Past Performance is no indicator of future success…..

This week was a busy one at Fidelio.  There were a number of board and train dogs with both Candace and myself.  All of these dogs have been trained by us in the past but once they go away for a while we always wonder how they are doing.

We’re always skeptical when dogs go home.  We know people get busy, don’t have time to train, and things start to slip, but we work so hard with the dogs when they are with us that we always hope that the commands stay crisp and accurate.

Luckily this week, these two pups were completely on point when they came back to stay at my house.  In fact, it was a pleasure working with them again and even more of a pleasure to have them around for the week.

We always love seeing our old “students” when they come back to us for whatever reason, but we particularly love when they have been good stewards of their commands and training and show us what outstanding character they have.


Jaded but grateful….

I’ve been away from dog training for a few of weeks.  Up in the mountains, in the cool, with hikes in the snow with my own dog Keeper and the family.  I tried not to think about dog training to much while I was there.  Sure, I did a bit of hunting work with Keeper and worked on his directional training for finding birds but nothing else.

It was interesting though when I came back.  My first day back at work and I saw clients that I worked with for one or two sessions a little over a month ago.  When I met with each of them this week they all told me in their own way that “their lives had been changed” and that they were grateful for the work that I did with them.  I was sort of stunned and speechless but I believe that I uttered “my pleasure” to each of them.

I rarely think of what I do as “life changing”.  I guess I see it as the workday job that everyone else goes to.  Sure, I have a skill that I guess not that many other have but I’ve honed it over Many Many Many Many years and I do think of myself as “good at it.”  But life changing for clients.  I don’t know.  I am, however, grateful that they feel that way and that I get to help people and their pups in some small way that improves the world we live in.  Big words for a small job but there it is.

So a brief thank you to my clients this week for letting me know I helped and a big thank you to my clients for having me out to work with you.  That, I am truly thankful for.

Steve Haynes



What the H…. does neurosurgery have to do with dog training?

This blog post is going to be a little bit long form. I’m sorry about that but sometimes the connections that I make in my work require it.

I’ve been a New Yorker subscriber for years and years and years and every once in a while a little item pops up that just amazes me. In this week’s New Yorker there was an article about Dr. Henry Marsh from England. Dr. Marsh is a very well-known and respected neurosurgeon. The article is discussing his latest book which is more or less a biography. The thing that makes it interesting is that he delves into his failures as a neurosurgeon. He dwells in the dark region of failures and traces those back to his own human faults pride, hubris, overwhelming desire to help, and others.

Now granted, being a dog trainer is nothing compared to the responsibilities of being a neurosurgeon, but as I’ve gotten older I’ve looked back and I’ve seen my own failings with clients and with dogs over the years. Perhaps that is what my clients pay for, this experience, this knowledge that comes with doing something so many thousands of times. Still, the successes don’t ring out nearly as clearly as the failures over the years and that is grist for the mill.

As I get older, there are things that I no longer feel myself capable of. Dr. Marsh’s book, recants a line that is said when he, as a younger man,  consults an older surgeon about a case. The older surgeon says “It’s a young man’s operation,I’ve told them you should do it”. Needless to say, things do not turn out in the best form for either the Dr. or the patient, but this is a valuable lesson that all of us must learn. This is the way I feel now days when I’m confronted with a client desperately in need of help with an aggressive dog that is a biter. Over the years I’ve lost feelings in one of my fingers, I have nerve damage in the other hand, and I’ve developed arthritis in my hands from handling the leash for so long. None of this stops me from doing my day-to-day training activities with clients, but it does prevent me from doing the most difficult things which I previously loved working on and which made the workaday life of a dog trainer interesting.

That phrase “It’s a young man’s operation” has been stuck in my head the last few days and it’s definitely making me think about my career. Without consciously realizing it for the past year, I’ve been referring these very difficult cases off to “younger men”. It’s been difficult. The intellectual component alone of dealing with those cases was always very stimulating not to mention the adrenaline issues that came with face-to-face work with those dogs. I regret that I’ve passed the phase where I must give them to “younger men and women” but here I have arrived.

Dog training, high-level dog training anyway, which we’ve always specialized in, is a highly intellectual activity. Very rarely is it simply getting the dog to do what you needed to do, but far more often it is getting the Person to do what you need. Figuring out how to explain things to people in a way that they will understand, how to show them the mechanical skills that they need to work with the dog, and then figuring out how to get the dog to understand that person involves far more brainpower than brawn. And as I said, after thousands and thousands and thousands of clients at this point I can think back on every turning point where I learn something valuable and failed a client or their dog. Hopefully, and I truly hope this, all of this experience is valuable to the next client whose front door I walk through.

For those of you that wish to learn a little bit more about Dr. Henry Marsh here is a link to a documentary that he was in several years ago. Although it has absolutely nothing to do directly with dog training it has everything to do with dog training. I highly recommend its viewing.

The English Surgeon:

Steve Haynes

Austin Dog Trainer

Getting a puppy, and the dog-less dog trainer

Mims  001




I lost both of my dogs over last summer and for the first time in my whole life I’ve been dog-less for  the past six months.  It’s been weird.

The standard things bother me, coming home between clients to an absolutely silent house with no tail banging against the kennel.  No rushing home to get the dog tended and gnashing my teeth while in traffic knowing the puppy has to go out to potty or ELSE. The thing that bothers me most though is the quiet stuff, the walking outside and reaching down to pat a head or scratch a fuzzy ear, and just the joy of watching a puppy run in front of me on the trails and in the cul de sac.

And then an email comes.

My favorite breeder of Welsh Springers emailed me this week about some puppies.  I’ve had welsh springers for the past 20 years and she knows that I lost both of mine last summer.  She was emailing me to offer one of her pups. She knows I Iost mine and can’t stand that I don’t have one now.  Normally there is a HUGE waiting list for her dogs so the opportunity to get on without the 3 or 4 year wait is appealing.  At least immediately appealing.

My personality somehow isn’t like the vast amount of the population though.  I have a habit of looking at all of the tough things to be done when an opportunity arises.  Some people call me a glass half empty guy, I think it’s more akin to an utter and brutal realist kind of guy.  There was an article recently in the New Yorker about people like me and it explained that people like me understand better how we’ll feel in the future, not just how we ‘Imagine” we’ll feel.  I’ll go along with that completely.

Of course, I emailed the breeder back and got the info on the pups that are coming in January.  They would be just what I would want.  A very nice cross between full bore hunting dogs and show line dogs. But then my personality kicks in and I start thinking of how much work this is going to be.

The truth of dog training is that even if you’ve been doing it forever like me, that doesn’t make training a puppy that much easier.  I still have to do HUGE repetitions just like I beg my clients to do, I still have to take the puppy out every 20 minutes like I plead with my clients to, and it still takes me months and months to get a puppy trained to a decent level of citizenship.  The main difference between me and my clients is that I absolutely KNOW what I am in for and that is a terrifying thought. As soon as I run up against this line of thought the brakes on puppy cuteness go on and I start to veer away from the email client and phone and avoid all contact with breeders on my “personal” list.



My last puppy was a great dog.  Best I’ve ever had actually, and that’s saying something.  He trained beautifully, wanted to work, and was kind to all.  But he still took a HUGE amount of work and it took me right at 2 years to get him where I wanted him.

When I look at that and think 2 more years to get a puppy to a level I’m happy with them my mind just goes numb and my will to get another one diminishes.  I guess I’m getting old or something.  I’m certainly no spring chicken any longer and I guess I realize the cost of doing the puppy thing to other portions of life.  Ridiculous things for a dog trainer to say, I know but there it is.

Lately, I’ve been getting the question “what kind of dog do you have” a lot from clients.  I am always more than a little bit embarrassed when I tell them  that I don’t have one for the first time in my life.  That statement is always followed by an odd confused silence from the client and then an abrupt change of conversation back to the training at hand.  It’s embarrassing for sure and I know that I’ll have to rectify the situation at some point but I don’t think I’ll be getting a puppy from this January litter. Or maybe from the February litter from my other favorite breeder or the March litter from the Wirehair Griffon breeder I deal with.


Steve Haynes, the dog-less dog trainer.

Fidelio Dog Works


Working with Aggressive dogs-risk reward equation.

agressive shepherd pic


Forty years of dog training and fourteen years of doing it all day every day are rolled into this post.  Proceed with caution.

There’s a dirty secret amongst dog trainers. None of us will ever admit to one another that we’ve ever been bitten by a dog. It’s a mark of pride,particularly prevalent amongst younger dog trainers who deal with aggressive dogs.We’re going to talk a bit about what happens when trainers work with aggressive dogs a bit…it won’t be pretty.

When you first begin as a dog trainer your skills are limited. You have to work in a fairly narrow channel dealing with dogs on basic behaviors, and basic training techniques. As your skills get better, your timing improves, and your knowledge of dog behavior gets more robust, you start branching out and looking for different challenges. One of the best and toughest challenges out there are dogs that are aggressive, and that have bitten people or have injured people in the past.

I’ve been dealing with aggressive dogs for MANY years now. I’ve dealt with some pretty bad cases, and through most of that I was young dog trainer and thought that I was pretty much invincible. I’m no longer young, and certainly not invincible nowadays. Dealing with aggressive dogs is a heartbreaking endeavor for most trainers and behaviorists. I simply do not believe that you can cure aggression, true aggression. I believe that you can manage it to a certain degree, set up scenarios where it is as controlled as possible, and avoid situations where it most likely will occur, but never out and out cure it.

Over all of my years of doing this type of work the number of absolute success stories that I’ve had is extremely small. The saying that I tend to use with clients is “something always falls through the cracks” and then I get called the dog has injured someone and things go downhill rapidly from there. It’s a pessimistic view I know, but it’s one that has repeated itself over and over and over for the past 14 years.

I’ve always been confident with these dogs, never been afraid of them, but the past two years have changed things for me. Late last year was injured by very large dog. We were working with this dog in a vet’s office trying to teach it to have good manners as the vet entered the exam room. When the vet appeared the dog lunged at her attempted to attack her and as I was grabbing the dog it twisted its head around in managed to break one of my fingers in a number of locations.  It was a serious and possibly career ending injury. Not a good day at the office.

The upshot of this sessions was that the client was charged an extra $20 as an aggression charge and I ended up with slightly over $50,000 worth of medical bills for all of the surgeries, rehab, and all the other craziness that goes along with an injury that could eliminate the use of your hand. It’s taken a little over a year now I can move my fingers, they more or less work, they hurt all the time, and all the pain and suffering that I went through for that extra $20 for an aggressive dog has caused me to reevaluate the cost-benefit analysis of working with such animals.

Then, last November happened. I was called out by client to evaluate an older German Shepherd that they had gotten from a high quality breeder. The dog been returned to the breeder for unspecified reasons which immediately set alarm bells off in my head. I went through the session with these people asking questions; what had the dog done, how had it behaved in the household, and they noticed any strange behavior from the dog… It was a fairly standard interview initially.

The client’s point of concern was that the dog had pinned their grandmother against the wall when she let it out of the crate. A serious occurrence for sure and one that I was concerned about, but I saw no aggressive behavior in my interactions with the dog initially. As I was preparing to leave and giving instructions to the owners of what I would be looking for from the dog over the next week or so, the clients housekeeper leaned over the dog and the shepherd immediately jumped up and took a large bite out of the housekeeper’s arm and pinned the housekeeper against the wall, standing on its hind legs and barking aggressively directly in her face. It was so violent and so sudden even I was scared. We got the dog under control, immediately snapped on a leash, and brought it over to stand by me. It never entered my head that something bad would happen next. As I was telling owners to get the housekeeper to a doctor I gently reached down to pet the dog’s head and he grabbed my arm and began slinging me around the room like a ragdoll. The whole time it was happening I kept thinking “I wonder how much this is going to cost”? I went limp and let the dog think it killed me and it backed away. The instant I moved to straighten up, it came back and got me in the hip with another bite. Another very bad day at the office. Luckily the November incident didn’t cause any lasting damage. I had some bone deep puncture wounds, and got an infection from the bite, and suffered Dr. bills. I walked away from the incident thinking I’m not sure this is worth doing any longer. In the last year I have been effectively put out of work for three months because of dog bites.

I’m not sure what’s going on in the dog world, but the incidence of aggression seems to be going up dramatically as are their intensity. This is a problem for the owners and all the dog trainers out there. It’s regrettable to me that I won’t be able to work with these types of dogs any longer. I simply cannot stand the injury level to my body and the effect it has on my family when I am unable to perform my duties at home because of work injuries.

These dogs need help, these owners need help, but I don’t see a clear safety net for the trainers that deal with these dogs. How can the average dog trainer be incapacitated for three months of the year and still earn a living doing what they do? Owners of these dogs need to realize the risks they bear when having them in their house. It’s a tough view, and goes against the grain of current belief that “all dogs can and must be saved”.

What brings my decision into ultimate clarity for me is that this dog in November was in a family home with a four-year-old daughter. What on earth would have happened if that four-year-old girl had come over and given that dog a Pat as it was standing by me. What would’ve happened to her? My stomach churns just just at the barest thought of it.

We will be referring aggressive dogs that have actually injured people out to other trainers that specialize in that work going forward. The risk reward equation is not in our favor.

Steve Haynes