Vicki Ronchette shares her crossover story!

As many of you know, I have hopes that Cuba will earn his championship in conformation someday.  It is my intent to pursue this goal with positive training, and California-based trainer Vicki Ronchette, author of Positive Training for Show Dogs has been one of my greatest motivators – both via her fantastic book and on Facebook as well!  I’m very honored that Vicki’s joining us this week to share her crossover story – welcome, Vicki!  Thank you for your support, encouragement, and for sharing your crossover story.

My Crossing Over Story

By Vicki Ronchette

In the late 80s I got my first dog as an adult.  I grew up with dogs, but Boris, an adult, male Rottweiler was the first dog I had obtained on my own.  I had wanted a Rottweiler since I was in high school, before anyone knew what they were actually and finally got one.  He was a big, adolescent goof ball and a ton of work.  I signed him up for classes at a local dog training club.  Even though I wasn’t comfortable I agreed to allow them to put a pinch collar on him.  They put it on my arm and showed me “it wasn’t that bad”; they put it on him and told me it really was a much better choice than the only other option they offered which was a choke collar.  Huh.  It DID seem better than that.  I left that first night in tears with my hands raw and red from the leash pulling.  I was so discouraged but I went back the following week.  I was taught to give  corrections (quick pops on the leash) and then hot dogs, corrections and then hot dogs.  That is how Boris was trained.  Looking back, I see that he was an incredibly forgiving and resilient dog and I was very lucky that he never retaliated for some of the nasty stuff I did to him.

Boris and I spent the next several years at the dog training club at least two nights a week.  I became a backup and assistant trainer, I worked at the desk and I put a CD title and CGC on Boris.  Not long after Boris came into my life I got a Chow Chow puppy named Kong.  I trained Kong the same way, and actually got one or two legs towards his CD title (before losing him to my ex-husband in our divorce).  I noticed really early on that Kong was very different from Boris.  He was not nearly as excited about training which I, of course, blamed on his breed.

Over the years I continued to train (professionally and personally) and ventured into other breeds including my main breed which is Dachshunds.  As I started training my Dachshunds more I noticed that they responded very differently than most of the other breeds I had worked with.  While I did put obedience titles (as well as bench and working titles) on them; I stopped competing when I got to higher levels of training that I thought would require more force and corrections.  When corrected physically, they seemed to sort of glaze over, stop moving and do nothing.  Of course now I recognize that they were shut down, but at the time all I knew was that it didn’t seem right.  I started to correct less, try to use less pressure and more treats.

At that point, I started to actively look for other ways to train.  I got Karen Pryor’s Getting Started with Clicker Training and started that with one of my dogs.  It was a really difficult concept for me to grasp.  At the time, all of the trainers I knew were traditional trainers.  When I asked about clicker training I was told that it was just another thing to hold and I was just going to make things harder on myself, so I stopped asking those people.  Then, while working as a veterinary assistant I met and became friends with Colleen Pepper who also worked at the hospital.  She began to challenge some of my beliefs and methods of training, thankfully, I liked her enough to listen and discuss it.  She asked me to read The Culture Clash by Jean Donaldson, so I did.  I was upset and horrified by the book.  Looking back, I believe I felt guilty and realized that what I had been taught to do wasn’t right.  I told Colleen I hated the book.  She gave me another book to read, this one by John Fisher.  I actually really enjoyed that one and when I told Colleen she asked me to re-read The Culture Clash!  I don’t know why, but I did and this time I was much more open to what I read.  By this time, I had already been moving away from corrections in classes, trying to get people to use more food and changing the equipment that I was using and recommending.  The seed had been planted and I was becoming more and more interested in learning more.  I still didn’t know any positive reinforcement trainers, but I kept reading and looking.

Then, I had a new student sign up for one of my advanced dog training classes.  That student was Dawn Bushong.  Dawn had not done any beginning classes with me so I had no idea of her or her dog’s skill level.  When she came to class I was really impressed with her dog and how well he was trained.  We talked after class and she explained how she had clicker trained him herself at home using Morgan Spector’s book Clicker Training for Obedience.

Not long after that I made the decision that I wanted to learn to clicker train and I wanted to get a new dog to do that with.  I bought an Australian Cattle Dog puppy and named him Billy who I committed to training with positive reinforcement methods instead of corrections.  I asked Dawn to coach me and help me.  He was the first dog that I completely clicker trained.  He is the first really reliable dog I trained.  I never had more fun training a dog.  Since then, all of my dogs have been trained with positive reinforcement and clicker training.  I have not looked back since.

It has been an amazing journey and a lot of work actually because I had so much learning to do.  I am grateful to have become friends with many skilled and knowledgeable reinforcement trainers who supported my learning.  It was difficult to learn all new methods but it was not difficult to stop using corrections.  As I changed my training methods, my philosophies not only dog training but on living with and interacting with dogs and other animals changed dramatically, all for the better.

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Daphne Robert-Hamilton Shares the Story of Her Crossover Dobies!

My journey to positive training was a hard lesson learnt.

In early 1992, I decided to pursue horse riding/training (English/Dressage)as my new career path. I did a brief apprenticeship with Tex-Overfarms in Conroe, Texas and then hooked up with a crazy frenchman. These were my learning ‘schools’ on how to treat animals by handling techniques, riding techniques and the philosophies that went with them to justify the methods used. It was all about force, brawn, pain and fear to get the results from the horses. Whips, spurs, lip twitches, leg hobbles, using chains in a horses mouth to gain control, ear twitches, and it goes on. It was normal operating procedures. I didn’t realize that there was another way. It was like having a love/hate relationship with the horses. I was there because I was passionate about the sport and the horses yet at the same time I had to be “Master” at all times. There was no consideration for the animals emotional well-being or mental enrichment during those days.

Towards the end of my horse career, I had gotten our first Doberman puppy. Jazmine was smart and our breeder urged us to get a Companion Dog title on her. So naively, I started taking lessons from a kennel club that used choke chains and lots of yanking. It was my first experience formally training a dog. I placed my trust in the instructor and I was a very compliant student. I then moved from going to kennel clubs to hiring a private trainer to really get me ready for competition obedience. We used choke chains then on to the prong collar and then on to a shock collar over a period of time. Jazmine and I got great scores, so much so that we made it as Top 20 Obedience finalists in the Doberman Pinscher Club of America. We went through Companion Dog, then on to Companion Dog Excellent but things started falling apart during our Utlitiy training. Corrections were getting more intense and harsh and Jazmine’s behavior became more unpredictable. Competiting with her was no longer fun. It stressed me out because it felt like I had to ‘hold a gun to her head’ to get the level of performance. The more the corrections increased, the more her performance fell.

At the same time, we got another Doberman. I also started competiting with him and using the same private trainer. He was so easy to tain. I hardly had to use corrections on him. He was simply amazing. We titled with our Companion Dog and moved on to work on our Companion Dog Excellent. Echo also made it as a Top 20 finalist with DPCA. Interestling enough, it was at the same time I was having problems with Jazmine in Utility training that I started having issues with Echo. Then one day ,after I was told to hang him over the broad jump because he refused , I melted and stopped right there and then. Echo was the sweetest dog with the softest personality and it just broke me. Something deep inside me told me that this was wrong.

With traditional training, I never took into consideration my animals emotional well-being. The animals were always in the wrong and out to upset my control. I decided to stop taking private lessons. At that time I had to really evaluate what was more important: ribbons, titles, Top 20 or the happinest and well-being of my dogs. I stopped everything and learnt how to enjoy my dogs for who they were without all the dominance techniques. In early 2000, I decided to take up flyball as a fun activity to do with Jazmine. That is where I met Lisa Clifton-Bumpass. She was helping Gold Rush Flyball with some of the dogs taking their classes. I hired Lisa to help me with Echo and quickly learnt that there was a whole new world of animal training that I knew nothing about. She introduced me to clicker training.

Lisa helped me see behavior and training through new lenses. Even though I worked with Echo for a little bit on obedience exercises and decided that Jazmine and Echo were going to live the rest of their lives in peace and joy. Lisa encouraged me to attend the San Francisco SPCA Academy for Dog Trainers and I did. In the fall of 2002, I graduated and went on to intern in their dog aggression program. I graduated from that with honors. Lisa Clifton-Bumpass became my mentor and great friend. She opened the door to my knowledge and understanding and all the animals that I own and work with today are much happier and free because of it. I’m forever grateful for learning about positive training and will never go back to doing horrible things to animals in the name of “training”. The end don’t always justify the means.

Jazmine and Echo were my cross-over dogs.

Islencohn’s Jazmine Zela 1996-2005
died from Mast Cell Tumor (cancer)

Islencohn’s Echo of Foxfire 1998-2004
died suddenly of cardiomyopathy

I’m really thankful Daphne shared her story and that she mentioned the importance of a knowledgeable mentor throughout the crossover experience. R.I.P, Jazmine and Echo.

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Trainer Debi Davis dishes on her crossover experience

Debi Davis is one of my favorite Facebook friends.  She is a powerhouse of training knowledge and admittedly raunchy humor, just my kind of lady.  Recently, while reading one of the best sites for clicker training information on the web, Clicker Solutions, I came across an old entry from Debi regarding her crossover experience. I contacted Debi asking for permission to reprint here, which I was graciously granted.


Reflections of a Crossover Trainer

Matthew, reading that you are 15 years old simply blew me away. I agree with my dear listmates who are stunned by your commitment and desire to learn all you can, and to make animal communications/teaching an important part of your life at such a young age. At 15, my greatest concern was in getting rid of zits and attracting boys’ attention. My animals took a backseat once my hormones kicked in.

Melissa’s post was pure ambrosia! YES! Her advice about APDT, the Bailey Chicken Workshops and working toward finding funding to attend some of these remarkable conferences and workshop—is right on target. You have a bright future ahead of you, and I’m still totally overwhelmed by the depth of your interest at such a tender age. If you keep it up, you’ll be a world-class trainer one day, giving those seminars and workshops.

Thank you so much for sharing your classical trainer friend’s reasons for her choices in how she teaches. Like you and Melissa, I too have friends who are marvelous trainers, who have chosen to teach in a traditional methodology. Though I may wince at times when corrections are given, and in my head, am thinking of proactive ways to get the same behaviors without using the aversives–I also see the efficiency and efficacy of a highly skilled trainer of any methodology.

For nearly 30 years, I was a traditional trainer. To “put down” those who choose to use traditional methodologies would be to invalidate all the work I have done in my life with horses and dogs. Your trainer friend makes a strong point that just because a dog was trained with aversives, does not mean that dog will be a lackluster performer, nor that the dog lives in fear.

As such a trainer myself for all those years, I had a wonderful relationship with my dogs. My dogs were trained as my service dogs long before there a name for dogs who helped people, other than guide dogs. I just called them “pets.”

And that’s what they were: pets who slept with me, played frisbee all day with the customers at the shop, pets who brought my artificial legs to me, opened doors, carried bags, fetched things for me. They were all trained with traditional methodology, and their eyes never left me: they followed me wherever I went, without fear, and with what I am assuming was contentment.

If I was an abusive “torture” trainer, a person who instilled fear in them consistently, I don’t think I would have had the kind of happy attention I was constantly offered from those dogs. Nor the willingness to always do my bidding. As your trainer friend wisely stated, there is still a LOT of positive reinforcement going on when a skilled trainer uses traditional methodology.

So for all those years I had what I considered great success with animals. They were mannerly, well socialized, healthy, given copious attention and enjoyed interactive play/work all day long. Then one day, I met a little bold dog who could not be forced into compliance. And this dog changed my life, because it forced me to seek out other ways of imparting information that did not use any ‘hands on’, any coercion, any force.

Force shut this boy down fast, and eventually, frustrated him enough that he began to fight back. Gosh, none of the other dogs in my life had ever reacted in such a manner. They fought sometimes, yes, but eventually capitulated. I sense this dog would have fought until he was decapitated.

So what brought me to clicker training was NOT that traditional training wasn’t working most of the time, but that I had finally met an animal I could not force nor coerce, and I had a dire need to get this dog trained to assist me. And I did not want to follow advice and euthanize this dog: he was so smart. I just needed to find a way to get through to him.

What made me switch in total to proactive clicker training is the instant change in this dog’s attitude, and the pure joy of seeing him beg to have training sessions, plopping clickers in my lap all the time. What made me switch was seeing the “vomiting comet”—our pet name for this dog who learned to projectile vomit when anything was gently placed in his mouth—then change his attitude totally as a complete “hands off” approach to retrieving was taught.

He couldn’t get enough of it. His body language was relaxed and he thrived on problem solving. He hated being “put” into position, handled at all when he was trying to figure out a problem. But let him figure it out, mark those moments of incremental success toward the end goal, and he was one happy camper, learning at warp speed.

Now that several years have passed, my timing has become far better, my skills of observation more finely honed, and my ability to remain proactive–marking the moments of excellence so that reactive corrections were not necessary–have grown immensely. The first couple of years, no WAY could I shape with the speed and efficacy I do today. There is no way I could get behaviors to fluency as fast with a clicker as I could with traditional training.

But funny thing about mechanical skills: if you keep at it, eventually you become proficient, and able to use that scalpel with precision. Just as the skilled traditional trainer can level a well-timed correction, the clicker trainer can deliver a surgically precise positive reinforcement. It does not happen overnight. It takes time to learn to do anything well. Not many of us got on a two wheeled bike and rode off into the sunset flawlessly that first day. And a whole lot of us used “training wheels” for a long time.

Today, I believe I can shape a behavior or a chain of behaviors far faster and with far more precision than I ever could traditionally. It’s hard to admit, because I thought I was pretty darned good at one time, able to teach my dogs very quickly. I just never had this kind of precision, never was able to catch those nuances and put them on cue with so little effort and so darned much FUN!

But I do not believe in my heart that all my years as a traditional trainer were years of abusing my dogs. I used the tools that were accepted and known at the time, and I learned to use them fast and efficiently and get the job done. And like your trainer friend, Matt, I spent a lot of time praising and just enjoying the company of my animals, with few problems.

The difference is that I now have a way to communicate effectively with ANY species of animal. I can teach my rat a trick in the same way I can teach my dog a task and the same way I can stop an angry confrontation with a human.

I could never have even thought about teaching a wild animal behaviors in the past. How do you effictively use aversives with a wild animal, who can just flee?

Yet today, I can sit in a park and “shape” a squirrel from a distance, clicking and tossing him a treat. I can shape a wild bird to do a behavior, or shape a child to offer a behavior. I don’t need to do any “hands on” teaching to do this, and I find this totally liberating.

One other consideration for me, as an assistance dog trainer, is that many people with high level physical disabilities simply CANNOT use aversives, cannot physically move the dog into position, nor deliver a leash pop, nor even a verbal reprimand.

Yet, with clicker training, the level of disability does not prevent that person from teaching their animals all the way through to a high level of skill and fluenncy without the use of tools and body muscles and body parts they don’t possess. This is such an empowering thing for people with disabilities!

I look back on my years as a traditional trainer not with guilt, but with new eyes. Eyes that recognize that I did many things very well, and some things quite horridly. But that’s what learning and growing are all about. There can be no growth, no forward movement without change and opening one’s mind to new possibilities. And any change like this is going to have it’s own set of frustrations.

There are still times I verbally correct my dogs, lose my patience. They are less and less each year, but they do still happen. I accept this, and I don’t dwell on my errors. I simply use them as an indicator of new responses I have to build in my own mind. Of new default beahviors I seek to establish. There are times I still accidently tighten up on the leash, or start to do a quick leash pop. There are times that leash actually pops, too. But again, I find it happening less and less, until it’s now a rarity. And I let it go, don’t dwell on it, and move forward again into proactive communications.

I find, as you do Matt, that I learn from ALL good trainers, no matter what methodology they use. I may choose not to use some of the tools they use, nor use tools in quite the same way, but that doesn’t negate the information they have to share in many areas. I take what I can use, I let the rest go, and I thank that trainer for sharing his/her experience and knowledge with me. Every good trainer has something to teach me, and for that something taught, I am oh-so-grateful.

If I were to close my mind and my heart to those who train differently than me, it would be MY loss. I always remember that not long ago, I was one of “them.”

Keep up the wonderful learning, Matt. You do us all proud. I don’t know about anyone else on the list, but I would be incredibly proud to have you as my son. What a changemaker you are going be one day!

Debi Davis
copyright 2001 Debi Davis

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Failure Hurts

Not long ago, I posted an entry to the Project Monte blog called Thanks for the gift, boy. When I was in the deepest throes of missing my angel, he sent me a Saint Bernard client so like him they could have been brothers. Physically and behaviorally a mess, rescued from a rope outside of someone’s house, bred by an irresponsible breeder and adopted out to an ill-prepared and inappropriate family who found out quickly that owning a Saint is an expensive and time-consuming enterprise and decided that instead of a pet, they would make their dog a lawn ornament and leave him tied to a tree and deprived of all basic companion animal care; veterinary, social, and behavioral.

His new family had Saint experience and a willingness to work through his issues with him.  That was all we needed, I thought, to ensure that they would be able to enjoy him in their home for a good many years to come.

My heart swelled at having the opportunity to help a dog so like Monte and an owner so like I was, desperate to find a way to save this dog and pessimistic that there was a way to make that happen.

We had one of the most wonderful Click to Calm lessons I’ve ever had together. His aggression was primarily directed toward the male owner in the household and two veterinarians who definitely mistreated him at his first appointment with them. The dog responded absolutely brilliantly to the clicker. We received enthusiastic and fantastic updates from the clients, thrilled with his progress. I met the client later that same week at the veterinarian’s office to help her work through his fear issues at the vet. Again, his response surpassed even my wildest expectations. We all left happy, optimistic, and very much looking forward to having him start classes in a few short weeks.

We received a wonderful email update (names changed for confidentiality):

I know if I had not found you I would have thought the only solution was to put Jake to sleep. Bob [the husband] took Jake for a walk last evening and he walked by people and dogs and he did great. Bob commented that he could not believe the transformation between him trying to eat him last week and now where he is happy to see him and listens to him. Jake and Meaty [the other resident Saint Bernard, who Jake had not previously played with] are best friends now too.

I cried when I received this email, I was so happy.

I kept his choke chain as a reminder and a souvenir.  He wouldn’t need it anymore, and now happily walked on a front clip harness. A twitter friend called the original story, “How a freight train lost his choke chain,” which was imminently appropriate.  I was so proud and knew that together, Monte and I celebrated this victory and a new leash on life for this beautiful animal and his owner.

Almost immediately upon returning from Oregon with Cuba, I received another, decidedly less pleasant email.  Apparently Jake had bitten Bob, and the owner decided to have him euthanized.  I do not know the context of the situation, nor did I ask.

I don’t know if the bite was a level one or five.  I do know this lady loved her dog and that this decision was anything but easy and have no desire to rub salt in her wounds.  I know from experience how much of a commitment is required to rehabilitate this type of dog – that all family members must be on board and consistent, that management protocols must be laid in place and must be solidly and reliably established, and that it takes time and patience to work through these issues.  Rehabilitating an aggressive dog is not for everyone, honestly, and can be a full-time and emotionally taxing job.

Never before in my career have I had a client’s dog euthanized for a behavior problem.  Obviously, I do not want this for any dog/handler team, but it especially broke my heart that it was this particular dog, the dog that could have been Monte’s twin in all but lineage.

I felt like I failed Jake and, indirectly, Monte as well.  I wished I had more notice, more resources, more money so that I could have brought Jake into our home and helped save him from this fate.  Truly, his reactivity was maybe 1/10th of what I’d seen from Monte in our early stages of training together, and I felt like his prognosis was so favorable, I hadn’t even imagined that Jake’s story would have such a tragic ending.

Knowing that Jake was euthanized brought all the hurt of losing Monte rushing back to me and only reaffirmed my belief that it is only a matter of time (and resources) before we bring another Saint like Monte into our home again.  A reactive, sick, balding from hot spots, covered in fleas and ticks, lunging, barking, growling, biting, unwanted, abused, left-for-garbage, lawn-ornament Saint Bernard.

Monte gave me gifts to help dogs like this.  I owe it to him to flex those training muscles he helped me build and pass them along to dogs so like him.  I hope that next time I have the opportunity to do so, the outcome will not be such a dismal failure.  I really felt like I let Monte and Jake down.  So much so, in fact, that it really discouraged me as a professional.  I know that you can’t save them all, but I really, really wish I had been able to save that particular one.

R.I.P., Jake.  Monte will show you the ropes at the Bridge.

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Shadow Mountain’s Victory for Monte

It’s been quiet on Project Monte recently. Two weeks ago, I traveled to Oregon to bring a new Saint Bernard puppy into the Lomonaco home.

Our new puppy is named Cuba (affectionately, Cuba Gooddog Jr.), after the town in New York where Monte was rescued from. His registered name is Shadow Mountain’s Victory for Monte.

When I decided to bring Cuba into our family, I received a lot of comments, emails, and messages from readers on my various blogs. Most of them were very supportive, somehow understanding how much losing Monte hurt my heart. Others expressed surprise and even indignance, indicating that they were shocked that I would get another Saint so soon. Some people said, “you know he won’t replace Monte.” When you blog as much as I do, criticism is part of the territory, and to be expected. I don’t feel the need to justify my decisions to each person who may happen across my blogs, nor do I expect all of these people will agree with all my decisions. C’est la vie!

Cuba is no replacement for Monte. He is his own dog, and yet so like my Monte boy in many ways. He loves to snuggle. He loves spending time with me, Jim, and his big sister Mokie. He loves food and play and toys.  He especially likes to tug.  He likes hiking through the woods, training, learning, and living in a home where his well-being is an extremely high priority. He likes to roll over when you approach him and show you his belly so you can scratch it. He makes the silly puffy-lip panty-face I so loved about Monte. When Monte came to our home, he was malnourished and unhealthy. He didn’t know how to use his underdeveloped muscles well, and was clumsy in his movement. Cuba’s pretty clumsy too, even though he is extremely healthy and has only known a good diet since birth. He’s just awkward and gangly and doesn’t know what to do with those huge paws of his.

Cuba makes my heart sing, as Monte did.

Every time I look at Cuba, I think of Monte. I wish so much that I had the chance to know Monte as a puppy, that there was a way I could have prevented the atrocities he was subjected to in his early life and so that I could have smooched his puppy face.

It makes me laugh and tears my heart apart at the same time.

I still miss Monte, with a pain so fierce it’s hard to write about sometimes. I yearn for him and sob for him. I hold the clay casting of his paw print and run my fingers along it, glazing the impression with a layer of tears. I have a pillow case full of his fur from last coat blowing season, I hug it and cry.

Maybe I sound insane. It feels like I am sometimes, crazy with grief still, like I have the emotional version of missing limb syndrome. I feel like the best part of me has been amputated. When I return to my home after being away, sometimes it still feels shocking that he’s not there to deliver a toy to me with a tail whirling around in circles like a propeller.

Like when I lost dad, I find the grief comes in waves. I have bad minutes, better minutes, and minutes when I laugh with a fond but heavy heart, recalling our many adventures together.

Monte was a gift from the universe for me, and such an inspiration. He was my life coach and guide, and taught me everything I needed to know about the person I’ll always strive to be. He held me to a high standard of compassion, commitment, and respect, and I always endeavored to live up to his expectations of me.

I know he watches over me when I cry. I know that wherever Monte is now, he looks down on me and smiles, slobbering from the heavens, understanding why I needed this puppy. This house isn’t a home without a Saint Bernard, and this isn’t my family without a Saint. Bringing Cuba into our house doesn’t heal the hurt in my heart, but he does mend the rift that tore our house and hearts apart when we lost such an amazing soul. It gives me a momentary reprieve from grief so intense I couldn’t do anything but sit and miss Monte, I was hardly functional.  I neglected my work, neglected Mokie, Jim, everything.  I could hardly get out of bed, it was so hard to wake up to a new morning without him.

I think Monte is probably also happy to see Mokie have a friend again, to play and romp with a Saint Bernard. I think he’s happy to know another Saint Bernard will get to enjoy the adventures and life he had with us. I know that he understands I need the occasional laugh to combat all the hurt that has filled the void left by his absence.

I’ve been blogging about Cuba’s socialization adventures on the Rewarding Behaviors blog. I’ve tried to go all out on Cuba’s socialization. Part of me is doing it because Cuba deserves it and I know as a trainer it is what needs to and should be done to ensure proper social and emotional development. Another, equal part of me is doing it because this is what I felt Monte deserved. This is how I would have raised him had I been able to enjoy him in puppyhood. This is what I would have done to prevent him from ever having to feel the chronic stress and fear of reactivity. This is the gift I would have liked to give him if I’d had the opportunity.  This is what Monte deserved but never had.

And so his legacy lives on. Cuba truly is a Victory for Monte, and I am doing everything I can to give Cuba the kind of upbringing that Monte, my ill-bred, ill-mannered, yet perfect, wonderful, amazing, inspiring, mentor and companion deserved.

Wherever you are Monte, I hope you know how much momma misses for you. Watch over this puppy and keep him safe, as I always tried to do for you. That’ll do, pig.

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I Will

This song makes me think of my boy too.  Forgive the video editor, who spelled “instermental” instead of “instrumental” and enjoy this beautiful song from Allison Krauss.

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Thanks for the gift, boy

Not long ago, I had sat thinking to myself, “you know, I’ve never had a Saint Bernard client before.”

Last week, my business partner Steve Benjamin of Clicking with Canines called and asked me if I had been interested in doing a private lesson with him tonight. I hadn’t scheduled any lessons or classes for today intentionally – I really need to finish up the course I’m developing for Karen Pryor Academy. I hemmed and hawed, hesitant to sacrifice the time I need to spend writing, until he said the magic words, “It’s a Saint Bernard.”

SOLD. I’ll be there.

On the intake application, quite a few issues had been identified. Resource guarding the food bowl. Barking and lunging when people were jumping into or swimming in the pool. Barking and lunging at the male owner. Reactivity to handling and veterinary employees, offices, and procedures. Lunging and pulling on the leash. Rushing guests, barking and nipping, and doing the same to an autistic child in the household.

Nonetheless, I was tremendously excited to see him. I felt that perhaps Monte had sent him to me, a dog just like him – rescued in adolescence, behavioral problems growing in intensity as his body healed and recovered strength, an aggression problem that scared the entire family.

He came in, pulling like a freight train on his choke chain. the choke chain came off immediately and he shook off, sighing in relief. His eyes brightened, his tail rose. We just let him spend some time investigating the classroom, sniffing around, rewarding his curiosity and confidence in investigating new things with clicks and meatballs. Saints needs to explore their surroundings with their noses, how else would they confirm no mountaineers are in need of rescuing? (Actually, most dogs are generally far more comfortable in a new environment if they just get to sniff it out thoroughly first!)

We worked on trade ups, desensitization for various types of handling, desensitization for approaches to, hands near and eventually in the food bowl, “look at that,” played the name game, practiced loose leash walking, “let’s go!”, hand targeting, clicked for eye contact, and taught him to target a stationary target with his nose and my hand with his paw. Like Monte, he tended to prefer very short sessions and needed a brief belly scratch and five minute nap after every fifteen or twenty clicks.

A couple hours’ later, I was scratching his belly, both of us ridiculously blissful. I had not expected I would even be able to touch him at all during our session, which would have been horrible (because of course I want to scratch his belly) and terrific (because his life started changing for the better the minute he started training).

He left having played with toys for the first time, running around the classroom as fast as he could, smiling as his jowls and ears flapped, slobber flying around the room and covering our shoes, walls, ceilings, eyebrows. We played tug and fetch. He got clicked lots of times for picking the ball up and bringing it back to me. Occasionally, he would get excited and go toward the elementary school aged child he lived with, who immediately went into “be a tree” mode. The dog would immediately turn away, at which time I’d have him grab a tug toy or rubber ball and bring it to me.

I melted. I was absolutely smitten and in the deepest heaven I can recently recall when he came up to me and leaned against me with all of his weight, looked up and me, and smiled as if to say, “Hey, thanks, lady! This is a blast!” Everyone in attendance agreed, had so much fun.

His owners left smiling, very impressed with their dog’s newly shaped behaviors, and excited about clicker training. He left in an Easy Walk harness, I kept his choke chain as a souvenir, a reminder of this fantastic memory and the time I got to be a part of rehabilitating a dog so like Monte and giving his parents the tools they needed to enjoy him to the fullest. I think it will go on the wall of Monte pictures and paintings.

I love seeing the face on a smiling pet parent when she realizes her dog is smarter than she had ever imagined and very much able to respond quickly to early and appropriate behavioral intervention. His reactivity was actually fairly mild, but these kind of reactions look quite scary in a dog his size and, even if the dog is not intending to be dangerous, his size makes the need for rehabilitation a pressing one.

At the same time, behavior is in a constant state of flux, and certainly his unbelievable progress today does not make up for the fact that his owners will have to continue working on his rehabilitation to achieve complete and lasting results. Luckily, I think I’ll be seeing a lot more of this Saint and perhaps his Saint brother as well, in group classes. I certainly do hope so.

Maybe you think I’m corny (and often, I am), but I really do think that Monte sent this client to me as a gift. While I am excited about our new puppy, I am also thoughtful that there are many Saint Bernards like Monte and the boy I worked with in class today who need a dedicated owner to help them reach their full potential. Someday, I’ll bring one of them home with me. The adventure will begin again.

Until then, it was great and soul healing to have the opportunity to help someone else’s sweet, goofy, beautiful, wonderful, rescued Saint and know that I could be part of giving that family hope for a great future with him. Superb.

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