Love Him Wisely
by Terri Florentino
“The truth is,” Susan said. She paused and ran her hand over her mouth. She took a breath. “Dusty can be so volatile that I’m afraid of him.”
I tensed. “Sometimes there are hard deci—”
“No. I’m in this for the long haul. We all are.”
“Okay. Good,” I relaxed. “I’m going to need you to love him wisely.”
“Can do,” Susan said.
We agreed to check back frequently, and a week or so later I visited them to follow up after their trip to the vet. I heard happy yelling and scrabbling behind the door as Susan put Dusty behind the baby gate. She let me in smiling and breathless.
“You were right,” she said. “The doctor agreed medication would ease his stress and lower his aggression. He’s been on it a few days now.”
I moved deliberately and calmly, never looking directly at him. Behind the gate he sat cute as a button and watched me intently. “Have you noticed any differences yet?”
“I’d say he’s showing a little less a play drive, which is sad, but the good news is, he is definitely less reactive.” She led me into the kitchen. “Juice? Tea?”
I could hear the hope in her voice, and I smiled. “Don’t relax yet. We’ve just begun. Keep a leash on him at all times, indoors and out, day and night.” This way he if started to act inappropriately they could get control of him quickly. “Think of the leash as an umbilical cord. If you want your dog to learn from you, he needs to be attached to you.”
Robert met us in the kitchen looking more at ease than the last time I saw him. We shook hands.
“I was just saying, be aware of Dusty’s body language and watch for early signs of reactivity.”
“I know exactly what you mean,” Susan said. She put a kettle on the stove. “His body stiffens, his head drops, his eyes stare, and he might let out a low growl you can barely hear.”
“The second you see him enter that mode, change the subject.”
“Should I offer to take him for a walk or to get the ball?” Robert asked.
“Yes, and I’ll teach you to learn some constructive learning games in class,” I said and grinned. “You’ll have a whole repertoire of new subjects.”
Susan was setting three teacups and saucers on the counter. She turned and flashed me a big smile at the thought of Dusty having lots of fun things to do besides snap and growl.
It’s important to be pro-active rather than re-active. “Let’s not set him up to fail. For instance, he’s not sleeping in your bed anymore.” I took a seat at the kitchen table, and Robert joined me. “Since that last episode with you and the bed, Dusty has lost the privilege of sharing that space. Do you see what I mean?”
Susan set a box of herbal teas on the counter and turned around with a frown. “Where should he sleep?”
“In a crate, where you know exactly where he is and what he’s doing.”
“That won’t be a problem,” Robert said, relieved.
Susan set a plate of sugar cookies on the table and joined us. We discussed Dusty’s fear of people he didn’t know. “Don’t force the issue this early on. Once you and Dusty attend my classes we’ll work on promoting positive interaction.” The kettle whistled, and Susan got up. “In the meantime allow him to be social with people he’s relaxed with, but take him immediately out of any situation that makes him uncomfortable. Baby steps, okay?”
I explained the nothing-for-free concept. “Dusty needs to earn everything,” I said, as Susan filled my teacup. “Everything. Toys, food, treats, free time, and affection must be earned.”
Susan and Robert looked at each other, dipping their teabags. “This is going to be hard,” Robert said.
“It’s doable,” Susan said.
“It’s worth it,” I said. We raised our teacups. “To Dusty.”
“One of the secrets,” Susan said in an email, was that “Dusty loved the hotdogs we used for training. It helped keep him focused on me. Each night the family and I also enjoyed practicing all of the skills we learned with Dusty, and it tired him out.”
Surprisingly Dusty was tolerant of other dogs. He didn’t want to wrestle and play with them, but he was comfortable in their presence. Susan and Robert eventually got two cats. “I never thought Dusty would get along with the cats, but I believe they helped with his social development. He and Tigger are good friends. Autumn tolerates him. It’s so funny seeing our tough guy get smacked around by a cat and tolerate it.”
“Dusty and I formed a strong bond during the training process. I had a blast training him, and he loved to learn. I was amazed at the transformation in Dusty once I stopped the punishment and intimidation technique I’d learned on television. I focused on his good qualities. Seeing the twinkle in his eye and overall happier demeanor motivated me to keep going. After I while, I wasn’t afraid of him anymore. I was more and more determined to save him. We were able to wean him off of the Prozac after only a year. It got easier and easier to love him. We became the best buddies I dreamed we would be.”
Susan and Robert did a remarkable job with Dusty. I had cautioned them that Dusty’s baseline personality would never completely change, so the behavior management techniques have to be lifelong habits, and they followed through. I’ve seen it too often: the biggest mistake that my clients make is falling back into their old habits with their dogs. When they fall back, the dog falls back, and the trouble’s back.
“I’m not afraid of him anymore,” Susan said. “But I’ll always be guarded in certain situations. He still gets annoyed. It’s clear he can never be trusted, just as Terri predicted. He still wants to be the boss, but we try to keep a nothing-for-free attitude with him. I recognize his triggers and immediately change the subject. He’s much easier to re-direct now, and he’ll forgive and forget quickly. He rarely sleeps with us, and when he does he’s on a leash, and Rob gets in bed first, then he is invited up. My mission is to make sure he stays on the right path.”
Some things haven’t changed. Susan is still his favorite person, and he’s protective of their daughter Sarah. He still keeps an eye on Robert. He’s an intelligent dog, so he was easy to train. He demands attention but he’s learned to ask for it playfully. He loves riding in the car, going to the beach or park, and seeing other dogs. “The best part,” Susan said, “besides being able to keep and develop a satisfying relationship with Dusty, was meeting the people along the way, who helped us. Especially Terri, but we met others who truly cared about our plight, and understood the potential heartbreak and stress of what it was like to have to deal with him.”
Susan got choked up remembering the tough times. “So many of our friends and family said we should euthanize him.” She shook her head. “I never knew the depth of the relationships between man and dog, and how much a dog understands and feels. I learned about dog rescue, and saw people give of their time, money and emotions to protect the helpless lives of so many dogs. How inspiring is that? I appreciate dogs more than ever, and even though Dusty will never be a therapy dog, I am inspired. I hope to have a Therapy Dog one day. I never would have been exposed to that if it wasn’t for Dusty. This experience has been invaluable to me in many ways.”
“Now I realize the truth in Anatole France’s quote, Until one has loved an animal, a part of one’s soul remains unawakened.