Ginger: Old Dogs (and Owners) Can Learn New Tricks

Winner: Best Essay involving a "Crossover Client"

Author: Sue Conklin

Sue Conklin
Sue Conklin

In my group classes I often see rescued Greyhounds, former track dogs that have a second chance as a family pet. There are challenges to working with these dogs as any trainer can tell you. They may have been punished for sitting in the starting gate and actually be afraid to sit. Sight hounds in general can be difficult to keep motivated. They shut down easily when they are stressed. So, when I got a call several years ago from a woman who raises and shows AKC Greyhounds, I was intrigued. I had never met an AKC Greyhound. For the uninitiated, racing Greyhounds are registered with the NGA – The National Greyhound Association. Dogs registered with the AKC – American Kennel Club, can not race. In general, show dogs don’t race however, racing dogs can apply for an ILP (a limited registration) with the AKC and show in many AKC sanctioned events.   

When I spoke with Pam, she told me that she had been a breeder for 20 years. She had shown dogs for longer than that and has handled many AKC Champions in at least three breeds. Her problem was a 2 year old girl named Ginger. Ginger was a beautiful dog that Pam was eager to show. The problem was that she had become so fearful of the leash that when she saw one, she would run into her crate and hide with her butt facing the door. If Pam did manage to get a leash on her she trembled and refused to move other than to roll over and urinate in fear.

With a little sleuthing, I found that Pam had begun her career with dogs, like many, in traditional obedience classes in the 60’s. The classes taught handlers to train with choke chains using corrections or motivational pops to correct unwanted or incorrect behavior. Pam had then gone on to raise and show Welsh Terriers, a notably plucky and tough breed. Pam’s terriers were unfazed by leash corrections and, if a dog was balky and wouldn’t walk or started to fight the leash, the old-school training method that she had been taught was to simply pull back and let the dog fight it out. Eventually, the Terriers got the message and began to walk with her.
Unfortunately, this method had backfired big-time with Ginger. While working with her in the yard, something had spooked Ginger. She began to back up and fight the leash. Pam’s old training kicked in and she held fast letting Ginger “work it out”. Pam told me that when she would try to walk her or stack her Ginger would hang herself in the collar. She went on to say, “I thought, well hang yourself, you will stop when you can't breath.” But Ginger would not stop. The next day when Pam approached with the leash, Ginger ran to her crate and hid.

I went to Pam’s home and was greeted by about 10 exuberant Greyhounds. I always say that Pam’s dogs are more like Labs in Greyhound suits! They are very outgoing and they jump on you with joy and abandon. We brought Ginger into a room alone and I spent a little more time talking to Pam and getting to know Ginger. Then Pam brought out the leash. The friendly, relaxed dog that I had been observing became a trembling mass of jelly. She retreated across the room looking for a place to hide. She jumped on the couch and hid her head under a blanket, shaking.

My first thought was clicker training. I was pretty confident that by using a clicker and lots of positive reinforcement we could help Ginger overcome her fear of the leash and probably even walk on leash in the yard again. As far a being able to show, I wasn’t too sure, but I was willing to try if Pam was. Well..... Pam wasn’t so sure. She was gracious and told me that she was willing to try, but I later learned that she was privately thinking something like, “Yeah, right, I might as well try voodoo.” I asked Pam to start feeding Ginger all of her meals by hand for a week to help rebuild their relationship. With 10 dogs to feed, Pam was a bit skeptical of this advice, but she did agree to try it.


We began with a lesson on how the clicker works and how to use it properly. Then, we began loading the clicker with Ginger. I got some cheese and sat on the couch with her (by this time she had uncovered her head). I simply clicked and gave her a small piece of cheese. I did this about 10 times and took a short break. Then I had Pam do the same thing.

After loading the clicker, I gathered up the leash into a little ball and set it on the coffee table. Each time Ginger glanced at it I clicked and treated her. Soon she was pointedly looking at the balled up leash and then looking for her cheese. I then moved the leash so that it was lying stretched out on the coffee table and repeated the process. As Ginger didn’t show any fear of the leash in this position we moved on. The final step that day was for me to go across the room and hold the leash in a neutral position. Pam sat next to Ginger and clicked and treated her each time she glanced my way. Ginger stayed calm and was rewarded several times for looking at me with the leash. We quit there and I gave Pam instructions on working with Ginger for a few days. She was to hand feed her all of her meals and repeat the first day’s exercises each day having her husband doing my part, holding the leash across the room.

On the second visit, we progressed to having Pam hold the leash balled up in her hand and clicking and treating Ginger for looking at it. She quickly moved on to having Ginger touch her hand and then the leash with her nose. Over the course of several days, Ginger progressed to sticking her head through the loop of the leash to get a treat. I should explain that the show lead is a collar and leash all in one. So, by putting her head through the collar, she was essentially leashing herself.

Using a clicker, we soon had Ginger working happily on the leash, in the house and in the yard. I had shown Pam how to use it to teach Ginger to move, assume a show stack and watch Pam on cue. Pam had such high hopes that Ginger would indeed make it to the show ring that she was planning on entering her in the upcoming Greyhound Nationals. Sadly, fate intervened. Someone entering the house left a door open. Ginger got out and was killed by a car. Pam and I were devastated. Over the preceding weeks, Ginger had become more confident and her re-training had given Pam a wonderful new set of skills. Pam had remarked several times that she would never go back to “the old ways” and that clicker training had saved her relationship with Ginger.

Over the last five years, Pam and I have become good friends and she is a true convert. We have used a clicker and lots of positive reinforcement training to work with three litters of Greyhound puppies. Pam’s dedication to using positive reinforcement has paid off handsomely. She has trained three puppies that have, at about 6 months of age, won Best Puppy at the Greyhound National Specialty. Last year she retired the Best Puppy trophy by winning the honor for three years in a row. She has had several puppies from her litters become AKC Champions for their new owners and for herself, and puppies that have gone to pet homes have quickly become beloved family members. And, best of all, she gets endless compliments on her dogs’ great dispositions, attitudes, and show ring presence.

As with many converts, Pam is quick to tell people about her conversion. She will tell seasoned dog owners as well as the newbies how when I suggested clicker training she thought that I was crazy. And when she gets advice from handlers who think that she should “crack down” on her dogs more, she tells them that she has tried that and it didn’t work. She will then go on to tell them the story of Ginger. And she will tell them that she will never go back to the old ways. Treats, clickers and lots of positive reinforcement are working just fine thank you.

About Sue Conklin

Sue Conklin is a Greenville SC trainer known as The Puppy Nanny. As a horse trainer for more than 20 years, she found the teachings of ‘Horse Whisperers’ Monty Roberts and John Lyons who trained with kindness. For several years, she and her husband Paul used these gentle techniques to handle and train Thoroughbred race horses. After making the professional transition from horses to dogs 12 years ago, she looked for similar gentle methods of dog training. The Puppy Nanny’s approach focuses on non-confrontational leadership, management, and positive, gentle, training methods.

About Pam Rubinstein
Pam Rubinstein has been involved in the Greyhound breed for over 20 years and in the world of dogs for 30. She has produced over 75 champions in the breed ring. Her goal is to produce beautiful dogs that are physically and temperamentally sound. But, if you visit her home, you will find her true commitment to her Greyhounds. Her dogs have their own suite attached to the house, with two bedrooms and a kitchen. Most of “the kids” take turns at being house dogs and at any time Pam has 3-5 Greyhounds lounging on her couches and greeting you at the door.


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