RLL #15: 5 Lessons from Bruiser's Obedience Class

Real Life Leading #15

5 Lessons from Bruiser’s Obedience Class

     Back in September, my family adopted a second dog from a local Humane Society. He’s a fifty(ish) pound bulldog/boxer mix named Bruiser, and we found out VERY quickly that his name was either well-chosen (after someone had owned him for a while) or prophetic (if someone named him when he was still very young). This dog is as stubborn as the day is long. He chews things he shouldn’t (the couch, my briefcase, one of my all-time favorite hats), doesn’t listen to anyone or anything, and he has a habit of slobbering on my clothes just moments before I leave for school in the mornings.

At least, these were my views of Bruiser after the first couple of months. Things came to a crisis point one evening when Bruiser and Butterscotch (our other dog, another Boxer-mix rescue dog who is about 60 pounds) got into a fight one night about food. The dogs like to rough-house and play, but this was entirely different: Bruiser went after Butterscotch, slicing her leg open with his teeth (it required stitches the next day) and cutting her ear open. My wife and I talked about Bruiser at length over the next few days: do we find him a new home (he was a very different dog when Butterscotch was in a different room or in the yard) where he would be the only dog, do we keep him and hope things change, or do we try obedience classes?

My pride rebelled at the thought of obedience classes, but just hoping for change wasn’t doing us any good--I’d been doing that for two months. I knew my heart would break if we gave him away (I strongly identify with this dog, but that’s for another post, another time). So I gave in and called to schedule obedience classes at the local Pet Smart. Eight half-hour sessions later, it’s as if Bruiser is a completely different dog: still energetic and playful, still not aware of how strong and clumsy he is, but much gentler, much more obedient, much more willing to please. So, here are five lessons I learned from Bruiser’s obedience classes that I hope you will find applicable as well!


Bruiser in his favorite spot!

1. When I admitted I didn’t have the answers and asked for help, everything started to improve. Pride almost cost me my new dog, and humility (reluctant on my part) saved him. I live in a world of females. I have a wife, two daughters, a girl dog, and I coach a high school girls soccer program of 30+ athletes. I was THRILLED to have a boy dog in the house...until he was a terror. I had owned dogs my whole life, and I’d never had to take one to obedience training, so why was this any different? The answer: because the only dogs I’d ever owned that tested boundaries like this, I had to give away (this happened twice in my late teens/early twenties). I was forced to admit that I had zero clue how to train this dog. And when I did, and when I followed my wife’s advice to take him to class, the trainer (Cheryl, the Dog Trainer Superlady) was incredible. By the end of the first class, I knew more about dog training than I’d ever learned before, and Bruiser was already showing drastic improvement.


Bruiser and Butterscotch with Kid #1

2. The reward has to be worth the effort. If it’s not, frustration may be the only result you get. Bruiser is the most food-motivated creature I’ve ever come across in my life. I knew this a little, because before the class, the ONLY time Bruiser would sit when told to was when I was holding his dinner in my hands. I mentioned this to the trainer, and she said, “Then reward him with treats every time he obeys, and he’ll obey a lot more.” I protested that I didn’t want to have to give him a treat every time he obeyed, and her response was, “Then expect him to continue to disobey.” The thing is, Bruiser had lived most of his life without having to obey anyone--he was on his own or in a bad situation or in a shelter. So why should I expect him to obey me when 1) he doesn’t actually speak English, he speaks dog, and 2) he’s never learned how to obey? So, we doubled-down, bought (inexpensive) treats, and Bruiser become much more willing to obey when he realized the reward was worth the effort.

3. Intelligence and communication are crucial to any good collaborative effort. If Bruiser and I were going to work, I had to 1) realize that he wasn’t stupid, and he wasn’t just stubborn, and 2) figure out how to communicate in a way that he understood. Turns out, Bruiser is incredibly intelligent, able to pick up on things almost immediately...when I communicate them clearly and when the reward is sufficient. One of the major things Cheryl told me is that I have to use the same word every time I want an action performed. To a dog’s ears, “Down! Sit! Sit down! Stay! Sit!” all sound like noise. How is Bruiser to know that those are all different commands that really call for the same response? I learned to pick one command word, accompany it with a physical cue (pointing at the floor), and then use that one every time. And when we did, he started picking things up immediately. By the end of session two, he was sitting, laying down, sitting back up, and (sometimes) coming when we called him. And yes, we still rewarded (and still do) him every time because these were new victories and we want to reinforce them. He’s a lot smarter than I realized, and I only saw that when Cheryl showed me how I was communicating poorly with my dog.


Bruiser helping out when mom was sick

4. Patience in any new task is crucial to eventual success. Butterscotch spoiled me--she’s a calm, quiet-natured, (mostly) obedient dog, almost naturally. So when Bruiser just (in my eyes) chose to ignore me every time I spoke to him, I got very frustrated. I got angry. And I lost my temper (on multiple occasions). I’m not proud of this, and I’ve apologized to him (with words and treats and cuddles) many times. What I didn’t realize until class was that Bruiser had to figure out what I was looking for when I gave him commands, and when I gave him a second or two to think, he would perform them. So, when I said sit, it took about a second for him to put it together: “Hmm, that weird human noise means I need to put my puppy-rear-end on the floor and keep it there.” Same thing with “Lay down.” And with “Stay.” Amazingly, when I learned to have patience with Bruiser, he performed better, my blood pressure returned to normal, and we both got along much better.

5. Consistency is key. So, in the past two months of class, Bruiser has made tremendous progress. But the truth is, the total amount of class time over that two month period was four hours. We spent a LOT of time at home reinforcing the things learned in class. Because I’m a teacher, note-taking is a part of who I am, so I took notes at obedience class (just like I took notes everyday for my first few months as a firefighter, learning about the equipment, etc). And then I brought those notes home so that I could be sure to recreate the situations from class. This also allowed my wife and kids to participate in the training process, all of which has been helpful for Bruiser and for the family. We even started using many of the techniques learned with Bruiser to help better train Butterscotch, with positive results! The point here is that eight thirty-minute sessions were great, but that time alone was not going to be enough to retrain Bruiser--we had to be consistent at home, working with him for at least a few minutes almost every day. When we did that, the positive changes continued, and our home is a much more positive (and much less-chewed upon) place!


The pups snuggling with Kid #2

So, there are five quick lessons I learned from class with Bruiser! I hope you also learned along with me and are able to apply these lessons in other areas of life as well. I know that I’ve already started looking for ways to apply these in my parenting, my teaching, my coaching, and my speaking. Let me know how I can help you too!

Action Step: Choose one of these five lessons and apply it in one situation in your personal or professional life, and then email me and let me know how it goes. I look forward to hearing from you!