“I uhhh, don’t think what you’re doing is working…” my brother said as he stared at me incredulously while stifling his laughter.

For whatever reason, it was these words that made me realize I needed to do something different with my German Shepherd, Ulf. It wasn’t having to endure the biting cold, and sleep deprivation that accompanied the 1 am walks around Wash Park in the middle of February. It wasn’t the look of judgment, frustration, and occasionally fear on the faces of passersby as Ulf had one of his ‘meltdowns’. It wasn’t even the feeling that things with Ulf were spiraling out of control. It was my brother’s words, and how ridiculous the whole situation had become.

My wife and I got Ulf as a puppy, and he was amazing and perfect in every way – until around 4 months old when he seemed to decide he hated other dogs with a fiery passion. In fact, if he even saw a dog, an atomic bomb would go off in his brain, and he would immediately transform into the canine counterpart of Hannibal Lector.  The older and bigger he got, the worse and more frightening his outbursts became.

We were living in downtown Denver at the time in a 600 sq ft apartment, and it was getting pretty tense between the three of us. I was mad at Ashley, Ashley was mad at me, we were both mad at Ulf, and Ulf seemed to be mad at pretty much everything. It had gotten to the point that we couldn’t walk Ulf during the day without being horribly embarrassed and feeling irresponsible – hence, the 1 am walks in the dead of winter.  Finally, we put our foot down and decided we were going to fork over the cash and get Ulf some training.

We started off full of hope and enthusiasm. Our trainer was a very nice lady, who assured us that Ulf was just afraid, and if we made his experiences around other dogs pleasurable, this would all go away, and we would be able to perform an exorcism on the furry demon in the other room. Here was the plan: every time we were in the company of other dogs, we would feed him hot dogs and beef!  Well, everyone seemed to love this idea, and the concept made so much sense: Ulf, will dine on Ball Park Franks and steak sirloin anytime he’s in the presence of other dogs and would start associating other dogs with delicious (and expensive) charcuterie spreads!

Well, we adopted this method and followed the strict protocol we were given for months. While Ulf got bigger, stronger (high-quality proteins will do this) and more confident – Ashley and I became poorer, more exhausted and more exasperated because there was still a big problem: Ulf seemed to be getting even more aggressive towards other dogs.

This led to the fateful day, when my brother saw what I was doing and pointed out what should have been patently obvious: I was feeding chum to a shark.  My brother, Ulf and I were standing outside on the front lawn when an old man and his harmless golden retriever came ambling toward us. Like an action hero, I immediately straddled Ulf, as I had been shown, and began vigorously stuffing hot dogs and large chunks of steak in his mouth. Ulf, saw the old man and his dog, and did what he always had done–absolutely lost his mind. He was snarling, barking, heaving and lunging! He was growling, howling, spitting and plunging! Meanwhile, I was sitting there like a chump rewarding the monster for his outburst, as pieces of meat and saliva flew in all directions.

I stood up after the episode had ended, looked at my brother and said “You’re right, it isn’t. I need to find a new trainer” – and that is exactly what I did.

We called a woman named Tanya Cardwell. Tanya is the owner and head trainer at Pavlov’s Dog Training in Denver. She was, and still is amazing. She helped us with Ulf, and was one of the first people that made me realize training dogs was both an art and a science, and something I wanted to pursue.  She also introduced me to other talented area trainers, whom I will surely talk about and reference in upcoming blog posts.

I share this story with you to illustrate how important it is to find the right training, tailored to fit the particular needs and temperament of your dog, and how easy it is to fall victim to the ocean of misinformation that exists in the realm of dog training. It is also a window into why there are so many exasperated owners consumed by frustration and hopelessness. We had already spent a lot of money trying to work with Ulf, and though our intentions were in the right place, I could sense despair creeping in as our bank account was dwindling as quickly as our resolve, and nothing seemed to be working.  Reactivity and aggression are not behaviors we can or should tolerate as dog owners, and unfortunately, not every dog trainer is equipped to properly address them. Do your research, be open to traditional methods and contemplative methods alike, and always be receptive to new information.

Today, we can walk Ulf wherever we would like without having to worry about him misbehaving – if anything, we are worried about other people’s dogs. Not only have Ashley’s and my life improved as a result of proper training, but so has Ulf’s. So, if you are struggling with behavioral issues, and are feeling as frustrated and hopeless as we were, don’t give up, just change course.

Ian Lieberman

Art of the Dog