Saturday, 12 August 2017

Training a Gentle Giant — Shay The Saint Bernard

“When I look into the eyes of an animal I do not see an animal. I see a living being. I see a friend. I feel a soul.”
― A.D. Williams

Being a true dog person, I had never dealt closely with giant breeds until 2009 when I first met Shay, a female Saint Bernard who belonged to my then-girlfriend’s parents. She was 2 years old, weighed 140 pounds (63.5 Kg), and had a beautiful dense, shaggy white coat with the popular reddish brown patches. Since she wasn’t really used to leaving that Toronto house and garden, the first few times I was met with loud and wary barking.

When the following year I left everything behind in Egypt, took Caramella my Cocker Spaniel and moved to Canada, Shay and I slowly began developing a relationship. At start it was trips to nearby parks, either alone or with Caramella; other times also with my ex’s two King Charles Cavalier puppies who lived with Shay who treated them so gently and lovingly. There is this cute, ridiculous difference in size between them, that I was often stopped in the streets for pictures and questions.

Five dogs on the loose” was a favourite thing to tell strangers which always made them chuckle; another was “They are taking me out for a walk.

Other than dog walkers, you don’t usually see many people walking around with a Saint Bernard
plus three more canines.

The main problem I was facing by walking that gentle giant is how to handle such immense force, especially when crossing path with other dogs or when being approached by certain people. She would pull me and starts her barking, and what bark that is. No wonder neither the parents nor the girl knew how to deal with her outdoors — hence she was kept home all the time. Other than the occasional frowns I would get, I never enjoyed not being fully in control and decided to do something about it.

Remember that setting no rules does not work; neither for the dogs nor for the relationship between them and their masters. Dogs need rules as much as they need to know that you, the pack leader, is the one in charge. That’s how it works and not the other way round. Obviously, they also need to leave the house. Check Things I Wish All Dog Owners Would Understand for more tips.


Then one day, I was chatting with two older ladies in the street when Shay began distorting our conversation because she obviously didn’t feel at ease around any strangers. So they mentioned the Dog Whisperer, the well-known show by Cesar Millan, and how it could solve the problem. Later in the afternoon, a man at the park also told me how by watching this show his relationship with his previously-abused adopted dog has fully healed.

Taking those two encounters as a sign, I went straight home and, thanks to the sweet Internet, found all episodes — from season 1 to 8 — streamed online and ready to be watched. Like a rookie off the bench, I started with episode one from the first season.

Despite loving all dogs and finding some of the information to be quite useful, I never had trouble with average or smaller size dogs and I was always capable of smoothly connecting and commending them. That is probably the reason why I had never watched the show as I thought it wasn’t meant for those of us. This time, though, I was sincerely interested in solving my little dilemma with cute Shay.

Connecting with her as Toula watches — Haliburton 2012

The first thing I realised is that a more powerful collar was definitely needed, so we bought a metal one with pointy edges. A new leash was needed as well since the old soft one, or what was left from it, caused a great deal of damage to my hand every time I used it. They obviously weren’t doing the job in controlling that gentle giant doggo, which is the one and only way in dealing with such size and force. As mentioned, like any other dog she simply needed to know who the master was.

A second remarkably useful info I learned from Millan was how dogs sense our tension or fear. I honestly never gave it a lot of thoughts, but I always knew that dogs do sense human fear and was even told once that they smelled it. The truth apparently is that through the short leash, the dog feels the slightest pull or hesitation, which is automatically transferred to them and causes them to get agitated.

Looking back at how I handled her during our early walks, whenever there would be other dogs around, I would pull her a tad closer almost unconsciously and that’s when she sensed my tension and acted upon it. Dogs do sense our energies, and the vibration through the leash is one way for them to know how tensed or relaxed we are.


Apart from the few useful tips from the show and as I do with anything I’m interested in and want to know more about, I Googled Saint Bernard. And man was I fascinated by the findings...

This large breed of working dogs originates from the Italian and Swiss Alps where they were primarily bred for rescue by monks in the late 1700s. Their ancestors share a history with the Sennenhunds — also called Swiss Mountain Dogs or Swiss Cattle Dogs. These dogs are thought to be descendants of Molosser type dogs first brought into the Alps by the ancient Romans.

The monks used them to save travellers from snow storms and avalanches in the Alpine wilderness. Later, equipped with strong digging paws and a great sense of smell, they were trained to go out by themselves in packs of two or three and find victims on the Great Saint Bernard Pass between Italy and Switzerland. They would dig the survivors out, and if capable, they would lead them back to the hospice or monastery. If they couldn’t move, in a graceful display of intelligence, one of the St. Bernards would lay on their body for warmth while the other(s) would go get help. Now this is actually smarter than some humans I know.

Between the tough winters of 1816 to 1818, St. Bernards were about the brink of extinction as many dogs lost their lives in the snowy climate while performing rescues. By 1850, they were crossed with Newfoundlands brought from the Colony of Newfoundland in an attempt to save the remaining breed. Successfully, other efforts were later made by a group of enthusiasts in the UK to increase their numbers by crossing them with the English Mastiff.

Picked up from the kennel after a trip

The modern St. Bernard, which became the Swiss national dog, is quite different from that of the type bred by the monks. Over the years, the breed got larger and heavier while still keeping the original character of that ancient proud history from which they originate.

The most famous and most remembered St. Bernard in history was Barry, who have reportedly saved between 40 and 100 lives during his life. Another celebrity was Beethoven who starred in the comedy movies by the same name. Then of course there is Shay.

Interestingly, I equally found out that the famed Brandy kegs worn around the dogs’ necks, often depicted in paintings and cartoons, and which were supposedly used to keep the found-victims warm is just a myth; its origin goes back to a 1920 painting from England titled Alpine Mastiffs Reanimating a Distressed Traveler.

With Caramella and Shay while camping by Mazinaw Lake, Ontario — 2012
Poles Apart” at Haliburton, Ontario — 2012

Following my brief research I never looked at Shay the same again. She’s a descendant of rescue dogs who dug in the snow in extreme weather conditions and saved human lives. Along with the gentle and mutual affection I came to discover, this magnificent breed has truly gained my utmost respect.

Most naturally, a dog that size and with such heritage needed a healthy outlet for its energy, and getting physical to make her feel useful was the right thing to do. Armed with my newly-acquired knowledge, a new leash and a new collar, I started taking Shay out for training walks and sometimes for short power runs — her first ever.

Our last photo together taken days before I leave Canada

A short while later and with more walks around the block and trips to the park, the tension disappeared, the barking diminished and my love for her increased. Eventually her and the other three dogs accompanied us to a couple of camping trips around Ontario. It truly was great seeing her run freely and be herself around the natural wilderness. She even fell into a frozen lake, probably because she never saw one before. Check the hilarity in the video below.

I vividly recall when she would lie on the ground right by my feet, charmingly roll on her back while looking me straight in the eyes and handing me her strong paw to hold in my hand. I can softly say that I became deeply attached to this gentle giant.

Our life is made of up of captured moments frozen in time. Shared feelings, smiles and
laughter, and time spent together become the memories that the heart and soul never forget

The Lion Queen - Halliburton, Canada 2012

After three full years in Canada, Caramella got sick (Dilated Cardiomyopathy (DCM) and I had no other option but to ease her pain. Seeing her suffer had a tremendous effect on me and relieving her was the conscious decision to take.

The following day after that fateful September morning, my then girlfriend and I took the other three dogs to Caramella’s favourite U of T park to celebrate her life. The canines could all sense the sadness and were acting extra sweet, especially Shay who was 6 years old by then. To me, though, healing only began to manifest after writing and publishing a 5,000-word piece about our story together: A Dieu Caramella.

Being comforted by Shay one day after the passing of Caramella at U of T

A short while later I left Toronto to the U.S, ending up in Venice Beach after some roaming 
around for several months. Three more years had passed and I was recently visiting Egypt 
when I found out that Shay went on her next journey. She, too, got sick and had
to be given that damn shot. I like to think that her and Caramella are keeping each other 
company in Doggy Heaven.

At the very end, change is the only constant in life. We need to accept it and move on in 

grateful remembrance. The whole experience of being surrounded by those dogs taught me 
what unconditional love is and what having a man’s best friend is really like. Now more than
ever, I remain a believer in Alfred Lord Tennyson words, “‘Tis better to have loved and lost
than never to have loved at all.”

May Their Souls Rest In Peace.

D-Pack parked outside of Starbucks in Toronto
The K9 Familia in 2012
My Facebook profile picture for three straight years
Shay the Gentle Giant

*Article originally published in 2012 on Conscious Life News

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