By Los Angeles Dog Trainer Sean O’Shea,
Hey all, It’s been a bit since my last post (and I know I promised the second part of introducing a dog to your pack…and I will get it done asap promise!). Things have been steadily growing for us here at The Good Dog….and that’s great news for the dogs we work with and their owners, but it does sometimes slow down the output in the blog dept! But enough with my excuses! 🙂
I’ve been meaning to create a post dedicated to my own personal journey from incredibly inept and unknowledgeable dog owner, to someone who makes his living helping to rehab some of the toughest dogs in Los Angeles…and perhaps even more crucially, helping to empower dog owners to keep their dogs balanced once we fix ’em.
My story starts just about 13 years ago. I adopted my very first dog Junior, a 6 month old chow/pit/what have you mix from the East Valley shelter here in Los Angeles.
Within seconds of adopting him (we had to wait of course for him to be neutered), I was madly in love. I’m talking head over heels, giddy kind of puppy love. (And by the way, Junior is actually laying at my feet as I type this!). As with many dog owners, unknowingly, we bring dogs into our lives and have no idea the kind of emotional baggage we saddle them with. My life at the time was, umm, I’ll be generous and call it a mess! 🙂 Just about everything was in disarray. Family, friends, finances, emotional state…the works! And along comes this dog who just so happens to be the first creature in a long time safe enough to bond with and love. BOOM!
As with most folks who are emotionally unbalanced in their lives and their relationship with their dogs, the last thing I was going to do was discipline, set boundaries, or inhibit the freedom of my one source of unconditional love.
So within a very short time, I had thoroughly spoiled this little guy, and taught him that anything he wanted was good by me. Two months later, a co-worker of mine adopted a large pit/Rhodesian/who-knows-mix from the same shelter, and his landlord was forcing him to get rid of it. He was going to give the dog to anyone who would take him, which really bothered me, and having helped him pick out the dog from the shelter, I felt responsible, and decided I would take him as well. He was 8 months old.
Well, as you could guess, two things happened. The first was, I gave Oakley (the new guy) the exact same rules as Junior…which were zero. And secondly, their combined energy became almost unstoppable. Strangely enough both Oakley and Junior were born within a week of each other (of course this was the shelter’s best guess), which meant I now had two 8 month old large, extremely high energy dogs…and not a drop of knowledge. Ugh.
Oakley proceeded to eat his way through my entire apartment…doors, couches, telephones, vhs tapes, cd’s, beds…it seemed that at some point almost everything I owned eventually passed through his bottom. When I couldn’t take any more eating of my place, I would put him in my car when I went to run errands…and he ate my steering wheel, emergency brake, seats…and on and on.
Now you might be asking yourself, “Self, why didn’t Sean simply buy a crate and put Oakley in it?” Well, there was no way I was going to subject my dog to the punishing confines of what I thought was tantamount to doggy prison. NO WAY! Not my dog!
And this state of mind/belief system transferred over to all tools that might have helped make my life less of a horror show. Believe it or not, I wouldn’t walk these two growing boys (Oakley eventually hit 93 pounds and Junior 71) on anything but their flat buckle collars and flexi-leashes! Yep, I said it…that was where I was at with all this. No crates, no choke chains, no prong collars, not even regular leashes! My emotional state required that I give my dogs the maximum freedom and joy (or what I thought equated to freedom and joy), while I struggled to keep our manic, crazy life under control. And if one was honest, one would absolutely see that the chaos and disarray in my dog world was a perfect mirror of the chaos and disarray of my regular world.
So I spent my days being drug around the park, many, many times on my backside…a ridiculous type of dog powered water/turf skiing. (My girlfriend at the time was pulled off her feet and across the street on more than one occasion…coming home bloody and freaked out…but she felt the same way as me regarding tools and lifestyle…so along we went). We also went to the dog park every day for more boundary and leadership free fun. Everything cruised along like this until Oakley started developing some weird behavior at the dog park around 18 months old…namely going after small dogs and grabbing them. I had no idea what this was or what it meant, but I was hoping it was just a weird phase. This happened two more times…Oakley would get worked up, and start after a small dog. No dog was ever hurt in all this, but it was still scary, so devastated and sad, we decided that the dog park was to be no more.
The truth is, I was in over my head, but didn’t know it.
Around this point, both of my dogs’ behavior inside the house was atrocious…to be very kind. They would jump on anyone, rush the door, run out the door and bolt down the street if possible, jump on the kitchen table and steal food, poop in the house…you name it, we had it. Outside, they were becoming extremely reactive to other dogs. Once they saw another dog, it was curtains for me. They would pull, lunge, rear up, attack each other, bite the leashes, pull me down…everything!
I became one of those dog owners that would scope out the area around me for any potential K9 threats, and either rapidly go the other direction, or find something, a car or bush or anything to hide behind. I was terrified of any dog coming anywhere near us…even if it was at a great distance the reactions were horrible. I absolutely loved being with them and was religious in taking our walks twice daily, but if they saw a dog before me, it was on, and it was on in a big way.
Our trouble and reality collided one day when both Oakley and Junior got away from me at the front door…due to my not being a responsible and careful owner…and ran down the driveway. I was right behind them, and as horrific luck would have it, my neighbors had their two pomeranians off leash at the end of the driveway. Oakley grabbed one and I grabbed him within a second of it…I picked up his front end so he couldn’t shake the dog, and luckily he released the dog with a second. There was thankfully no blood, and the dog looked fine…shaken up, but fine.
The unfortunate reality was that when they took the dog to the vet to have it checked out, the dog ended up dying from a punctured lung. No one saw the puncture, and so no one was assuming anything serious…but as awful as it is to say, the dog died that night.
The next week I was visited by animal control so they could determine if I had a dangerous dog. They came in, met with Oakley and immediately determined he was great with people. So he wasn’t in any danger. Also, because both dogs were off-leash, it was considered joint negligence. But that didn’t change the fact that I felt destroyed. It was and still is one of the worst periods I’ve ever gone through…knowing the kind of heartache my neighbor was going through was crushing.
I remember very clearly regretting that I had said I would take Oakley from my friend.
After this I kept both dogs on lock down, and operated my apartment like a cell block. I had learned a very painful lesson. Dogs, even amazingly sweet, wonderful dogs, left without guidance and supervision could do horrible things. But I still hadn’t figured out what to do or even where to start. I didn’t know anything about training or trainers or where to look…and to be honest, I wasn’t doing a very good job of finding help…I’m pretty sure I didn’t believe anyone would be able to help us.
But I still had to figure out what to do with Oakley. This was a terrible time.
Just prior to this, a good friend had asked me if I had heard of this TV show called The Dog Whisperer. I laughed at the name and said no. I wasn’t exactly the believer in positive thought that I am today! Anyway, my friend Melissa suggested I check it out, that there was this guy named Cesar Millan who could do amazing things with troubled dogs. I said I would check it out when I had the chance.
And catch it I did. After watching a couple of episodes I knew this guy was onto something, and that the concepts resonated very clearly and plainly with me. Namely that most dog behavior issues were the human’s fault for prioritizing their emotional fulfillment over their dogs needs for physical and mental fulfillment.
Bam! That was me! And so it was time for a massive make-over…in all departments!
Later I went out and purchased Cesar’s first book, Cesar’s Way. I read it once, and then I went back and studied it…over and over again…taking notes and writing down all the aha moments. Everything he said made complete sense. As I delved deeper and deeper into his work, it became ever more apparent all of the things I had been doing wrong – the mixed messages, the lack of leadership etc. We had a majorly unbalanced relationship…100% love and affection, and a complete absence of rules, structure, or leadership…the perfect recipe for disastrous dogs.
This was a great beginning, but the truth is, Cesar’s show, and his books for that matter, tend to be more big picture stuff, rather than specific training concepts…so that was challenging. I had a great overview, but almost no specifics. And so I set out to learn as much as I could. I bought every book I could find – I became obsessed. I went through almost all of the famous pure positive training books: Don’t Shoot The Dog, The Other End Of The Leash, The Power Of Positive Training…and on and on. I also read classics like The Monks Of New Skete’s How To Be Your Dog’s Best Friend, and many, many more. I pored over every training dvd I could find, and slowly began to figure out what worked for certain things and what didn’t work for other things. I was really starting to put my own approach together, based on trial and error. Luckily, I had two extremely ill behaved dogs as my training guinea pigs.
Within 6 months time, I was seeing massive changes in my dogs as well as myself. I truly took to heart Cesar’s belief that you have to be balanced before you can balance your dogs. So I went through therapy, studied lots of self help books and spiritual books…I was working at least as hard on myself as I was on the terrible duo of Junior and Oakley. Within a year, my dogs and myself were hardly recognizable from who we were just a year ago. But we still had lots of work to do. The promise I made to my dogs when I started this journey was that before they stepped off this planet in their physical form, I would see to it that I gave them back the gift of being balanced, amazing dogs…the dogs they were destined to be, if I hadn’t screwed them up.
Pretty soon, people in the neighborhood were asking me questions about their dog’s problems, and commenting on how well behaved my two were. You see, everyone had witnessed our transformation; we went from the chaos of massive dog explosions, me losing my cool, and hiding from other dogs, to having all three (Belle was now in the pack) calmly sit while other dogs would go ballistic around us. It was pretty dramatic to behold. And I won’t pretend that it was easy…it took everything I had to picture a new, successful outcome around other dogs…after all, I had seen the worst any dog owner could see…so I was working against some pretty strong mental blocks.
Of course I changed tools, I went to prong collars and short nylon leashes, and eventually I started studying up on e-collars. These neighborhood criminal K9’s of mine went from public enemy number one and two, to the neighborhood ambassadors of great behavior. And that my friends was no small feat!
As my knowledge and experience grew, so did the requests for my services. I started out offering primarily dog walking with a little training (few things developed my dog handling and dog reading skills as thoroughly as did working with several ill behaved problem dogs in a pack walk environment), and then it started to shift to more and more training and less and less walking. Eventually, I quit my day job and officially opened The Good Dog, and started working full time as a trainer. Things went so well that by word of mouth alone, I was extremely busy. From the beginning I had a preference for the extremely challenging/aggressive/dangerous dogs that others wanted nothing to do with…and this intention put me on a path to develop the skills necessary to become known as someone who could turn around even the nastiest of cases. I’m incredibly proud to say that The Good Dog continues to grow daily, we now have the awesome Laura Morgan and Sean Sevitski on our team, and we are working towards opening a full service dog training/rehabilitation center. We have some pretty lofty goals/dreams of creating a place where owners and dogs can go to learn about and work on creating balance and harmony in their lives…and most importantly to avoid the same mistakes I made…I don’t want anyone to ever go through the guilt of having their dog injure or kill another dog…I would never wish that experience on anyone…and more importantly, I would never want someone else to go through the heartache that my neighbor went through.
What I want people to get from my story more than anything is, that you don’t have to be born with Dog Wisperer style skills. My clients often remark that I have some otherworldly dog presence…usually implying it is some god-given-naturally-occurring force, which my story proves is absolutely not the case. My story highlights the fact that I did it all wrong, was a total disaster…made all the mistakes, and then some…but am now able to work with and fix even the worst cases. So what I’m getting at is, if I can do it, anyone can. We all have the power to change our lives completely…if we dare to look honestly at ourselves…and the personal inequities our dogs are so generously exposing for us…every day…every moment. If you’re truly committed to the work, both personally and dog wise, you can have whatever you want in this world.
Lastly, I’d like to say thanks to all of you for being so generous in your support of me and the gang at The Good Dog. We appreciate you!
(Anyone who follows me knows that Oakley and Junior (since being rehabbed and reprogrammed) work with all my client’s dogs in both regular training as well as socialization exercises, and they join all of us on all the pack walks. If you’re not familiar with them, they are the two tan dogs next to the Doberman “Scooby” on my left in the above picture. They are a testament to what is possible.)