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.