Yesterday I had a wonderful training session with a pittie/mastiff mix named Huey. Huey’s owners were convinced he was aggressive. The family had just recently had a formal reorganization. Son had moved back in with Mom and Dad, bringing his 1-year old dog with him. Mom had never had a dog, and was actually terrified of pitties due to all the negative news media she had heard about them. Dad had only had a dog when he was young. However, Mom and Dad both welcomed their son back home as well as Huey. Huey quickly won their hearts (especially Mom’s) with his sweet, loving, goofy nature.
Unfortunately, like most new dog owners, Huey’s owners neglected to answer his questions. Huey had no Pilot. Combine that with his being an unneutered adolescent male dog – well, trouble ensued.
Mom was talking Huey for a walk one morning when she saw a woman coming her way walking another dog. The other dog was smaller, but was being physically restrained by the owner (most likely because the dog was posturing, or putting up a brave front towards Huey). Huey, seeing the other dog’s body language towards Mom, reacted appropriately (for a dog) by posturing himself, lunging and snarling. The other owner snapped at Mom, “Can’t you control your dog?”
Mom ran home with Huey almost in tears. She felt she couldn’t control Huey. She had braved her fear of dogs and accepted Huey in her home. She had conquered her media-induced prejudice of pitties and had opened her heart to this dog. Now that she loved him, she felt she couldn’t walk him. She relayed her story to her family, who by now had become anxious walking Huey by people as well.
If only they had each answered Huey’s questions the first time he had asked them.
“Hey, Mom, this person looks sketchy. Is he a threat?”
No, Huey, he isn’t. Let’s keep walking.
But like most people, they didn’t know dogs even ask questions. This was a brand-new dog-owning family. When I got there, everyone was terrified to walk by people with Huey. He had escalated with his questions to the point that he was considered “aggressive” by his family. Fortunately, his family was willing to put time and effort into his rehabilitation, little realizing that it was they who needed to change, not Huey.
They started off the training session by blaming themselves for Huey’s behavior (although bear in mind they didn’t have the slightest idea what they should be doing, as they were new to dog ownership. Kinda like blaming myself for crashing a plane when I’ve never even flown one.). It’s always a good sign when family members don’t blame each other, but take individual responsibility. However, nobody had done anything wrong. As I put it to them, Huey was a wonderful, perfect, appropriate dog. He just really sucked at being a human. Mom, Dad and Son were wonderful people who totally lacked skills as a dog. How can blame be placed for not knowing how to act appropriately as a different species.
We set to work. Mom, in true mother form, was willing to do anything to get her “child”, Huey, through this situation. She learned how to Pilot him in the house, how to let people in the front door without Huey butting in. In short, she learned how to be a dog. And she did it in 20 minutes. Dad and Son did amazingly well, also. However, Mom impressed me the most. Here was a woman who had started out terrified of this dog, had invited him into her home, and had conquered a number of fears in doing so.
So, on to the crux of the problem: walking him past people. It was a beautiful day, so after we went over leash skills inside the house, we went for a walk to the local baseball field. I took Huey first to show them exactly how to Pilot him in such a crowded location. I answered his questions (“Is this person a threat? How about this one?”) until he got got bored asking them, and accepted (rather quickly) that human-kind was not out to get him. Or more correctly, that every time he asked me if some human was a threat, the answer would be “no, not a threat”. Soon he was anticipating the answer. Mom, Dad and Son were amazed. Now I handed the leash over to Mom.
Now, I need to point out that Mom was maybe 5’1″. In heels. Her husband and son towered over her (as did I). She was very healthy, but very slight. I think Huey almost outweighed her. For a moment she almost let her fear get the best of her. She was scared because she felt she couldn’t control him past all these people, given how tiny she was compared to the rest of us. I negated her fears. Pilots control planes that are infinitely larger than they are. She could answer a 60 lb. dog’s questions. So she took a deep breath and strutted past the crowd with Huey right beside her. She weaved between kids playing catch and toddlers running past her. She Piloted Huey…perfectly. I could see her relaxing more and more as she conquered each fear. She came out on the other side of the crowd with Huey, both alive, both full of new self-confidence.
I was amazed that a woman who had a started out so terrified of an animal was willing to go through what to her was an amazingly difficult ordeal and come out the other side with perfect marks. I was terribly impressed.
She handed the leash to her husband, her fears destroyed, ready for him to start Piloting Huey as well. Dad struggled for a minute. Mom sidled up next to him, smiled sweetly at her husband and said, “Do you want me to show you how to do it?”
Size matters not.