The trick is avoiding the third bite
By Neil Gonsalves | Here is the prequel to any dog story Neil has ever told. It’s all about avoiding the third bite in life.
If I had to identify the lessons I walked away with thanks to my German Shepherd partners in the K-9 unit I could probably fill a book. Here are a few of the lessons that I think are transferable to life in general but ones I credit to the dogs who have passed through my life.
Enter situations without preconceived ideas. It frees you to experience and become receptive to new and novel experiences.
Pay attention to body language, it is far more accurate than words. Any time the verbal and non verbals are incongruous, the non verbals will serve as a barometer for the truth.
Socialization is key but most people get it wrong. The trick is learning to be neutral to new situations and environment so you can function anywhere. Being reactive to everything in your environment is both exhausting and dangerous.
Praise and corrections are both essential to development. Keeping them balanced is the key to success.
Respect is key, just because you can doesn’t alway mean you should. Think about the bite force pressure of dog, now think about all the times they choose not to bite you.
Kindness begets kindness and that is how relationships are built - Loyalty is rare in this world so cherish it when you find it.
The best things in life always last a short time, appreciate them, and find healthy ways to keep moving forward.
The first bite you experience is usually because you have no idea what you’re doing. The second bite usually comes years later, usually a direct result of hubris and overconfidence. The trick to life is not getting bitten a third time.
My Introduction to Working Dogs
I do not have an inspiring story about how I was raised around dogs. I cannot tell you that they have always been a part of my life or that I always knew I would train dogs. Hell, I cannot even tell that you I presently make a living being a dog trainer.
All that sounds fantastic and makes for a great sales pitch but it would be categorically untrue. Don’t get me wrong, I wish I had a great story to share, one that had the making of the next great Togo or Hatchi movies. - There are no iconic photographs reminiscent of Cesar Milan’s childhood, - me walking the street with dozens of dogs following me around. When I think back now it is hard to even remember a single dog from my childhood.
Owning a dog, even as a pet never crossed my mind at any point in young adulthood. I was a young man with aspirations to be a police officer. I was working as a security guard, on my days off I would attend every police recruiting event on College Street in Toronto, the site of the police headquarters for what was then called the Metropolitan Toronto Police Force.
It was there that I learned that my two cornea transplant surgeries in childhood would render my uncorrected vision below the minimum standard to be a police constable in Canada. With my future uncertain I would have to find a new career path.
Sometimes in life adversity opens us up to new possibilities. It gives us a reason to explore roads we might have otherwise not travelled. While I was figuring out my life options, I carried on working in the security industry. Unsatisfied and longing for new opportunities, I was open to explore just about anything back then to get out of the mental rut I had found myself in.
I was sitting around the office one evening before my shift and I saw a poster in our staff room. It read;
“Do you want to be a part of the K9 unit? Visit the K9 training academy and apply for a spot on our next training course - Only a select few are accepted to the program, so apply today and see if you have what it takes to be a K9 Handler”.
So, naturally like all people who had no experience with dogs or even rudimentary knowledge about working dogs, I thought, why not this could be interesting! - Most people I share this story with now, think I was completely nuts, I don’t often argue the point! - But, I did sign up and I did show up to the training facility on Ressor Road in Scarborough, Ontario. - That is where my journey with dogs began.
As I pulled up the gravel driveway, I could hear the dogs barking, loud deep barks, something that had to be coming from very large dogs I imagined; scary some would say. Many of the other new trainees told me later that they judged the sound to be positively terrifying. At least one new trainee applicant, never got out of his car. He sat there for five to seven minutes and then backed his car out and left. When I met him around the office later, he told me knew in that moment K9 training was not for him.
I walked into the training facility, a large rectangular room with majestic and slightly vicious looking dog posters decorating the walls, along with pictures of previous cohorts. There was a distinct odour of cleaning products and wet dog, a scent that has probably become one with the building over the years. There were only five new trainees in the class, the sixth having left before getting out of his car.
We were instructed to stand in the middle of the room and told the instructor would be out shortly. I imagined a drill sergeant looking man, imposing in stature flanked by mighty war dogs emerging from the doors at the end of the training room. I really had no idea what to expect but any preconceived notions I may have had coming in, were forever altered that day.
Eyes That Command Respect
A slight man entered the room, he couldn’t have been more than 5’9, slender but athletic, probably in his mid-fifties with greying hair and kind eyes, the type that seemed to command respect.
He wore the standard issue navy blue tactical pants (I think we call them tactical pants because it made us feel cool, if they were khaki in colour most other people would have just called them cargo pants!), and a black golf shirt with ‘K9’ embroidered on the left side of his chest.
As he walked over, I was surprised that he did not have a dog by his side. He also didn’t look like he just jumped out of a Rambo movie. So all my preconceived notions went out the window inside of thirty seconds. After brief pleasantries, he threw out a series of questions to the group;
Who owns a dog? Who has trained their own dogs? Who would call themselves a dog lover? And who feels confident that they will leave this program with these K9 Tags on their collar, gesturing to beautiful shiny collar pins that he had pulled out of his pocket.
As expected my four other colleagues all replied that they had dogs and loved dogs, two of them stated they trained their own dogs, one said his family did so together, and the last guy reported having hired a trainer to help his dog.
The instructor looked over at me, I hadn’t answered any of the questions, I also probably looked liked the least engaged person in the room. “So, what’s your story?”, he asked without any observable concern. “Well, I have never owned a dog or really been around them much and I don’t know anything about dog training” was my reply. He did not flinch, he didn’t even look shocked, he just calmly asked, “Confident you will be wearing the pins someday?” - I shrugged, “Ask me in a couple of days” I replied. He smiled and moved on from the conversation.
I would graduate, I would wear the pins and work twelve hour shifts with a trained K9 always by my side. During my tenure in the unit, I worked primarily with two German Shepherd Dogs -The first a male King Shepherd specializing in protection work, and second a female Shepherd specializing in detection - My time with those two dogs set me up for a successful career in the private sector for almost a decade before I moved over to academia.
The lessons I took away gave me the foundational knowledge, skills, and attitude for leadership. Skills I would require as I advanced to become one of the youngest managers in the company. My last position prior to becoming a professor was Senior Manager of Staffing & Development for the Toronto branch; we had 1400 employees and provided 40,000 hours of client services weekly.
The lessons made me a better communicator, a better reader of body language, tone and environment, and I firmly believe it made me a fairer and more objective person.
Well a person with a GSD bias but who can really blame me for that!
About the author: Neil Gonsalves is an Indian-born Canadian immigrant who grew up in Dubai, U.A.E. and moved to Canada in 1995. He is an Ontario college educator, a TEDx speaker, a published author and columnist, a recreational dog trainer and an advocate for new immigrant integration and viewpoint diversity.