Biggest Failure of a Trainer's Career
Dax & Shep
These guys, owned by different people, were two of the toughest dog-aggression cases I ever worked. They required a lot of time and effort, but Dax improved fairly quickly and was able to go almost anywhere and get along with other dogs. Shep, on the other hand, continued to struggle.
Because my schedule had been booked full when Shep's person came to me, I had not been able to take Shep into residential training. But his behavior was extreme, and he needed help or something bad was going to happen. So we began a less-than-ideal on again, off again, as-time-allows training program. He would be with me for a week or so, then return home for a few days or a week and come back for a few days as my schedule allowed.
Shep advanced to the point I could take him off-leash to the dog park, and he played without incident with all the dogs that came and went from my facility. But I noticed that each time he returned from home, his behavior regressed to the point of starting over. This was frustrating, and the process kept repeating itself.
I needed to take Shep into residential training full-time, but we were booked with a wait list, so my only option was to work with him and his people from their home. She would meet me and we'd work with Shep out and about where he could encounter dogs.
Sometimes Shep would, for no obvious reason, throw himself on the ground in public and howl as if being beaten. People stared me down as if I were hurting him. One woman told me I should not be allowed to own a dog. Another filmed one of Shep's fits and posted on social media for people to be on the lookout for me, that I was an animal abuser. All I could do was stand there and wait for Shep to calm before proceeding with our training walk.
He would show periods of improvement, but his person could not control him. I've seldom seen a person try harder, and the two of us bore down and kept at it, but though the woman insisted Shep had made some progress, I knew he had not. Or not enough to make much difference.
Never before had I failed to help a dog turn around. Some efforts are more successful than others, of course, but I'd always been able to help significantly. I see now that my bruised ego was a problem as was my injured pride, but I was mostly concerned about Shep. This dog could not go through life acting the way he had.
With no arrows left in my quiver, I took a step back and called every trainer I knew. Asked for advice. Researched online. Even consulted an animal communicator. I tried different approaches and ideas. Nothing made much difference.
I don't remember us making a decision to pull the plug. It seems like we kept trying but, knowing nothing was working, sort of petered out and quit. I was raised to never quit, but what else was I to do? I kept thinking about Shep and searching for anything that would help me discover an answer. Nothing.
I still have a hard time swallowing the fact that I couldn't help him. The memory of that project injects a regular does of humility into my training. Shep reminds me that I do not have all the answers, that what I know pales in comparison to what I don't, and to never for a moment think I'm getting things figured out. To be successful, I must approach each new dog with humility, open-mindedness, and a commitment to learning something every day.