Dog Training for Humans

Last night, we attended our first "Growly Class." We were already acquainted with the trainer, Deborah, through our private lesson, but this was the big meet-and-greet with our classmates. To minimize owner anxiety, this first meeting was "humans only." It's a smart tactic considering everyone in the class has dogs with medium to severe behavioral issues, and it's easy to get defensive about your dog when it misbehaves. By meeting people first, you get on the same page in case your dogs are less friendly toward each other.

The meeting felt like a hybrid of dog training and group therapy.

To begin, we all took turns talking showing pictures and introducing our dogs. Many people had rescued their dogs so the histories, ages and breeds were guesswork.

Our turn: "Hi, my name is Paolo and this is my wife Amanda. Our dog is Gianna, and she's a 6-year-old Collie."

After reviewing some definitions of behavior issues and talking about cognitive psychology and B.F. Skinner, we got into another round of introductions about our dogs' behavior issues. Amanda went after the guy whose Husky has bitten him hard twice.

"Well, Gianna is a really sweet little girl and didn't care much about other dogs after we first got her. She plays well with other dogs that she knows, but she gets aggressive when she's on a leash and sees dogs she doesn't know. She lunges and growls and barks at them."

I cut in, "She's a couch hog." Not my finest moment.

I'd like to think Gianna was on the lower end of behavioral issues, but she sounded fairly common compared to others' stories. There are a couple dogs in the group that have gotten into major fights before, but that didn't concern me. I went to Stadium High School, so I know what it's like going to school where people get into fights daily.

During the rest of the session we learned about the importance of rich rewards, breaking up bad dog interactions, dog "zen" (basically getting the dog to relax and focus -- dog-version of meditating) and masking or losing our own anxieties.

That last bit about anxiety was why we were all there dogless. This training session was for the humans. We all have good intentions for our dogs with issues. Unless we have confidence, our dogs won't heed to us and build confidence.

So, we listened, reflected and built our own confidence as handlers, not much different from "sit" and "stay." Next week, the dogs meet and we'll get tested in our ability to take command.

The irony of it all is the high expectation we put on our dogs. They're not people and people misbehave far more often without notice. How often do you swear or skip a chore? As much as this series of lessons will be about calibrating Gianna's behavior, it will also be about resetting our expectations.