Does your dog have an obsession with something?
Do they not know when to quit?
Are they a danger to small children if the object is between them and child?
Is your dog big enough to knock an elderly person down and injure them?
This describes my dog. Cooper, a happy go lucky golden retriever that has such an obsession with tennis balls that I have put all the balls up on top of furniture in order to control his obsession.
Recently I was fortunate to take some time and attend Cesar Millan's Fundamental dog training. Cooper and I spent two days bonding and driving from Pennsylvania to Ft. Lauderdale, Florida to attend a 4 day traning by The Dog Whisperer. We arrived at the hotel with many other anxious dog owners and dogs. Brief greetings were made and growls, lunges and barking ensued. Looking back, I realize we all made many mistakes when our excitement overshadowed our ability to reason when we were meeting for the first time. All of us were focused on the other human and didn't give a second thought to our dogs. We were lucky that no one was harmed, dogs included. Fortunately, we were at the right place, we were all going to be trained while our dogs were rehabilitated.
Our first day of training included the basics, how the schedule was going to flow and each morning we'd be broken up into small groups allowing each of us to have a private pack walk with Cesar. After the pack walk, we returned to the training center where Cesar began to unveil his philosophy and his words made me question how I had been as a pack leader to my dog. I was beginning to remove the blinders I had been wearing and began to see how my lack of leadership was allowing my dog to step up and take over what was my role. This was a very sobering moment for me and I was determined that I would do better by my dog, I knew I also had a lot of work to do and wondered if I was up for this task.
During a break in our sessions, one of the trainers called me over. Cesar hand picks his staff of trainers and he has an excellent staff, Todd was the one who began talking with me and commented on the struggle he saw that I was having with Cooper and myself. I was emotional, I knew how badly I messed up and how unfair this was to Cooper. He is the best dog and means a lot to me. I was really beating myself up and doubting I could be a Pack Leader to him, that was something I didn't think I had the ability to do. Todd assured me that I did have what it takes, that Cooper was a great dog and as soon as I began being a leader to him, I would realize that Cooper would naturally do what I wanted. I took a deep breath, Todd gave me a hug and we went back into the class. I was going to give this my best shot and change my mindset that I would be a successful pack leader.
On the 3rd day of classes, I saw Cooper being brought into the class. Todd came over and explained that the topic Cesar was speaking on was one of the problems they noticed that I was having difficulty with in trying to get Cooper to cooperate. The topic he was speaking on was "Personal Space" and in essence, Cooper had no boundaries and invaded my personal space to the point that I had to physically shove Cooper to get him to back off. Cooper and I were called up on stage and Cooper's attention was fixated on Cesar's dog Junior. Cesar joked to Cooper that Junior might be a movie star and be on TV, but he was just a dog. I chuckled and told Cesar it wasn't Junior Cooper was focusing on, it was what Junior HAD. Cesar said "What the ball?". I nodded and explained that Cooper was obsessed with balls. Cesar looked interested and asked if it was bad. I explained that it was REALLY bad. "show him the ball" were the next words from Cesar. The next 5 minutes, Cooper jumped and worked to get the ball from me. Cesar watched and then explained to the rest of the class that Cooper was a real danger to others including small children, elderly and other dogs. On a scale of 1 to 10, Cesar put Cooper's level of obsession at a 10.
I was crushed. I knew Cooper liked tennis balls but as his loving human I never thought of the dangers Cooper could present in situations where there were small children, elderly or other dogs. I just laughed it off and said I needed to start Cooper on the 12 Step Program to control his addiction to the tennis ball. Imagine how you feel if your are told your child is a bully. I finally saw myself as one of those parents, I had an uncontrollable bully and I had no one to blame except myself.
I watched as Cesar took the ball from me and Cooper did his best to get that ball. Cesar used many techniques trying to calm Cooper. He asked me what I did to calm Cooper down. I explained that I would put the ball a way. Cesar asked me if it fixed the behavior. Of course it didn't, that's why Cooper was acting this way. Cesar explained that while I would take the ball from him, Cooper was telling me what to do. I get out the ball and we would play. Simply putting the ball away did nothing to correct the danger Cooper was to others. Cesar asked me what I was going to do to correct Cooper's behavior. I said I didn't know, but I was there at his training to learn from him and would be using his methods to work with Cooper.
For the next 30 minutes, Cesar worked to get Cooper in a calm/submissive state. Cooper was very determined that he would get that ball. I was very embarrassed by my dogs behavior. I wondered if Cooper broke Cesar. I was getting emotional and finally Cesar got Cooper to lay down on the stage. Cesar never used anything but calm/assertive energy to get Cooper to lie down. Cooper was still at a high level of 8, enough that Cesar felt it was time to take a break and continue working with Cooper later.
During the lunch break, I ate my lunch then went to get Cooper to take him out to the bathroom. I walked over to his kennel and was a little surprised when I saw his kennel was empty. I looked at the other kennels and the other dogs were in their kennels. I started getting concerned when I turned and saw an area with glass windows. In this area, the trainers were all in a circle. Cesar was at one end and Cooper was in the middle. Cooper never noticed me. By the high position of his ears, I could tell that a ball must be in the vicinity. I looked at the direction Cooper was facing and there was Cesar, holding the ball. One of the trainers motioned to me and I understood that I should let Cesar work with Cooper. I returned to the tent and waited for the next session to begin.
Cooper was brought back in to me and Todd told me that we would be going back up on stage. I was seated on the stage and watched as Cesar handed the ball to another trainer and he walked to the opposite end of the stage. Cooper was focused on the ball and Cesar made a corrective touch and "Tsch" noise. Cooper broked the stare of the ball and gave his attention to Cesar. When Cooper went into a calm/submissive state, Cesar walked Cooper toward the ball, stopping each time Coopers excitement grew. Corrections were made and once Cooper was calm/submissive, Cesar would proceed. Once Cesar and Cooper reached the end of the stage, Cesar put Cooper in a down position. Cooper was calm/submissive and then Cesar took the ball and put it in between Cooper's front paws. Normally, Cooper would have lunged for the ball. He glanced down and Cesar corrected. Cooper looked away from the ball and back to Cesar. He did not touch the ball and his excitement level was at a 1.
My dog did not break Cesar after all. Later I asked the trainers how Cesar got through to Cooper. They explained that I was a distraction as well as the rest of the class. Although it appeared Cooper was mainly focused on the ball, his attention was also on me and the class. In order for Cesar to get through to him, they needed to remove the distraction. Once Cooper was removed from that situation, Cesar was able to address Cooper and gain his respect.
Cesar taught us that levels of excitement pose a lot of danger when not managed. By taking Cooper away from the environment that had him at a dangerous level, Cooper was able to focus and learn. Dogs do want to please us, they work hard to see us in a way that makes us happy. Dogs that sense your excitement feed on that and fuel their energy more to a point that it becomes a danger. While it is okay for Cooper to be excited about tennis balls, I must choose the moment. I as a leader can allow Cooper to play ball for a period of time. I also must choose the moment to end the excitement and lead him back down to a calm/submissive state when we are done.
Now that we are at home, I work with Cooper and the tennis ball. I do an excercise with him where I have a few balls placed on the ground, I have Cooper on a leash and walk him past the tennis balls. Cooper is not permitted to grab the ball. Each time I walk him by the ball and he lunges for it, I correct and move him past the ball. Once I have been able to walk him past the balls several times, I will leave him off leash and play ball with him for a few minutes. When I am done, he goes back on the leash and we repeat the excercise of walking past the balls again until I feel he is in the calm/submissive state.
Cooper is a work in progress, I am learning that the more I work with him, the more confident and better leader I become. I am his Pack Leader.