My Most Challenging Dog Became My Most Loyal Companion

Normally, I tell dog training stories about other people's dogs. This one is more personal. Read on to learn how I turned my most challenging dog, Vista, into my most loyal companion.

I remember when I was 6 years old in 1960 asking my parents if we could get a dog.

I didn’t hear a thing from them until about a week later when my Dad returned home with a full grown male German shepherd named Duke. Now that was a strong move to the hoop when you’re 6!

Duke’s care became my first job. I was responsible for feeding, watering, brushing, and waste cleanup (which resulted in more than a few juvenile gagging episodes!). 

I still have the fondest memories of that big, beautiful, dedicated boy. In no time we became the best of friends. Unless we were taking him to the veterinarian for shots, I don’t remember ever having him on a leash. He was a great follower and guardian for me and my neighborhood friends.

My Saturdays and summers were spent outside with Duke and many of my classmates from our neighborhood exploring Goodyear Metropolitan Park, playing pickup baseball games at Betty Jane Grade School’s ball field, or playing dodgeball or football in my friend Tom’s yard with my shadow Duke just hanging out with us! 

I was thirteen when we lost Duke to illness; I was devastated.

My boy’s collar hung on my headboard until I moved out of the house after I graduated high school. Sharing my childhood with Duke at my side cemented my attachment and my love for dogs. 

From the early 90’s my wife Teri and I have owned so many marvelous golden retrievers. We met while we were both exhibiting our dogs. Don’t ask me why through all those years, I didn’t have another German shepherd.  I did mention to Teri numerous times that the day I retire, what I really wanted was a nice quality shepherd pup as I’ll have plenty of time to build that special relationship again. 

So let’s fast forward to early June 2013.

On a weekday afternoon, I received a call from my veterinarian at Mogadore Vet Clinic, Becky Williams. She asked if I could assist an 80-year-old couple who brought in their 14-month-old female German shepherd for a wellness exam. The pup was a challenge for even Dr. Williams’ three best vet techs to handle. She wasn’t mean, but she was incredibly strong and had a mind of her own that was stuck in high-speed fast-forward! 

I told Dr. Williams to have them call me and I’d give it my best shot.  Placing that girl with an 80-year-old couple wasn’t a good fit from the start. This litter was bred by a very reputable local breeder of very high-quality German shepherds. Dr. Williams told me that she also cares for a few others from the same litter with the same overactive mental metabolism. 

In their defense, the breeder realized that they made a poor choice placing Vista in that home and tried on multiple occasions to buy her back for the original purchase price. They even had a police K9 handler in Pittsburgh looking for a high-drive young dog to train for narcotic detection.

Ed and Shirley refused every offer and brought Vista to me for a five-night stay to allow me to get a feel for her. She was 14 months old.

Vista's first day with Jerry at 14 months

When they left, I immediately took her for a two mile walk. It was like walking the lead dog on the sled team pulling continuously! She was of exceptional tracking stock. With her drive and intensity, I surely believe she would have had quite a career with that police K9 handler in PA. Vista had been sent to at least two other trainers and came to me with a variety of collars, harnesses, leashes, long lines, electronics and philosophies.

When something triggered her, this is how she responded:

Every morning I would get up at 3 am, put a ten-pound canine backpack on Vista, then put her on my canine treadmill. I would increase the incline and give her a good ten-minute run at a brisk pace to take some of the starch out of her so I could work with her on leash behavior prior to leaving for work. When I returned home, I strapped on her backpack, collar, and leash and off we went around my three-mile country block on my bike with this high spirited girl literally dragging me and the bike at least halfway around the block. Vista was either blessed or cursed with unbridled stamina!

I put in quite a bit of effort and time with Vista over those five days and  communicated daily with Ed and Shirley to keep them informed of our progress. On Thursday Ed and Shirley came early in the evening. They sat together on the couch, and I went down to kennel and brought Vista on her leash and collar. I sat in a chair off to the side of them and told Vista to lay down on the floor on the right side of me. Teri was in the kitchen as we began to talk about Vista and discussed their “Go Home” plan with her. I informed them that their level of commitment and leadership needed to be significant. As we continued to talk and review, they shared the pushback they were receiving from their out-of-state children, neighbors, and friends at the campground where they spent most of the summer. Everybody was concerned that Ed and Shirley were out-gunned. 


Are you interested in learning all 7 Core Disciplines of our Dog Training Methods?

At one point they talked quietly amongst themselves and then Shirley said to her husband, “maybe I’ll call Kathy (Vista’s breeder) and see if she would still be interested buying her back and placing her with the police K9 handler.”

At that, Ed emphatically said, “absolutely not! Look at her, we have been talking for over an hour and she hasn’t taken her eyes off of him.” Then Ed followed up with, “Jerry, would you like to keep her?” 

I’m pretty positive that Teri nearly had a heart attack! (She has never been a fan of German shepherds.)I responded that I really wanted them to take Vista home and try to work with her on the things I had outlined. I did, however, ask them to call me if they decided to place her.

Friday afternoon, I was sitting in my office at work when my phone rang and it was Ed asking when I could come and get her. I told Ed that I needed to discuss this with Teri as this decision was not worth the risk of (at that time) 27 years of marriage! Did I mention that she was not a fan of shepherds — especially ones with the rubber band wound too tight?

When I returned home, I told her that Ed had called. I still remember the look on her face when she asked me, “what did you tell him?” I shared with her that I told Ed that, “our marriage was too important to risk without discussing.” There was a period of silence before Teri said, “I don’t quite understand, but I know you like her, and I also know that you’ll make something special out of her!” We brought our “Crazy” home to stay the next day.

I remember the day before Ed and Shirley were scheduled to return to pick up Vista, I came in the house after spending a good while in the backyard with her and told my wife Teri, “that’s one crazy bitch out there, but she has gold in her soul that just cannot be trained!” This turned out to be so true. Vista would follow me off leash anywhere. If I was mowing, she would trot next to the mower as I mowed two acres! And her most amazing attribute (which I didn’t discover until later) was her behavior when I introduced her to a new dog that arrived for a kennel visit prior to their stay. I would bring Vista out into the garage and have her lay down while I handle the visiting dog. When I gave her my hand signal to come, if she came in all the way to the visiting dog to sniff him/her, that dog has always been a very socially acceptable dog! If, on the other hand, Vista stopped about eight feet away on her approach, she was giving me insight into her canine judgement. Her whole posture would change as her body would go soft, she would turn away and avert her attention away from the visiting dog by hanging her head and occasionally yawning. These are all some of the classic calming signals that dogs give to each other when one’s energy is a little too hot. If I called her, she would come come to me, but you could visibly see her reluctance. Eventually, I stopped requiring her to come greet the new dog. Every time she came in still displaying calm indifference, that new dog always would react with an undesired outburst towards her. Her assessment has never failed.

But before she showed me all of this “gold,” there was work to be done. I knew I needed to relax and consistently reinforce her desired behaviors and, when necessary, calmly intercept and correct when I could see her hyperactive state of mind gearing up.

She needed clear, concise, and consistent criteria and I needed to be her Leader. These methods are the bedrock in dog training that helped to turn my most challenging dog into my loyal companion.

The next few years my primary focus was training a series of calming exercises such as:

In my opinion, it’s essential to be emotionally neutral when sharing consequences / corrections with your dog. The last thing your dog needs is to feel your emotional response. are a lot… while not caring at all… that is the trick—and the true magic when you achieve it!

Vista siting comfortably (physically and mentally), on the couch.