Do you have a high drive, strong, and intelligent dog who has a mind of his own? Does she pull horribly and takes you on walks instead of the other way around? Are you a petite woman or feel like you’re building one bicep from trying to control your dog?
If any of these resonate with you, it’s because I too struggled to no end during the first 1.5 years of Milo’s life. In a lot of the pictures or posts you see now, Milo appears to be well balanced and obedient, but that change didn’t happen until after we hit rock bottom and questioned multiple, multiple, multiple, times whether we were the right owners for him and whether should rehome him to someone better.
If it’s any consolation, you aren’t alone and it does get better. Below, I’ve outlined the whole spectrum of things we’ve tried. In hindsight, we may not have been the best handlers for him, but I’m happy to say that we never gave up. Our journey to communicate with each other has opened doors for new adventures that we would have never attempted even a few months ago.
8 weeks – 8 months: Flat collar + back clip harness
Pretty normal to use for a pup. He was only a 15 lb. dust bunny when we first brought him home. “Training” to us meant “tricks” like sit, shake, spin, down etc. which he learned very quickly. He was still small so controlling him on walks was no problem. We were learning day by day though, that a back clip harness brought out his inner sled dog mentality.
8 months – 1 year: Ruffwear front harness
Milo was now not so small. Weighing in around 60 lbs, it was getting harder and harder to control him by the day. We purchased a Ruffwear harness with a front leash attachment because we heard good things about the company, but no harness in the world would have been able to hold back our land shark. After a few months, the durable harness snapped at the buckle because Milo lunged too hard to go play with another dog. RIP.
1 year – 1.5 years: E-Z-Walker + Gentle Leader
This was the first thing that semi worked for us. We got the front clip E-Z-Walker because it has a martingale-esque quality that clinches at the chest when he pulls. The front hook plus that compression helped redirect his forward motion. However, in our case, there were a lot of shortcomings. The way it sat on his body made his walking gait seem restricted and the harness ended up chafing his shoulder hairs to the point of almost balding. We had to balance between tightening enough to control but loose enough to be comfortable. But it worked much better than previous methods so we stuck to it through 3 or 4 harnesses.
We had a Gentle Leader but never really used it. Milo didn’t like it on his face and with the force he was pulling with sometimes, we were concerned that it might injure his neck or muzzle.
I’ve heard great things from other people who use both/either of these methods, and it may work fantastically for you and your dog! But ultimately we decided to raise the bar and wanted more from him.
1.5 years: Pacific Northwest German Shepherd Dog Pack (PNW GSD Pack)
So I just want to start out and say, these people straight up changed our lives. Since Milo was our first dog, we had no experience other than what we “heard or thought” was the best thing to do (cue the feelings of self-doubt and major frustration). During one of our routine visits to our local dog park, I started talking to a fellow shepherd owner. She told us about her experiences with her 100+ lb King Shepherd and invited to join the “PNW GSD Pack,” which is a growing community of 3,000 shepherd owners in the Pacific Northwest.
So I joined the Facebook group and lurked for a while. It operates like a forum for people to ask questions about health, advice on training, and general cute pupdates. But they also organize Pack meets in real life, so when one was scheduled for Portland, I loaded Milo up in the car and drove out to meet them.
That first meeting opened my eyes to a whole new world. I realized we didn’t even know what a “well-behaved” dog was supposed to look like. Some of the shepherds and their owners were walking calmly side by side, some off leash and still following their handlers, and some obviously adolescent but not acting crazy. I saw some handlers have their dog jump up and balance on upright log poles no more than 10 inches across and then sit handsome like a fricken bunny. Absolutely mind boggling.
Meanwhile, I was on the struggle bus, lagging behind, and Milo was pulling like crazy on his E-Z harness to catch up with his new pack of friends. Later, when a few of us let our dogs off leash to play, Milo stole another dog’s chuck-it ball for 30 minutes. Two other owners and I tried everything to get it back from him while their dogs were in a down stay the entire time. Needless to say, it was an embarrassing and eye-opening ordeal.
And the thing was, it wasn’t like these were all top show dogs with their obedience expert owners. They were just normal people who expected better from their companions. It was at this pivotal moment that I knew I had to take action or else our future with Milo would continue to become more and more uncertain.
Link to join FB group here. You’ll have to answer a few questions to make sure you’re located in the PNW region, own/plan to have a shepherd (mix), and are not a bot. But other than that, welcome!
1.5 years – current: prong collar
Now don’t be scared off by the following two sections. These items are tools utilized by humans to communicate with their dog. Nothing more, nothing less. Emphasis on tools and humans because there will always be horror stories of people misusing, neglecting, or abusing their dogs with these methods. And those people suck.
But after that meet, I looked into something called “balanced training.” Up until this point, we mostly used treats and verbal praise to reinforce good behavior and nothing else other than harsh “no’s” and timeouts to discourage bad behaviors. I did massive research into the spectrum of dog training, from all-positive, clicker, alpha/intimidation styles, etc. I won’t discuss those, but for us, we picked what we thought was the most objective style. Because at a certain point, whatever Milo was distracted by (other dogs, chuck-it balls, bird in the sky, river running free, leaf falling off tree, etc.) was way more interesting than the treat I was offering him.
So we bought a 3 mm authentic Herm Sprenger prong training collar.
When used properly, they fit high on the neck, behind the ear, and are able to deliver a quick correction from the handler. Emphasis on correction – there should never be any jerking, pulling, or eventually, any tension at all on the leash. It’s designed to apply universal pressure all around the neck, while other collars put heavy pressure on and can actually damage the trachea of a pulling/lunging dog. I liken the correction to that of a momma dog nipping the neck of her pup when he’s being naughty.
What I like most about using the prong is that it helped me communicate with Milo. At the end of the day, dogs are animals, and will respond more readily to natural cues than human words. In addition, there must be some way to help hold the dog accountable to what we expect from them.
And that is what we are doing. We still offer treats to help keep him motivated, but also give corrections to keep him focused. Milo now had the power to choose his actions and decide how enjoyable a casual walk around the neighborhood would be. I now had a way to reassure him that I was in control of every situation and that he could trust me to lead. Most importantly, we now had the power to understand each other better.
What a beautiful conversation and world has opened up to us.
2 years – current: E-collar
We are currently using an e-collar from Off-Leash K9 Training Sea-Tac with Milo to continue his training. While I know some people who learned how to use one on their own, we opted for a trainer who specializes in transitioning dogs to be obedient off leash. Link here. I won’t get into how we use it, but it basically acts as a focus breaker (for when he’s doing something undesirable) and an attention getter (for when we are about to give a command). Working with leash pressure and the e-collar for different things is something we do as often as we can. Once you have the tools and knowledge, everywhere starts to become your training playground.
Closing remarks + future goals
The thing with training is that it is always an ongoing endeavor. It’s not like one day your dog will be magically better, even if you decide to fix them or do an expensive board and train. But what it does allow you to do is build a relationship with your companion so that you can accomplish tasks together – whether that is a peaceful trip to the dog park, family gatherings, local pet store, public areas, on the trails etc. – without having anxiety of your own. Remember, your dog is doing the best he or she can with the information you’re giving. Be vigilant. Be consistent.
Future goals for us include taking the bus and ferry (both are dog friendly where we are), obedience and manners around other dogs, and also continuing to work on recall and responsiveness on the trail. The whole reason why we got a dog of his stature is because we wanted an adventure companion. After two years together, we are finally blossoming into that as a team.