Am I spending more time and energy training my sons – or the dog? Part 1

I try very hard to be a good mom.  This is the truest statement I can say about myself.  I may waver back and forth on how I’m doing in a hundred other areas, but when it comes to mothering my sons, I try very hard to do a good job.  And my family and my friends who really know me would attest to that with much surety.  But that’s a whole other post.  This post is about our dog, or rather MY dog.  Nicki.  A hundred pound female German Shepherd who will be two years old in June.  And I’m a good mother to this dog.  Or at least I try to be.  Family, friends and even strangers would also attest to this with much surety.  And I put an incredible amount of energy and thought and money into training my sons, but am I spending more time and energy training the dog?  I know last year it sure seemed like I spent a heck of lot more money on the dog than I did my sons.

Nicki’s a big dog and always has been. We got her when she was five months old and she already appeared full-grown.  And, she is, as her REAL (hired and paid for) trainer says, “very very driven”.  And very “strong-willed”.  So, she needs and wants lots of exercise.  From early on, Nicki has always been very full of energy.  And her idea of playing in the early days was running at breakneck speed all over our house and jumping on us and pretending to want to bite our legs and arms.   At least we think she was pretending.  But it scared us.  To death.  Did I mention that after I signed the papers to adopt her from the pound AND after I handed over my check, the employee mentioned in a very soft rushed way that Nicki had a “slight aggression” problem?  But suffice to say, we had on our hands in those early days and weeks a very large, fast, energetic and now aggressive dog on our hands.  Appeared happy, but acted aggressive – in a happy, joking kind of way.  Like the big uncle or cousin you hated to visit when you were young because their idea of socializing was to pummel you to death while laughing of course the whole time and insisting he was “just joking”.

We don’t have a fenced in yard.   So I started walking Nicki multiple times throughout the day.  And if I had money for every time someone I know would pull up beside us in a car and say “Just who is walking who?” I could take my sons on a fabulous vacation this summer.  It happened so often, I had to just grin through gritted teeth and it was all I could do to keep my mouth shut and not beat them to the punchline by screaming, “YEAH, I KNOW, WHO’S WALKING WHO, HA HA HA, KEEP DRIVING BUDDY”.  But walking Nicki did require me to be extremely alert at all times because she was and is a highly reactive dog that does not like cats or squirrels and wants to chase and catch every one she sees.  And the sight of another dog to Nicki is akin to putting a red cape in front of a bull in a ring.  She immediately becomes the aggressor, like she wants to get the first punch in or wants to let the other dog know what’s up before they attack us.  And quite frankly, it’s such a scary, jarring, aggressive and loud fit she throws, that most dogs DO scurry away all the while looking back like we’re a couple of freaks.  I had a friend witness this scene with another dog and Nicki once and she was so terrified and shattered she could barely speak afterward and I was mortified and I’ve never heard from her since.  We have no dog friends and we never will, I’m afraid.  I used to be upset about that, but now I’m resigned to the fact.  And she’s very very strong.  So our walks weren’t really walks,  but rather they were Nicki charging through the neighborhoods looking for predators with this gleeful maniac-looking expression on her face with me stumbling and running behind her trying to keep up and also keep my arm from being literally pulled from its socket.  Now,  if you saw a sight like that, would you really stop and make some wisecrack  to the human?  The obviously, traumatized human who was holding on for dear life to a dog that scared the bejeezus out of her?  Would you?  And when we would finally thankfully arrive back on our street in front of our home, Nicki would cap off our terrifying trek across town by turning on me and jumping up and putting my forearm between her jaws and biting down enough not to break the skin, but enough to send a tingling jolt all the way up my arm and she did this repeatedly the entire time I would be dragging her across the lawn, screaming and crying (me), and hollering for my sons to open the door and help get her inside.  I seriously think my arm now suffers from nerve damage.

So . . .I started checking out every dog training book from the library and buying every dog training book I could find.  Now with the stacks of childrearing books next to my bed on the floor, I started new stacks of these new books. And I read them and tried to implement most of the ideas.  And I watched the “Dog Whisperer” on tv constantly and rented the videos of the show.  And the boys and I would watch him and stop the disk and rewind and try to see JUST what he was doing to keep the dog from going completely nuts on the walk.  We never did get it.  But I did get that a lot of obedience on the dog’s part comes from the walk.   So . . .I then started buying every muzzle and type of leash and harness I could find.  The muzzles worked for a while, but the way she breathed or couldn’t breath, rather, while wearing one, freaked me out.  And the sight of her in a muzzle freaked other people out.  People would ask me “what is that?” like I was walking some sort of professional fighting dog through town amongst the townsfolk.  And she would fight like mad NOT to wear the muzzle.  So, after trying many different harnesses, someone recommended a “Gentle Leader” that would help me control her a bit because I was controlling her head.  And that worked for a while.  Until her trainer decided we needed to take more drastic measures.  But I’m getting ahead of myself.

When it became apparent that we needed help because we were afraid to come home to our own house for fear of Nicki turning on us, I started trying to find a dog trainer.  We live in a small community with an even smaller selection of services like dog training, but while checking out the umpteenth dog training book at the library, the young new librarian asked if I had heard of a certain trainer in the next town over?   She wrote the trainer’s name and number down for me and I now consider this young new librarian an angel God sent to me.  And did I mention that this trainer used to own, train and show German Shepherds??

So . . .Nicki and I started making our half hour treks down the highway to Donna’s.  Suffice to say, Nicki and I had to have private  (and more expensive) lessons as we were obviously not ready for a “group class” setting.  I purchased a “clicker”, a “fanny pack” (which at some point in my life years earlier I swore I would never wear and now I was wearing one 24/7), and began purchasing pounds of dog treats.  And just weeks and then months later, Nicki was a different dog and I was also a dog of sorts.  The Alpha Dog.  And I woke up every morning with a new mission; to let Nicki know I was the Alpha and SHE wasn’t.  And I spent every waking moment with that goal in mind.  And I came to feel about Donna the same way I felt about my therapist I had in my late twenties; I wanted her to move in with us and instruct me and advise me on every issue and problem I encountered throughout our day.  I respected Donna and I came to depend on her and hung on every word she said.  She is an excellent trainer.  And I worked hard on my weekly assignments.  Very hard.  And so did Nicky.  And eventually we were allowed into one (just one) group class, and even though Nicki and I had to stay on one side of the room while the rest of the class were lined up on the other side, Nicki eventually got used to the other dogs (sort of) and we were allowed at times to work alongside the other dogs.  Their masters were very hesitant about this and some were downright scared, but all very polite about it.  I felt like a mother whose toddler had just been let out of juvie and at a new play group at which everyone was scared sh —less of us, but my dog won THE awards at the end of the class for best obedience.  And then she got promptly got loose after the awards ceremony while the boys were walking her to the car and chaos ensued and everyone panicked and Donna instructed everyone to “remain calm” and “pick up your dogs and go to your cars” while Ben, Matthew, Donna, Donna’s husband and I ran around madly screaming at Nicki to “COME” trying to catch her, to no avail.  She was taking her victory lap.  And she was having the time of her life.  We had to corner her in their garage to catch her.  I think Donna was embarrassed and more than a little pissed.  It was an awkward moment.  But we continued on to the next level of lessons.

Part Two later.