This is our Emmett. He’s 11 years old now, a very well-mannered gentleman.
We adopted Emmett from a local shelter at the tender age of 5 months. Adorable puppy, killer cute and loads of charm, with that round, speckled puppy belly and irresistible puppy smell. Things looked good when we brought him home, but gradually all that changed.
Emmett claimed the sofa as his…and peed on it. If we tried to pet him, he would snap at us. If we sat on the sofa and his cushion moved, he would rush at us and nip. His barking was off the charts, as was his marking. Marking everywhere. Walks, although not horrible, were a struggle, with him pulling ahead like a freight-train trying to meet new people and dogs. Not enjoyable, because we lived in a neighborhood with lots of dogs. He wasn’t the snuggly, cuddly puppy we had adopted just weeks ago, and we were dumbfounded and completely confused.
We had never lived with a dog with such behavior challenges. Up until this point, all the dogs we had known were “easy”, sweet-tempered, calm. Emmett was a shock. And he had taken over.
Life with Emmett was exasperating, frustrating, sometimes exhausting. He was a ridiculous barker and living in a busy family neighborhood meant that any little noise would set off a cacophony of sounds from him. He would also strike at our other dog whenever he heard something; not biting him, but snapping his teeth in the air and rushing at him. Sometimes this ended in a session of teeth fencing between them but we knew it could escalate at any time. Numerous visits to the veterinarian yielded nothing but a diagnosis: redirected aggression. With this came the directive to “anticipate” this behavior in order to head it off and change it. That didn’t work at all, because living in a busy family neighborhood meant noises at all times; car doors, children playing, dogs being walked past the house, delivery trucks. The list was endless.
Emmett was also a boundary runner, and any time he was in our fenced-in yard and someone walked by, especially other dogs, he would crazily run back and forth, barking with all he had. Summers were noisy and I felt embarrassed by his behavior, but powerless, having used training tactics with little if any result.
Along the way, I received advice, lots and lots of advice. I was told to “be firmer” with him, meaning I should hit him. I was told to “correct” him by being physical with him, yanking on his leash when he didn’t walk well; to get into his face, growl at him and tell him, “No!” whenever he did something displeasing. I bought a bark collar that sprayed citronella past his face when he barked. Emmett figured out very quickly where the gadget needed to be sitting on his throat in order to be activated by the bark, and learned how to bark around it. I really didn’t like this thing anyway, seeing Emmett terrified as the spray came out. It would also spray when our other dog barked and this seemed terribly unfair. As per training books, I taught him to bark on command, and he even learned how to whisper, so we could control when he barked. He turned things around so that he trained me to reward him for barking. Did I mention how smart he is? I bought more training books, lots of training books, but nothing seemed to work or at least, didn’t work for long.
I learned about clicker training, because it is humane and gentle in its approach, but failed at that, even with clickers hanging from my key ring, both wrists, and placed about the house and in the car so we could click whenever we saw a desirable behavior. Treats, treats, treats. Emmett would do what I asked for treats, such as come to me when I asked to short-circuit his barking, but then would immediately run back and commence barking again.
At one point, my husband asked what we were going to “do” about Emmett. I replied that we couldn’t bring him back to the shelter, because he would most certainly be bounced from one home to the next, would probably end up being put to sleep for being a biter. So, we adapted….to Emmett. We didn’t bring friends over. We kept things on the furniture so he couldn’t get up onto it, which meant that if we wanted to sit on a chair, either a laundry basket or a pile of books had to be moved before we could. Our home began to look as though it housed hoarders.
And we were always on edge, wondering what the next crisis would be.
One well-known trainer of German Shepards counseled me to ignore Emmett, completely, reduce his place in the pack, but then asked me to promise to never tell where I had received this suggestion. And we saw changes, positive changes. Emmett began to calm and show respect. We could uncover the furniture and invite him to be with us. I now understand why this worked, but didn’t then and at first it felt uncomfortable because it felt “mean” to be ignoring this adorable bit of puppy fluff. I’ve since learned that it’s a critical piece of canine communication and actually very kind. I forged ahead, because I saw that Emmett was gaining a clear benefit. We were as well.
Fast forward a year and a half, to the feeding issues.
We simply thought of our little guy as being quirky, and this applied to his eating. For a long while we simply assumed he had strong preferences about what he liked, just as people do. So we changed the food we fed our dogs. He would eat fine for a little while, then become picky once more. And by “picky” I mean he would approach his bowl, perhaps eat a few pieces, back up from the bowl, look hesitant about approaching it again, and so on. We would change the food again. And again.
Of course this behavior had gained our full attention. We tried coaching him on, rewarding him with praise when he did eat. We tried feeding with the collar on, and with the collar off. We tried several different types of bowls, and tried feeding him with no bowl, either dropping it on the floor or even hand-feeding. We tried moving his bowl to different areas in the house, thinking he was either distracted or uncomfortable by his surroundings. At every feeding, we were completely engaged watching him like hawks; “Will he eat? Is he eating? Did you see him eat anything? He’s barely touched his food, let make sure to fill in with treats…” In between, there were visits to the vet, to make sure there was nothing we were missing health-wise. The vet had no answers, other than to try their expensive prescription food and to heat it in the microwave to make it “stinky” and more enticing to Emmett. That worked…for a little while. Then we were always back where we started.
Ultimately, Emmett reached a point at which he stopped eating altogether. We were panicked.
I called a friend of mine and she suggested I pick up a copy of Jan Fennell’s book, “The Dog Listener”, which I did while thinking, “Oh, joy, another book, more advice, more failure.” I devoured the book, began using the simple techniques, making the small changes, and withing 3 days, Emmett was once again eating like a champ. We were floored.
Now I understand why Emmett was doing what he was doing.
When I look back, I so wish I had found Jan’s work sooner. I see the mistakes we had been making in our interactions with him. Such small things to us, but which made all difference in the world to Emmett (and our other dog, who we thought of as being an “angel”). They made all the difference to him because they were changes that made sense to him as a dog. That’s what we had been missing…Emmett’s perspective, his take on the world from his place in it as a dog. His concerns, his canine culture, his goals, his understanding of what his role was in our home relative to ours, and his drive to carry out what he believed were his responsibilities for the family group. It went to the very heart of why he was doing what he was doing, while giving us the tools we needed to help him. Because he did need help and was enjoying his life with us even less in many respects than we were with him.
This new journey to understand, empathize and answer Emmett’s questions and concerns wasn’t always easy, and it wasn’t always clear. It was a process, because we had to change our own behavior rather than trying to manipulate Emmett into new behaviors. Once we did this, we watched as he would respond to our efforts by slowly releasing those behaviors that had turned our world upside down. He became affectionate, playful, much less intense with our other dog, with fewer spats between them. We could see how he was able to learn new things because he was calmer and could focus. In all areas, he began to step back and became more patient.
Emmett, on the whole, has been the best teacher for me that I could ever ask for, and even after all these years, I’m still learning from him while changes happen within our little pack. He is still not the “easiest” dog we’ve ever lived with and keeps me on my toes, making me check in with myself regarding whether I’m behaving in the way that will, first and foremost, help him. The rewards are great, including evenings spent with a warm, sweet dog curled up and sleeping in my lap, something at one time I couldn’t have imagined experiencing with him.
So I thank Emmett for leading me down a path I couldn’t have dreamed up for myself; one which has benefited many, many dogs since I first picked up Jan Fennell’s book and opened the door to real understanding that I have since been blessed to share with others in my role as Dog Listener.
And I thank Jan, for being one of the very few people who asked the question, “What is most important to the dog?” and being wise enough to really listen to their answers.