Dog training shouldn’t be a DIY experiment

Upon adopting my dog Oreo six months ago, I knew a few basic facts: Oreo needed a bed, dog food, water, leash, collar and a place to do his business. As a first-time dog owner, I had a lot to learn, and I knew it.

I had a few simple goals to guide me: I wanted Oreo to be healthy, happy and well-behaved.

But those simple goals weren’t as simple to achieve.

Derek Runnells gets Oreo’s attention by offering him a treat, which he can’t take until Derek signals it’s OK.

Lets start with health. Aside from bringing him to the veterinarian, I had to learn about ticks and doggy Lyme disease. Then Oreo ate a bag of chocolate. (Remember that column?) So I researched chocolate poisoning. There was that strange sore on his stomach, and I learned about infections and how to hide a pill in a dog treat. Oh, and don’t forget how he vomited all over my back seat — three times — due to motion sickness.

Moving on to happiness. That part has been easy. Give him love and attention. Exercise during the day, plenty of toys to chew on and cuddles after 8 p.m. Repeat. The wag of his tail tells all.

Last, but not least, is good behavior. I want Oreo to listen to my commands. And that one goal, for me, has proven to be the most challenging.

So I reached out for help. I asked fellow dog owners things like, “How do you get your dog to stop barking at other dogs?” and “How do you introduce your dog to new people?” and “Is there a way to get him to stop pulling on the leash?”

And over the months, I’ve been offered all sorts of methods and opinions about dog training.

Now, in my head, all the kindly bestowed advice is starting to clash and blend. It’s a mess of confusion and contradiction: “Positive reinforcement is the only way.” “Use a Halti leash.” “Muzzles don’t allow dogs to breathe.” “Positive reinforcement doesn’t work.” “Spray him with water when he barks.” “Make him walk beside you.” “You could try a shock collar.” “Bring him out in public as much as you can.” “Don’t let him around too many people at once.” “Your dog is reacting to your nervousness. Stay calm in tense situations.” “Be the Alpha dog. Don’t let him dominate you.”

I asked for it.

Have you ever been frozen in place because you have way too many options? That’s basically what happened.

So, this week, I decided to take action before my head explodes.

On Wednesday, Oreo and I visited a local dog trainer, one with an impressive background in training pit bulls.

I went into it a bit nervous. Oreo’s big problems are new people and new dogs. The trainer was a new person. Honestly, I expected Oreo to bark the entire session and for the trainer to tell me that I should have come earlier. There was nothing he could do.

But to my surprise, the opposite happened. Oreo decided he liked the trainer after a few minutes, and we were well on our way to finding solutions. Optimism filled the air (cheesy, but true), and when we left the session, I found myself having a very good day. It’s amazing how much worrying about your pets can affect you. Now that I have some help, a weight has been lifted from my shoulders. I can sweep all the previous advice aside and focus on what the professional has to say.

During the first session, I jotted down notes and watched as the trainer communicated with Oreo with the smallest actions. It became clear to me that training a dog doesn’t come naturally. It’s not instinctual or simple common sense. Humans are used to communicating with humans. Dogs are different. It’s easy to be contradicting and confusing to a dog. It’s easy to send the wrong message.

Now, I’m not saying that you can’t find some good advice on the Internet or from a friend who has been through dog training. But I seriously benefited from sitting down with a professional who trains dogs day in and day out.

Oreo and I sitting on Cadillac Mountain in November 2013.

Oreo and I are heading back to the trainer next week. For now, I’m working on a few exercises to build Oreo’s confidence in strange situations and strengthen our relationship. The exercises are as simple as keeping his attention and rewarding specific good behavior with small treats, praise, smiles and petting.

I guess well-known businesswoman and columnist Rona Barrett knew what she was talking about when she said, “The healthy and strong individual is the one who asks for help when he needs it. Whether he’s got an abscess on his knee or in his soul.”

In this DIY world, with YouTube how-to videos, and books like “Dog Training for Dummies,” it sometimes seems counterintuitive to ask for help, to admit that you don’t have the skills to accomplish your goals. But then, in some cases, I believe it’s absolutely necessary to ask for just that — help — if just for the sake of maintaining your sanity.

Aislinn Sarnacki

About Aislinn Sarnacki

Aislinn is a Bangor Daily News reporter for the Outdoors pages, focusing on outdoor recreation and Maine wildlife. Visit her main blog at