Have you ever had a bad dog? I'm not talking about the "okay" dog. I'm talking about the REALLY. BAD. DOG. Your own personal "Marley and Me." The one constantly pushing your buttons. Are you picturing that dog? Well me too! Meet my Xena.
I first started training dogs as a kid. I remember building my own mini agility courses out of random artifacts on the farm and teaching our little Bichon Frisé to do the obstacles. Of course at the time I didn’t know anything except what the dog taught me, but dogs really are the best teachers anyways.
Dog training became something serious for me right after I got married. My husband and I got a Golden puppy named Xena. I was teaching full time at a local elementary school, and I was determined to have a well-trained dog that would come when called and be calm in her kennel while I was at work. So naturally, I took her to the nearest puppy class. I remember feeling pretty confident strolling into the building. At five months of age, Xena was an older puppy. We had practiced sit, down, and stay at home, so I thought we would breeze through puppy class. I was convinced I had a good dog and I was a great leader to her. Bring on the agility courses! Funny how life smacks you in the face. Not only were we not “good,” my dog proceeded to be the worst dog in the class. When I say the worst, I mean the WORST. She did not listen to stay, down, or even sit. She refused her bacon treats that worked amazing at home! She barked and whined the whole time the instructor talked. Not only did she bark, but she thrashed about wildly against the leash and collar. I wish I could say this was the worst of it, but as the class drug on, she then proceeded to alligator roll anytime I’d try to hold her collar. Let me tell you, by the end of that dreadfully long ninety minutes, Xena had zero patience left and her owner had zero pride left. I left that first class feeling embarrassed, defeated, and with a good dose of humility realizing I knew nothing about dog training.
If it wasn’t for the most incredible instructor, I’m not sure I would have come back. As that first night of class finally came to an all too prolonged end, the teacher was flooded by a handful of students wanting to ask her questions. It was a huge group, probably close to 20 puppies, and I could easily sneak out unnoticed. As another student started to talk to the trainer, she respectfully asked them to hold on a moment. The instructor made a beeline for me. Shoot. This is it. The moment I dreaded and knew was coming; my dog was going to be kicked out and deemed untrainable. I remember apologizing profusely for Xena’s behavior and fumbling through my embarrassment. Once I finished, all that sweet instructor did was tell me not to apologize. “Keep coming,” she said. “Keep coming.” She gave me a few pointers to help get my dog focused during class and sent me on my way. I went home that week and worked my tail off (yes, pun fully intended). The next week at class, it was still hard. My dog still struggled and pulled and whined some, but I was able to get her to do sit and down quietly while the instructor talked. Keeping Xena busy resulted in her making less of a scene, which made me feel a touch successful. It was still “verge of tears” difficult, but it was better. The instructor often chose to use my dog to demonstrate a new skill because Xena was the “problem child,” and I loved watching that trainer work her magic. That magic kept me coming to class. I remembered being mind blown that her demo dog, a puppy just two months older than mine, could stay off leash on a dog bed the whole time she taught. I wanted what she had, and I was willing to work for it. A few more weeks went on, and all the sudden we got kind of good! My dog could stay on place for about thirty seconds, she was food motivated, and although she couldn’t relax very well during class discussions, I was able to manage her in a way that didn’t stress us both out. I signed up for the next class and the next. I bought another puppy (no - I would never, ever recommend puppies this close together) because I loved training so much. A well trained dog was a high for me, and the trainers came along side me and nurtured a love that I had buried in me since childhood.
About a year later, I bought my third dog. (Again, do as I say, not as I do! I’ve learned since then. Space those puppies out!) Anyways. I bought my third Golden. While attending puppy class, the instructor pulled me aside and asked if I had any interest in helping with the class to start learning “the ways of a dog trainer.” I was hooked, and I never quit. I was fortunate to work with a variety of trainers. The agility instructor gave me many lessons and let me teach classes with her. I got to do a variety of adult dog and puppy classes, and within a few months they had me leading my own groups with a mentor trainer overseeing me. There’s no better way to learn than to do, and man did I ever learn. I learned that every canine is different, and that sometimes a solution that worked for one dog didn’t work for another dog. I learned how to make eyes at my mentor to beg for help anytime a student asked a question I didn’t know an answer to. I learned some dogs don’t like new people and how to read the most subtle signals for my safety. I learned about rewarding a dog for his mental state and not just for the showy skills and tricks.
I learned that this job brought me joy in a way that I never knew was possible. My love for animals and my passion for education and teaching humans had finally collided, and that felt like a whole new level of right.
I learned how to reverse pieces of my past mistakes in my own dogs. I fought hard for years to reverse Xena’s severe separation anxiety and teach her to be calm and patient during down time. It was two steps forward, one step back. She constantly pushed my buttons and challenged me. I had to reintroduce a crate from the ground up. It made me the master of shaping and forced me to work to truly understand dog behavior.
With my Indi, I built too much drive and had to retrain impulse control. With Finnick, I trained too much. He taught me that sensitive dogs need a different approach, and that overtraining will make your dog hate training. With my Cinder and Lumos and Flare, I learned that raising puppies and human babies simultaneously is a whole new level of training. And with the future dogs I own, it will be some other mistake and lesson to learn.
All these things that I created and messed up on along the way, and then I attempted to fix and retrain. And you know what, I wouldn’t change it for the world. Not one bit. Sure, when my 8-year-old Xena at present day all the sudden whines at the door and gives me a little glimpse of her anxiety, I instantly regret not starting her in a class at ten weeks old instead of five months old. I realize her anxiety was mostly preventable and was due to my lack of training knowledge, but I also remember how far she has come. She doesn't drool or scream or break teeth on her crate door anymore. Yes, sometimes looking at past mistakes is hard, but those mistakes led me to who I am today. Those mistakes brought about Havana Dog Training. They shaped a trainer that knows how hard it is to have the “naughty dog,” and a trainer who knows how hard fighting separation anxiety truly is. They inspired a kid relatively fresh out of college with her teaching degree to veer off her path, just a tiny bit, and start something new. Those mistakes taught a new trainer to ask questions and to never be above educating herself. And ultimately, that education process brought me experience with dog after dog after dog. Reactive dogs, fresh young puppies, and anxiety ridden dogs. Active dogs and lazy dogs. Aggressive dogs. Overly friendly dogs. Cat chasers, tail biters, diggers, barkers, sock eaters, and counter surfers. With each individual dog came individual needs and a new demand for creativity. I quickly learned dog training is equally as much an art as a science. But despite their differences, all these dogs needed one common aspect to thrive - a good leader. Every single one of those canines needed their owners to have the knowledge, power, and support to be the leader their dog needed in the day in and day out. Xena needed my leadership to thrive, and my leadership skills came from a support team of professional trainers. With this support, my "worst dog ever" has absolutely become my best. Best friend. Best family dog to my children. Best work buddy and best camping companion. Best trainer to me. Best business partner.
And so through all this, Havana Dog Training began (well.. in a round about way that we will save for another blog). Welcome to the HDT family, where we realize good dogs need great leaders like you. And who knows... maybe we can help make your "worst" dog the best dog.
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About The Author: Megan is the owner and lead trainer of Havana Dog Training. She has been training canines for over 8 years and specializes in behavior modification, foundational work, and working with families and young children.