I was mentored by many humans but the dog that set me on this path was my German Shepherd, Maya. The first half of our decade together was pure hell; the second half was heaven. Maya is the dog to whom I owe it all, and the teacher who made me want to share what I know.
I’ll never forget the day we first met. I had an appointment with my friend and shelter volunteer Laurie, who had a bunch of dogs lined up for me. I thought I was going to go home empty-handed until Laurie showed up with Maya, who was barking, lunging, and pulling her down the driveway. Little did I know that this dog would change my life.
She was breathtakingly gorgeous – a young, velvety, all-black German Shepherd. I was quickly given the disclaimer and told that she would be a challenge given that she’d been through several homes already. Still, I saw in Maya something that got the better of me. I proceeded to adopt her and diligently follow the advice given by the shelter folks: Socialize Maya at the dog park; take her to an obedience class; make-up for past trauma with love and affection.
Our experiences in obedience class were extremely positive. Maya was eager and applied herself, and passed her Canine Good Citizen certification within a few months. However, my Canine Good Citizen wasn’t quite so good when it came to the dog park. Maya’s anxiety there eventually escalated to aggression and dog fights, with frenzied owners attempting to intervene.
I was often threatened and feared I was going to be charged by the authorities and have my dog seized. Things got so bad that I decided to kick the park to the curb. But by then, Maya had become incredibly aggressive in all avenues, whether out with friends or at the daycare facility, where she was labelled as trouble and handled as such. Just as with the dog park, she would come back home from the daycare worn-out. Meanwhile, I felt good about it, thinking that “a tired dog is a happy dog.”
By this point, Maya walked horribly on the leash and was even more aggressive leashed up. Funny how the “loose-leash walking” we’d learned in class didn’t quite translate to the sidewalks downtown. To walk her “safely,” I used a head halter, which only aggravated and disgusted her, while giving me the illusion of being in control. I consulted with trainers who suggested we get into sport to “boost the dog’s confidence.”
So we pursued just about every sport on the planet, including agility and flyball, and again she applied herself beautifully. Outside the structured training arena, however, Maya was chronically anxious – pacing, panting, and submissively urinating just about each time I came near her. Unless we were training, she had no interest in me or much else. I could tell that she was deeply unhappy, and so was I.
Around that time, I discovered a famous TV personality who emphasized “dog psychology” and “pack leadership,” which almost invariably resulted in confrontations with the dog – jabs, verbal corrections, and rolling dogs on their back. Still, I remember experiencing an epiphany of sorts. Clearly, I’d failed to be firm enough with Maya!
So I proceeded to correct my dog harder using leash corrections and side-kicks, and even “alpha-rolled” her a few times, to her utter shock. The same expert stressed the importance of exercise, so I exercised Maya to the point of mental exhaustion and physical injury. When all was said and done, I ended up with problems far greater, as Maya’s aggression was now lessened in frequency but heightened in intensity. In short, she’d become unpredictable and vindictive.
Another two years of this hell went by before I finally met Sam Malatesta, the teacher who split off my career as a dog handler into two clear chapters – the one before I met him and the one after. I can’t say I remember much of what I heard at that first seminar with Sam. But I’ll never forget what I saw in the three dogs loose around him. As a fan of German Shepherds, I’d seen many but none behaved quite like this. They stared up at him admiringly and boldly. They followed and circled around him each time he moved. The connection and rapport he had with them and all the dogs at the seminar – that is what I had been missing all this time.
I knew I would do whatever it took to get Maya to be the kind of dog that Sam’s dogs were – “strong and happy, loose and free.” To have dogs like that requires we be “worth looking at,” as Sam is known to say. When we fix ourselves, we fix our dogs. Maya was simply a reflection of unfair attitudes and expectations, and terribly unnatural situations for a dog to sustain. She couldn’t help but fail, and with her self-esteem shattered, she acted out. I also reflected on how she’d been some kind of an ego-booster for me, the mask of my inadequacies and insecurities. I came to learn that I’d never have sound dogs until I stopped looking to them to complete me.
Maya gave me yet another chance. This time, I sensed she knew I may finally be getting it. I started to feel greater purity in the air when we were together. I took charge of her world but also took charge of myself. I learned, and continue to learn, the art of keeping one’s thoughts and emotions in check when handling dogs. It was amazing to see the once-aggressive dog becoming the dog I’d use to settle in some of my fosters. That she’d get bitten by a dog in class once, and not react. That thanks to such stability, we were able to resume our love of canine sports and went on to try sheep herding, an activity I’d long dreamed of pursuing. I was lucky to meet Kathy Warner at Tee Creek Dog Training, where my herding education continues to this day. While Sam taught me to be in sync with my dog, Kathy taught me to be in sync with my dog and livestock, testing our relationship and taking it to the next level. Maya and I enjoyed beautiful herding moments once I started to learn how to handle myself, physically and mentally, in that unique environment.
Eventually, Maya’s aging body forced her retirement from her newfound herding career. It was a bit difficult at first to retire her but all the work we’d done with Sam and Kathy allowed Maya for the first time to enjoy the calmness and peace of a low-stress life. We remained active in different ways appropriate to retired status.
Maya became my sidekick, coming to the office with me and accompanying me on errands. We so enjoyed these golden years, her leisurely off-leash walks, therapeutic swims, and late nights on the couch, reveling in the intimacy we’d both longed for. Every once in a while, a herding opportunity presented itself. I remember going once to my favorite drive-through with Maya riding shotgun. We arrived at the intersection but found it backed up with traffic because a rather large flock of Canada geese had decided to setup camp. I saw the situation and clearly so did Maya; she could tell something needed to be done. I stopped the car, flashed my signals, stepped out, and waved to the impatient drivers to stay put.
Out came Maya, flawlessly rounding up the flock, zooming around cars to make sure she’d not missed any strays, and gently moving the geese to the park by the road. The geese, otherwise known to be temperamental, moved nicely with neither protest nor irritation. Proper to a herding dog to peacefully move its flock. When Maya was done, she checked back in with me instead of continuing to “play” with the geese: “All done, mom?,” she asked with her big eyes. “Yep, all done!” I said ecstatically. “Smart girl you are.” Back into the car she hopped, as the drivers clapped and cheered. A real YouTube moment for us that she felt equally proud of.
There are no words to describe the loss I felt when it was time to put Maya to sleep. This would be my last gift to her – making this decision not a moment too late. I have missed her each day since, and yet she lives on in how I deal with every dog and person I meet. She is the reason behind Way of Life™ Dog Training, as she made me rethink how I related to, and lived, with dogs. I wanted to be worthy of her love and devotion, which she had been so willing, yet unable, to bestow. Had it not been for my dismal failures and triumphant successes with Maya, our many moments of despair and joy, I would not be sharing my knowledge with others today. Rest in peace, girl.