“Who Saved Whom?”
by Terri Florentino
We moved into the living room, which was decorated for the holidays with lots of cheerful color. I asked Debbie to describe how she was handling Chase’s separation anxiety. I wanted to understand what might be behind the clawed-up walls and doors. Why was he going berserk, panicking as if his life were at stake when she left him alone?
“I started by sending Chase to ‘his room’ for short periods of time while I was home.” As she spoke, Debbie gazed at Chase, who was lying on the other side of the living room, head on paws, listening. “Then I’d leave the house just briefly. I never made a big deal about coming and going. I made sure that he had a lot of yummy learning game toys placed around the room.”
Those were fantastic strategies, but for some reason, Chase couldn’t get calm enough to let them work. “Chase is obviously a very smart dog,” I said. Chase’s gaze shifted to me, and he raised one eyebrow. I smiled at him. He looked away. “In time, he’ll be able to exercise self-control. Maybe he needs a consistent and stable routine.” I suspect that his anxiety was brought on by the prior instability in his life. I suggested that Debbie talk to her veterinarian about anti-anxiety medication—just while Chase was adjusting to his new lifestyle. In conjunction with the medication positive, motivational training would be very important. Teamwork, exercise, and clear direction would help him feel more secure. “Tell me about the incident that prompted Chase to bite you and your husband. “
Debbie’s shoulders slumped, and she turned to me sadly. “Which one?”
“Wow. Okay, tell me about the times that he has bitten both of you.”
Chase sighed and closed his eyes as if he were tired of hearing these stories.
“All the time. He bites all the time. It’s nearly impossible to get out the door without him biting the backs of our legs. Just to get out of the house we have to send him to his room.”
“Ah, okay.” I was beginning to see that poor Chase carried a lot of fear in his heart. He lived in panic mode. I was even more certain he could use the help of the veterinarian and a lot of structure and positive reinforcement. “I’ll tell you what, I want you to keep Chase on a leash while in the house. This way you’ll have more control over him when he acts out.”
“Great idea, I never thought of that.” Debbie said that Chase would bark and act out whenever sees the neighbors or any other wild vermin, especially squirrels. “As if the barking and lunging wasn’t bad enough, whenever we try to put a stop to his madness, he just redirect his frustration onto us. He grabs our clothes, shakes his head, and growls. I’ve lost count of how many shirts, jackets, and pants he’s torn.” She added, “No matter how I yell and scream, he doesn’t listen!”
Just hearing the frustration and anxiety in her voice, Chase sat up, his brow puckered in worry.
“I can appreciate your frustration,” I said calmly. “However, no more yelling, okay? I believe the yelling and screaming is making him more nervous.”
Debbie and Chase each sat watching each other across the room with worried eyes. Debbie had already gotten so frightened and fed up that she’d left him at the shelter. But love had brought her here and brought Chase home. I had to find a way to help them.
“I’ve got something for you that really might help,” I said. “One command. With a firm tone of voice, I want you to instruct Chase to ‘Leave it!” We put Chase on a leash, and I taught Debbie and Chase the ‘Leave it’ command and watched them practice. I didn’t want Chase to think that he’d have the option to ‘Take’ the item that she had instructed him to ‘Leave’, not ever. Down the road, on occasion, with other training techniques, there might come an opportunity for Chase to ‘Take it.’ For now, no, and it should never follow the ‘Leave it’ command. “‘Leave it’ means ‘Leave it,’” I said. “Chase needs to understand that you mean what you say. He needs these limits.” His life depended on it.
“The worst is how Chase resource-guards me,” Debbie said. We stood in the middle of the living room. Chase had walked to the end of his leash, ears pricked toward the window, ready to go into red alert should a squirrel appear. “If Sam tries to sit next to me on the couch Chase jumps between us and grabs and bites Sam’s arm. If I try to push him away, he snarls and growls at me. This has got to stop!”
Chase must never even get the opportunity to behave that way. Next, I taught Debbie and Chase the command ‘Off.” Chase would be on a leash indoors, and when Debbie sat on the couch, she would make Chase lie on the floor by her feet in a ‘Down’ and ‘Stay’ command. “Feel free to give him one of his learning game toys filled with goodies to keep him occupied while he’s lying on the floor by your feet,” I said. “This should be pleasant and peaceful. It’s not punishment, it’s redirection and prevention.”
“Also, a tired dog is a good dog.” We discussed the importance of exercise. “Basic obedience is also extremely important. I’ll show you how to make learning fun.”
“I can’t wait,” Debbie said, raising the pitch of her voice and leaning forward. “What do you think, Chase? Can we enjoy each other?”
Chase’s tail swished.
“The holidays are coming.” Debbie stood straight with a look of fright. “What should I do with Chase when we have company?”
“How is he with new people?” I asked.
“He picks and chooses whom he wants to be friendly with, but he loves my niece Gianna.”
“Your guests can help Chase learn appropriate social skills.” I explained she should keep him on a leash and make use of treats and toys to promote suitable interaction. “When you want to relax, put Chase away in his room and reward him with a delectable learning game toy. Don’t set him up to fail, be pro-active rather than re-active.”
“Chase is nothing like my other dog, Toby,” Debbie sighed.
“We’re all guilty of training our last dog.” I said.
“I’ll never get over how Toby died.” Debbie led me back to the couch. She put Chase in a down-stay by her feet.
“What happened to Toby?”
“We had just come home from vacation, and I was getting ready to leave the house when the phone rang. It was the owner of the kennel. Toby had died that morning. He was found in the kennel. No one knew what happened. I remember hanging up the phone, burying my face in my hands, falling to my knees, and weeping uncontrollably. Even though Toby loved going to the kennel I will never forgive myself for not being there for him.” She stroked Chase’s head. He closed his eyes. “I’ll tell you by the time I adopted Chase from the shelter, I needed him as much as he needed me.”
“I’m so sorry for your pain Deb. It wasn’t your fault.” I told her her comment about needing Chase made me think of a commonly used slogan for rescued dogs, ‘Who Saved Whom.’”
“I like it,” she said.
We smiled at each other.
“Isn’t it charming?” I said. “But especially for a dog like Chase—he needs you more than you need him. He needs you to help him with his fears and his shortcomings.”
“I understand. I’ll work very hard to become the person that Chase needs me to be.”
“I know you will. We’ll reconvene after the holiday. In the meantime I’m here for you and Chase. Call me anytime.” We embraced, wished one another a Happy Holiday. Before I turned to go, I bent down to Chase. When his eyes met mine, he sat up and gave me his paw. I grinned and gave him a pat. “Be the good pup I know you can be. Santa’s watching.”