One of the most rewarding aspects of teaching obedience classes is when, on graduation night, a student approaches me and says: “Thank you, you were our last hope before we were going to put this dog down.” Rick and I have been proud of our record — not one of the dogs we taught has ended up killed or given away.
Until now. A case that came to me recently has left me numb.
(Throughout the story, I'll emphasize the red flags of impending disaster with italics; by the end of the case, I was knee deep in red flags.)
Last April, I received a call from a woman I'll call Sue. She lived about a mile from me and had just bought a Newfoundland puppy. A neighbor gave her my name as a good Newfoundland trainer, and she wanted to enroll him in my obedience class. She had three children, ages 14, 10, and seven. The pup was six weeks old and was the first dog they ever owned.
I told her that Rick was starting a puppy kindergarten class at our training club when the pup would be 14 weeks old, and if that wasn't convenient, I'd be starting a class a month later. I told her to get him used to a collar and walking on a leash, to take him places, and to get a crate.
Rick's class began; no Newf was registered. My class began; still no Newf. Since the initial call from Sue, I had heard nothing, so I assumed that either the Newf puppy was wonderful or that Sue had found another club or trainer. Three weeks into my class. I got a frantic call from Sue; the puppy, now six months old, was driving them crazy and was biting the kids.
I told Sue to enroll the puppy in my class and to come to my house so I could assess the situation and catch her up on the lessons she had missed. She arrived with this big puppy on a harness — not a cart-pulling harness that Newfoundlands wear for draft work, but the kind of harness that small poodles wear.
Sue maneuvered the dog awkwardly from her car to my yard by holding the center strap of the harness.
“Does he have a collar?” I asked.
“Oh, we had one, but he didn't like it so we didn't use it,” she answered
I tried to walk the puppy around the yard, first on one of my buckle collars, then a chain collar, and finally a prong collar. He threw himself on the ground and had a tantrum! I had an 80-pound “drag dog”!
“Hasn't this dog ever walked on a leash?” I gasped between breaths.
“Oh, he didn't like it, so we stopped,” she replied.
Next, the dog tried to bite me. I flipped him into submission. From that point on, I had the dog's respect.
I asked if the dog's parents had temperaments like this. Sue answered that the breeder wouldn't let them see the parents, especially the mother, “'cause she's a little nippy.”
I got the dog walking, got Sue walking him, and got the seven-year-old walking him. I asked how the crate-training was coming.
“Oh, we had a crate; he didn't like it so we stopped,” Sue replied.
Sue told me about their other problems with the dog. They fed him first, then sat down to dinner. The dog climbed on the table and took their food. He was so ill-behaved, they couldn't take him anywhere. They never walked or exercised him. He had them so terrorized in the house that they banished him to the two-acre yard surrounded by invisible fence.
At the back of the yard was a stagnant, half-dried, slime-coated pond the previous homeowners had use as a garbage dump. Sue and her family were rarely home. They felt guilty, so when they left they put the dog in the yard with the slimy pond and gave him a pig's ear. He became violently possessive of the pig's ear, Sue said. “Oh, you don't dare go near him or try to take it.”
When people come to me with a problem dog that has reached the point of change or die, I sit them down and stress how important it is to do exactly as I say, strange though they might think it sounds.
I sent Sue home with a list of things she needed to do to change the pup's behaviors. Her Newfoundland did have bad, un-Newf-like temperament, but I had dealt with worse. I emphasized to never leave the children alone with him and no more pigs ears. Toys were to be offered by humans and controlled by humans.
Sue reported immediate improvements. Thrilled, she started easing off and doing things half way. She refused to put the dog in a crate or even barricade him into part of a room.
“We have a two-acre crate,” she joked.
I emphasized that she could not afford to miss one obedience class with the puppy. The pup slowly fit into the class. At first, he didn't seem to know he was a dog, but then he began to play with the other pups.
Meanwhile, my friend Debby, head of the local Newfoundland rescue, said that there had been a whole string of bad-tempered, vicious Newfs coming through rescue that had been destroyed. She said these ill-tempered Newfs could be traced back to a puppy mill ring in our area and to certain dogs in particular. Sue gave me a copy of the seven-generation pedigree the breeder gave her; the pedigree showed that the dog came from the same breeder whose ill-tempered dogs had shown up in rescue.
Sue brought the pup to three puppy classes. She was progressing, though I kept warning her that she couldn't do things halfway with this dog. Instead of three half-hour dominance-downs I assigned each week, Sue did one. “We weren't home,” or “We were too busy,” she said.
She missed the fourth class — the pup was a green, slimy mess from chasing frogs in the pond, so they couldn't come, she said.
The next day, the dog cut his foot in the pond and needed stitches. That night, Sue left the 10-year-old child with the dog and a pig's ear. The dog settled by the television to chew his prize; when the girl went to change the channel, the dog backed her into a corner, teeth bared, until Mom got home.
They told the veterinarian, and he recommended putting the dog down. They called Debby, and she said the same thing. They called me; I still thought the dog could be saved but it would probably take private sessions. I suggested they seek out another trainer as they obviously didn't trust me or take me seriously.
The breeder didn't want to talk to Sue until her husband threatened to get a lawyer. Then the breeder said that although no one ever had a problem with one of her dogs before, she'd let the family put this dog down and replace him with a puppy from the same parents. The dog was six months old; his mother's new litter was a week old.
Debby and I cautioned Sue against taking a second puppy from this same breeder. The family killed the dog; the children were devastated. I feel bad; I wonder why I was unable to convince these people to hear my words. Five weeks from now they will likely have a new cute “teddy bear” Newf puppy; it doesn't take a fortune teller to see that six months from now I'll get another frantic call from Sue. I'll tell her to find another trainer.
The Christmas season is a season when lots of puppies arrive as gifts. Sue's story should make buyers beware of breeders who refuse to show off the puppies' parents, especially if one of them is described as “nippy.” It's dumb to make that mistake once, dumber to take a replacement puppy, and dumbest of all not to learn from the training mistakes made the first time around.
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