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 began with Sampson, and continue now with a sassy lady dog named Sedona…
Of all the dogs we’re going to be posting about in this series, Sedona would probably be the most offended at the label “naughty.” She’s smart to the point that, were she human, she’d likely be described as witty. She’s also very independent, willful, and, even as she’s struggled with fear issues, could never have been called a wallflower. Adopted by DOL director Amy when she was a well-intentioned, if completely over-confident, college student who decided she wanted a rottweiler, Sedona has spent the last ten years shirking off labels and serving as the best teacher and friend her mom could have hoped for…
I’ve always been a crazy dog person, even before I had a dog. It’s all I ever asked for as a child. I basically signed away my young life, writing up contracts of everything I’d do if my mom would just get me a dog. I wished for one every time I blew out birthday candles, and on every penny I threw into fountains up and down the east coast. I tried to find shooting stars in the sky and times when the numbers were the same on clocks and any ridiculous superstition that someone said meant you could make a wish.
Then I went away to college in New Orleans and seized my moment.
I met Sedona on the night she came in from a situation I won’t go into for the sake of holiday cheer. She was part of a rough looking litter of 13 adolescent rottie mixes and she was the one who came straight for me, her eyes clear and questioning. I’d wanted her for 21 years at that point, so it wasn’t exactly a hard sell. I took her home that night, thrilled beyond belief that she was my dog. I loved her unconditionally already.
I ended up completely in over my head and also totally in love with my messed up dog and unwilling to even consider the idea that I wasn’t equipped to give her what she needed. In all honesty, I wasn’t. At all. The fact that I’d spent my childhood obsessing over dogs and that I thought Sedona was greatest thing on four legs did nothing to prepare me for a big, adolescent dog with serious fear aggression to people and other dogs.
I did all the things I thought I was supposed to do, and very little of what I should have been doing. I brought her to puppy socialization class…where she attacked other dogs. I taught her commands and introduced her to lots of people…who she was not always thrilled to meet. I was very lucky that none of her incidents were more serious than they were, or that they didn’t happen with the wrong person.
Finally, I realized I needed some help to keep her and everyone else safe. I took her to two different “trainers,” both of whom declared her aggressive and pushed harsh aversives, one a shock collar and the other a choke chain which she tried to sell with a demo on her own dog that still hurts my heart. I’m glad that, even in my naiveté, I never allowed any of that near my dog. Admittedly, it was partly my lack of knowledge in knowing what to look for in a trainer that facilitated those negative experiences. I’ve since met many wonderful trainers and dog behavior professionals, and knowing what to look for when seeking help is one of the most important lessons I’ve learned.
It was actually that negative experience that pushed me from just a crazy dog person to a dog behavior nerd and advocate. It never crossed my mind to give Sedona up. At home with me, she was easy. Sure, she did the typical adolescent ridiculousness; jumping on a dinner table full of spaghetti, creating a blizzard in my bedroom by devouring feather pillows, and pretending to be some kind of sledding dog or cart horse on our walks. But I loved all of that. I loved everything about her, even though I didn’t yet know what to do with most of it. Training her to do things was easy. Helping her with her fear issues was another challenge entirely.
I had to learn how to safely manage a behavior while I worked on it, while not adding my own fear to Sedona’s. I had to learn what things like socialization and confidence building really meant. I had to learn to look at my dog objectively, rather than just through eyes that loved her and sought to make excuses. That last lesson was huge because it was my love clouding my objectivity that most held her back. I didn’t want to hear she was aggressive so I thrust her into situations she wasn’t ready for and made excuses for her behavior. The truth was, she was scared and seriously undersocialized and I wasn’t helping her until I showed she could trust me to keep her safe and helped her build the skills and coping mechanisms to feel able to keep herself safe as well.
It was not a quick process, nor was it always an easy one. But I can honestly say I’ve loved every moment I’ve spent with this dog, even the hard ones. She is my heart and she’s forced me to become better. She’s the dog that changed the way I love dogs. She deepened my understanding of what it means to be “a dog person” and introduced me to a whole corner of the world I never knew existed, the corner that’s become my favorite place to be.
She also framed the way I approach “naughty” dogs today. I don’t take any credit for the amazing beast that is Sedona. If anything, I take some fault. When I meet one of the many shelter dogs who needs a little help, I never think, “I can fix that dog.” I refuse to see dogs as broken or any human, skilled or no, in a position of fundamentally changing who that dog is. Instead, I see us as guiding the wonderful dog already there to meet its full potential; reinforcing and building upon all that’s good and using it to push out what’s holding that dog back. Sedona has always been amazing and I’m lucky to have known her for so long and to have seen the dog she’s grown in to.
Sedona will never be a dog who loves dog parks, but she’s able to socialize with other dogs and really enjoy it. She has shared her home with many canine roommates, some she’s bonded with more strongly than others. Meeting people now no longer comes with a disclaimer and she is brazenly (ahem, sometimes a little pushily) seeking attention from new human friends within minutes of meeting them. I once feared she’d be sheltered, limited in her experiences, and carefully managed forever, but we hit the trails for hikes and walks, stroll the neighborhood, and visit parks on a regular basis. Vet trips aren’t a favorite, but are no longer traumatic for both of us.
She may not be the perfect dog for everyone, but she’s the perfect dog for me. The single best decision I’ve ever made was taking her home over 10 years ago. If she heard me call her naughty, unless it was in the midst of one of her cold weather crazy lady frolics, I’m sure she’d roll her eyes at me and look pointedly at her canine brother. Of course, she’d be right. Monkey, the fluffy creature with the troll feet and giant head, with whom Sedona lives in a perpetual dance of gruffly tolerant older sister and bratty little brother, is the textbook definition of naughty. Next to him, Sedona is a regal and shining example of canine decorum. Just to appease her, it’s possible you’ll meet him in a later post…”
Sedona’s lesson to us is finding the dog we need, rather than the dog we think we want. May we all be so lucky.