Updated: May 11
I began my journey to professional dog training about a year after my family adopted a German Shepherd from the CCSPCA.
When we brought Kaiser home, he would bite me whenever I got too close to him, tried to feed him, tried to play with him, tried to... well, anything. He had no bite inhibition, which is a dog's ability (or lack thereof) to control the amount of pressure they apply with teeth-to-skin contact, and he often broke skin or bruised me. He wasn't able to truly settle or relax.
He has miraculously loved Rosie, my sweet little bully breed mix, since they day they met. However, his attempts to play with her were way too rough. As a result she disliked his presence and did whatever she could to avoid him. I watched her cower under tables while he circled like a shark in his efforts to play with his new sister. I usually stood behind some kind of barrier, too scared to save her because this 75 pound dog and his biting habits terrified me.
About a month into owning him, we found out he's severely dog aggressive. He wasn't too friendly with strangers either. Whenever we presented him to a dog or neighbor thinking interaction would help teach him that dogs and people were okay, he would start barking, lunging at the end of his leash, and often redirected his bites onto the closest human... which 99% of the time... was me. At one point, this redirected aggression resulted in a level 4 bite on Dr. Ian Dunbar's Bite Scale to my upper left thigh. It ended up needing a few stitches.
Two months into owning this dog, I vividly remember thinking that suddenly the terror dogs from Ghostbusters seemed peachy-keen.
My family quickly gave up on Kaiser. My mom has never been an animal lover and wanted him gone. My dad had romanticized the idea of owning a German Shepherd and was so disappointed that Kaiser didn't live up to his expectations. My younger brother (who Kaiser was intended for) was a then-15 year old flunking his freshman year of high school.
Euthanasia was their first suggestion.
I was livid.
Behavioral euthanasia becomes a very real last resort for many people who run out of all the other options. It's a heartbreaking decision that rocks you to your core. It was a decision I would face off with over Kaiser just a year into owning him.
At the time, I didn't understand how they could take this living creature and think that death was a viable solution to all of our problems before ever seeking any help for him. I argued with their decision and they told me I had no emotional or financial investment in this animal anyway. I had made it clear I didn't want him there. Why did I even care that much?
I honestly wasn't sure. I just knew that I wouldn't let my family give up on this dog so easily - we signed his adoption papers so it was our job to expend all the other options.
That conversation went like this:
Me: We can't just give up on him and kill him. We can find a trainer or something.
Mom: We're not spending anymore money on this dog. If you want him around, he's your problem now.
I had no financial or emotional support from my family as a 19 year old working two to three jobs at a time, paying bills, struggling to buy my own groceries, and support two big dogs on my own.
Fast forward through a few thousand dollars of unhelpful or flat out terrible trainers I hired, bad advice from people on social media that I shouldn't have followed, hopelessness, tears, stitches on my left leg and upper torso on separate occasions, redirected aggression, so much frustration and stress that I stopped feeling hungry and started losing patches of hair... I was desperate.
I became what is derogatorily referred to as a "shock jock" in the training world. I used to get in arguments with people on social media about prong collars, e-collars (shock collars), choke chains, etc., being humane so long as they were used "responsibly." I used them on Kai. I used them the way all "balanced trainers" advocated using them - they were properly fitted, not overused, I still used food rewards, and only used training tools as source of distinguishing "clear communication" between myself and Kaiser. I didn't see a problem. I was working under the instruction of a locally renowned trainer. It worked!
Until it didn't.
One afternoon in early 2017, Kaiser and I were on our normal neighborhood walk. I wore a treat pouch and he wore a prong collar and an e-collar on his neck at the same time on a regular basis outside of the home. We were rounding the corner to reenter our neighborhood and Kaiser saw a small, white, fluffy dog across the street. By this point, I believed this was a behavior and distance I had "trained" him to handle.
Kaiser lunged. He snarled and screamed and barked and pulled. He pulled me so hard and so far and so unexpectedly that all I remember is clinging to his leash for life, curling into the fetal position, and hoping my body weight would stop him as he dragged me up the sidewalk in an attempt to eat this little dog and his unassuming owner. The gentleman scooped his dog up and ran the opposite direction. I had road-rash on my right arm and thigh for two weeks afterwards from the asphalt and gravel Kaiser drug me through.
I broke - who does this for a dog?
I was a little over a year into owning Kaiser and any hope or false sense of security I had with him was gone.
It was time to euthanize him.
This dog could not be touched. I could tell he wanted love, wanted to be pet, but as soon as it was initiated he would nip and bite our hands. He would stay up almost every night night with heavy panting and pacing. He loved Rosie, but they were always separated unless they were under diligent supervision because he would hurt her in attempts to play. He terrified me in the outside world so he very rarely left our house.
I remember sitting with my brother, who had become and continues to be a very reliable and great secondary support with my dogs, and telling him that it was time. Nothing was going to change this dog. We cried together for hours and pet Kaiser in the small moments he would allow us to touch him. I had tried everything in my power..... right?
I had a small but involved following on Instagram and made a post regarding my decision: a veterinarian appointment was set and we were going to get Kaiser a vanilla milkshake and double-double with extra cheese from In-N-Out.
That's when I met Sandra, who used to run a large advocacy account on Instagram before both of her senior dogs sadly passed away within a few months of each other in mid 2019. She saw my post and reached out with an incredible amount of empathy and compassion, saying she understood where I was in my journey with Kaiser and, no pressure, here are some resources just in case.
This is when I discovered the power that is force-free training. I threw myself into research on classical counter conditioning, the quadrants of operant conditioning, the pros and cons of prescription medication, clicker training, relaxation protocols, management protocols, the value of well executed desensitization, decompression, ethology, husbandry, nutrition, enrichment, etc., etc., etc.
We saw a Board Certified Veterinary Behaviorist at U.C. Davis, whom we will continue to see once a year for the duration of Kaiser's life.
My life with Kaiser was forever changed.
Kaiser will be aggressive to dogs and strangers for the rest of his life and I'm okay with that.
Kaiser has never allowed any dogs besides Rosie to become a part of his life. He's been very selective on people he's allowed into his circle, and even then, it's after weeks to months of counter conditioning him to a new person. The extent of his generalized anxiety disorders are very well regulated by his behavior modification medication. Our main sources of exercise no longer come from over-stimulating environments like neighborhood walks and instead come from enriching and decompressing places like lakes, hiking trails, rivers, and large agricultural fields that give him the opportunity to just be a dog. We get to pet and love on him so hard and he lives for it - nipping and biting now excluded. He sleeps on his back with all four paws in the air. His life is happy and enriched and very well managed.
Kaiser is the reason I'm the trainer I am today. He's why you will always hear me telling clients that I'm not a dog trainer, I'm a people trainer. He's why you'll get tired of hearing me say things like, "Don't work with a half-empty piggy bank," or, "Just let your dog be a dog!"
He's why I specialize in cases like his; the frustrated, heartbroken, at-their-wits-end owners with the over-stimulated, nippy, reactive dogs - these are my people.