step on the road to forgiveness. I was finally pushed to do it by this powerful excerpt from the book Bones Would Rain from the Sky. It made me cry. I identified too closely with the situation of Wendy and Chance not to cry.


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