The first day I picked up Snoopy from our local Humane Society, despite his broken leg, he seemed a typical rambunctious and happy puppy….until I loaded him in my car. He began to howl (like really loud), squirm and was clearly very agitated. If he wasn’t harnessed in a car seat it would have been chaos. He calmed back down when we got out of the car. I ended up taking him to the vet within a few hours as it was pretty clear he was having pain issues. When we got back in the car…it was the same howling and anxiety all over again…which then recurred every time we got in the car throughout his several week ordeal (broken leg that was eventually amputated). It was clear that he was associating riding in the car with bad things…who could blame him with all he has been through in his short little life. Years ago I adopted a two year lab (Sparky) who had extreme anxiety in the car…it made life a lot more complicated and it took years to work him through the anxiety. No chance I was going to let this happen with Snoopy.
So this week we started working on changing his car ride association…I wanted to make a car ride mean something good for him. We spent a few days just walking out to the car a few times per day and I gave him bits of ham treats when we got to the car and said “car ride” (we never got in the car). Then we graduated to actually getting in the car, with ham treats and “car ride” but getting out immediately. Then we graduated to taking really short car rides, with ham treats and “car ride” being repeated the whole time.
Today…I took Snoopy out on his first big errand run…we left the ham behind. He was a different dog in the car. He sat quietly in his car seat…no howling…no squirming. He did great sitting politely and greeting new people at Lowe’s…he went to the skin clinic and charmed pretty ladies and he went out for his first puppuccino. I couldn’t be more proud of him.
It has been a really long time since I have had a puppy in the house. I know how crucial their first few months are in terms of proper socialization and Snoopy’s most impressionable months were spent getting his leg horribly broken, dying under anesthesia once (waking up blind for awhile) and finally having to heal from a successful amputation of the leg. He has some social “catch up” to do but he is doing great.
I am always amazed at how trusting dogs who have been through hell are. Snoopy has every reason to be cautious of people but Snoopy gives everyone the benefit of the doubt (unless they are pushing a shopping cart…need to work on that). His wagging tail and charming personality are like a balm in a harsh world. The world needs more Snoopy.
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My life as a reactive dog…from chaos to a full life!
Last fall my husband and I met a sweet and charming dog named Buster. NOT! Last fall my husband and I met an out of control, hyper and highly reactive dog named Buster.
Buster was picked up as a “stray” on a country road when he was a puppy. He was adopted out to a family who four years later returned him with no explanation. What Buster’s life was like during those years with that family…I have no idea…if only dogs could talk. But I can safely say he was never taught any basic training skills and was very poorly socialized. After his “family” dumped him he was put in a kennel. Try to imagine, if you can, being dumped by your family and going immediately to a loud and unfamiliar kennel. How do you think an animal should react to that? Buster’s stay at the kennel was short…they wanted him out and labeled him aggressive. I think
we can safely assume Buster thought life dumped at a kennel sucked canal water. Buster went in to a foster home with a nice man who put forth a valiant effort to work with Buster. He tried exercising him…he took him for dog training…but Buster was more than he (or most people) would sign up for. Buster flunked his dog training class badly as he could not control himself around the other dogs. The trainer recommended Prozac.
I was asked to meet Buster and do an initial evaluation of him for training. It’s not easy to describe what I saw with Buster when I first met him. He was like a child with severe attention deficit disorder. So frustrated and bursting with energy that his whole little body seemed to rattle. He didn’t seem to be able to decide what he should focus on. He couldn’t relax. He didn’t know whether to bark, snap, jump, play, growl…it was truly heart breaking. His barrier aggression was off the charts. He was re-direct biting (biting his handler out of frustration at the sight of other dogs). This was not something I wanted to sign on for. Seriously…who wants to get bit by a dog? But Buster was low on options and I decided to take him on regardless.
I think its fair to say up front that I believe there is a significant difference between a reactive dog that can be worked with through training and cases of dogs with full blown aggression. It is heart breaking to encounter dogs with serious aggression issues and it is also far beyond my skill level as a trainer. I was fairly certain that Buster was not a case of full blown aggression because I witnessed Buster interact with a few dogs at the kennel that he had had a neutral introduction to. It was like watching a pack of humping, jumping and wrestling out of control lunatics…but it was nothing like the aggressive behavior he displayed in the presence of unfamiliar dogs and behind barriers. Buster also lived with a very senior dog in his first foster home. While he was a bit of a jerk to that dog he never showed aggression toward that dog. I also want to be clear that Buster had many great qualities from the start as most reactive dogs do. He was playful (albeit playful in a very obnoxious fashion) and also incredibly affectionate to some humans. I knew Buster was going to need a lot of work but I also knew there was a lot of hope.
I started working with Buster last November. I recommended moving him from his foster home to a new kennel as the backyard environment at the foster home (major barrier aggression problems with neighbor dogs) was reinforcing a really bad behavior pattern for Buster. Every other day, for several weeks, I drove to the kennel Buster was staying at (about 30 minutes away). I picked Buster up and brought him back to my house where I bonded, exercised and trained him for the afternoon and then drove him back to kennel. Over that first month I slowly introduced Buster to our pack of dogs. Eventually we fostered Buster and a few months later we adopted him.
Every time I take on a new dog I am always taken by surprise at how much I learn from them. The dogs are truly the experts on behavior and the closer I pay attention to them and what their body language and reactions are telling me the faster we can work towards solutions. Buster had a lot to teach me…perhaps more than any dog I have worked with.
Like so many reactive dogs…Buster is really easy to love. Seriously…one look at his goofy smiles in all these pictures and you can’t help but be in love with him. He is playful, energetic, enthusiastic, funny and he loves to snuggle and give affection to his humans. You should see him suck up to women who come to our home…huge flirt….HUGE. It was really easy for us to get attached to him. However, in the presence of unfamiliar dogs he was completely out of control. Out of control being defined as incessant and loud screech barking, growling, lunging, pulling, hackles up, lips curled and redirected biting of his handler. I lost count of how many times Buster bit me the first few weeks I worked with him. Buster’s play style with other dogs was horrible; he was obnoxious…lots of humping and he was unable to follow any commands around other dogs. Also problematic was that he had absolutely no leash manners…he was a mad dog pulling his human where he wanted to go. I am not a very big woman…he could have easily taken me to the ground. Leash manners had to be a priority for working with Buster.
In a nutshell my goal was to get a very strong (and strong-willed) dog with ZERO leash manners, a desperate need for exercise, major barrier aggression and a very high level of reactivity to unfamiliar dogs transformed to a state of mind where he could live a full life. While we still have plenty of work to do…Buster is living a full life now. He is a handful…he always will be…but he is worth every moment that we have invested in him.
Most of the people we consider friends are dog people but some are not. Bret and I laugh when we have guests over and they meet Buster for the first time. They usually comment that he is a bit of a spaz…Buster has an incredible amount of energy and enthusiasm…most dog lovers can appreciate him as he is. Non-dog lovers…not so much. His grandma threatens to give him her Lorazopam…we laugh…if only they knew how far he has come. We love our little spaz and nothing makes us happier than to see him live a full life.
I am going to share how Buster went from “out of control” to “living a full life” in a series of blog posts over the next few months. I am not a novel trainer…meaning I am a total copy cat…plain and simple. I follow the advice and techniques of trainers much more experienced and knowledgeable than I am. I will tell you what we did and point you to in-depth resources from the experts I trust and give them full credit for the methods we used. I am simply sharing the techniques that worked for me and Buster in hopes that it can help others.
I know how frustrating it is to love a reactive dog. Buster is not my first rodeo with a reactive dog. Ten years ago I went to the trouble of getting certified to train dogs because I had an out of control Rottweiler that I loved dearly. I wanted to see him live a full life but couldn’t find trainers who were willing to work with him (can’t say I blame them). My only option seemed to learn to train him myself. I know all to well the diligence and hard work involved with working with a reactive dog. Pet parents who go the distance to give a reactive dog a full life…are very dedicated and special folks in my opinion. I hope Buster and I can be a resource by talking through our experiences and pointing you towards the experts and methods we looked to in our journey to build a better life for Buster.
Following is the summary of the series of upcoming posts I am planning:
1) Building Trust…beginning work with a reactive dog.
Getting Buster to work hard for me didn’t come instantly..in fact it was quite a bit of time and work on my part. I had to become the most interesting and fun thing in the world to Buster. Our first training sessions were, from a dogs perspective, all fun and games for him and work for me (and of course lots of affection) but they were crucial to laying the foundation to train and work.
2) Breed characteristics…why they can matter.
Breed matters when training any dog. In Buster’s case, once we figured out what breed he actually was it unlocked the door to understanding his behavior and played a significant role in how I worked with Buster. Once I understood his breed (which is one that I had never heard of) I understood his behavior and planned exercise and training methods that suited him better.
3) Basics and generalization for a reactive dog.
All dogs will fare much better if their training includes a lot of generalization. For reactive dogs I train a few really key commands before I start working in public places. For a reactive dog, particularly Buster, generalization of commands is crucial…it is how we use commands to navigate his most stressful situations. For us generalization meant not just changing the scene of our training but very gradually increasing the distractions and stress level. It also meant that I, as his handler, had to pay close attention to his stress signals…always avoiding pushing him to the point of failure. This was a long and patient process with Buster…but it worked.
4) Solving the circular problem…How do you safely exercise a reactive dog with zero leash manners?
A reactive and very energetic dog needs exercise…duh…but that is not easy to do though with a dog that has zero leash manners and melts down around unfamiliar dogs. I will walk through how I taught Buster leash manners (his leash manners are incredible now) and what training methods we used to prepare to go out for walks and not have melt downs. Exercising a reactive dog takes a level of attention and focus on the part of the handler that is more intense than what is required with a well adjusted dog. My role as Buster’s handler is to be alert to everything around us and never to put him in a situation he can’t handle. It also means having a rock solid plan for what we will do when something unexpected happens (i.e. loose dogs charging at us).
5) Can dogs learn a better play style?
Buster was such a jerk around other dogs (this is with dogs that he is familiar with)…and I mean a real jerk. I wondered if it was possible to work on a better play style…was it trainable? Buster’s play style has improved dramatically and I will write about what we did to work on that.
6) Ending reactive behavior before its starts.
Buster, like most reactive dogs, can get really worked up at doors and windows. We worked hard at finding a balance between harnessing his natural breed instinct to guard his home/family and our desire to keep Buster from having a melt down every time someone walked passed our house.
I hope you find this upcoming series helpful. If you love all things pet and pet rescue please follow my blog. I blog weekly about different pet topics and daily on my facebook page and pinterest page.
Bret and I have never been so proud to fail at something!
On January 3, 2015 Bret and I became official “foster failures”. We are so proud to introduce Turnip Halverson…he is now part of his forever family. Turnip has been a joy and also a challenge for our home. Anyone who knows me… knows I love a challenge… also that I have a knack for falling in love with dogs who need a little extra help figuring life out.
Turnip was so painfully shy when he came here. It took quite a bit of time and patience to win his trust but eventually we did. He came here as a foster because he was struggling to make connections with humans at his first foster home. The day I met him all he did was pace…. back and forth…over and over…the pacing continued here for several days. Even corralling him in and out of the house to potty was a bit of a challenge as he was terrified to walk through door ways with a human present and he didn’t want us to touch him.
Every time I meet a dog I believe I can help in some way I am repeatedly thwarted by the magic influence dogs can have on each other. After a week or two Turnip adjusted to the most basic elements of life with our pack. He followed the lead of our dogs (my labs especially) and figured out meal routines, potty routines, sleeping routines and finally that it was safe to approach us.
Anytime Turnip made a new leap …like walking up the stairs for the first time (he was terrified of the stairs) or getting in and out of the car without me having to carry him (he was terrified of the car)…Bret and I would brim with excitement and pride. Our most recent big excitement has been Turnip’s walks. Turnip is afraid of everything…a blowing leaf, a passing car, a garbage can. Raising his comfort level to walk in the neighborhood has been no small accomplishment. I attribute most of his success to my labs…who walked flanking Turnip for weeks…up and down the same streets…now a clicker and a few pieces of meat are all that is necessary for Turnip to venture out without the labs and stay relaxed.
Turnip was not neutered when he moved in…he had been too sick to undergo the surgery. For me, having an intact male in the house was something new…I have always had rescues that came neutered or spayed. This raised the challenge a bit as Turnip wanted to mark EVERYTHING and he was having trouble (at times) getting a long with our other dogs. (He was the instigator of several squabbles that ended with me getting bitten.) I used Simple Solution belly bands for the marking situation…I tried a few brands and this seemed the most comfortable for him and by far the most absorbent. They are easy enough to wash (though I wouldn’t recommend putting them in the dryer). After he was neutered I used the umbilical cord technique to potty train him…which only took a few days…we have not had any problems since. His play style with the other dogs improved significantly after his neuter as well and mom no longer gets bitten!
I used several proven techniques for working with shy dogs to train with Turnip. I am not a novel dog trainer…I rely on the wisdom of those who have many years of successful experience working with dogs with behavior challenges….Jen Severud (who was my mentor), Emma Parsons, Debbie Jacobs and Patricia McConnell. I use a clicker for just about everything I work on with Turnip. One thing that is particularly challenging with fearful dogs is getting them to generalize behavior (perform the same behavior in different settings). Using a clicker makes the process of generalization go much faster which significantly reduces the dogs stress in new settings. There are two things you will pretty much always find on me when I am out and about…dog hair all over my clothes (ish) and a clicker hanging from wrist!
I played a game called “touch” with Turnip…we play it still. It makes approaching new things a fun game for Turnip instead of a scary experience. Since Turnip is a very playful dog this has worked wonders. Another thing I made sure I worked hard at when training with Turnip is always making sure I am setting him up to succeed in his training. If I am asking my dog to perform a behavior and the dogs is failing…ITS NOT THE DOG! It is my role as his trainer (and well now his mama) to make sure that he is successful…if he is struggling with his training …I back up and revamp the situation to a scenario in which he can succeed…then work back up the difficulty more slowly.
The night before Turnip’s official adoption Bret and I became resolved to no longer speak of Turnip’s past in our home…this is the last time I will write about it too. Turnip led a hellish life for years…but that is not what makes him special…what makes him special is his fight…he is a tough dog who first survived neglect and abuse, then a horrible illness and then began fighting his way to learn to lead a normal life with a family. We won’t be looking at the old pictures…we won’t be recalling how badly he was treated…because it is all upside from here for him. Turnip’s identity now is one of a playful, energetic and affectionate (and even sometimes naughty) member of our permanent family.
I can’t end this post without calling out my husband. Turnip is terrified of men…it has been no small exercise in patience for Bret and Turnip to adjust to each other. It gets better all the time…due entirely to my husband’s huge heart and persistence. Turnip still won’t go in or out the door for potty if my husband is close by but he does hang out on the couch with him and eats out of Bret’s hands. The fact that my husband fell in love with a dog who still fears him is a testament to his heart. I don’t have the kind of husband who buys me jewels…but rather one that loves broken creatures and believes in second chances…I am so lucky!
This is a picture of me and Turnip at my desk. Whenever I sit down to write at my computer Turnip climbs on my lap and falls asleep…sitting up like this…it is so darn cute. I have figured out how to type with him on my lap…he has become my muse.
The last thing I will say about Turnip…he barks…Turnip was in the rescue process (fostered, hostipalized, etc) for about one year….that whole time no one heard him bark. Turnip has found his bark…he barks all the time now…I love the sound of him barking…he also howls now…every time the sirens pass our house…it is so cute.
I love the sound of dogs, the smell of dogs and the chaos that comes with of a house full of dogs…and I love Turnip.
I leave you with this picture of Buster…our other foster dog. He is also here because he has some behavior challenges…but he is making great progress too. The night of the party, with a few exceptions (like leaping on to the table of food) he behaved wonderfully and had a great time…so much so that he was caught dozing off with his party hat on.
This is picture of me and Buster. Buster is a rescue dog that I have recently started doing some obedience work with. Let’s just say he has been bounced around a bit in his life. He is super smart, affectionate and has tons of energy! Buster needs some polishing touches on his manners and he needs a little help overcoming anxiety around unfamilar dogs.
For my first session working with Buster I was really focused on getting right to work and putting in action the training plan I had made out for him. Buster was not living in my home so I had to pick him up and take him to my house to train. We had no experience together other than my initial evaluation of him. Buster is a very friendly and affectionate dog so it seemed plausible to start right in and get to work. I took for granted that his friendliness meant he trusted me enough to work with me. It didn’t go very well that first first training session…in fact it went quite poorly. I (and probably he as well) felt totally overwhelmed by the end of our time together. It dawned on me after our first session that in my eagerness to help this dog I had skipped the most important part of getting Buster and I working well together as a team…building a relationship with him and earning his trust.
I revamped my training plan to start our session with play and affection. Our second session was a totally different experience…he took to his training like a rockstar and we had a blast together. We alternated between training and play and we even took a break to take a few selfies together. At one point in our second session I sat on the floor and Buster curled up in my lap with his head buried in mid-section. We sat there for a good ten minutes….I could feel the tension release from his little body. He was a different dog to work with after that. The more time I spend playing with Buster and giving him the affection he craves…the harder he works for me. Look at those ears…aren’t they amazing!!!!
Rescue dogs never cease to amaze me. Their willingness to learn (at any age) and openness to relationships with humans (despite have been short shifted by a few humans) always touches my heart. If only humans were so this patient and forgiving with each other.
I believe that pet rescue is serious business….the number of healthy pets dying in shelters every day in our country is a very dark spiritual blemish on our society. I also abhor the notion that shelter pets are “damaged” or “unstable”…quite the contrary…they are survivors both physically and spiritually…would we humans have such good attitudes if we were homeless…no less dumped by our own families? I am always amazed at their uncanny ability to live in the moment and live with such great attitudes…to assume the best about their humans.