By Amy O'Connor
I read somewhere that we don’t necessarily get the dog we want, we get the dog that’s right for us. My fantasy dog enjoys people and dogs and wants to go anywhere and everywhere with me given the chance, but my actual dog from day one has been timid around strangers and many dogs and prefers to stay inside because the sounds of NYC street traffic leave her panic stricken. No, she’s not my dream dog, but she’s 100% adorable and one of my favorite beings. While it’s hard to determine what caused her to be so fearful (I adopted her at five months of age from a shelter in rural New Jersey), I’d like to help her feel more relaxed in the big city. Although I’ve read more than a few books on training dogs, and watched several seasons of The Dog Whisperer and It’s Me or the Dog, I wasn’t making much progress getting my dog to be more comfortable with going for a walk in the city. I needed some outside help and had the good fortune to meet Jennifer Jarett who has helped a number of dogs with behavioral issues including her own dog, Larry (pictured with Jennifer above).
Jennifer adopted Larry from a shelter when he was 1-2 years old. He had been abused by a man, and consequently would lunge out at men from time to time, seemingly unprovoked when walking on leash outside. Due to Jennifer’s patient training with Larry, he’s a happy camper and no longer aggressive towards men (he even has a male dog walker and welcomes food delivery men at the door). Jennifer’s approach to working with dogs is strongly influenced by Cesar Millan’s belief in calm, assertive leadership, and given that I tend to be a bit mushy with my dog, I was curious to see what kind of difference Jennifer’s approach could make with Biscuit’s fearfulness.
Jennifer had noticed that I’d stop walking when Biscuit was pulling like mad on the leash as we got closer to home, but that I’d start walking again before Biscuit had actually relaxed and accepted that I was in charge of the walk. She said that stopping Biscuit when she pulled wouldn’t have a positive effect unless her anxious energy changed as well. We arranged for her to meet Biscuit at home on a Saturday morning, and unlike many trainers who work with a dog for an hour, Jennifer said to be prepared to spend a lot more time than hour to get to the root of my dog’s anxiety. Dear reader, Jennifer has the patience of a saint! She spent nearly an hour inside the apartment so that Biscuit could relax around her, relax with the leash on, and relax walking in and out of the apartment with the leash on before spending nearly an hour in the hall with Biscuit getting used to being in the hall on leash. Getting on the elevator was a bit of a rough patch, but eventually we got to the lobby where we spent at least half an hour giving Biscuit time to adjust there. We then proceeded to take a long walk off Biscuit’s regular route, and to my amazement, she was mostly co-operative. Jennifer doesn’t babytalk or cajole (in fact, doesn’t use many verbal cues at all), she is simply unbelievably calm, patient and firm (but does proffer treats). When I held the leash, Jennifer advised me to give the leash a few quick tugs when Biscuit tested my resolve to make her move forward, but she said the goal is always to help Biscuit feel good about herself and not to overpower her. When Biscuit hunkered down to pull her way through the final stretch heading home, Jennifer made her stop and physically blocked her until she really calmed down, spending at least half an hour to go 50 yards. To my chagrin, my dog seemed to have a kind of respect and willingness to be lead with Jennifer that I hadn’t been eliciting from her, and although we hit a few bumps in our four hour session, the results were immediate. Even without having Jennifer’s preternatural calm, Biscuit was immediately more relaxed the next day on her walk and didn’t attempt to run through the lobby to the elevator – a first!
As Jennifer views it, a dog that chews on furniture or is afraid of lightning storms or barks at all other dogs that walk by isn’t really all that different from one who has anxiety about going outside or cars driving by, etc., and helping them with those issues is really a matter of providing the kind of leadership that eases their anxiety. I must admit that I still fall back to my old ways sometimes, letting Biscuit pull because I don’t have the time to wait out her stress, but I’ve seen with Jennifer that positive change can happen relatively quickly with the right kind of energy and plenty of patience.
Contact Jennifer Jarett at firstname.lastname@example.org