Thursday, May 27, 2010

A Natural Career Path

I got a great question the other day in response to blog post ideas (well, I got several, actually, but this one seemed a good place to start). I was asked how I became a dog trainer, and what drove me to make that choice.


In many ways, it was a natural career path. I was born into a home of dogs. My parents were dog breeders, who bred very successful show and hunting Labrador Retrievers. Most of my childhood days were spent with dogs of some age group. Along with the Labs we always had some kind of "different" breed as well, like Cairn Terriers, Mini Schnauzers (the first one I grew up with was in my preteen years), Shelties, and a few mixes. I grew up going to dog shows, watching my mother training, teaching little tricks to some of the dogs. This part of my life took up my first thirteen years.

 Then, as fate would have it, some larger life changes happened. My parents divorced and that part of my life ended. We still had some of the dogs, but that part of my life was over, until a couple of years later my mother decided to get back into breeding - this time Mini Schnauzers, a breed she fell in love with from having had our very first Schnauzer. One thing led to another, and I got involved again. I started training some of the Schnauzers myself. I did some conformation showing, trick training, and then Gaci came into my life.

Gaci is a special girl, in ways that I can't even begin to explain. The day she entered my life, her mom (my beloved Moxie, RIP), left my life as well. An emergency C-section gone bad resulted in a litter without its natural mom, and without the initial colostrum required for neonatal health. This resulted in the litter getting sick with a severe respiratory virus. The litter pulled through, they were all fighters. Gaci was met with some challenges growing up, though. She had great fears of strangers, despite normal socialization. She had a keen interest in moving objects (albeit normal behaviours....not so much on vehicles though). She had serious space issues with the other dogs she lived with, and tolerated minimal inter-female interactions. She had a prey drive to gawk at. She ended up causing a few squabbles that resulted in minor injuries to other dogs. I knew I had to do something, but....what?

When it came to tricks, I was doing alright. But more serious stuff was not within my grasp at that time. So I started researching. I found clicker training, and immediately became absorbed. It was fascinating, and it was almost as though it was made for me. I picked it up quickly, and before long some of Gaci's issues were clearing up with ease (the chasing of cars while on-leash, and some of her space issues). But I wanted more. I wanted to understand why she was so fearful, and why clicker training on its own didn't *fix* it. I looked into the local trainers, and could not find anything that I felt comfortable doing with my dog, and it was clear I was not going to find what I was looking for.

So when I graduated high school, I took up university. There I spent four years immersing myself in biology and psychology, studying animal behaviour, learning, motivation, and started delving into the brain and why it is the way it is. I learned why fear isn't something you can "train out" like you would teach a trick behaviour. I learned what it is in the brain that causes a dog to experience a fear response, and how the brain changes when it does experience that response. I was learning a whole new way of looking at dogs.

While doing my degree in university, I started doing some studying on the side as well. I started developing a library of the current books in dog training and behaviour. I questioned, I researched, I wrote things down, I tested things to see what worked, what didn't, and why - and I read some more. I started looking further than just training, into lifestyles and individual personalities. I started finding out what dogs really are, what they need to be happy and stable, and why they do the things they do (to the extent we can understand it). I realized that there were other changes I needed to make with Gaci, such as diet changes, exercise modifications, and developing routines that made her life easier. I also employed her - I came up with jobs for her to do, and she thrived.

One of the biggest things I learned, and in the end I learned it from her, was acceptance. Accepting her for what she is, continue pushing forth and helping her blossom, while accepting what cannot change now, and possibly ever. It's what makes her, her, and I value her every day for it (well, somedays she does become "his dog" and not my dog, but that's more me than her....!!). And we keep working, and she is a totally different dog today than when she first started. Just at her last vet appointment, a comment my vet made gave me shivers it moved me that much. She said "I can't believe how far she has come. She used to come in like a loaded cannon, and now she is a totally different dog".  She still might not be the social butterfly and appreciate human fondling, but she's just right for where she needs to be, and there's a lot of people who are proud of her.

Gaci basically was the one who began shaping my life as a trainer, as she taught me more than I could ever know or learn from a book. Living in a house of 8-12 dogs helped me out greatly along the way, watching the dynamics and relations that go on in a mixed group of dogs. Then my own dogs....... Shimmer, my sensitive girl, has taught me even more in patience (of a different kind), and Zipper is my wise old man (from 12 weeks of age he was a wise old man) who I am endlessly grateful for his patience, skills, and kindness to all he encounters. Every dog I have worked with over those developing years, I am eternally grateful to, for helping me become who I am today.


  1. Hi Kim, I am a vet student at AVC and just love reading your posts. I was wondering, how did you conquer Gaci's car chasing on leash? My fiance is dealing with the same thing with his rescued shelter dog. And no amount of desensitization and distraction training seems to be working! Thanks!

  2. Hi Eleanor, I know I responded to you by email (I apologize for the delay again, it never arrived in my Inbox to let me know it was there!), but I figured I would respond here now.

    For Gaci's interest in cars, I used a combination of the following at that time:
    Desensitization, counterconditioning (Gaci didn't exactly have a negative emotional response to the car, but she did have a highly aroused emotional response, which put her in danger had she been loose with moving vehicles), a strong "Watch" behaviour, and eventually that transitioned into cars becoming a cue to automatically look at me - the car itself cued the behaviour.

    These days I have no problems with car behaviours, and she no longer really notices them at all. I can't remember the last time I had to cue her to watch me instead of a vehicle, it's easily been six years or more. I suspect it was an age-related behaviour that because I jumped at fixing, eliminated it early on as she learned that cars are not meant for chasing.