Category Archives: Dusty

The wolf in cockapoo’s clothing.

Dusty, Part 4

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.”

Susan, Robert, and Dusty

Susan, Robert, and Dusty

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?”

The fur family.

The fur family.

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.”

It took years. They trained Dusty in basic obedience, rally, tricks, Beyond Backyard, and even Canine Good Citizen.

“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.”

Tigger, Autumn, and Dusty

Tigger, Autumn, and Dusty

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.”

Dusty and the Kids

Dusty and the Kids

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.”

Dusty and his favorite person, Susan

Dusty and his favorite person, Susan

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.

Beach Dusty

Dusty, Part 3

Nature, Nurture, and Dusty

by Terri Florentino

“What exactly do you mean by, ‘pack mentality?’” I asked Susan.

Unhappy Dusty

“I’m not sure Dusty knows what fun is.”

Behind the baby gate, Dusty blinked at the three of us sitting around the dining room table, blowing our noses and deciding his fate.

“A take-charge attitude. I was the ‘Alpha,’ not Dusty.” Susan said she followed what she’d learned from the dog-training television show. “When Dusty would resource-guard something I’d try to intimidate him into releasing it. I’d get very close to him, use a sharp guttural tone and order him to, ‘Leave it!’”

“What happened?”

“Well,” she said with a rueful laugh, “that never worked, so I did like the expert said and picked him up and angled his head towards the floor. A few times this did work.  He’d drop it.” Before long, however, he began to threaten her with an uncompromising growl.

“He bit me,” Robert said. “Again and again. I’d only yank something away from him if I thought he had a hold of something dangerous. He broke my skin every time!”

Dusty had never been a social butterfly with strangers. His normal response was to walk away. As Dusty neared a year old, when people reached to pet him, he showed his teeth, growled and lunged.

"Sarah adores him."

“Sarah adores him.”

“Even though he’s gotten to be such an unpleasant, and even dangerous little character, I love him.” Susan paused to collect herself, and I thought she might need another tissue. “Our daughter Sarah adores him. He’s never gone after me or the kids.”

“He’d be gone,” Robert said. “In a heartbeat.”

Susan squeezed his hand. “Look, Dusty was supposed to be our pet. The family pet. It’s not fair for Rob to live in fear in his own home, terrorized by a fluff ball.”

We all glanced at the fluff ball. He hadn’t moved. I started to wonder if he wasn’t a stuffed toy. He sure was cute.

“Now that he’s trying to bite other people, we’re at our wit’s end. We just can’t live like this. We can’t live with a dangerous dog.” She had steeled herself. She wasn’t going to cry.

Not knowing where to turn, Susan emailed Dusty’s breeder with her concerns about his behavior. To her surprise, the breeder replied that she and her family must have harmed him and ruined him. She refused to take him back, under any circumstances. “If you can’t handle him, you’ll have to euthanize him.”

“Euthanasia was not an option. I could not kill my daughter’s dog.” Susan reached for the tissues. “I started to believe the breeder was right. I must have ruined Dusty.” Even though she’d been following all the techniques of the well known television trainer, she suspected she’d only made things worse.

“Once the vet did a physical and blood work on Dusty, and everything came back normal, she told us to call you. She said your experience and motivational approach would be our best option.”

“Let’s get started,” I said. I sighed and thought for a moment. Some things were hard to say. “The first thing I want you to understand is that a certain percentage of personality traits are inherited and indelible.” I turned to Susan. “Based on your description of Dusty’s behavior right from the start, I’m certain that some of what you are seeing is his genetic baseline personality.”

“So he was born this way? And he’s always going to be like this?” Susan teared up. “I’m sorry. This is just so sad.”

“No, no! Don’t apologize. Your heart is breaking. I get it. I’ve been there. And I’m not saying things can’t get better for Dusty. This goes back to the nature-versus-nurture debate. Nobody’s entirely sure how much of each influences personality. All we know for sure is that a certain percentage of both are factored into the final product.”

Susan balled the tissue in her fist and looked at her hands. “I should’ve done things differently. It never felt right. I ruined Dusty.”

“No. It is both nature and nurture, but you still can’t blame yourself. Look, a dog with Dusty’s issues has to be handled very carefully, and you couldn’t have known that. You did your best. You’re still doing your best, and that’s awesome.”

Susan and Robert nodded. They smiled.

"We need to lower his anxiety."

“We need to lower his anxiety.”

“Before we can teach him new skills, we need to lower his anxiety.” I recommended that they talk to their veterinarian about anxiety medication.

“You’re kidding me,” Susan said.

“That’s interesting,” Robert said. “I’d heard about it. People do it all the time. I just hadn’t thought of Dusty as anxious.”

“He’s afraid,” I said. “He was afraid before you met him.” I also explained what I refer to as, “the nothing for free concept.” This theory is based on controlling all resources. “Anything of value to your dog must be earned.” Into his daily routine we would integrate positive, reward-based motivational techniques. “All of this has to be fun, okay? Fun for you, fun for Dusty.” I turned toward the pup behind the gate and in my best, “Oh, boy!” voice I said,  “Right, Dusty?”

He slid to the floor and dropped his head on his paws with a grunt.

“Fun?” Robert said. “I’m not sure Dusty knows what fun is.”

I’d love that. I want him to enjoy his little life,” Susan said.

“Okay. We make him feel safe. We set him up for success,” I said. “Deal?”

We had a deal.

Dusty, Part 2

Dust Comes Home

by Terri Florentino

Winter Dusty'

“There was nothing normal about him.”

As Susan and Sarah followed the young lady into the house, Susan said, “I’d like to meet our puppy’s parents.”

“I’m sorry,” she said over her shoulder. “We don’t allow anyone to go to the area where the dogs are housed. You might bring germs in on your feet, and the dogs could get sick.” She looked back again, wrinkling her nose at Susan.

“Oh. Of course.” Susan had been hoping for a glimpse of how her pup would act and how he might look as an adult.

“You wait here,” the girl ordered. Then she turned to Sarah, grinned, and said with false gaiety, “I’ll be right back with your new puppy!”

As the young lady disappeared behind a door, Susan and Sarah beamed at each other. When the door opened again, they were breathless at the sight of the adorable ball of curly fur in her arms. Susan reached for the puppy. She hesitated. The puppy looked tense and pulled away from her. “Why does the puppy seem fearful? His tail’s not wagging.” Susan didn’t know how to feel or what to do. She had sent a non-refundable deposit and invested a five-hour drive for this puppy; turning back was not an option.

Nothing made him happy

“Nothing we did made him happy.”

“He’s just nervous, nothing to worry about, he’ll settle down.” The young lady kissed him on the head. He didn’t seem to mind that.

Gingerly, Susan took the rigid puppy and cradled him in her arms. Mechanically, the girl went over the contents of a basket of puppy food and other new-puppy essentials. By the time she was done, the puppy had relaxed. He even gave Susan a little kiss on her cheek. The affection offered her some relief. The fact that he was as cute as a button didn’t hurt either.

“Well, if you don’t have any more questions,” the girl said, in a way that invited no further questions, I’ll see you to your car.”

Susan hesitated; she felt full of questions, but couldn’t think of any in the face of such a brusque remark. “Well, we do have a long drive ahead.”

“Can I hold him? Can I hold him in the car?” Sarah said. “I can’t wait to show him his bed and his bowls and his toys!”

Out at the car, the pup went stiff with fear again as Susan opened the back door. She placed him in his new crate in the back seat, said goodbye to the strangely aloof girl, and headed on their way.

On the way home Sarah and Susan discussed what name they liked best for their puppy.  The pup was mostly white, with a small stripe of very light tan down his back, and some tan fur on his ears that looked like dust. Susan suggested calling him “Dusty.” Once the entire family arrived home later that evening they all sat around and discussed various names. Everyone liked “Dusty.”

Really sad Dusty

“He seemed depressed.”

“The first two weeks weren’t what we had expected,” Robert said.

“What exactly do you mean?” I asked.

“When they brought Dusty home, he seemed depressed,” he said. “Normally a puppy would run and play, but Dusty just lay around. I wondered if he was sick. I got down on the floor to wrestle with him, and all he did was sit and stare at me.”

“We were worried. I called the breeder,” Susan said. “She said Dusty just needed more time to adjust. Something didn’t seem right, so I took him to the vet, but she just assured me we had a healthy-looking puppy and that we needed to come back in a few weeks for some vaccines.”

Inevitably Dusty settled into some of what anyone would constitute as normal puppy behavior. He chewed on whatever met his mouth, got the usual puppy “zoomies—racing around and like he’d gone completely haywire, and started the puppyhood biting, or “mouthing.” The mouthing was so severe, they called him, “land shark.” Dusty grabbed and nibbled on hands, legs, pants, and feet. It was difficult to walk him; he got furious tethered to a leash and made every effort to chew through it to free himself.

"I wondered if he was resource-guarding me."

“I wondered if he was resource-guarding me.”

By the time Dusty was six months old he started to exhibit “resource-guarding behavior;” when he had food or a chewy, he growled and snapped dangerously at anyone who came near him.

“I was taking Dusty for a ride in the car,” Robert said. “He grabbed a tissue from the console between the seats, and I didn’t want him to swallow it. I reached to get it out of his mouth, and he grabbed my hand in his teeth—not just once, but again and again. He bit down as fast as he could, over and over, slicing me up. In the blink of an eye, there was blood everywhere!”

“I was devastated when Rob told me what Dusty did.” Susan got up and fetched a box of tissues. She dropped it on the dining room table and helped herself to one.

“Careful!” Robert joked. “Don’t let Dusty near it!”

“I didn’t dare admit it at the time,” Susan said, glancing at the button nose behind the baby gate. “But I simply could not enjoy my puppy.” She blew her nose. “How sad is that? He was never cuddly or affectionate. Nothing we did made him happy. There was nothing normal about him. He was bold, pushy, always had to have his way–or else! It was like he was terrorizing us. I had no idea what to do with such a mean and nasty puppy.” Susan began to cry again. “I couldn’t believe it. Who’s ever heard of such a thing?”

Robert squeezed her hand.

Susan pulled herself together. “It seemed like he was only putting up with me and the kids, but he outright hated Robert.” She laughed and sniffled. “I’m sorry, Honey.”

Robert smiled. “I know it’s true. I guess I didn’t smell right.”

“I understand how some dogs are intimidated by men who are authoritative and commanding,” she said. “But Robert is gentle and kind. He was sweet to him. He got down on the floor with him, talked in a high-pitched voice. He did everything right. He really tried. I thought maybe Dusty was resource-guarding the children and me from Robert.”

“When Dusty and I where home alone together, he was fine with me,” Robert said.

“That’s right,” Susan said. “When I was home, Dusty would never leave my side. When Robert came within a certain distance of me, Dusty growled until he backed away.

“Then he started trying to keep me out of certain rooms.”

“Okay, that’s interesting,” I said. “How did you each handle Dusty when he acted inappropriately?”

"He just seemed to tolerate the kids and me."

“It seemed like he was only putting up with me and the kids.”

“I’m embarrassed to say,” Susan said. “But there was this trainer I saw on television who emphasized the importance of being a pack leader. I followed his advice.”

“Okay, I see.” I looked at the angry little mop-head glaring at us from behind the baby gate. He had hardly moved a muscle the entire time. “I think we see where this is going, don’t we, Dusty?”

He didn’t even blink.

Dusty, Part 1

How I Met Your Puppy

by Terri Florentino

“Our dog didn’t get the memo.” The man sat at the head of the dining room table, and the woman, having brought me a glass of water and placed a coaster on the table in front of me, sat herself across from me, both of them agitated. I sipped my water, set the glass on the coaster, and glanced at the cutie behind the baby gate, the cause of all this distress.

DustyPuppyThere sat the most adorable off-white young dog, his entire body a tumble of touchable, soft, little curls. For a young dog, barely fifteen months old, he sat strangely still, almost like a stuffed toy the kids had left behind. He was unnaturally expressionless, not even wiggling his tail. He just sat stiff and observed, as if miffed that things had come to this.

“What memo?” I said.

“The one that says a dog is man’s best friend.” The frustration in Robert’s voice was unmistakable.

“Tell me what happened.”

“I headed to bed where Dusty was sleeping next to Susan,” he said. “He always refuses to move out of my way when I try to get into bed, but this was the worst—he attacked me!”

Eyes filling with tears, Susan picked up the story with terror in her voice. “Dusty attacked. He tore Rob’s pajamas. He lunged at him again and again, biting him on his hips and arms.” Susan’s arms flailed as she described the trauma. “I flew out of bed, grabbed a pillow, and forced it between them. Dusty started tearing apart the pillow. He was like Cujo! He was savage! We couldn’t stop him!” She cried openly now. “Feathers were flying everywhere! I reached around the pillow, grabbed Dusty’s collar, and dragged towards the bathroom. He kept snarling and jumping at Robert.

Once I got him alone in the bathroom with me, he calmed down. I let him go, and he looked up at me as if to say, ‘Aren’t you proud of me?’ I was a wreck!” She wiped her eyes with her fingertips. “Who’m I kidding? I’m still a wreck.”

I glanced at the cute, curly-haired pup. Throughout the entire account of the violence he’d perpetrated, he just sat quietly, as if listening intently and agreeing, “Yes, that’s exactly how it happened, but as soon as you hear my side, you’ll understand my actions were perfectly justifiable.”

“Once he was settled,” Susan said, “I slipped out to get his leash, came back, and clipped it to his collar.”

“Good thing, too,” Rob said. “As soon as he saw me, he lunged at me again, growling like a mad dog. I swear to you, I’ve never laid a hand on this animal. I mean, look how cute he is. I’ve only been kind to him.”

Dusty just blinked behind his curls and licked his button nose.

Susan sighed, emotionally exhausted. “Can you help us, Terri?”

“I’ll do my best. We have a lot of work to do. Tell me where Dusty came from.”

“You sure you don’t want anything to eat?” Rob asked.

“No, thanks.” I heard children at play upstairs, and I wondered how Dusty had lasted this long. “Where did you get him?”

“My sister had the most lovable cockapoo,” Susan said, “which is why I chose this breed. I had no idea that not all cockapoos were created equal.” She’d done her research and found what she believed to be a responsible breeder on the Internet. She had to submit an on-line application. The breeder accepted, and Susan sent in a nonrefundable deposit.

The picture sent by the breeder.

Susan fell in love with the little guy in this picture.

“She let me choose my puppy based on a picture. I suppose that should have been my first red flag. She guaranteed her pups would have wonderful dispositions, and I trusted her.” Susan let out another sigh, Rob shook his head, and Dusty, behind his baby gate, slid down onto his elbows with a thump.

“Out of the blue, the breeder even sweetened the deal by putting my puppy on sale, dropping the price from a thousand to eight hundred dollars, the second red flag. She said she’d been ill and had too many puppies; she needed to move them quickly. That was red flag number three.”

Early on a Friday morning in 2007, Susan along with her young school-age daughter, Sarah, set out on their ten-hour, round-trip journey to pick up the family’s adorable new puppy. The weather was beautiful. Sarah was so excited, she had even passed up a chance to join her classmates on a school trip to the local amusement park.

“What should we name him?” Sarah said. “We still don’t have a name!”

“Why don’t we wait until we get him home to decide? This should be a family decision.”

“I can’t wait! I want to hold him and love him and kiss his little puppy nose.”

“You shouldn’t kiss his little puppy nose. He might have germs.”

“Cockapoos are too cute to have germs. The germs just bounce right off.”

As they neared their destination, they drove through a charming little farm community outside of Pittsburgh. They came upon a sign at the end of a driveway: “Professional Cockapoo Breeder.” They drove down the long driveway to a nice home with a well manicured lawn. As soon as they parked, Sarah and Susan jumped out of the car, eager to meet their furry new family member.

A young woman came outside to meet them. Susan was surprised; the woman with whom she’d been exchanging emails had seemed older. The young woman held out her hand and said, “I’m her daughter. My mother’s sorry she’s not available to meet with you.” She turned to Sarah. “Are you ready to see your puppy?”

“Yes, yes, yes!” Sarah said and jumped up and down.

“Okay, then. Great. Follow me.” And she led them inside.