When I saw the theme for this month’s positive reinforcement pet training hop–my training mentor or inspiration–my first thought went to trainers whose work I devour: Patricia McConnell, of course. Victoria Stilwell. Debbie Jacobs. Et cetera.
But I wouldn’t know about any of those amazing women without their critical predecessor.
When I started to really think it through, it hit me that my one-and-only dog-training mentor and inspiration, the one who pushed me into the world of positive reinforcement and canine cognition and group training classes and desensitization and counter-conditioning… all of it… could only be Lucas.
It had to be him.
See, when we adopted Emmett in 2006, we thought we knew what we were doing. My bestie taught dog training classes, and we enrolled in her group class the day after we brought Emmett home from the shelter. He did great in class. He did great at home. He did great at the park and at parties and out shopping.
This is so easy, we thought. Let’s adopt another.
All of a sudden–before we even left the parking lot of the animal shelter, actually, when we discovered that he was so afraid of cars that he would. not. get. in. to go home… and what the heck do you do in a busy parking lot with dogs everywhere and you have the dog who you’ve known for 30 minutes who has turned himself into a Tasmanian devil to keep from getting into the backseat of the car? what. do. you. do.–we understood that we knew nothing about dog behavior.
Sure, we could teach tricks and manners and such.
But nothing that resembled teaching behavior.
The agony of those first few months… he didn’t want to be patted. He didn’t wag his tail. He didn’t play with Emmett. He didn’t snuggle. What he did want? He did want to throttle every single dog he saw, and we saw a lot because we lived in a dog-friendly condo building next to a dog-filled park in DC. He did want to chew our chairs to toothpicks. He did want to have total melt-down panic-attacks daily.
Once we tried to list all the things he was scared of, but it was an impossible feat. Let’s just say he was scared of the TV being on and of plastic bags, along with everything else you can think of.
Oh, and we had this crazy accident in which giant Lucas got so scared on a walk he took off like a shot, but I had the leash gripped so tightly that he flung me into a No Parking sign and into the road. My face and arms were crazy bruised, and I had my 30-day review at my new job that week.
What scared him?
Our neighbor drove past and said, “Hi, guys!” out his car window.
There were tears. Lots of tears.
But there was also this gleam in his eye. Like, we could see him in there. And he and Emmett were slowly becoming the very best buds. Once they started to play, they never, ever stopped. They began to cuddle together on a dog bed. Then he began to cuddle with us and wag and play with us and with toys. He was in there.
Then we’d open our front door, and he’d retreat.
We met with several trainers who gave him a label: aggressive. Thank goodness we kept seeking other answers because we knew he was just flipping terrified.
That was our foundation.
We knew him. We knew he was in there. We knew just how fun-loving and playful he was. It was just hard for him to access that part of himself because the defenses he built were so thick and so high and so dense that it took monumental effort to dismantle them.
Those efforts kicked off the positive reinforcement journey.
And oh, how it changed all our lives. By the time we lost Lucas in 2015, he was himself. He was that fun-loving guy that was in there hidden by fear because the fear (well, most of it) was gone.
He LOVED doggy daycare! I mean, who knew?! That first year, that second year, if you had told either John or I that Lucas would be enrolling in cage-free daycare and boarding there, we would have split our sides laughing so hard.
But he did, and he loved it to pieces.
At a reactive dog group class Lucas and I took, one of the our classmates turned to me at one point and said, “Are you really sure he’s reactive?”
Highest praise I’ve ever received.
But the thing is, I was taking that class with him seven years after we had adopted him. He was never “fixed” or whatever. We learned his triggers and how to manage them, but we worked at it. Constantly. And had backslides.
He was so fun. Such a big, fluffy ball of love, filled with light and laughter. He loved hanging out with people and wrestling with dogs.
He still had his fears, and they’d crop up sometimes unexpectedly. But, at the end of the day, I learned so much from him, my training mentor and inspiration, about patience and about perseverance. I learned how resilient a dog can be and how the best things in life take the hardest work.
He was my teacher and carried a little piece of my soul with him. I’m grateful for all the lessons he taught me, and I sure wish he were still around to guide me.