See here for Part 1 and here for Part 2 of Chunk’s story.
After the chance meeting on our block while walking Chunk, we met with Miguel and debriefed him on Chunk’s leash aggression. We mentioned the training experience we had with Kate and how it seemed to be largely ineffective. Miguel nodded while we spoke and I got the sense he was all too familiar with cases like ours, already knowing our story before we could get the words out. In contrast to Kate’s exclusive use of positive reinforcement, Miguel’s philosophy on dog training included both positive and negative reinforcement. Communicating positive feedback was still with the use of treats, but negative feedback required the use of a remote collar – more commonly referred to as a shock collar.
So I might get some flack for this on the internet, but I wasn’t against Miguel’s use of the remote collar and it mostly had to do with his professionalism and obvious love for dogs (pit bulls and rescues in particular). He explained to us that positive-only or negative-only training is an incomplete training method. A dog won’t learn desirable behavior if he isn’t rewarded, nor will he learn undesirable behavior if he isn’t reprimanded – and learning the difference between the two allows the dog to make a *choice*, not just react to external forces. Miguel termed this a more “complete” method of training and added that some dogs, for whatever reason (maybe past trauma or abuse), won’t respond to positive-only training. That doesn’t mean that these are bad dogs past the point of help or are undeserving of a second chance or are destined to live forever with fear and anxiety – it just means we need to figure out what works for them. He told us a story of how he had visited a shelter asking for the opportunity to rehab and train their most aggressive dogs, but was turned away when they found out he utilized a remote collar. The dogs were eventually put down. It struck a chord with me – that very well could have been Chunk’s fate.
On top of that logic, we had Bear’s success story as a glowing testimonial to Miguel’s training. From what he told us (and Bear’s owner corroborated), Bear was an even more extreme case of aggression than what he had seen of Chunk. I would have never guessed because every time I had seen Bear out and about in the neighborhood, he was basically a poster child for a well-behaved Rottweiler – adorable broad smile and prancing along like a show dog. Of the numerous times we had run in with him, I’d never seen him react to Chunk – not even a flinch, not even when Chunk was lunging and barking with bared teeth at him. Miguel told us that Bear still wears his remote collar on walks, but it had been many months since Miguel had to correct him with a stimulation.
Whatever hesitation we had with using the remote collar was far outweighed by the possibility of curing Chunk of his leash aggression and enabling him to socialize with other dogs, rather than “manage” the problem by avoidance and perpetuate his stress during our walks.
Bear let Miguel borrow his remote collar so that he could show us how it worked and let us feel the “shock” for ourselves. It was more so jarring than painful, like, “Whoa, what was that” instead of “Owww!!!” Miguel placed the collar on Chunk at set it to a very low level, increasing the stimulation a little at a time to find Chunk’s base level. Miguel could tell when he had arrived at Chunk’s base level because Chunk stopped chewing on his toy and looked up. The act was slight and not out of Chunk’s normal behavior, so I probably wouldn’t have attributed it to the collar if Miguel had not pointed it out. There was no yelping or indication of pain (I’ve stepped on Chunk’s tail often enough to know when I’ve hurt him) – just a sort of, “Hey, what was that…” look on his face. This is why I advise anyone who wants to try the remote collar method to do so under the strict supervision of a professional. A lot of the bad rap the remote collar gets is due to its misuse.
Miguel first had Chunk do a few exercises in our hallway. Walking down our hallway was part of the battle with Chunk – he would sprint its length (dragging us behind him) and angrily bark at the dog inside the neighboring apartment (which set off a cacophony of barking from all the animals within the building). If we tried to give him treats to lure him away, he would quickly take them then spit them out. Miguel did several passes in the hallway with Chunk – correcting him with a stimulation and a simultaneous “NO” when he moved towards the neighbor’s door, and rewarding him with a treat when he followed Miguel’s lead. Within 10 minutes, Miguel only had to say the word “NO” (without the stimulation) and Chunk passed by the door with no barking or issue. He still bolted for the front door to get outside, but there was no vocal outburst, and Miguel assured us that even the sprinting could be corrected as well with more time.
If you watch a lot of Cesar Milan, you pretty much know the outcome of each episode. The dog’s bad behavior is enabled by the owner’s lack of discipline. The dogs and the owners change, but the moral of the story is always the same: Bad owner, bad dog. Good owner, good dog. If the human is not acting as a pack leader, then the dog will freak out and pee on everything (or whatever the problem of the day might be). While Miguel’s method wasn’t exactly following in the footsteps of Cesar Milan, the same premise was there. He explained that Chunk’s leash aggression was further aggravated by my lack of discipline when walking him. (I pretty much let him pee anywhere because if he was peeing, that meant he was standing still and not yanking me all over the sidewalk.) Since Chunk obviously viewed me as the weakest link, he also felt it was his responsibility to protect us from other larger dogs by barking and snarling and lunging. It was true – Mr. S had much better presence around Chunk (probably bolstered by the knowledge that he could physically overpower Chunk if it came to that), and in return Chunk’s reactions to other dogs were much less severe when Mr. S was at the helm.
I’m pretty sure that’s why lesson #1 with Miguel was “Let’s go.” Whenever Chunk veered off to pee or sniff any tree or garbage bag, Miguel loudly and firmly said, “Let’s go.” If Chunk did not obey (which of course he didn’t), Miguel quickly followed up with “NO” and a stimulation. The stimulation redirected Chunk’s attention and again, Miguel commanded him, “Let’s go,” while walking in the direction he wanted to go. Chunk followed, abandoning his tree mistress, and receiving a treat for his trouble. There were some trees and garbage bags where Chunk needed to be corrected more than once for him to follow (I guess they were extra delicious smelling), but he eventually would come with no excessive yanking on the leash. Miguel allowed Chunk to sniff and pee where and when he directed with, “Go potty.”
In the thirty minutes we spent with Miguel outside, Mr. S and I were in awe. Miguel managed to get results with Chunk in less than an hour…we had been trying for months and months to no avail. We set up a schedule with Miguel where he’d give Chunk an hour or two “walk and train” with the remote collar everyday, Monday to Friday. Mr. S and I were not to use the remote collar until we debriefed with Miguel after the first week’s training and he could show us how to properly use it – which behaviors to correct, timing, etc. And, before you think Miguel had us practice by shocking our own dog, I’ll let you know that Miguel had us practice by shocking him. Inside our apartment, Miguel held the remote collar in his hand and pretended to be a dog. In various scenarios, he’d test our timing and ability to tell the difference between normal excitement or unwanted pulling/lunging that warranted a stimulation. Only when he felt that Mr. S and I were using the simulations appropriately did he let us use the remote collar on Chunk.
Week after week, Miguel trained Chunk (and us) on a new command – sit, stay, come, slow, stop – all with the distractions of being outside. Within a month, there was vast improvement. And though yes, the remote collar was a contributor to the results, I think Miguel’s commitment and daily reinforcement of the training was really the key to Chunk’s rapid progress. We no longer needed the Halti to control Chunk during his walks, the stimulation from the remote collar was (for the most part) replaced with a stern “No,” treats replaced with “Good boy”, and instead of wrapping the leash around my wrist several times, we walked while it dangled loosely from my arm. Our walks became long and leisurely instead of quick and harried. We ventured to new territory – PetCo (even on adoption days!) the UPS store, Staples, Best Buy, and any other store that allowed pets as long as they were on a leash – no longer afraid of the scene Chunk might cause. (The ability to shop with my dog is the #1 thing I miss about NYC.) We could tell Chunk himself was also much more relaxed on our walks – the frantic panting and darting eyes were replaced with dog that looked like he genuinely enjoyed being outside and exploring with us. Strangers would regularly comment on how well-behaved our handsome dog was and Chunk was especially popular with the little old ladies of the Upper East Side.
After a few months of basic training, Miguel told us that he wanted to have Chunk and Bear walk together, “Dogs learn from each other – Chunk will learn a lot more from Bear than I could ever teach him myself.” I’m sure I internally scoffed at the notion of Chunk and Bear on a walk together that didn’t end in blood and gore, but so far Miguel had made good on all his promises with Chunk’s training, so we trusted the process. Miguel and Bear waited for us at the end of the block and as we approached, Chunk’s typical whimpering began. Miguel instructed Mr. S to give him a stimulation with the word “No.” Mr. S and Chunk did a few passes up and down the sidewalk as Miguel and Bear stayed in their spot, Chunk’s whimpering decreasing each time he passed Bear. Finally, Miguel gave Bear the signal to go, and the five of us started a walk around the block. No barking, no crying, no indication that a dog fight was about to erupt. It was all actually quite anti-climactic – as if once Chunk got a whiff of Bear’s butt, Bear’s name was wiped from the black list. There wasn’t an instant love connection, but rather an understanding of “Alright, you’re cool, we’re cool. Oh you’re peeing there? Well I’m peeing there too.”
For the remainder of our time in NYC, Chunk often joined pack walks, sometimes with Bear and sometimes with Miguel’s other clients (he would hand pick the dogs for Chunk’s walk to make sure they were all compatible). If you told me a year ago that Chunk would get to have all this interaction with other dogs, I would would have never believed you, but the progress he has made since that first chance meeting with Miguel is like day and night. I mean, Chunk will probably never be a dog park dog (I have my reservations about dog parks after learning all that I did with Chunk) and we remain vigilant whenever he meets new dogs for the first time, but the fear and anxiety is gone – for Chunk and for us. I’m really so, so proud of how far he’s come.
Now that we live in the suburbs, Chunk rarely wears his remote collar – only if we plan to walk uncharted territory or if we are outside in our un-fenced backyard for long periods of time – and it’s been a very, very long time since we’ve had to give him a stimulation when he is wearing it. I can’t even remember the last time we pushed the button on Chunk. Honestly, the only reason we even bother to put it on him these days is because he seems to suddenly develop selective hearing when he’s not wearing it. Also, if you are wondering – no, Chunk is not afraid of the remote collar. He actually gets excited when we pull it out because he knows it means we are going outside, as if he’s saying, “Hurry up and put that thing on me before I wag my butt off!”
Miguel also trained Chunk to follow commands off leash, which has been especially useful when walking Chunk to and from my parents’ house (aka daycare).
Before adopting Chunk, I had so many pre-conceived notions of pet ownership: pit bulls were scary, dog parks were harmless fun, all dogs could be BFFs, and I’d NEVER use a shock collar on my dog. Two years later and how far I’ve come… Pit bulls are gentle and affectionate goofballs, dog parks are not for everyone, some dogs don’t like other dogs (and that’s OK), and when used properly, the remote collar is an effective training tool.
We are forever grateful to Miguel and City Dog Pack for taking such good care of our boy. If we were to ask Chunk what is the #1 thing he misses about NYC, he would undoubtedly say, “MIGUUUEEELLLLLL!”
I really did not believe that we’d ever get to a place where walking Chunk was not a stressful chore or that we’d ever have the confidence in him to socialize with other dogs with no issue. And I don’t mean to sound melodramatic, but being able to overcome just those two obstacles have been HUGE – seriously, life changing. And Chunk, well, I think it’s clear from Parts 1 and 2 of this story, and my Instagram feed (that is basically an homage to #mydogchunk) how much we absolutely ADORE him and how happy he is to be ruling our lives.