Weekly Wire
Austin Chronicle Wag the Owner

By Spike Gillespie

MAY 11, 1998: 

"I wanna be the one in... Con-trol. Harrrumph." --Janet Jackson

The dog is my shepherd, he shall not hunt. But man, shall he be a pain in the ass. Wait, make that was a pain in the ass. A work dog at heart, with a 23-and-a-half-hour-a-day need to do something, anything, Diablo, my sweet little Diablo had turned into a nightmare. A little over a year ago, I picked him up at the pound - five tiny, chubby pounds of red-headed wonderfulness! Then he grew.

And he grew some more.

The curves gave way to angles and his weight increased 12-fold. And his manners... oh... those manners. There were none. Unless you count "bad."

I adapted, not realizing the full extent of the problem until I left town on a business trip and received an urgent e-mail from my recently acquired housemate/dogsitter:

Spike dear,

Did you forget to tell me something? Like the fact that Diablo randomly bites strangers? I just gave a guy forty bucks to replace the jacket your dumb dog chewed through. And lucky he was wearing the jacket or it would've been flesh.

Sincerely, Cabana Boy

My dog was a biter. I had to stop ignoring this fact. Visions of lawsuits danced in my head. A report on 20/20, showing disfigured victims of dog bites, underscored my newfound sense of urgency. And, on a less dramatic note, the truth was, I'd purchased the pooch in the first place to have a walking companion. His attacking ways precluded that, left him relegated to the backyard, bored and chewing to shreds any toy or garden tool I forgot to place out of reach.

Hopeless. It was hopeless. This undesired behavior seemed permanent. Yes, I had promised on my adoption application to take him to training. I even meant it. But could there be any hope of training this beast after a year and a half of letting him assume that destruction was his lot in life?

There had to be a solution. I got on the horn. Debbie at University Animal Clinic always patiently answered my too-many questions. ("No, we don't recommend a vasectomy. We understand your reluctance and know your dog likes licking himself there, but....") My last question did not require Debbie's tact.

Dog trainers?

Without hesitation, flat out, she responded, "Taurus Training."

So, as Helen Keller found Anne Sullivan, Diablo and I welcomed William and Melanie McLeroy, the dog-training team, into our chaotic pack.

If William sensed my desperation during that first call, he didn't let on. Instead, he focused on asking me for lots and lots of information. His goal was to get an idea of just what the major problems were, and how we might deal with them. My responses confirmed my sense of doom. I'd say one thing about the dog, only to change the answer mid-sentence. In fact, I realized, I did not know Diablo at all.

Still, William accepted the challenge. Frankly, I felt sorry for him.

I headed for that first rendezvous reluctantly. I was about to ruin this man's professional reputation. Not only did I have a bad dog, I had a bad attitude. Yes, I wanted improvement, but I was only willing, I thought, to go so far. "He's going to try to make me think like a dog," I thought. Worse, I remembered something I had read earlier about dog training.

illustration by Roy Tompkins

"Alpha." This was some New Age trendy moniker for the owner's place at the head of the dog pack or some such nonsense. Was this McLeroy guy going to whip out the "alpha" on me? "He's going to try to make me think like a dog," I thought again, fuming. "I will not think like a dog. I will not will not will not buy into this "alpha" crap."


Ladies and gentlemen, meet Austin's new premiere Alpha Bitch. Yep, that's right. I, Spike Gillespie, not only grasp the concept of being the leader of the pack - the true definition of alpha - but I am taking great pleasure in my new role as canine captain.

Within the very first hour of training, Diablo, who had not once since adoption shown any proclivity toward obeying simple commands like "sit," or "down," or "Okay, do whatever the hell you want to do, but do something," was sitting on command. My command! (Well, okay, mostly William's command initially, since he's had a lot more practice at this alpha stuff.) And he was heeling, too! My jaw dropped.

William grinned. His secret?

Think like a dog. He would probably say that differently - something more along the lines of "understanding how dogs think." But you get the idea. My resistance melted.

Throughout this first session, the basics of his technique began to sink in:

"Don't yell. Don't repeat. Be very quick with either praise or correction."

We dug even deeper. It became like therapy. William asked my motivation for getting Diablo in the first place.

I'd been promising the child a dog forever - just as soon as we could afford a place with a yard. Plus, I am a walker, trekking an average of 30 miles a week. But as a woman walker, I do not feel safe walking alone at night, or even sometimes hiking on near-empty trails.

My fears are not to be dismissed as overcaution or paranoia. I had experienced some scary things the preceding year, and consequently suffer Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. All those years we'd wanted a dog for companionship; now I wanted one for protection.

Ah ha!

William zeroed in on my PTSD. He explained that my plan was backfiring, as Mr. Highly Sensitive Canine had picked up on my deep fears and reacted by becoming as fearful as I. Bottom line: The dog was not screwed up. The "master" was. The dog was just humoring her.

Essentially, I had to face off with the same thing I was facing off with in my own therapy. If the dog was to overcome his fears, guess who had to overcome hers? No more dragging Diablo to the other side of the street at the sight of an oncoming jogger on the horizon. Nope. Our goal, said William, was to desensitize both me and the dog to these things (and yes, fast-moving men coming up from behind were high on the list.)

For our second appointment, to aid in desensitizing, William instructed for me to meet him in a crowded park with a heavily populated hike-&-bike trail.

No way.

Diablo's absolute favorite targets were joggers and bikers; this simply would not work. Alas, William is not a man who takes "no" for an answer.

I arrived, petrified, at the appointed hour. "This is Lauren," William said, introducing me to his assistant. We shook hands. Lauren smiled brightly and retrieved her bicycle from the back of her car. She checked with William - how fast and how often did he want her to cut across our path?

What?! Whoa! Wait just a second. This woman was agreeing to speed by my dog on a bicycle? Did she not understand the concept of teeth in flesh?

The dog seemed eager for his walk. I waited for the worst. Lauren did her thing. Zooooooom - by us once, twice. Zoooom again. William held the leash. I watched, terrified, waiting for the bloodbath that would surely follow. Nada. The dog responded calmly, which is to say he didn't respond. Now, after only two hours of training and with the proper guidance, he could walk on a trail.

William gave us homework. Between sessions, I was to walk Diablo in congested areas. He showed me how to hold the leash, how to look at Diablo, and never look away first. He reminded me that I am in charge, leader of the pack, and precisely how to shake down the dog if, in fact, he lunged again.

Overwhelmed, but determined to try, I set out around Town Lake.




This every few steps, and yeah, I was probably breaking the "do not repeat" rule, but I was a wreck. Not Diablo. He heeled. And he heeled and he heeled and he heeled. And in my mind, the word became "Heal."

"Heal, heal, heal," our relationship with each other. My fear of passing men. And when Diablo lunged - because he did once - something inside of me clicked. I didn't let him get an inch before I yanked him back. I was in control. Me, Spike. Alpha Bitch.

Just like William told me - it's not the dogs who need training, it's the owners.

We are so much happier now that I am trained. A mere four lessons into it and Diablo and I are finally the best friends we are supposed to be. I tell him stay and he stays. Well, unless I put spaghetti in his bowl (yeah, I'm one of those sick pups who cooks for my dog). But we're getting better. Now, there is harmony. Now, after banishing him out back for his antics, he is allowed to sleep with us in the house once again.

Better still, we can go on long, calm walks together. No longer do I have to trade off my fear of being attacked for the fear of my dog attacking. William tells me that if the time ever comes when I truly need protection, my dog will remember real fast how to bite. Meanwhile, he's calm on the trails. And while I'm finally beginning to believe it, my friends still register surprise.

"Is that the same dog?" they ask, incredulously. "Yep," I say. "No," they counter, "How did this happen?" Which is when, again and again, I gush about my trainer - my "Anne Sullivan," as it were: William, the man who made me think like a dog.

Spike Gillespie's book 100 Wrong Men, One Perfect Little Boy will be out sometime this millennium, from Simon & Schuster.

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