Animals can teach us so much, if only we would take the time to listen to them.
While I have had animals all of my life, it wasn’t until I adopted a little mutt 10 years ago that I actually paid attention and began to learn from my pets.
For years I had alternated between adopting a border collie mix or a scruffy terrier mix. Ten years ago it was time for a new scruffy terrier. I had seen one on the website of the Humane Society of Indianapolis that fit the bill. I went to meet her and she was everything I was looking for: scruffy terrier face, very playful, right size for me, etc. I took her out to the outdoor runs and threw some balls for her and she loved fetch. She ran around the yard exploring and sniffing, not really paying a lot of attention to me, but I figured she was just happy to be out of her cage.
When I put her back I glanced into the kennel to her left and saw a young German shepherd looking dog shivering on a blanket. He was obviously very scared. Super pathetic looking. I was feeling magnanimous. I decided to take this little dog out and just give him some time outside while I was waiting to process the adoption of the terrier.
I took him into the same outdoor run and threw a ball. He just stared after the ball and looked pathetic. He kind of sniffed around and just sat down. I got down on my knees to see if he would come up to me and he suddenly came alive. He ran over to me, sat right in front of me, put a paw on each shoulder, rested his chin on one shoulder and let out a mighty sigh. This is absolutely a true story. My heart lurched, my eyes misted. This dog PICKED me. He LOVED me. Goodbye terrier tradition, hello little German shepherd mix with a curly tail.
This was the first lesson I learned from a little dog who I eventually named Batman: If we can train shelter dogs to make quicker connections to people who take them out of their kennels they are more likely to get adopted (The ASPCA backs this up with research, they didn’t have Batman). I’m not belittling this instant connection I felt to this dog, but five years later when I actually began working at IndyHumane, it was a story I told over and over. I watched numerous dogs not get adopted because they acted like that little terrier, they just weren’t that interested in the person who took them out. We now tell volunteers and staff how important it is to reward dogs anytime they check in with the human who takes them out of the kennel. People want to adopt a dog that “picks” them.
I always imagine Batman sitting in that kennel plotting how to get someone to take him outside so he could wow them with the sigh on the shoulder. For as I was to learn, Batman was a very wise and extremely intelligent dog.
He was 7 months old when I adopted him. He was given up for being too hard to handle and untrainable. Dogs between the ages of 6 months and 18 months are among the most given up age population. They are teenagers and many people just give up and decide the dog is a bad dog. I’m sure his previous owners didn’t understand that what they really had was a super intelligent dog who was most likely bored out of his mind.
There are going to be some things in this story that I’m not proud of and now we come to the first one. At the time I adopted Batman all of my dogs had lived outside. It wasn’t that I didn’t care for them. I grew up on a farm and dogs just lived outside. My dogs were well provided for. They had dog houses, food, water and I occasionally walked them, but I figured since I had a fenced yard, they were just happy running free outside.
Batman once more took matters into his own paws. He lived outside a few days, then one day when I let him in for some loving, he took a little rubber squeaky pig toy and ran all over the house squeaking it. It was super fun to watch. I got distracted by something and when I looked for Batman next, I found him on the couch sound asleep with the toy under his paw and his chin resting on it.
I started letting him in more and more. He never had any accidents in the house and I had no idea he would be so entertaining. In a few weeks he was sleeping on my bed. He has the distinction of being my last dog that ever stayed outside 24/7 and the first dog that slept on my bed.
I now know that most dogs actually prefer living inside with their humans. And dogs won’t generally self exercise in a yard. They just sit at the back door waiting for you to come out or they get bored and jump the fence of destroy things in your yard.
Prior to adopting Batman, I had taken two previous dogs to training classes. This was more than 30 years ago now and the types of training classes were the traditional walk in a circle with a bunch of other people and practice jerking up on a choke chain to get your dog to do what you wanted. I thought it was boring, but it was the only option I knew about and the man teaching the classes seemed knowledgeable and had a well-trained dog to show off to perspective clients. I totally bought into that we weren’t hurting the dogs, that dogs needed to be dominated because that’s how they lived in the wild and we were just communicating with them. I even alpha rolled one of my border collies after the trainer said I should. He was the expert right? And the border collie never jumped on me again after that. He also submissive peed when I called him to me after that, but at the time I never understood why.
I bought a choke chain for Batman and practiced all the things I had learned in the two previous classes. Then I found out about dog sports. I met a group of people who had a Schutzhund club. Schutzhund is a dog sport, mainly practiced by German shepherd owners, but other dogs also participate. Look it up on You Tube. There are national and international championships. It is a huge sport with a dedicated following.
I suddenly learned that training did not have to be walking in a circle making your dog sit. Training could be fun. You could teach your dog to retrieve, jump a barrier, “attack” a guy wearing a bite sleeve, play tug. There was a camaraderie in the club. They met twice a week. It was like a family and it was all about the dogs. Batman was the only mutt in the group, but his GSD personality shined through and he did a fantastic job. He earned a BH which is an obedience title in Schutzhund.
At this point I was hooked on training and dog sports. I loved spending time training my dog. I moved from a choke chain to a prong collar and then an electric collar. Just about everyone in the club used these devices. People from other clubs did as well. These people had decades of experience. It must be right. I went to training seminars on effective use of an electric collar in training. I even went to events and helped out with electric collar seminars on a few occasions using Batman as my demo dog to show how wonderful he was.
And then one day I ruined my dog. I tried to make him do something that physically was really too difficult for him. Sadly, one drawback of Schutzhund is that no consideration is taken for the size of the dog. Batman was less than half the size of the average dog doing this sport. So, trying to make him jump a meter high jump carrying a dumbbell was just too much. I shouldn’t have done it, but I WANTED that Schutzhund I title.
This opus isn’t meant to start a debate about the right and wrong way to use an electric collar. What I learned though was that if you use an aversive training method, you can cause a behavior that may be impossible to fix. It is very hard to break a dog completely using non-aversive methods.
At this time in our club was a woman who had a thing called a clicker. She talked about things like operant conditioning, something about quadrants that contained things like positive and negative reinforcement and punishment. It was all very confusing and not nearly as clear cut as the electric training collar remote in my hand.
But, this is when Batman taught me what I consider his greatest gift: he showed me that there might be more than one training method. I did not stop using an electric collar one day and just switch to a clicker. Instead it was a two-year process. But, what I also learned in this two-year period was that there was an entire world of dog training seminars out there. I became a seminar junky. I went to Clicker Expo and the APDT conference. I drove to Chicago and Columbus, Ohio, to attend seminars on all manner of subjects related to dogs. I became fascinated by canine behavior.
The woman with the clicker began to make more sense to me and then I saw her do a demo with her dog Shakespeare, who I will always consider to be the wisest dog I ever met. Once I saw a clicker training demo with this dog, I became hooked.
It wasn’t easy to leave the world of prong collars and electric collars. I loved my friends. I loved what they did with their dogs, but in the end I made a decision that I could no longer do anything that physically hurt my dog. Again, this is not meant to start a debate. This is my journey with Batman and not meant to change anyone’s mind.
Once I switched to positive only training, my world with Batman opened up. I trained him to do all kinds of fun things. At the same time, the Indianapolis Star started a website called IndyPaws. It was a way for pet people to connect and you could “talk” in the voice of your pet if you wanted. Batman and I both had accounts and he often posted about his life. He was quite witty (if I do say so).
Through the other people in IndyPaws I discovered the world of animal rescue. I learned about how many dogs and cats were dying in our state due to over population, out dated facilities, lack of money, poor management at shelters, etc. I became a blogger. I attended meetings. I met Nathen Winograd several times and learned there might be other ways to run animal welfare organizations.
I was offered a part time job at the Humane Society of Indianapolis. I kept attending seminars on animal behavior. I was asked to try and save a dog about to be euthanized for resource guarding. I saved said dog. I became really hooked on positive reinforcement training.
Several years later I was offered the position of Director of Canine Training at the Humane Society of Indianapolis. It was a huge change. It would mean leaving a job I held and loved for 25 years and taking a huge pay cut. I did it. Batman now became my real partner. He went to countless schools and libraries showing people the right and wrong ways to interact with dogs. He taught me if I was too boring, he would take over and make people laugh. He showed me that letting people see what he could do was the most effective way to change anyone’s mind about training and dog behavior. People did not buy training classes from me because they wanted to do clicker training. They bought training classes from me because they wanted their dog to be like Batman.
I decided to enroll in the Karen Pryor Academy, which was a six month course to teach people how to become dog trainers using clickers and positive reinforcement. My world expanded once again. Batman was my demo dog. We did everything together.
Batman taught me one last thing on Nov. 10. Sometimes if you love something you really do have to set it free even if you don’t want it to leave you. Batman was diagnosed with bladder cancer in July. He responded great to the chemo. His oncologist thought he was doing great. He had no side effects. He ran, chased squirrels, did our demos as if nothing was wrong. Until one day when he didn’t eat. The next day he could barely walk and the day after that he couldn’t get up at all. I spent hours in two different vet offices. We tried various things. I could have kept going. His heart and lungs were still strong. But, he lifted his head and put it on my hand and sighed the same sigh that he gave me when we met. He was hurting. He needed me to be strong and make one last decision for him.
He left the world with me scratching his ears in his favorite spot. I promised him I would not stop learning.