One week ago today Kelso and I got the final double Q for our Master Agility Champion (MACH) title at the Mile High Golden Retriever Club’s agility trial.  Kelso just turned 9 and we started competing in agility when he was about 2, so this title was literally 7 years in the making.  The past 9 years with this dog have been nothing short of a wild ride, and his influence in my life has truly made me who I am today. 

It all started with the tragic and untimely loss of my dog, Duffy.  Duffy was almost ready to compete in Agility and Obedience when I lost him, and there are not words to describe how hopeless I felt at that time.  But a new beginning came to me in the form of a little black and white puppy named Kelso.  

Kelso was ten weeks old when I took him home and he was ten weeks old when he bit his first dog.  The very first time Kelso met another dog, an on-leash encounter at a park with an older labby mutt, who was pretty polite if I recall correctly, he pulled his lips back into a snarl and gripped the other dog straight on the muzzle.   A little surprised, but unwilling to label my new puppy as anything but bouncy and beautiful, I walked on. 

From there I became the official dumping ground for opinions and advice about dog-dog aggression as the dog world caught wind that Sarah’s new puppy has a nasty temperament.  Everyone wanted to help, and everyone thought they could.   I was told to grab him by the neck and shake him when he growled at another puppy in puppy class. I was told to pin him to the ground when he attacked to show my “dominance.”  I was told to pop him under the chin with my fist, so show him exactly which body part had committed the crime–his jaws.  I am sorry to say that I desperately tried it all, and I am now certain it is all of this that made my sweet dog’s problem so much worse.

What resulted from years and years of abusive “solutions” to my dog’s problem was nothing but increased aggression and a broken relationship with a dog I loved.  I would sit in the parking lot of the training center I was using to teach him obedience and agility and cry more often than not.  I would hear suggestions about getting a new dog, of a different breed, to participate in dog sports with because not only was Kelso aggressive, he was very low-drive for a border collie as well.  I now understand that Kelso is NOT a low-drive dog, he is in fact quite easy to motivate and a willing participant in all that we do.  The truth is that Kelso learned to hate training because of the unfair sitations I put him in, and the dispicable corrections I doled out when he tried to tell me he was uncomfortable.   He learned to hate agility. He hated obedience. He didn’t want to get out of the car when we arrived at training class.  My heart ached for him but I didn’t know what else to do.

Years passed and I finally found my way with this dog.  I learned that fighting aggression with aggression is absurd.  I learned that correcting a fear-based behavior only confirms the fear that caused the behavior in the first place.  I learned that first and foremost, my relationship with this dog had to be repaired.  Because dogs are the most forgiving of creatures, he learned to trust me again, and I learned how to show him that I would keep him safe.  Interestingly enough, when I abolished the use of physical corrections in my training my dog soared to become one of the best obedience dogs in the state, earning his Utility Dog title, 4 UDX legs and a handful of OTCH points with an Open B first, and other wins.  He started to be a fantastic agility dog that consistently came in 15-20 seconds under time, as opposed to barely making course time before. 

What this dog has taught me is about more than the sports of dog agility and obedience, though he has taught me more about these than any instructor or seminar. What he has taught me is about more than dog behavior, or aggression in particular, what he has taught me is about life.  He taught me above all to consider the experience of others. To know that no one has all the answers. And to trust myself.  If your gut tells you something is wrong, it probably is.  If you cry after an hour spent with your best friend, there’s a reason.  

The way that I train now, whether it is behavior modification or stupid pet tricks, I feel energized and happy.  I never feel beaten down and exhausted. I am a constant student of excellent dog training, I never settle for an answer that seems wrong.  I never train dogs based on tradition or opinion.  I now look at training or behavior challenges with a scientific mind that can merge easily with my own personal philosophy gained through the spiritual journey Kelso led me through. 

I don’t believe in religion. But I believe in universal order.  I believe in souls converging for a greater good.  The mistakes Kelso so generously forgave me for do not get filed in the category of regret, they get filed in the category of remember.  I will always remember how I did wrong by him so that I will never forget to do right by the next dog.  I can always draw strength from the fact that he and I finally got it right in the end.  Getting our MACH last weekend was an experience that proved our dedication to each other.  I knew there was a way for this dog to be successful, and I finally found it. 

As for Kelso, it’s on to Big Adventure Time.  That means that though his formal training is through, he will still get to do something fun every day.  While the baby dog gets to learn agility and obedience and how to be a good dog, he gets to walk with me to the mailbox and carry the mail in himself.  He gets to do a grid of 8″ jumps, at the end of which I tell him he is Champion of the World! He gets to go on long walks carrying his Chuck It Squirrel.  He gets to just be, and I get to reflect on the lessons he taught me and continues to teach me.  Thank you, Kelso, my life would be so very different without you.