"It's as if a great bird lives inside the stone of our days and since no sculptor can free it, it has to wait for the elements to wear us down, till it is free to fly." Mark Nepo

Monday, July 28, 2008

Gentle Leader

I came home from walking Toby just a week ago and resigned as primary dog walker. The final straw was actually a pretty heavy bale of events, made heavier by my aversion to crying uncle under any circumstances.

Although we haven't weighed him in months, Toby is at least 70 pounds, and probably closer to 80. He has always pulled on the leash when we walk, but lately he's been pulling harder and more consistently. No amount of anything I'm capable of makes him not pull. I'm double his weight, but no match for the manic energy that propels him forward like the lead dog at the Iditarod.

On our last walk together we met several people along the trail. I could not make him sit still at my side while I talked, and spent long embarrassed moments with my arms wrapped around his chest trying to keep him from overwhelming and overloving his new friends.

Worse, he would not come to me on that day, no matter what. I always let him off the leash on our walks so he could run and swim and have adventures. He had always come back quickly and willingly - not because he's really well-trained, but because of the liver treat he found in my hand every time he came to me. On our final walk day the distractions of new people, something dead in the bushes and some devilish inner voice won him over completely.

By the time I got him home I was exhausted from physically trying to restrain him, frightened at the awareness that my control over him is more illusion than substance at this point, and deeply upset that I couldn't solve his behavior. He is my fourth Golden Retriever. I trained two of them on my own. I know what to do. It didn't matter with Toby. 

Walt is the primary trainer, as he was with our last dog Riley, a decision we made before we got Toby seven months ago. I am the primary groomer and walking buddy, as I was with Riley. Walt trains. I support by using appropriate language and having similar expectations for behavior.  I have morning duty. Walt has evening duty. I am the inside playmate.  Walt is the outside playmate.

 We intended to enroll Toby in obedience classes last spring, but that didn't happen. Without that accountability,  and without a consistent training schedule, Toby had become unmanageable. For me. Walt was still able to make him behave physically, but even he was struggling.

We had decided this time to not use a choke collar as a training tool. While effective, and considered appropriate  a decade ago when we trained Riley, choking is no longer recommended by most trainers or vets.

As I have been with more and more of my life lately, I decided that the struggle of trying to force Toby to mind was simply not worth it. Working harder was not changing his behavior or my ability to manage it. Walking him is supposed to be fun, and it had become frightening and frustrating instead. 

I shared all of that with his primary trainer as we returned from our walk a week ago. I was mostly calm, completely clear and deeply sad. If I couldn't walk Toby or trust in his training, I couldn't have the relationship with him that I long for.

 After researching online that night, Walt went out the next day and bought a Gentle Leader collar. Unlike choke collars which train by briefly cutting off air flow when you jerk the leash, these collars work by pulling the dog's head down and back - gently. Much like a mother dog correcting a pup or a more dominant dog exerting power.

The change was immediate and nearly miraculous. Toby has stopped pulling completely. He's almost stopped rolling on the ground to try to rub the collar off as well. One finger in the loop of the leash is all that's needed to manage him.

I'm staying resigned as head walker for now. There is still the issue of Toby's choosing when to obey and the danger that places him in. There is still the issue of who's the primary parent and what happens when parenting is inconsistent. There is still the issue of what my role really is in the raising of this willful, headstrong, atomically energized puppy.

I think about the amazing effectiveness of gentle where hard didn't work at all. It's a message I've been hearing for a while - one that I've wanted to believe but have had a really hard time grasping. If it works this powerfully with a dog, why not with my life?

Oh, and we start obedience classes tomorrow night. The three of us will go together. Walt as primary trainer. Toby as student. Me as cheerleader, photographer, and haver of fun.


Anonymous said...

hey deb, sorry i've been so absent from blogland... it's nice to read you again, though i'm sorry about all the trouble with your growing boy.

in addition to the gentle leader, have you considered clicker training? the dog trainers around here all use that with great success.

i hope you're well and happy, crazy dog notwithstanding! xo tg

Mark Lyons said...

I love how God continues to teach you lessons for life through this beautiful animal! And how you have ears to hear. It would be so easy to resign yourself to the lies of being a "bad dog-mom" but you have chosen not to. My heart broke as I read the first half of your post and it rejoiced at the conclusion as you shared this revelation.

Whether you realize it or not, Toby is a great gift to you...to teach you to become you. To allow you to feel pain and joy and sadness and love...all through the life of this Golden boy.

I'm cheering for all of you.


Carrie Wilson Link said...

Love everything about the gentle leader, and all metaphors involved!!!!

contemporary themes said...

I need a gentle leader. Oh, I have one. Maybe I need to tune in more.

Beautiful dog. Beautiful YOU!

Jerri said...

"Haver of fun." LOVE this.

Gentle often works where hard fails. Good for you for figuring that out.