We were so excited to find out that Queens (one of New York City’s outer boroughs) finally has a positive reinforcement trainer! For years, the only option in the borough was some old-fashioned trainers that offered free classes in parks. Along with the free classes came chains, prongs and yanks! You won’t find that when you work with Ettel from Poodles to Pit Bulls (you can find them on Facebook here)since she is a graduate of the Karen Pryor Academy, which focuses on clicker training. And, of course we love her because she added a pittie named Emma to to her family.
I’m so excited to be writing a guest post for That Touch of Pit! It’s my first guest post, and I just couldn’t be happier about the topic – Pitties of course!
I recently wrote a post on my blog about why I adopted Emma (the Pit Bull) as well as how we went about it, but here I’d like to talk more about what it was like to add a Pit Bull-type dog to a single Poodle home. Specifically, I want to focus on my mother’s reaction and growth.
My mom and I have a great relationship, but I knew that she didn’t like Pit Bulls; to her they were always “those dogs.” She’d mostly had Poodles growing up, and even though Charlie (the Poodle) was always my dog, she was a close second (there’s a whole story about how he “chose her” as a wee puppy). She’s always admired his intelligence and beauty; we raised him from puppyhood and he’s a rock solid dog temperament-wise (if you read any post on my blog you’ll see he has some other, er, issues).
The first time my mom met Emma it was nighttime and we were outside of my old apartment. I had adopted Emma that morning and was still getting to know her. Emma was incredibly stressed out from living at the shelter, and was behaviorally shut down (in addition to having several substantial medical problems which I didn’t know about at the time). My mom’s face dropped when she saw Emma and she made a point of keeping her distance as she chatted with me. I remember she told me she thought Emma was “a good looking dog, as far as those dogs go, but what are you getting yourself into? She’s not for you. She’s a drug dealer’s dog.” She really thought Emma was going to eat me (and Charlie) while we slept, and then go on a rampage and destroy the neighborhood, or something to that effect. Emma just stood there the entire time, looking very hangdog and sad. It was one of my saddest days with her.
Over the months as we settled into our new apartment and our new lives as a threesome, Emma’s real issues came to the surface. She had (and is still living with) a multitude of medical issues stemming from the unpleasant life she lived before she met me, but even more serious, she has fear-based reactivity towards people who act in a way she feels is aggressive. In the beginning simply snapping your fingers within sight/sound of her was enough to trigger a reaction. Over months and months of hard work she’s now tolerant of many of her old triggers, but in a perfect storm (and sometimes for reasons I can’t explain or foresee) she will still react. Thankfully her reaction has always been very moderate – she has never done more than take a step or two towards the trigger while giving a few warning barks and calms down the moment you cease the “unlawful action.”
Where this gets slightly worse is that my mom’s new husband likes to talk with his hands, has a deep, booming voice, loves being the center of attention at dinner, and of course, is afraid of dogs. On top of that he took an immediate liking to Charlie and constantly tells me that he’s the only dog he’s ever thought was OK. And then there’s Emma. He’s just her favorite trigger ever. She used to just sit and watch him, waiting for him to do something “illegal” so she could bark at him. It got so bad that for a long time I didn’t bring her to my mom’s house, or hiking, or all the other fun stuff that I like to do with my family and my dogs. I really felt like she and I were missing out on so much. She was delegated to a crate in my apartment while Charlie and I had a blast.
It’s really sad, but it took Emma almost an entire year and a half to come into herself. It was only a few months ago that she showed interest in a toy for the first time on her own, and that was close to 18 months after I adopted her. It was even later that she actually began to stop on the street to sniff things instead of amble along at t-h-e-s-l-o-w-e-s-t-p-a-c-e-p-o-s-s-i-b-l-e as though she were on a funeral march. And wouldn’t you know it, after all this time and all the training we’ve been doing, she’s much more tolerant of my stepfather (as well as arm-wielding strangers). I’ve also begun to take her to my mom’s more often – and get this – my mom sticks up for her! Something clicked for my mom. Whether it was rubbing Emma’s massive stretch marks from the many litters she was forced to carry while rubbing her own, to pointing out every pound of weight she put on, to petting her big head while laughing at Emma’s silly toothless grin, my mom grew to feel true empathy for the skinny red dog she so disliked at first.
When I bring Emma over these days my mom constantly reminds my stepfather to lower his arms, or speak more quietly – even when she lets out a hooting laugh or shout herself (we’re Russian, and like to, eh, have animated dinners), she’s pretty good at stopping herself, and watching Emma for signs of a reaction (often apologizing profusely for forgetting her manners). This has meant that I’m able to take Emma with me more often when I do things with my family, and when we go on hikes, my mom always offers to take Emma’s leash. And because of all the work I’ve done with Emma her inner love for people has come out and she’s shown me that she actually really likes meeting new people (as long as they behave and it’s a structured greeting). I’ve also found that my mom really loves to hold Emma’s leash proudly when we meet new people and tell them “yes you can pet her, she’s friendly.” She practically beams. (Of course I’m right there coaching people on how to say high politely, but mom always gets to tell everyone it’s OK to say hi.)
As far as my mom has come, though, she still has a long way to go. She will still regularly tell people that Emma’s “not like all those other Pit Bulls – she’s not vicious – she’s actually friendly and won’t hurt you or bite you.” It takes a lot of patience on my part, but just as I’m training Emma to learn to accept humans, I’m training my mom to learn to accept all Pit Bulls, not just the one who loves to snuggle with her precious Poodle.