When I was in second grade, I was chosen to be a troll in the school play. I wore big false teeth and crazy hair. I was really cool! My role was to jump out from under a bridge and with a piercing scream, scare all the little children who dared attempt to cross. I would then demand a fee or I would “eat them for supper!”

But suddenly, out of nowhere, a hero would appear with sword and shield in hand and, with gallant bravery and fearlessness, fight a long and mighty battle. Finally, the scary troll would be defeated and run away. Hooray!

As time went by, the hero taught the children how to defend themselves. And as they grew up, they learned to face and overcome all the troll-like fears that would suddenly jump out from under the bridge of life and scare them. Woo hoo!

But what happens if a hero never appears to show the children what to do and how to defend themselves? Worse yet, what happens if one of the children’s parents, for one reason or another, takes the child away and doesn’t allow him or her to learn what the hero is teaching?

Here are two examples:

I had a client yesterday who had a three year old, small mixed-breed dog with severe motion and sound sensitivity, which resulted in him lunging, barking and nipping if people got too close. Fortunately, the problems were context specific, primarily having to do with elevators, gardeners and joggers and his reactivity could be interrupted and redirected. He was a smart little guy!

I explained what the root of the problem was and that it would take one to twelve months to resolve the problem, depending on whether the person got extra help, along with his own training consistency, patience and skills. In that regard, I always tell clients “be as kind and patient with yourself as you are with your dog because it will take you some time to learn and correctly implement these methods too. It’s not an overnight quick-fix for either of you.”

I demonstrated the basics of systematic desensitization and counter conditioning and the importance of always carrying treats. I emphasized the importance of keeping his dog under threshold by keeping proper distances from joggers and gardeners and far enough away from the elevator doors in case anyone exited. And I suggested using the stairs instead for the time being. I had the client practice teaching his dog to lie down, “stay”, “come” and “look.” I finished the session and he was so pleased to see his dog catch on so quickly, he gave me the number of his friend who was having problems with her dog. I thought everything went very well.

Today I received a call:

I am very disappointed because what you showed me yesterday didn’t work. I took my dog down in the elevator this morning and he acted just like that trainer described on television, really angry and ‘in the red zone.’ I am very disappointed and feel I wasted my money.”

I spent some time on the phone with this person and asked if he remembered what I talked about and demonstrated in our training session. Did he remember what he was supposed to do as far as distance and keeping away from triggers? Was he carrying treats? Did he practice any of the behaviors? Did he remember how long it would take to solve the problem? Did he review the written materials?

The sad truth is, sometimes people forget what they’re supposed to do. And, as all trainers know, old habits are hard to change. As a result, frightened dogs are then forced into situations where they have to fend for themselves. They have to fight the trolls of scary gardeners, joggers, elevators, fireworks and fire trucks the only way they know how. And their lunging, barking, and biting often ultimately spells their doom. But who knows, maybe a seed was planted with this client and things will improve.

Much more often, heroes come together and make it all worthwhile. And I hold these dog trainers and rescuers in high esteem. Just like the hero in the play, they do everything they can to put dogs in safe situations and teach people how to protect their dogs from life’s trolls and teach them what to do. Which brings me to my second example.

Late last night I received an email from a local Golden Retriever rescuer that had asked me to do an evaluation of a very reactive, two-year old female that nobody wanted. After my evaluation, here is the note she copied and sent to the team of rescuers who were helping to find a home for this dog:

I got the good news last night that the evaluation went well and that she is being accepted by Homeward Bound.

I am so happy for her and I thank you for handling an unhappy situation with the utmost care and responsibility for all concerned. In the rescue world, usually the dog’s needs are passed over as unimportant when things become difficult. You’ve helped me regain some respect for the humans whose lives have been graced with good dogs that had a momentary lapse into their canine brain.

Thank you again for loving her enough to stick with her until help could be found! I honor you for that and I consider my life graced by having had this brief experience with you.”

Sharon Dean

Once upon a time…Yay!

Paul Owens