Kaye’s Corner: “Sit,” “Heel” and “We love you”

MEEKER | Many years ago, we acquired a German Shepherd puppy who came from certified parents. Our sons named him “Storm” because he arrived on a stormy day. As a youngster, he was rambunctious with fuzzy hair, sweet to cuddle, and totally out of control.

We, two parents and two young children, tried our best. On the plus side, we trained him to do his business outside and more or less walk with us on a leash. As he got older, his bark got stronger and at 120 pounds, he scared the heck out of every visitor. As well, he didn’t stay in our yard.

Most of our neighbors were good-hearted and knew we were trying to get our dog under control. They would call from several blocks away, “Storm is over here visiting us.”

Our next-door neighbor loved Storm and kept dog treats for him in her garage, even though their family did not own pets. As soon as she drove in her driveway, Storm would zip over there and beg for his treat. No wonder he barged right through the electric dog fence!

Still, German Shepherds can be very intimidating. A police officer told us he had never investigated a burglary in a house with a German Shepherd. However, the Fed Ex driver would call us from our driveway feeling intimidated to make a delivery if Storm was outside.

So, we hired a professional dog trainer who worked with police dogs and owned several German Shepherds. This guy was amazing. Within minutes, he had Storm obeying him along with establishing a loving relationship.

I’ve often reflected on his teaching methods that were extremes of “follow my command” along with tons of praise and hugs.

If he said “sit,” our dog would sit. If he commanded “heel” our dog wouldn’t lunge ahead like he did with us but walked alongside as asked. The trainer reinforced proper behavior and immediately corrected infractions. None of this pampering attitude of “you’re just a dog and can’t help it” excuses.

Strangely, our dog almost seemed to prefer the discipline and accepted it as in now “we are training” and “I can do this.” The instructions were short, clear and consistent. No backsliding and no compromise on the standards.

Training sessions were short and progressive, primarily focused on training us humans to use consistent commands and leash behavior. We were assigned to practice each week’s lesson for 15 minutes every day.

That meant I took Storm around the yard to sit, then Jay, then our sons. I think the poor dog was going nuts after so much sit, sit, sit. But he got it and so did we. Next week, “heel” and on it went, reinforcing each skill and adding another every week.

We moved on to more difficult lessons. Leap into the back of our car so we can go for a walk. Storm didn’t like that, but once he got it, as soon as we were packing and had the car doors open, guess who was already loaded up?

The flip side of all this discipline was unconditional love for our dog. Our trainer would hug Storm forever when he did something right and learned his lessons. He would receive free time, dog treats, and play time with the trainer’s dog (a buddy).

I often think that’s a part we parents and society are missing today. We need more “good job,” “way to go” “I love you” for the smallest of accomplishments. Lots of praise along with high standards.

Somehow, this event still looms large in my brain. For myself, I relate it to basic life ethics as in “these are the rules; follow them” along with a huge dose of humanitarian compassion. Strange, but maybe dog training can be a part of our human practices too.

By KAYE SULLIVAN – Special to the Herald Times