This is a special holiday series for anyone who has ever sighed and said, “What do I do with this dog?” We want you to know that, whoever you are, wherever you are, you are not alone. Shoot, most trainers and dog behavior nerds end up in the field after finding themselves sharing their home with a dog whose behavior was way more than they’d bargained for.
In this five-part series, each of the five DOL directors will tell the stories of our naughty beasts, from chaos to today, in the hopes of not just sharing wisdom, but some courage, humor, and solidarity as well. We begin with Sampson, also known as BBD (Big Brown Dog)…
If you were to meet Jen and her three dogs today, you’d assume this post would be written about prey drive queen, Rosie, or distemper survivor Jules, who has overcome myriad behavior problems in addition to medical ones. You wouldn’t expect it to be about Sampson in a million years. Sampson, the big brown dog with the easy-going demeanor who often serves as a base dog in our training classes, seems just about perfect. He’s affable and charming, loping along beside Jen in a way that makes it hard to imagine him reducing her to tears. But here, in her own words, is how he did just that and quite a bit more …
I thought I was ready for a dog.
This was to be was my first dog that was my own to raise and care for. I researched, talked to people and volunteered at shelters to learn about the different breeds. I bought Pat Miller’s The Power of Positive Dog Training so I knew how I wanted to train my new dog. I decided on a Labrador because I heard they were pretty happy-go-lucky dogs and forgiving of “training mistakes.” Somehow I got this image in my head of me reading a book by the fire, my dog sleeping quietly next to my chair and it would be just like my life had always been, only with a dog.
So I was completely unprepared for the sh!tstorm that arrived in my husband’s car that Monday in July 2003 (I mean, seriously, I live in Texas; when did I think I would need a fire?). Sampson (or “BBD”, sometimes) was already 40lbs at 5 months, all feet, tail and ears. He was indeed happy-go-lucky and, as some people politely put it, had a “lust for life.” A “maniacally crazed out of his skull energy from the depths of Hell” was more how I thought of it. I’m pretty sure that dog thought his name was “Sampson NO!” before the first year of his life was up. We ended up having to change our NO-word, as a matter of fact.
He had about 6 times the amount of energy I ever had. Two-hour walks every night and seven miles around the lake at Huntsville State Park on the weekends off leash (sorry to all the other hikers we ever encountered) was not nearly enough to put a dent in this dog’s energy. I didn’t realize I needed to exercise his brain, too, so all I did was turn him into an athlete who needed more and more exercise. No longer could my husband and I have a nice conversation or dinner or quiet time in the evenings. He was perpetual motion, getting into everything, destroying everything in his wake. Nothing I did seemed to convince him he should go potty outside; he was 9 months old and 75 lbs before he stopped having accidents (more like natural disasters) in the house. He destroyed every toy we gave him in seconds, and when he didn’t have sanctioned items, he moved on to our stuff. He harassed and molested the cats to the point that they hid under the couch for about 6 months. He dragged me around the neighborhood on our walks, injuring my arms, elbows and shoulders. One night he took off after a cat who ran over a 4-foot stone wall and I was too stupid (or stunned) to let go of the leash so over the wall I went too. I still have scars from that.
He exhausted me to the point I would just take him to dog parks and turn him loose on the other dogs and people. He would maul and jump on all of them, harass some of the nicest great danes til they growled and pinned him, and unwittingly start fights with every dog because of his over-the-top energy. I hid in various corners of the parks while the other owners yelled at my out-of-control dog. I was overwhelmed, exhausted and had it not been for various online “labrador support groups,” I would have returned Sampson to the Houston SPCA. I never realized how much work raising a Lab puppy would be, how it would completely take over my life, or cost almost every penny I earned (to date, at the age of not quite 10, Sampson has rung up over $14,000 in vet bills alone). For the first year I had him, the only thing I really enjoyed about our relationship was his 9 o’clock bedtime.
After months of tears and frustration, my persistence started to pay off. At about 18 months old, his behavior changed a bit for the better. He started listening to me sometimes and I bought a Halti to make our walks a little more bearable. Around when he turned two, I started noticing that he wasn’t quite as maniacal as he had been. He could settle for short periods of time, enjoy a bone or puzzle toy and our walks were getting much better. I could finally see the great dog he was about to become. At two and a half, it was another breakthrough of better behavior, less pacing and craziness and I could take him more and more places. And by the time he turned three, he was finally a beautiful, happy, well-adjusted adult.
He still has a lot of energy and he’s always ready for anything, but he’s also a well-behaved, loving and gentle soul. He’s my best doggie friend and it’s hard to believe now that I ever considered giving him up. Without him, and each one of my dogs, I would not have learned so much about patience, compromise, giving shots and bandaging ear wounds, that peanut butter is way better for pilling than Pill Pockets, a dozen ways to say No, a hundred ways to reward, how to make a toy out of anything, or how to influence behavior in so many positive ways. If I had known all these things before I brought him home, it might have been easier (or maybe not). But I didn’t, and now I’m a way better person for having BBD in my life. And I sure never expected that.
Sampson’s story embodies the theme you’ll likely see throughout these posts: choosing not to give up on your naughty list dog can often be the best decision you ever make. Sampson is a best friend and a teacher who helped shape the person who’d go on to become our Director of Training. We all run to Jen for dog advice so much it’s hard to imagine she ever needed it herself. Though she’d be quick to point out that the best educators in the fields of dog and human behavior realize they are always still learning.
Sampson’s lesson to us is patience, a quality he now possesses himself in spades.