What do you see when you look at this photo?
Let me tell you what I see. I see the true love of my life, my best friend. I met him when I was just 19 years old and he was a dog living at a rescue where I was volunteering. I was in the middle of a six week internship as an assistant in the shelter’s veterinary clinic, and I became hooked on fostering dogs. I had already fostered a puppy and two fearful southern transport dogs that had found homes before I was then introduced to him, then known as Buick. He had been adopted and returned, and I was told that the staff had a tough time connecting with him in the shelter. They thought maybe if I fostered him, I could learn more about him in a home environment and figure out why he had been returned or what he would need in an adoptive home.
I loaded Buick in the car, confident that after my last three fosters I was well equipped for the mission of getting to know this gorgeous dog. Once we got home and I opened the trunk to let him out, he slipped out of his collar and took off running. I ran after him and when he stopped to relieve himself on a tree, I saw my opportunity to put his collar back on. When I reached towards him with the collar he growled at me and I realized immediately I was in way over my head. He had taught me my first of many lessons: humility.
I had grown up with dogs, volunteered at other rescues, and fostered other dogs before, but I had never once had a dog growl at me. I had no idea how to handle it, and I probably should have brought him back to the shelter right then, but something told me not to. Several weeks went by, then months before Buick was adopted by a woman I met at the dog park. About a week later, a friend of mine called and told me the adopter was back at the dog park with Buick, and was trying to abandon him there. I intervened and decided it was a sign, he was meant to be my dog. I decided to adopt him and renamed him Buck, after the dog in The Call of the Wild he reminded me so much of.
I brought him home and that night for the first time he bit me. I don’t remember what prompted the bite, but I remember I instinctually did what I had seen my parents do and what I had seen trainers on TV do when a dog misbehaved. I yelled at him, I pushed him on the ground and I made him lay on his side while I continued to yell. In doing this, I broke the pure bond he and I had and any trust he had in me. I was heartbroken and I felt as betrayed as he did.
The longer I owned Buck, the more instances of seemingly unpredictable aggression he showed. He lunged and barked at the dog park when another owner corrected him for annoying their dog, so I stopped taking him to the dog park. He snapped at someone in my apartment complex who tried to greet him, so I stopped letting him near people. He had an incident with a dog on our walking trail so I stoped walking him there. He bit me when I tried to get him to move out of the driver’s seat of the car so we stopped going for car rides. He chased cars and then would bite me from the overstimulation, so I only took him out when it was dark, before sunset and after sundown when we could hide. Everything he loved to do and everything I loved doing with him was gone. He was so bored and I was so anxious that at least weekly there was an incident of him biting me for no apparent reason. I realized I needed help, this was no way for either of us to live.
I tried several trainers over the next few months. One used treats only to train him, but he continued to show aggression. One taught me to “growl” at him while throwing chains at his feet and tossing water in his face every time he got aggressive. That technique led to the first time Buck actually really hurt me. He had growled at me over a toy, something the trainer had told me never to allow, and when I “growled” back he bit me in the arm and held on, really wanting to make his second lesson known: respect. So many dog trainers and dog owners are uneducated in how to handle a dog with aggression and they forget to respect the dog and treat them fairly throughout the training process.
I decided it was time to find a real dog trainer, one that specialized in dogs like Buck, and luckily I found one. He came in and showed me that there is a way to train a dog using all parts of operant conditioning (positive reinforcement, negative reinforcement, positive punishment, and negative punishment) while at all times respecting the dog and putting safety as the top priority. He introduced me to muzzles and gave me the one Buck is wearing in this photo, almost eight years later. When he first showed me the muzzle I refused to put it on him. He sat me down and explained to me why it was so important to use a muzzle with Buck. He recognized that I had become so afraid of him being aggressive with me or in public that I was insecure even holding his leash. That insecurity would only add to Buck’s and it was a recipe for disaster. With the muzzle, I would be able to slowly regain my confidence and trust in Buck and more importantly myself, with the risk of him hurting me or anyone else taken away. However, putting the muzzle on him alone would not be enough. He had to love his muzzle, had to behaved the same with it on as with it off, or it would simply shut Buck down, rather than give us an opportunity to train him. I decided to take the chance on this trainer and trust him, and I am so thankful that I did.
With a true professional’s guidance and a year of training, I had Buck completely under control. Buck now has his life back, he has freedom he never would have had without the muzzle. He only wears it when we are in a situation where he may be triggered to aggression, but outside of trips to the vet each year, he has not had any incidents. He wears it when meeting new people, when running alongside my atv as I work on the farm, and when walking in crowded public spaces. I am safe, he trusts me, and we have a beautiful relationship once again, one that is still strong to this day. Every day that he looks to me as his leader and friend he reteaches me another important lesson: forgiveness. How he was able to forgive me for my uneducated handling of his aggression in the beginning I will never know, but I am so grateful.
Buck also taught me that my purpose in life is to work with dogs just like him that most trainers and shelters have no idea how to handle. I began apprenticing under the trainer who taught me how to properly handle my beautiful dog, and over the years he and Buck taught me all I needed to become the trainer I am today. I put the tools they taught me to work in multiple shelters and rescues before joining with my friend Courtney and my husband Adam to start our own, Wayward Ranch Animal Sanctuary, dedicated to dogs just like Buck who in other shelters or with other owners would likely have euthanasia as their only option.
We have grown to help animals of many different species with different medical and behavioral problems and now are more than just a resource for aggressive dogs. I am so proud of everything we have accomplished, and we have so much more to do. By my side, continuing to guide and teach me as I go through the process of running this rescue, is my soul mate and best friend Buck. He is only able to still be there because of the training we went through together and the life and freedom I was able to give back to him because I was willing to open my heart to using a muzzle.
Long story short….when I see this photo I see freedom and love. What do you see?