By Dee Goings
When people think of a Rottweiler, they often think, unfortunately, of a large hulking mass on a choke chain or shock collar. My girl, Ripley, could not be more different.
She came to me from a family who had purchased her from a working dog breeder and had her flown out to them. At 12 weeks, when she started teething, they gave her a dustpan to chew on. She then started using the owner as a chew toy and so they called me.
At the age of 15 weeks Ripley was lined up to come to me for a board and train program where we were going to teach her appropriate chewing behavior as well as basic manners. But the day she was to arrive I got the phone call that would change both of our lives forever.
Ripley’s family had decided to have her euthanized. They considered her to be a vicious dog due to her grabbing her owner’s arms to chew on. Unfortunately, the behavior had been rewarded by the owner pushing Ripley away or unintentionally playing with her to try to get her to stop.
Happily, Ripley was not put down. Instead she came home with me for good. We started working on her training immediately and the behavior I saw was not vicious at all, but indicative of a very high work ethic.
Ripley was bred to be a Canine Working Unit. She was thought to be the calmest puppy in the litter. This is why the breeder selected her for the family since she was considered to be more of a family pet than a working dog.
Immediately we started working with Ripley using only food. I kept her meals divided and used every opportunity to train her.
Within a week I had a dog that had a solid sit and stay even at that tender age. Her down became flawless as she would throw out her front legs to get her morsel of kibble. She had the ability to stop on a dime and come trotting to me with her big smile and tongue hanging out. As long as we worked she did not even want toys. She wanted to work.
At 24 weeks Ripley had a small run-in with a harness that rubbed her raw. When I took her to the vet’s office the doctor suggested she be sedated. He kept telling me, “She’ll bite us if we don’t muzzle and control her.” This was the first time I was to hear about how my beautiful, happy girl was going to be out of control at the drop of a hat.
When I explained that she and I were working on gaining obedience competition skills, he was clearly nervous about not muzzling her. I had not muzzle trained her and I never want a vet visit to be traumatic. That day she performed her wonderful down and lay with her paws in my hands while I rubbed her legs.
The vet was able to shave the back of her neck while she took treats whenever I offered. We all made it through without a hitch. That is when I knew she had a future in obedience.
At the time of writing, Ripley was 11 months old. She has been able to work tirelessly and not once have we used pain or coercion in her training. When we go out people ask all sorts of things, such as: “What brand of e-collar was she trained on?”, “Who was your trainer to make the dog so submissive?”, “Which boot camp did you send her to?” and so on. I proudly tell them that we have worked together using only positive reinforcement training methods.
Ripley is only away from me when she stays home with her dad while I work with other dogs. Otherwise we always work together. Every experience for her is a training session and we make them all fun. She knows working equals play, rewards and all good things. She has never once experienced pain to train with me.
People ask me how I managed to get Ripley to be so obedient. Here are just a few simple steps can help you on your way:
Step One: The Sit.
I use a sit for everything. I taught Ripley to sit in order to get things in life. She sat, she got food, she sat, she got toys, she sat, and she got to curl up on the couch with me.
I use a version of Dr. Sophia Yin’s Say Please program. I started out using a clicker and every time her bottom would hit the floor I would click and say “sit” as she got a treat.
I took an empty egg crate and filled each hole with 10 pieces of food in order to track. Every time she sat and got a piece, I took a piece out of the container. Once we had a reliable sit and she was no longer missing cues, we moved onto using it for other things like getting up on the couch.
Soon Ripley was eating her food out of the bowl as she had moved from needing rewards every time she sat. We played the lottery with her. We would reward her sit every now and then and often we used her toys instead.
Step Two: The Down.
A lot of the time we lure a dog into a down to teach them how to do it. Ripley was no different and we put the treat to her nose and slowly moved it down between her front feet and then pulled it out to get the behavior. As I teach with hand signals as well, we also would point to the floor as we went.
As soon as Ripley had her front legs extended I would click and give her the piece of food. As we were working we reduced her meals and used her regular food to reward her.
She has always been eager to work. When we use the word down, we are very careful we do not use it except when we want her to lie down. If she climbs on the couch and we need her to move we use “off” and not “down” as we do not want to confuse the cues. What we ended up with was a reliable down that she could do at any time.
Step Three: The Walk.
This is the part I see owners struggle with the most. When I work with a reactive dog, whenever the dog goes to the end of the leash we have him come back and sit for a treat. What we get as an end result is a dog who watches us as we walk and who we can reward and treat occasionally as we go.
This was exactly how we taught Ripley to walk on a leash. As I was walking her with obedience competition in mind, I kept her to my left side and as soon as the leash would get tight would stop moving completely and make a kissy noise to have her come back to me.
Once she was near me I would say “sit” and reward her for sitting. As soon as she got the treat we would start moving again. Within a couple walks Ripley was walking beside me practically prancing and looking up at me the whole time.
Step Four: The Wait.
I hear a lot of owners say they do not want their dogs to dart outdoors and want them to be calm when people come to visit. This is where the wait comes in handy.
I started teaching Ripley the wait by holding my hand out and stepping back one step, saying “wait” while she is in a down or sit. Upon her staying where she is, I step back and feed her a small treat. We start doing this for longer durations and with me farther away. We slowly increase either distance or duration at first so as not to raise the stakes too quickly or make it confusing. As we got farther away, we returned quicker so Ripley was able to succeed in her wait.
Helping Reactive Dogs
While this is just the beginning of what we have worked on with Ripley, it has been tremendously helpful already. Instead of having a 115 pound puppy who might jump up and behave obnoxiously in public, she is instead attentive to me and the people who want to pet her.
We still hear comments about how we “obviously” had to punish her to train her to be so obedient. When I tell people I have never punished her people are (unfortunately) surprised and even disbelieving.
When I work with reactive dogs, Ripley is now my non-reactive counterpart. She can sit and literally just watch me for hours.
She is my rock of solid good behavior, especially in public.
When we were first starting out and it was suggested by another local trainer that I look into shock collars for her since, apparently, you “cannot train a stubborn Rottweiler without using shock,” I made an offer for him to come and see us any time.
Her new vet (we switched after the previous fearful doctor wanted us to muzzle her) loves how she is so calm and well-behaved. When we compete she is known as Ripley the Rottenweiler as she has a wild streak and loves to fling her toys into the air as she plays.
So the next time someone tells you that your choice of breed is “stubborn” and must be trained with corrections and punishment, you can tell them about Ripley, the dog who can perform a rock solid stay while her owner walks two blocks away and who has never once been punished or corrected.
This article first appeared in BARKS from the Guild, July 2015, pp.22-23.
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About the Author
Dorothy “Dee” Goings is a professional dog trainer based in Jacksonville, Illinois. She is a C.L.A.S.S. evaluator, Blue Buffalo TrueBlue trainer, AKC Canine Good Citizen evaluator, AKC STAR instructor, and PPG pet first aid certified. She also teaches and specializes in behavior modification.