Toby was the first dog that my husband Tom and I brought into our family, many years ago before we became dog trainers. He was 8 weeks old, and came from a pet store that we now realise was a front for a puppy farm. With the misguided confidence of youth, we decided that we'd home school Toby with the help of some Youtube videos, rather than enrolling him for puppy school. We did a relatively decent job on his obedience training, but we didn't understand the important of early socialisation, and Toby only met a handful of other dogs before he was four months old.
As a result of this lack of socialisation, bad breeding and stressful birth conditions, Toby developed full blown reactivity by the time he was 12 months of age. Our sweet little puppy turned into a barking, snarling rage monster at the sight of another dog, and we had no idea what to do.
Our first experience with the unregulated world of professional dog training wasn't a good one. We paid a fortune for a man to come to our home and diagnose Toby as "dominant". His advice was to knock Toby back down to the bottom of the pecking order with a combination of arbitrary rules, intimidation tactics, and punishment. When Toby jumped onto the outdoor couch the man whipped him with a chain. Looking back, I'm not sure how he managed to convince us that the dog quivering on the ground in a puddle of his own urine, letting out little whimpers of fear was "dominant", but we were desperate, and we were willing to do whatever it took to help our dog.
We stuck with the trainer's plan for about a week - forcing Toby to submit, strangling him with a choke chain whenever he saw another dog. I still have nightmares about it.
In just that one week, Toby's behaviour got unbelievably worse. His reactions to other dogs were now instantaneous and frighteningly aggressive, continuing on even after the other dog had passed. Worse still, he started to show signs of anxiety around Tom and I as well. Our hearts broke, and we decided we couldn't do it any more - even if it was "for his own good."
I am forever grateful that I didn't give up at that point. We were close; we considered giving Toby up, we considered euthanasia.
Thankfully, we decided to give it one more shot, and reached out to a different professional trainer. With their help, we overhauled Toby's life - new routine, new diet, new equipment, and a carefully structured training plan based on behavioural science. On the other side, I couldn't believe that this was the same dog. Watching him walk past other dogs with a bounce in his step and a twinkle in his eye was the best feeling in the world.
Somewhere along the way I fell in love with the science of dog training - how the knowledge of canine cognition fostered a bond of mutual understanding and respect, how it was able to improve the lives of animals who were suffering, and bring joy back into their relationships with their people. I took a position as an apprentice trainer, and began my years of study in behavioural science.
These days my favourite type of training is helping other reactive dog owners to work through their dog's issues. The journey to recovery isn't usually an easy one, but it's certainly a path worth travelling.