By Devene Godau
*This post is the Pet Professional Guild winning entry in our Geek Week 2020 Writers’ Competition*
I thought I knew everything there was to know about dogs. As a child I read everything I could and in my teens I spent my spare time working in a boarding kennel.
All I dreamed of was being a dog trainer. When I graduated from college, I moved back home when my mom got a cairn terrier puppy. I was excited to start the training process with her and signed up for a local obedience club’s basic training class.
When I showed up with my little dog, they instructed me to put a choke chain on her. As we walked in a circle they would cue me to yank the chain. She would bark at the other dogs, and because I didn’t want to yank her chain, throwing my timing off, they started throwing “scare cans” at her.
After three weeks, I couldn’t do it anymore. I thought I was just not cut out to be a dog trainer. We dropped the class.
Five years later I got married. My husband and I were getting ready to buy our first house. I was excited to get our first dog. He had never had a dog before. So I took him to a local dog show so he could pick out our first breed.
Coincidentally, I ran into a co-worker at the dog show. She was manning the greyhound rescue booth, as she had two adopted retired racing dogs. I stopped by to chat with her. What I didn’t realize is that while I was yapping away with her, he was mesmerized by her dogs.
After, as we walked up and down the rows of cages, all he wanted to do was go back to see the greyhounds. He told me that he wanted one.
I’ll be honest, I had never thought about adopting a greyhound before. I had always thought they looked funny! But a promise was a promise, so if that was what he wanted, I guess we would look into it.
Six months later, we met Kharma. She was a beautiful greyhound that was mostly white, with a brindle patch on her left eye, and a brindle spot on her back. The first time we met her she wouldn’t even approach us. Then when we got up to leave, she threw herself between us and the door.
That meant she liked us, right?
All conventional wisdom told me I shouldn’t adopt this dog. So naturally we adopted the dog. As we left the adoption, with the dog in tow, her foster mother said, “I really thought she was staying here for good. I thought she was unadoptable.”
We brought her home and she still didn’t want anything to do with us. But we figured we would just give her some time.
And then it was Monday. We both had to go to work, so into her crate she went. She was not happy about it. She wouldn’t eat, the neighbors reported that she howled all day. And she would urinate and defecate in her crate. This became a daily occurrence.
Then one day she figured out how to wedge open the crate. She cut herself up and tracked blood and feces everywhere.
We rushed her to my vet who told us she was pretty sure she had separation anxiety because she didn’t want to be away from us. What???? She didn’t even come near us. I was so confused. And frustrated.
My husband told me I had to fix her or we had to get rid of her. Well, I don’t get rid of anything once it is in my house (the same rule my husband has benefitted from!) so I decided to seek training.
As part of our adoption contract we promised not to put a choke chain on the hounds, as their necks are so slender. I didn’t know any other way, but I knew I had to figure something out. I called the rescue group for a trainer recommendation.
“Well, I don’t know much about this school, but I hear Trainers Academy doesn’t use choke chains. I am not sure what they use.” the rescue representative said as she gave me the phone number.
So it was a crapshoot. But as luck would have it, the school was just a few miles from my house, so I called and signed up for class.
I was nervous about class. Before I took a dog that liked me and managed to scare her. This dog already didn’t seem to care for me. Was training really going to help? Or make things worse?
The first day we learned about clicker training. I was fascinated. It seemed so simple I was a little embarrassed I hadn’t stumbled upon it before.
My dog, on the other hand, was tough to motivate. Racing greyhounds often have a hard time learning the sit for a number of reasons. And everything in this class was based on the sit. I wasn’t experienced enough to come up with an alternative. I was determined though. And it took me six weeks, but I finally got the sit.
Becoming a Dog Trainer
After graduating from this class the assistant instructor approached me and asked if I had ever considered training. She wanted to bring me on as a training coach, assisting the instructors. I was shocked!
“Do you really think my dog did that well?” I asked. “No.” she answered. “But you had a tremendous amount of patience working with her.” I laughed but I jumped at the chance to learn more.
So I started helping with class. And we enrolled in an advanced class. I was still learning, and Kharma was still tentative. But by week four, a light turned on in her. She went from just laying down to avoid interacting to doing everything with such animation! Everyone asked if I had switched dogs for this class. Honestly, I had to do a double take to be sure!
Now, as any trainer knows, improved obedience skills do not address the crate and separation stress. But as I learned to communicate with her, and as I learned truly how dogs think, I was able to understand how to help her more. And as her confidence grew, she liked any type of work I would do with her.
And her confidence soared. She became very social. I would have her out at adoption events performing tricks and people would comment, “If I could get a dog that well trained, I would adopt one.” I shared with them that her training took a year of blood sweat and tears. But it had created a bond stronger than I had ever shared with an animal before.
And if that weren’t enough to teach me the power of positive reinforcement training, one day I called Kharma and my mom’s cairn terrier into the kitchen to sit for a treat. Kharma was so excited, wagging her tail. In contrast, the cairn came in with her tail between her legs. I wept because I had done that to her. It didn’t matter that I didn’t know any better.
I went on to work full time for Trainers Academy in their office. I apprenticed with their seasoned instructors until I was ready to take on clients and classes as the head instructor.
Kharma went on to earn her Canine Good Citizen certificate and became a certified therapy dog. She spent her golden years visiting nursing homes.
She was a goofy girl that, despite coming from Florida, loved winter and would dive into the snow. She learned to play at daycare and preferred to play with the wild Labradors than the generally softer sight hounds.
Kharma also inspired the creation of our popular Greyhounds Only training class. Open to retired racers, we have created a curriculum that eases into the sit, but has plenty of other alternative exercises to build confidence and strengthen their bonds with their handlers.
My journey with Kharma began 20 years ago. Since then I have seen hundreds of greyhounds as students, as well as fosters. She is the most difficult dog I have ever had, but she was also my greatest teacher.
This post is the Pet Professional Guild winning entry in our Geek Week 2020 Writers’ Competition. All winning and other selected entries are being published here on the BARKS Blog and in upcoming issues of BARKS from the Guild.
For a fully immersive educational experience in all things animal behavior and training, join us for Geek Week, a virtual educational event taking place 24/7 with over 85 presenters and 135 educational sessions, on November 11-15, 2020. Session recordings will be available for ONE YEAR after the event!
About the Author
Devene Godau has fostered many retired racers and Galgos, in addition to having many of her own. She has been active with greyhound and Galgo rescue for over 20 years. She holds a bachelor’s in journalism from Michigan State University, and spent several years working in marketing and graphic design. However, when she adopted her first dog and began researching ways to modify her behavior challenges, she found the help she needed at Trainers Academy, LLC (TA) in Troy, Michigan.
From there, she became a volunteer assistant, and eventually quit her marketing job to work full time in the dog training world. She apprenticed with several TA instructors, including president, Lisa Patrona, for four years and worked as her assistant instructor for two of those years before becoming a group class instructor, and behavior consultant.
She was nominated for a “Social Training Excellence” award through the International Positive Dog Trainers Association in 2008, and continues her studies by attending professional seminars and educational events. She currently conducts private in-home lessons, and teaches puppy and intermediate classes regularly. She also instructs a Greyhounds Only training class. Her articles have been published in The Association of Pet Dog Trainers book Top Tips from Top Trainers as well as in Walk About Magazine and on a number of national websites.