A life lesson for the wife and a beleaguered Doberman that served as a distraction for a house full of strangers grieving her owner’s untimely death.
A Dog’s Journey
From Training to Chaos and Back
CinDee Byer, Breed Clubs Editor
Joe Byer was a professional dog trainer. I was his wife, sidekick and narrator in his training classes. On orientation night I would tell the class “I could not train a dog so I married someone who could.” Joe taught me structure and discipline and with those two skills I learned how to be a trainer myself.
Sadly, this structure which created our harmonious home would become a curse when in 2018 Joe began treatment for his cancer. The chemo made him very sick but he never missed a day walking the dogs and as often as he could, we practiced our dogs at the Westmoreland obedience training club in Delmont PA.
Joe Byer fought his cancer heroically and continued to train his dogs up until 3 weeks before he passed away. As Joe lay in bed fighting cancer, the training trouble started. It began with home health care nurses, hospice nurses, social workers, and then family and friends who came to help and/or pay respect.
Joe had taught our 2-year-old Doberman EV every trick he could think of and everyone loved to watch her perform. EV knew all of the NOVICE routine, had begun OPEN and knew most of the UTILITY exercises. EV did a million brilliant tricks but as a disabled person confined to a wheelchair, her obedience is also useful and helpful in assisting me in my everyday activities.
She loved to work but the problem was when Joe stopped giving the commands and workers, relatives, and visitors started to take over. As Joe began to fail and our house filled with family and caregivers, our dog became a diversion for them. Everyone began shouting commands at EV. They delighted in her performances and with each performance they demanded more. They were laughing, throwing food at her, yelling at her when she didn’t respond, then trying to grab her when she wanted to get away.
Everyone meant well. What they didn’t understand is how they were confusing and further stressing Joe’s dog.
The joy began to leave EV’s eyes, her desire to perform was gone. Her beautiful ears were no longer pricked up high on her head and tail drooped, she hung her head as she walked sadly through the house and slipped into the bedroom to be with her “daddy”.
I knew I had to save this lovely work of art that Joe had created and I began trying to figure out how to explain to people who came to the house that she was not a toy. Everything that Joe taught EV was used every day to help us and to enlighten her, to keep her mind busy and her spirit happy. I had to become “the mean instructor.”
I finally told everyone they were not allowed to give her commands. The average person does not understand that you must set a dog up for learning. The trainer must learn commands and the dog must obey commands but more importantly dogs must have success in their attempt at accomplishing the command. Health care workers and even family cannot know this.
You cannot give a dog 10 commands and expect it to respond perfectly without your acknowledgment that each command was successful. For example EV gets the phone for me in the morning. When I ask for the phone and she leaves to find it – that’s the 1st success, good girl!
She begins to hunt for it in the place that it supposed to be, which is on the phone cradle, good girl!
She brings it to me, good girl!
She attempts to put it in my hands and she holds it until I can grasp it, good girl!
Every part in this series of exercises to retrieve the phone must be acknowledged to the dog and that is accomplished by saying “good girl”!
There were many, many things I had to reconsider when teaching visitors how to talk to my dogs. One of the most important guidelines I would give is that there are formal and informal exercises. Everybody wants to yell COME and it drives me crazy. I keep saying, the command COME is a formal command and it requires action on the part of the handler. If the dog does not do all the parts correctly the handler must take action and reinforce the position. COME to my dogs’ means to come directly to me, sit close in front of me wait for further instruction. I beg visitors, please do not use that command.
With Joe gone I’ve had to rethink the way I live in my home. There are strange people coming and going all the time. With much consideration I have sat down with my aid and family and explained the importance of command structure and daily structure for the dogs. Everyone is really trying harder to learn how to communicate with the dogs instead of treating them as entertainers.
I have also had to rethink the way I speak to people. Unlike my students of yesterday; today the people in my home are not paying for my advice. I only ask that they understand that for 20+ years this is what I did. This unfortunate time in my life has made me more clearly understand the dog’s view of people. It has also made me more aware that people do not understand how complicated their normal communication is and how stressed the family dog is by events they do not and cannot understand.
In times of family chaos, try to be able to simplify each command and let the dog find success in their work. Understand what turns your dog off and be prepared to save them from the people who mean well but who don’t understand how they are adding to the family dog’s stress and confusion.
As I sat by Joe’s bed those last days I often put my face close to his ear and whispered “please don’t leave me.” The Saturday before Joe died I knew I must let this amazing man continue on his next journey. And, so I said very quietly “Joe, I’ll be okay” and he was gone. Soon most of my caring helpers will move on and I will find a little sanity with my dogs. Good luck with yours!
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