When you picture a dog associated with the term "Dog Training," I'm willing to bet that most of you picture a German Shepherd, Border Collie, or a Belgian Malinois, or perhaps you think of a specific famous dog from a TV series. As a dog trainer working with dog owners and inviting them to come in for some training, I've found that most believe that "little dogs" can't be trained. Today I want to tell you about one of my favorite dogs I've ever worked with named "Bruno."
Bruno, or as he is better know, "The Crunchwrap Supreme" is a 7lbs chihuahua who first came into my life less than a year ago when I was volunteering training rescue dogs available for adoption. The rescue asked me to work with Bruno because he was extremely fearful of everyone and everything. To give you an idea, he spent almost the entire first four months hiding under my coffee table in the living room.
Bruno's fear became problematic during the first week at my home while I was fostering him when he managed to sneak out of my fenced yard and refused to be caught. It took us nearly three days of frantic searching and pure devastation before we finally got him back home safe and sound, and to be honest, I already knew at that point I'd never let him leave me again.
It took me four months to get him to trust me. As a trainer, it is imperitive to build a relationship with a dog before even attempting training, and for this little guy, even that was a challenge. I was still technically fostering him for the rescue group, so each weekend I'd drop him off Saturday morning at the adoption events, and every Saturday afternoon I returned to pick him up.
I was still in the military but finally got my separation date. I was supposed to leave on a Monday, so I told the rescue group that I would be leaving and I supposed I would not be back to pick up any dogs after the adoption event. They simply told me "Bruno belongs with you" and that was the official beginning of a very amazing training journey.
We made the long journey in my little car all the way from Sierra Vista, Arizona back to Fort Bragg, NC and I thought to myself about how cool it was for this little dog to travel so far! We had a car-full of dogs, and they definitely made the hotel stays a little tricky... lol. A German Shepherd, a Rough Collie, a Greyhound, and there is little Bruno, and you know what?... he fit in just fine.
Once we got home, my husband and I planned a vaction, with all five of our dogs to travel from Fort Bragg, NC to Washington state to visit his parents. Bruno got to ride in the "gunner" seat, otherwise known as on top of the center consol for the entire trip. He was a fantastic travel buddy!
Once we returned from the trip I decided to enroll at the Starmark Academy for Dog Trainers 12-week training program. They said that you could bring up to two dogs if you wanted, and if you wanted to bring more, you'd need permission. I ended bringing my German Shepherd, my Greyhound, and little Bruno. Starmark was known as a Canine Behavior center so I hoped they could help me with his fearfulness. At this point he trusted me, but that was about it. He still didn't have any training, so I was able to have him participate as my dog while I was going through the training program, and I have to say, I was thuroughly impressed!
During the first four weeks, Bruno learned how to heel next to me, sit, down, place (as shown in the picture above), come, and even learned to wait at the door without rushing out! I couldn't believe it, I had no idea this scared little pup could accomplish so much so quickly! His fearfulness was still very much a factor and it knew would make the intermediate and advanced level obedience tasks near impossible, but I knew there would be other areas where he could participate, and much to my surprise, areas where he would truly excel!
Bruno's obedience was completely based on trust, and he trusted me, but feared everyone else. Obedience means that you dog does what you tell them to do, and continue doing it, no matter what you as the handler are doing. In the advanced and intermediate levels of training, this means we require our dogs to remain in positions such as sit, down, or place, while we as the handlers are much farther away or even out of sight. So, this was not especially Bruno's cup of tea.
Once we started some of the more specialized training, Bruno really started to open up! He loved running the agility course! I swear the moment he got onto the agility field he was absolutely fearless. He would zoom over obstacles taller than me, and run across balance beams like he had wings! You should have seen him flying through the tire jump and over the hurdles and even up onto the place board that was twice as tall as he was!
Then we started clicker training... If you have a dog that struggles with training because of fear or lack of confidence, clicker training can do amazing things. Clicker training has no corrections, and no negativity at all. You are only encouraging initiative, problem solving, and just genuinely have a good time training new and fun tricks! Bruno learned Paw, Hand Target, Foot Target, Spin/Turn, Sit Pretty, Bow, Wave, and so many more! He just loves clicker training!!! But this wasn't even his most impressive accomplishment. (although he did get me a perfect score on the Advanced Clicker Test)
One of the final tests required to graduate from the Startmark Academy for Dog Trainers was the scent detection test. You could choose to either test on Narcotics Detection or Competetive Nose work. For the Narcotics detection you needed a dog who really loved toys, but none of my dogs were really into it. However, for the competetive nosework, it was taught almost exactly the same way as you teach tricks with a clicker and treats, so I figured I'd give Bruno a shot, and he picked it up instantly! Everyone else in the class focused on testing on narcotics, but Bruno was killin' it on the nosework side!
Bruno was still fearful, and just like anyone else, if it was your turn to test everyone else who was there tried to be as quiet at possible... but mistakes do happen. It was my turn to test Bruno on his nosework, the judges were ready, the containers were set up and I gave Bruno his little pep talk to hype him up for it. As I sent him towards the containers for his first search and we were halfway there, suddenly one of the other students dropped an entire tool box onto the metal benches. Startled, Bruno just froze and stared back at the students who were behind us as if he had completely forgotten what he was supposed to be doing... seconds went by but it felt like mintues... Bruno didn't move. I looked at the judge and asked if I should cue him to search again, but if I had it could count as one failed attempt.
On this test you can't give extra cues, or hand gestures or anything or else you loose points and could count at a failed attempt, so I had to think fast. I deliberately, but subtly made a few small steps, almost as if I was just shifting my weight, but in the direction of the search containers. Suddenly, as if to say "OH YEAH, That's what I was doing!" Bruno turned to the containers and started his search! Thank goodness! He did his four searches, they weren't perfect, but we scored a 95% and I was more than happy! That was the final test I needed to graduate!
If Bruno can do it, any dog can do it. Training just takes consistency, motivation, and a little patience. Never underestimate any dog. Some dogs may not be great at obedience, but there is so much more to training than just teaching a dog to "sit." Find something you and your dog can enjoy together!