Dog

I tried everything to train my dog. Saying goodbye was a blow to my self-confidence.

In the past few years, inventor Simone Giertz has turned creative problem-solving into a viral art form on her popular YouTube channel. Look no further than the “Truckla,” a customized Tesla pickup she created before Elon Musk. But, a decade ago, there was one problem she couldn’t invent her way out of that still haunts her to this day.

Simone was 20 when she brought her dog, a pit bull breed named Bobo home for the first time. She and her boyfriend at the time did all the things good dog parents are supposed to do, including taking Bobo to multiple puppy training classes. But at seven months old, Bobo wouldn’t stop barking at one of Simone’s friends. This fear period is fairly typical for puppies, but Bobo’s behavior spiraled and only got worse.

“A dog’s needs are always going to run your life. But what’s different is when a dog’s problem behaviors run your life,” Simone said. “Every time I knew somebody was going to come over, I would get a pit in my stomach… He was a big dog and it got to the point where I was like, ‘he’s a danger. He’s going to hurt somebody.’”

Simone worked with more trainers, talked with Bobo’s breeder, went to psychologists and masseuse therapists. But nothing seemed to work.

One day Bobo crossed a line. He grabbed the sleeve of a man passing by and bit down. It was at that moment where Simone and her ex decided it wasn’t safe to have Bobo anymore.

“He was going to hurt somebody and when you have big, powerful dogs, it comes with such a big responsibility,” Simone said. “It’s a situation I wouldn’t wish upon anyone.”

On a recent episode of How To!, Simone opens up about her traumatic experience to renowned dog trainer Denise Fenzi, who recently went through something similar.

Knowing when to say goodbye to a dog is a fraught decision—one that’s rarely talked about. Simone and Denise reflect on how they regained self-confidence and are finally comfortable with their new puppies. This transcript has been condensed and edited for clarity.

Amanda Ripley: I know this is hard to talk about, Simone, and I really appreciate your sharing it. I actually think that until we talk about this stuff more, it’s just going to be more and more taboo and stigmatized and it’s not good for anyone, right? 

I had a dog during the pandemic that didn’t work out and I still feel bad about it. He seemed great, and then you get him home and he was really freaked out, you know, and he was aggressive towards, particularly towards kids. It’s painful because it’s like, what is it about us that we couldn’t make him relax, you know?

Denise Fenzi: I think the fact that there are three of us having this conversation and all three of us have had some version of this difficult situation, says a lot.

I purchased a beautifully bred dog. Eight weeks of age, exactly what I wanted. The dog had raging anxiety and he started to show aggressive behavior directed towards people. And I realized my own family was not comfortable with my own dog. This is a big, powerful breed of dog. He also had separation issues, I had literally not left my house without this dog for more than two hours.

The stress of trying to organize your life around a being who has almost impossible needs, I would say I have PTSD as a result. And I returned the dog to the breeder at 20 months of age. I think it would be fair to say it is the most difficult decision I have ever made in my entire life.

Simone Giertz: Having a dog that you work so much with and having to give up on a dog is a traumatic experience in many ways. That’s like giving the dog up or having to put it down. But for me, it was also like it was such a blow to my self-confidence because I’ve always thought of myself as somebody who’s comfortable around dogs and is good with dogs.

And suddenly, after I put him down, I noticed I was nervous passing dogs on the street because I knew how he would react in those situations. I would be super focused on the dog and be reading their cues of are they going to jump up on me?

It took eight years where I was like, I’m not ready to have a dog again because I don’t think I’m going to be a good dog trainer to them. I mean, I failed so catastrophically with [Bobo], and I tried everything like I threw the kitchen sink at trying to fix him or help him.

Then it’s the pandemic and I bring home this cute puppy that I get to spend five minutes in a playpen with. They’re all like, ‘She’s a sweetheart. She loves everybody.’ I bring her home and she won’t stop barking at my neighbor. That has been so hard.

Amanda: What did that feel like when she started barking?

Simone: I mean, people talk a lot about having dogs and post about it online and it’s all ‘oh my god, I love my dog. Look how cute I am.’ Sometimes I feel like it’s ruined my life because it’s just really hard. I’m like having a lot of resentment towards her as well because this is exactly what I didn’t want happening. And at the same time, I’m like ‘maybe this is a really backwards, hurtful way for me to heal?’

I started going to therapy and I had to fill [out a form asking] why do you want to start therapy? And I’m like: So I can be a better dog owner because I feel like I’m so inadequate and I do lose my patience with her.

Denise: Oh wow, there is so much here. This is a super widespread problem with people who have had prior dogs with challenges. It colors our ability to manage our own behavior. I currently have a foster puppy whose job in life is to heal me because this is a fairly recent event and I have realized that very normal small things like one day the puppy growled at somebody in the distance and I almost had a panic attack.

Just observing my own anxiety made me realize it was time for me to start putting some hardcore human coping mechanisms into place and I did so.

For example, my new rule is if the puppy does anything that makes me worry or get uncomfortable, I will reach into my pocket and drop a handful of food on the ground. The reason I do that is it gives me a job, and if I have a job, then rather than grabbing the leash and tightening it up and stressing out and making problems for both of us, I have added my own intermediate step. I need to solve my problem so I can solve his problem.

Simone: You train yourself in the same way you would train a dog.

Denise: I am in training, yes.

So I throw the food down and I consciously push the leash forward so that I don’t tighten up and pull back. And then I’m OK because the dog’s head drops to eat the food and that gives everybody a break.

Just coincidentally, it’s also a very good training technique because when dogs stare they tend to escalate.

Amanda: I’m curious, how do you regain your confidence after having had some hard experience in the past? 

Denise: The one thing I will say to you, Simone, because you won’t get this, you’re not a professional trainer. I really can’t tell you how many people have told me your story.

It’s not you. It’s not what you did.

I get these floods of messages and the situations are so similar, it’s almost eerie. I would encourage you to join a [Facebook] group like Losing Lulu because then you won’t feel alone. You will recognize that you have lots of company.

It’s such an uncomfortable topic. It’s not like when we introduce ourselves to our new neighbors: ‘I’m Denise and I euthanized my last dog.’ We don’t do that. It’s stuck in a closet. We don’t talk about it. It’s that weird, shameful thing. I just want you to know that you have so much company… you can’t even begin to imagine.

Simone: But yeah, it’s hard. I really like what you said, Denise, about training yourself as well. Where you notice that you get anxious and try to find ways to manage yourself and take care of yourself because that’s a big part of it.

Yes, we feed into our dogs’ emotions. But also it’s not your fault, fully. If your dog loses it or has an undesirable behavior, you’re like, ‘Oh, I have bad juju and that’s why my dog Lucy did this.’ But it’s on both of you and on the environment.

Amanda: It’s like how they talk about in parenting about trying to be a good enough mother. Be a good enough dog owner.

Simone: Yeah, good enough is great.

Denise: There are some dogs where it really doesn’t matter how good you are. If there are certain qualities or qualities that all come together. Like your dog might have aggression but may be stable so you’ll never see the aggression. Or your dog might be unstable but have no desire to bite. There’s all kinds of things that come together.

I cannot overemphasize the importance of recognizing genetics as a real thing, and you always have a range and you can only move within your range.

Amanda: We want it to be either nurture or nature and it’s very hard to hold both in your head. And to your point Denise, knowing there are limits to how much an animal can change. 

Denise: And accepting that you have rights. You have the right to be happy. I have watched people give up their entire, I’m not kidding, give up their right to have relationships, to have children, give 15 years of their life to a dog who, for whatever reason, cannot fit in society. And so they stay in their home alone with their single dog until the dog dies. And life has to be more than waiting for your dog to die.

To hear Amanda’s whole conversation with Simone and Denise, listen to the episode by clicking the player below or subscribing to How To! wherever you get your podcasts.

And make sure to check out “How To Get Your Dog to Stop Barking (Without Barking Back),” the first in our two part series about training difficult dogs.