The Dog That Turned Me Into A Trainer

balanced dog training

Sometimes you get the dog you want, and sometimes you get the dog you need.

I got the dog I needed when I was just about at the lowest point in my life. I was living at home, deeply depressed, with a rock-bottom level of confidence and no real direction in life. It was that point in my life that I adopted Grimm.

Grimm was at a local shelter when I found him. After filling out his paperwork, I started getting things set up at home for him, and picked him up two days later. He was my first dog as an adult, but he seemed to be a good choice, as he was small, quiet, calm, and fairly sweet.

For the first few weeks, he continued this way. But at around the month mark of Grimm living with me, he started to come out of his shell, and started displaying some really stressful and dangerous behaviors.

Grimm started becoming reactive to other dogs, beginning with large-breed puppies, spreading to all large dogs, and eventually to any dog he saw. This then developed into reactivity towards humans and other animals.

Over a few more weeks, the reactivity escalated into full-blown aggression. In the span of a few short weeks since bringing him home, Grimm turned into a trashing, barking monster always in the mode of seek-and-destroy.

balanced dog training

The Life of an Aggressive Dog

His world got progressively smaller; I could no longer take him for regular walks for fear that he would go into a fit at the sight of a neighbor walking by and thrash his way out of his easy-walk harness. I wasn’t able to bring him to stores or involve him in my life outside the house, as even one step out the door was already past his threshold. He even started to bark at other members of my household and spend time scanning for things to react to at the windows while indoors.

I followed all the usual dog training advice. I used the right tools, opting for harnesses and head haltis like the people online said to do. I tried to counter-condition for his triggers, find moments to reward him, and do all the positive reinforcement training that the internet claimed was the only right way. But his threshold was so horribly low, and his behavior so deeply-practiced and severe, there was nowhere to get my footing with him. I tried my damnedest, and when the training just didn’t work, I was left feeling ashamed, and truly like I had failed him.

I remember the quiet of my bedroom with this little rescue dog sleeping on my lap, and feeling so overwhelmed and beaten-down. In the stillness, I came to understand the cold and bitter reality of the situation.

If this behavior did not change, and fast, one way or another Grimm would inevitably be killed.

I could perhaps delay that reality by giving him a life that was tiny and restricted to my father’s house, essentially confining him to one large suburban cage. No walks, excursions, or other involvement in my life outside the house. But while this might delay his fate, it was no way to live. And the end was still waiting for him.

Regardless of how tightly I kept the lock on his tiny world, one day something would happen. Maybe he would bite my younger brother. Or maybe the fence to the backyard would falter, and he would end up fighting with the neighbor’s much-larger golden retriever-poodle mix. Maybe he would dash out the door in a moment’s lapse in mindfulness and end up biting someone, or wriggle out of his easy-walk harness during a routine trip to the vet.

If I didn’t stop these behaviors immediately, his fate was sealed. Delay as I might by lowering his overall quality of life, eventually the dog I cared so deeply for was going to end up dead.

Balanced Training Changed Everything

I felt like I’d tried everything, but that wasn’t really true.

Up until Grimm, I’d been highly-opinionated about positive-only training. I hated seeing dogs on prong collars, which at the time seemed like medieval torture devices. I thought all “shock collars” were the same, and that they were mean and cruel. I believed the myth that only abused dogs were aggressive, and that love and love alone could fix anything. I disapproved of tools, judged other dog owners for using those tools no matter what they were going through, and fully bought into the shame-based marketing of positive-only training. I really was, to put it quite plainly, a teenage Karen.

But that sobering moment of realization that my dog’s life was on the line shook me down to my core and changed everything. I kept imagining him laying lifeless in my lap at a veterinarian’s office after biting the wrong person, or being torn to shreds after picking a fight with the wrong dog.

I had to come through for him.

I got online and started clicking on blog posts and YouTube videos that I’d pridefully ignored before. It was like my eyes were being forced open.

I started learning about balanced dog training. Time after time I saw dogs just like Grimm – sometimes in much bigger packages – seeing a huge shift in behavior in almost no time at all. Sometimes these dogs would get one correction and even start to turn their behavior around in a single session. Over and over again, I saw the proof that rehabilitating an aggressive dog was possible, and it didn’t have to waste years of his life to get there.

Diving down this rabbit hole teeming with new information was humbling and intimidating. I spent every free moment consuming all the dog training content I used to think I was too good for.

How I Fixed My Dog’s Aggressive Behavior

Finally, I resolved to make a change. For him.

I was broke as could be at the time, but somehow found the money. I’m not sure if I sold some of my belongings, picked up dog walking jobs, or put it on credit, but I found some way to make it happen. I got myself my first set of training tools: a starmark collar, because back then I couldn’t find a proper prong collar that would fit him appropriately, and a used Dogtra ARC remote collar I got off eBay.

I remember distinctly my first driveway drill, nervous as all hell and still insecure about whether or not what I was doing was right. So many years I’d spent judging people in the exact situation I stood in at that moment, and hearing the same holier-than-thou philosophies parroted in facebook groups and animal shelters. But too much was riding on this.

I walked out with Grimm on his starmark collar and that beat-up Dogtra ARC, standing nervously in my dad’s driveway where so many times Grimm had blown up at the slightest trigger.

Through the hedges was my next door neighbor’s new border collie.

Grimm locked eyes with the neighbor’s dog. His ears flew forward, his body language stiffened, tail raised, and eyes widened. He pursed his lips, and let out the first bark in what I knew from repetition would be a series of screaming and thrashing.

I gave him the first correction. He stopped and stood in silence for a moment, and I kept him moving, pacing up and down the driveway to give him something else to focus on. After a few moments, he tried again to look back at the border collie through the hedges, and lunged once more with the first bark. One more correction.

Two corrections was all it took.

Those two corrections changed both of our lives forever. I teared up. My dog’s life was saved, and it had taken just two brief moments of discomfort to set him on that path.

I spent several more minutes walking back and forth with Grimm, up and down the driveway with the neighbor’s border collie watching us curiously through the hedges.

This was not the end of his training, not by far. But with the behavior stopped, I was finally able to do something I hadn’t been able to previously: reward him for appropriate behavior. I was able to start counter-conditioning for his triggers. I was able to finally unlock all the reward-based training in a way that actually worked.

Like triage, I was able to address the most serious and immediate problem, and stop the bleeding so that he could stabilize and the real healing could begin.

I was able to get footing to put in the work.

And Grimm was able to start living. Driveway drills turned into successful walks in the neighborhood. Neighborhood walks became outings to local parks, malls, and outdoor cafes. Those outings became more frequent, and more fun for the both of us.

And I was hooked.

I learned more and more about dog training, and Grimm’s skillset soared with each new thing I learned. What started as just trying to make life with him live-able became revamping his entire training. His obedience became more reliable, his pulling at the leash became a perfect heel with or without the leash, we became incredibly in-tune and aware of each other, and his struggle to contain his aggressive behaviors gradually became him ignoring dogs by default.

Where once people shot me nasty looks for his behavior in public, passers-by now awed and told me they wished their dogs would behave so politely like him.

And most of all, my dog and I were finally able to achieve the life I had envisioned for us.

Grimm Today

As I write this, Grimm lays at my feet in the house where we live with one other dog, two cats, and a steady rotation of boarding and training dogs. Saying that now, after revisiting the memory of how he used to be, still fills me with an incredibly deep sense of gratitude that it is even possible. Over the years, Grimm has helped me rehabilitate aggressive dogs just like him, and gets to go with me into the real world without the stress, anxiety, and fear that used to follow us each step of the way.

That little monster set into motion a chain of events that would bring me to the place I am today. Because of what I learned from Grimm, I started helping others with their dogs, and today I spend my time doing all I can to help people who are living with their dogs now the way I used to. He was a catalyst for a ridiculous amount of growth in my life, and because of that growth, he has been with me through each and every step of the way.

As the years since then continue to pass and Grimm gets older, sometimes I linger longer than I should on the knowledge that one day the dog that changed my life will be gone. But one thing I know is that he has had, and will continue to have until that day, a good, rich, and fulfilling life. Because of balanced training and because of access to tools, Grimm has lived the full life he always deserved.

And me, I got the dog I needed.