By the time I decided to become a professional dog trainer, I knew I only wanted to learn positive reinforcement dog training methods. I knew this with such certainty because of the experiences I had training my own dog.

I grew up in “no dogs allowed” apartments so it wasn’t until I was an adult that I finally got my first dog, Jake. Jake is the absolute love of my life and has been the driving force behind most of my decisions since I brought him home in October of 2010.

Today, Jake is a total lovey-dovey mama’s boy. He has his few issues but we have systems in place to keep us safe and on track. He’s a smart, cooperative dog who loves learning. He’s happy and that makes me happy, but that isn’t the way it’s always been.

In the beginning, Jake was a maniac. I had no idea what I was getting myself into on that fateful fall day when I walked into the shelter and walked out with this eight-month old (give or take a few months) feral dog from Virginia who had grown up wild in the woods and seemed to have zero interest in doing anything except live that wild life.

I watched him catch a chipmunk and eat it in one gulp the first time I let him off his leash. The first night he was in my home he attacked me for my dinner, not maliciously, really, but he was getting that dinner one way or another as far as he was concerned.

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It felt like I’d brought some sort of mythical banshee into my home and I didn’t have the power to control him. Jake tore around my house, leaving a trail of destruction in his wake. He knocked me down to steal my food on a regular basis, scared my friends and bit me black and blue. It didn’t take long for me to realize I need help from a professional.

Too bad that’s when the real problems began. I went from trainer to trainer and class to class desperately trying to find a way to get this wild animal I’d brought home to behave and nothing worked! I was told over and over again that I was the problem. I was too permissive. Jake was a “dominant” dog and needed a stern hand. I needed to become the pack leader, administer “collar pops,” try a shock collar and lots of other bad advice – one person even suggested I “mount” my dog to show him I was the alpha (and yes, she meant mount as in “hump”!).

I’m ashamed now to tell you that, with the exception of the mounting idea, I tried it all. I jerked my poor dog around on a choke collar, electrocuted him with an e-collar, pushed and yelled at him and many other aggressive and really quite mean methods I now cringe at in an attempt to control him. I hated taking him out for walks and sometimes I hid from him in the house. He was just as wild as ever and now it felt like I was a monster, too.

Then I had my “aha” moment, my epiphany, if you will. I loved Jake despite his apparent inability to conform and he loved me. I could see he was trying. I had taken this poor sweet animal with severe anxiety who had never been socialized and had PTSD from a dog attack to boot and tried to force him to become a textbook dog. He couldn’t do that and neither could I any more. I felt like I was abusing him with the training methods I was using and on top of everything else, it wasn’t even helping!

I needed to make things right between us and figure out a better way. Jake and I sat out on the front porch one day and had a long talk. I apologized to him for the way I had treated him and promised things would change. I know he couldn’t understand everything I said that day, but I’m certain that he understood my intent. I believe in that moment we agreed to put the past behind us and move forward as partners rather than adversaries. The only problem was that, except for no longer using the training methods I’d been taught, I didn’t know what moving forward looked like.

I knew it wasn’t fair to either of us to just let him be wild so I put my degree in education to work and did some research, quite a lot of research actually. I read books, looked up journals, scoured the web and asked questions of anyone and everyone I could. I discarded anything that didn’t feel good when I imagined doing it to Jake. It was frustrating because there was so much of the same old information that got me into this mess in the first place that sometimes I just wanted to give up.

Then I found it. There really was another – a better – way to support Jake to live in my world without making both of us miserable. I’m sure it’s no surprise to readers of this blog that what I discovered was positive reinforcement training. I changed everything about how I treat my dog, what I expect from him and how I get him to understand what I want. Jake and I have never been happier, more well-behaved or more connected. He has overcome so much through positive reinforcement training. I loved the process of training Jake so much that I decided I wanted to be a dog trainer myself and help other people like me who adopt a dog with all the love in their heart and no idea what to do. I never want those people to have the negative training experiences Jake and I had.

It’s funny how you never know where life will take you. I adopted a dog to fulfill a childhood dream and through him I also found a purpose in life as an adult I never would have considered otherwise.

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