I am fifty years old. Thirty-four of those years have been spent in the company of man’s best friend, and do you know what?
I have never met the same dog twice. Never. I have traveled around the globe and studied dogs in small villages, rural farm lands, and urban centers. I have operated a board-and-train facility and taught private and group instruction. I have trained dogs to search for missing people, evidence, endangered species, and animal scat. I have trained dogs to assist people with disabilities and to become therapy dogs. I have taught dogs everything from field retrieving to developing a rhythm between dog and human as they move through a Rally course. And, in turn, every dog I have worked with has taught me something. It’s a beautiful relationship.
There was Aero, for instance, a 45-pound black Labrador Retriever who at five weeks of age figured out that if she went to the water valve, back to the human, and returned to the water valve, we would get the hint and turn the water on. Aero became the finest search and rescue dog I ever owned. She found a missing 17-year old that was lost during the cold of a November weekend, and that same day located the remains of a fire victim in a burned down building. Aero taught me to give in to a dog’s natural talents. She loved to report. She loved to retrieve. She loved the game.
Then there was Cambo, a 90-pound Rhodesian Ridgeback who I thought I could mold into a search dog. Cambo convinced me otherwise by curling up next to my sleeping bag and refusing to trek through the hills. He taught me patience, and to accept him as the dog he was rather than what I wanted him to be.
Gunner was a feisty Golden Retriever that lived with a couple who wanted a hunting dog. He was a strong-willed handful of a dog who liked playing the clown instead of working. Rolling around on the ground and entangling himself in the leash when he didn’t want to “think” was his favorite joke. However much the imp, he had a great work ethic once he understood the game. At age 18 months, Gunner learned that when he sat quietly in the blind he would be sent to retrieve the duck. He taught me to look through the surface antics and deeper into the dog to find the shiny diamond inside.
The balance of mutual respect ruled my relationship with a very serious female French Beauceron named Orage. Not that I didn’t need that balance with other dogs, but Orage exhibited intensity in every move she made. It was imperative that I watch her body language and learn how to signal back so there was no misunderstanding. Learning how to read and respond to dog body language is the quintessential goal for any trainer, and her lessons have been invaluable.
Although the list of influential dogs could go on for pages, I must close with my current Labrador, Quill. I brought Quill home with the intent of training her to be a search and rescue disaster dog. I had volunteered with FEMA task forces in the San Francisco Bay Area and was ready to train for the team. Quill, however, had a different opinion. She can be a worry-wart and the practice rubble pile made her feel uneasy.
After a year of training I decided to pull her from the program. A dog that is not confident in her work will be a hindrance in an emergency situation. Fortunately, that same year we were asked to join a research project using dogs to safely search for endangered species. Quill, a gentle soul, has always loved the search game but hated the unsteady surfaces. She is innately cautious and has a controlled play drive, so the project was perfectly suited. She took to the job like it was made for her.
Not many dogs can multi-task, but because Quill finds it rewarding to perform tasks, I also trained and certified her as a service disability dog with Paws With a Cause. She is now an interface for clients who are waiting for their service dogs. By honestly evaluating Quill’s personality and what makes her happy, I learned from her how to bring out all of her natural potential.
Dogs are amazing creatures. They are incredibly flexible and adept at adapting to human environments. As a trainer, I strive to have that same flexibility and to embrace the opportunity to learn something new from each furry face I meet. I try not to compare, but to value each dog for her innate qualities and potentials.
If we patiently watch our dogs and learn to understand some of their complex signals and body language, we will discover more than licks and wags. Our relationship with a dog blossoms when we observe and respond to his deep potential – and that is when we see his biggest grins unfold.
Bonnie Brown-Cali is the owner of Dog Dynamics, Inc. (www.dogdynamics.org; firstname.lastname@example.org; 925-229-8200), offering both group and private instruction in the Orinda and Walnut Creek area. She is a field representative for Paws with a Cause, which trains service dogs for the disabled, and has worked as a canine field handler for the University of Reno, Desert Research Institute and for Working Dogs for Conservation Foundation. She was a dog trainer and member of the search and rescue teams for the Contra Costa County Sheriff’s Department, California Rescue Dogs Association, and the California Office of Emergency Services.