When I got my newest dog, Wynter, a young Rottweiler, from the NH SPCA a few months ago, the questionnaire that came with her, filled out by her previous owner, was more than impressive. In fact, the answers to all of the questions made her sound like the reincarnation of Lassie…a regular angel with fur.
According to the questionnaire, the dog could do everything but cook my breakfast. It said she was housebroken, didn’t bark unnecessarily, had been through obedience training, knew all of the basic commands (e.g. “heel,” “stay” and “leave it”), and loved to ride in cars and be walked on a leash. It also said that while out on her walks, she didn’t pay attention to anyone or anything else – she just merrily walked along and minded her own business.
I couldn’t believe my good fortune, finding not only a fully trained well-behaved dog, but also one that was the specific breed I was searching for. It had to be fate, I told myself.
Well, all I can say is if Wynter’s previous owner were Pinnochio, whose nose grew whenever he told a lie, her nose would be the size of a giant redwood. Nothing she wrote on that questionnaire was the truth, with the exception of Wynter being a dog…and a Rottweiler.
Even worse, Wynter has a severe case of ADD. She simply will not pay attention. Whenever I try to train her, she looks up at the ceiling, over at the walls, down at the floor – everywhere but at me. If I were trying to teach the kitchen table how to lie down, I’d have the same response. No, actually, I think the kitchen table probably would do better.
It took months, along with infinite patience, but I managed to teach Wynter how to sit, lie down, give her paw, and go potty outside instead of on the living-room rug. However, the word “stay” is not in her realm of comprehension, and I doubt it ever will be. In fact, in retrospect, I should have named her Velcro, because I can’t make a move without her clinging to me. Even when I go to the bathroom, she whines outside the door. So the only way she'll ever "stay" anywhere is if I'm standing right next to her.
But the one area where I have not been able to make even the slightest bit of progress is teaching Wynter how to walk on a leash. So far, taking her for a walk has been like playing Russian roulette – because I never know when I’m about to die.
For one thing, she chases cars. The minute she sees a car in the distance, she freezes in place, lowers her head, stares at the oncoming car and growls. When the car gets closer to us, she lunges, barking and snarling at it. I have to hold on to the leash with all my strength to prevent her from getting loose and becoming a hood ornament. And twice in the past six months, my knees have become intimately acquainted with the asphalt on my road, thanks to Wynter.
If people walk or jog by us, she shows only mild interest, but add a dog to one of those people and she becomes Psycho Dog, ready to kill, with even more of the aforementioned lunging and growling. If a squirrel or chipmunk runs in front of us, however, Wynter couldn’t care less.
I love to go for long walks, especially with a dog by my side to keep me company. But Wynter has forced me to take my walks at strange hours, like 5:30 in the morning or 9:00 at night, when there is very little traffic or very few people out walking their dogs in my neighborhood. I’m beginning to forget what humans look like.
So I decided it might be to my benefit to look into hiring a professional to train Wynter how to calmly walk on a leash. I emailed several, telling them I would prefer them to come here, mainly because Wynter hates riding in the car (another thing her previous owner lied about). Apparently Wynter was allowed to sit in the front seat when riding, but I make her stay in the back seat. This results in barking, whining and carrying on because she’s unhappy in the back. I used to enjoy listening to music while driving. Now, the music is drowned out by a chorus of "Arrrr-ooohs!" in various octaves.
Most of the dog trainers who replied to my email wanted an average of $90 per hour to train Wynter. Knowing how severe her ADD is, I figured leash training probably will take a minimum of about 150 hours…and require me to mortgage my house. So I searched for some other options.
First, I bought what’s called a Gentle Leader leash, which has a piece that wraps around the dog’s nose. The description said dogs always follow their noses, so pulling on the Gentle Leader would pull the dog’s nose away from oncoming vehicles or anything else that was distracting.
It sounded good, in theory. But when I tried it out on Wynter, she made it blatantly clear that her nose wanted to follow passing cars – and no nose-aiming device was going to prevent it. When I yanked her nose away from the cars, she defiantly yanked it right back.
“Bring a pocket full of treats on your walk,” one dog-obedience website advised. “Then distract your dog with treats when a car or person approaches.”
So I tried it. All I can say is even if I’d been wearing a shirt made entirely out of pork chops, I couldn’t have distracted Wynter once she zoned in on an oncoming vehicle.
“Get a shock collar and zap your dog whenever it starts to chase a car,” another website said. “The dog will get the message pretty quickly.”
I knew I didn’t want to electrocute my dog, so that wasn’t an option, but I did find a remote-control collar that used a high-pitched sound and vibration (like a cell phone set on “vibrate”) to distract the dog. I thought it might be a good idea to buy it and try it, especially since it was only $23 – probably about $10,000 cheaper than hiring a trainer.
When the collar arrived, I was eager to charge it and then try it out on Wynter. It had settings on it that went from 0-100 in intensity. Not knowing where to set it for Wynter, I decided to test it out on myself first. The vibration didn’t hurt at all, even on the highest setting, so I kept it set on 100. Then I tried out the sound option on the collar. It sounded like a cross between a police siren and a bad female opera-singer.
I put the collar on Wynter, grabbed the remote control, and we left for our test walk. Within seconds, a pickup truck came heading toward us. Wynter immediately stopped walking, stood in her usual spread-legged stance, lowered her head and growled as she focused all of her attention on the approaching truck. I pressed the vibrate button on the remote and said, “No!” in a firm tone. She jumped, momentarily startled by the buzzing. Then she went right back to focusing on the vehicle. The second time I pressed the button, she turned and gave me a “press it again and die!” look, then completely ignored it. The “sound” button had even less of an effect.
By the time the truck went past us, Wynter was in her usual form – leaping, growling and barking at it, as if she were protecting me from Godzilla…on wheels.
Two cars later, after trying the collar again both times and getting the same lack of results, I finally gave up and headed home.
So now my walks with Wynter are limited to walking her up and down my 410-foot driveway. It’s boring, but it’s exercise, especially if we walk the length of it 12 or 13 times a day. And most important of all, it’s safe...unless UPS decides to bring me a package.
Meanwhile, I have a $23 vibrating collar just sitting here.
I think I might track down Wynter’s former owner, the one who filled out her questionnaire, and make her wear it.
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