In January, 2012 I started volunteering for a small pit bull rescue. At the time, I did not fully know what I was in for, but I knew I enjoyed working with dogs, and I was looking for something to do in my spare time. I started out by helping with training, which soon led to being a part time foster/ back up foster for puppies. During the 4 years I was involved with pit bull rescue I had multiple dogs come thru my home as fosters. Some tugged at my heart strings more than others, but Popeye is one of a kind.
At the end of October, 2012 Popeye was accepted into the rescue’s foster and adopt program. He and his brother were about 6 weeks old. It was evident they had not received the best care in the first 6 weeks of their lives, but the rescue was bound and determined to make the following years of their lives plentiful, and full of love.
In January 2013 I was asked to foster Popeye part time. I remember my first day with Popeye. I tried to take him for a walk in town and I was mortified as he barked at everything and everyone. I thought to myself “What have I got myself into? Thank Goodness I only have to care for him part time.” Myself and the other volunteers worked together to problem solve Popeye’s behavior. While I shared stories of my frustration with Popeye’s in-your-face-attitude and lack of willingness to listen, others shared stories of trying to take him to the dog park and never actually making it into the dog park due to his excessive barking and excitement. The list of shenanigans he put us through is endless. We wondered how we were going to find a home for this dog. Nobody wants a dog that behaves like this.
We started teaching him basic obedience and trying to drain his energy by taking him on long hikes and eventually, long walks in town. The first day of obedience class, I was nothing but weight at the end of the leash. Once Popeye got over the initial excitement of being around all of the dogs and people, he calmed down and started to focus. His focus was amazing! When he was in work mode, he did not let anybody or anything stand in his way. He lived to work. He embraced the one on one interaction with his human. At 10 months old, Popeye earned his AKC Canine Good Citizenship (CGC). All of the volunteers sighed with relief that day. We felt there was a ray of hope for Popeye.
While the CGC was a huge break through, it was still only a stepping stone. We still had a lot of work to do. His barking was down to a minimum, but he was still the nosiest dog we had ever met and his excitability was off the charts. He could go from 0 to 100 in a matter of seconds. Some days Popeye was a punk, and other days he was a perfect prince.
As Popeye’s behavior improved, he attended events and adoption days. With each event and each adoption day, we hoped Popeye would find a home. People were intrigued by his looks and asked about his breed, but they were not ready to make the leap and adopt him.
At work and around town people would ask if I was going to adopt him, and I would respond with a resounding NO! Finally, when Popeye was 18 months old I decided to try training him for search and rescue. There was always a part of me that knew that Popeye’s punk behavior was due to boredom. He needed a job, an outlet for his spastic energy and something to mentally challenge him. I took him to a Search and Rescue K9 team training in our county. They tested his temperament and play drive. Popeye passed with flying colors! I hit the ground running with solidifying Popeye’s obedience and continued to expose Popeye to as many situations as possible. Some situations turned out better than others. Some days I would go home crying. I could not figure out why he behaved so obnoxiously. I knew there was a reason. Dogs do not behave obnoxiously for no reason. I was heart broken and frustrated. I finally had enough. There had to be somebody out there that could help me. I started looking for trainers with working dog experience.
I finally found a trainer with the experience I was looking for and scheduled a consultation. He figured out Popeye in 2 minutes. He talked to me for 3 hours about his training philosophies and Popeye’s behavior. At the end of the consultation he offered to do private lessons with me (not his norm).
He said, “It is clear to me that my in-kennel-training is not going to work for you, I need to work on YOU!” I agreed with his assessment of me without hesitation. He gave me a couple of weeks to think about his offer.
I called him back a week later and agreed to his offer. The first step was re-establishing boundaries in my household while I waited for my first lesson. I attended the first lesson and never looked back. We started with obedience, creating a clear solid picture in Popeye’s head of the expectation. The trainer took the leash. He walked Popeye around the field. Popeye heeled beautifully, and he was happy and playful while he did it. I could not stop myself from laughing. This was the stereotypical “dog owner is struggling, dog is not behaving, then the trainer takes the leash and voila! Dog behaves perfectly!” No treats, no toys, just the trainer, the leash, and the dog.
The trainer returned to me, handed me the leash, and said, “Your turn.” I took the leash, unsure of how this was going to turn out, but kept a positive mindset. With some pointers from the trainer, Popeye did the same thing for me! Again, no treats, no toys, just me, Popeye, and the leash. Even though I know a dog’s behavior does not change overnight, it felt like Popeye’s did! I left that training with a big smile on my face!
I thought, “Wow! This has not happened in awhile! This is the way it is supposed to be. Training is supposed to be fun for you and the dog.” I went home and immediately started using the new training techniques I had learned. Popeye and I had our good days and bad days. Through out this time I stayed in contact with the trainer. He coached me through the bad days: “Quit taking it so personally! Popeye acts out, correct and move on. You are learning so much from this dog; try to enjoy the process. Act like it is fun even when it is not. Your dog will relax and pretty soon you will find that you ARE having fun!”
Meanwhile, Popeye excelled at search and rescue training. His dedication and enthusiasm for the game shined. As Popeye and I honed our search skills and Popeye’s obedience improved his overall behavior improved. His in-your-face-attitude turned into “Mom, I am ready to work, what do you want me to do?”
I started training Popeye for search and rescue in March of 2014 and on April 26, 2015, Popeye and I took our Mission Ready Test for search and rescue in our county: 4 hours to thuroughly search 100 acres and find 2 subjects in the area. The dog has to show their ability to search, listen to the handler’s instructions, find the subjects, and alert the handler to the subjects’ locations. The handler has to not only maintain control of the dog and read the dog’s body language, but he/she also has to demonstrate that he/ she can communicate on the radio, navigate with a map and compass, and use a GPS. Everything is done at the same time. Popeye and I Passed! We searched for almost 2 hours and found our 1st subject, then searched for another hour and found our second subject. Total, Popeye and I searched for about 3 hours.
The evaluators were very pleased with our performance! One said, “You two are a very tight team. Popeye knows his job and LOVES it! He does not let anything stop him from telling you he has found someone, which is good because you are very focused on your search strategy. If your dog was not persistent you might miss his alert. You 2 are a good match!”
When this journey with Popeye started, I never thought someone would describe Popeye and I as a “good match.” It was a rocky road, but I am so glad I took it! I have learned so much from Popeye and continue to learn from him. As a friend once said to me “You don’t get the dog you want, you get the dog you need!” I look back and think about how before Popeye I limited myself to the mellow, easy-going dogs. Now, I am attracted to the energetic dogs that are bouncing off the walls, and slightly nutty. These are traits of an intelligent dog with magnificent work ethic, which is everything I have come to appreciate about Popeye.
Popeye truly is a “Carpe Diem” dog. He lives in the moment and embraces it. Everyday he is ready to go, regardless of what happened yesterday. Every day is a new day and he is determined to make the most of it!