Rescue Ink (Excerpt)

When Rebel first arrived, dog trainers came out of the woodwork, offering to train him. Most used punishment-based methods, like shock collars or physical corrections. Many of the Rescue Ink guys are old-school when it comes to dog training; they learned how to communicate with their dogs with the “jerk and pop” choke-collar techniques made popular in the 1950s by returning World War II dog trainers. But Rebel had been through so much that they wanted the gentlest training method possible. And Rebel really didn’t need that much remedial work, just some brushing up on his basic manners. Most important, for Rebel’s progress, the guys needed to come to a consensus on how they would train him.

For their first foray into positive dog training, the guys got in touch with Denise Herman of Empire of the Dog in Brooklyn. Denise had trained at the San Francisco SPCA Academy for Dog Trainers, known as the “Harvard for dog trainers.”

Eric, G, Joe, Big Ant, Angel, Johnny O, Mary, and Bruce cleared the main room of the clubhouse, pushing all the chairs against the wall so Denise would have room to work. As she stood in the clubhouse, surrounded by this muscled assemblage, she started off with an appropriate analogy: bodybuilding.

“Say you want to get into shape, so you go to a gym, grab a ten-pound weight, do your reps, and go home. If you come back the next day and I throw you a hundred-pound weight, you’re going to fail,” she said. “That’s not because you’re spiteful, or because you didn’t want to. It’s because you haven’t worked up to that level yet.” Similarly, with dogs, learning obedience is about repeating training, in increasingly more distracting environments, until the dog has the “mental muscle” to respond the way his handler wants him to.

Rather than correcting Rebel with a pop of his collar when he was doing something wrong, Denise showed the guys how to point out when he was doing something right with a well-timed use of the word “Yes!” After distributing a handful of dog treats to everyone in the room, Denise had the guys take turns calling Rebel’s name, then saying “Yes!” just as he turned his head in their direction, followed by a food treat. Rebel soon learned the point of this round-robin game, and as the guys called him from different directions, his responsiveness to his name grew faster and faster.

While Denise used food treats, a reward can be anything a dog wants that a human has control over. After the name game, Rebel was thirsty, but instead of giving him his water bowl right away, Denise used it as leverage to teach Rebel how to stay. Holding the water bowl at waist level, Denise waited for Rebel to sit. Then slowly, she lowered the bowl. As soon as Rebel stood, she raised the bowl. When he sat, she lowered it. Up, down, up, down, in ever smaller increments Denise withdrew the water as Rebel broke his sit, then lowered it when he leaned back on his haunches, until the bowl had reached the ground. Understanding now that his waiting got the water bowl where he wanted it, Rebel sat patiently. Without even a word of instruction, he had mastered the sit-stay. And with an enthusiastic “OK,” Denise released him, and he slurped the water contentedly.

Sitting around the circle, the guys were impressed. “You could see the dog thinking,” said Joe in genuine amazement. “He was trying to figure out how to manipulate her, while she was really manipulating him.”

When Eric went home that day, he tried the water bowl technique on his min pins. So did Mary with her little yapping pack. And Joe did the same with Bond. It worked.

You can teach old dogs new tricks. And sometimes you can teach their owners, too.