Tag Archives: dog behavior
They Lost Their Pack Leader: Now What?
by Terri Florentino
I never bought into the theory that I had to be the dominant leader of my dog pack. I never saw myself as such, nor did I ever feel the need to attempt to “act” like my dogs in order to communicate with them. Yes, I spend time individually training my dogs, feed them, groom them, socialize, exercise, and love them but I am not their “pack leader.” Yes, humans have domesticated the dog, but to what degree?
I have lived with many dogs, at least five at a time, over the course of fifteen years, and can tell you that there appears to be a pecking order within their own ranks. I’m not sure why we would believe otherwise. We humans fall into similar social hierarchies. For instance in sports, doesn’t every team have a coach? Most social animals do. It seems to be natural for any pack, pod, or flock animal—consider the very phrase “pecking order,” which comes from watching chickens.
What actually constitutes the definition of a pack leader, within a group of domestic dogs? We know that for a pack of wolves or coyotes it’s all about survival, so we can appreciate the importance of a strong hunter.
My dogs have never had to fight for food. I know of puppy evaluations where a piece of meat is thrown to a pack of seven-week-old pups. Whichever pup “guards the meat” is one that the breeder might be very interested in keeping for its dominant temperament. So does the display of a survival instinct define a leader? Perhaps a leader is determined by the tendency to discipline other dogs for inappropriate behavior, in effect, to govern them? How about the drive to ward off strangers? Perhaps the ability to charm humans into doing their bidding might be the real and true mark of a canine pack leader. I’m often amused at how often some dogs have their owners so well trained, and the owners don’t even know it.
As of last week, my family and I lived with seven dogs.
After careful examination and an abundance of medical testing it was apparent that my old girl Epic had developed a bleed in her brain. There was no turning back. My daughter Heather and I knew that we had to let her go.
Epic had chosen my daughter Heather as “her person” soon after we rescued her from a hoarding situation. Heather trained her, competed with her in obedience, and became her bed bug at night. In the vet’s examination room, Heather cradled Epic in her arms, inconsolably sobbing. I held both Heather and Epic, reassuring Epic that she was a good girl as the doctor gave her the final injection. Epic took her last deep breath and was gone. She lay peacefully in Heather’s arms until Heather was able to let go.
Now the mourning and healing for the human family would begin. But what about the other six dogs?
A bewildered uneasiness had fallen upon our pack. Epic had been the matriarch who commanded respect. She managed all of them with strong-willed peacekeeping diplomacy. She was a guardian, the greeting committee to the countless rescued dogs who entered our home, an “Aunt” to the occasional litter of puppies, teaching them right from wrong. Any dog who had been under Epic’s regime would greet her by laying down, rolling onto their back and licking her mouth, even when she’d reached the fragile old age of fifteen.
Now our pack consists of Scout, who, at nearly sixteen, is the oldest of them all. Next is Deja Blue at fourteen, Tulley at a youthful twelve (He was featured in the “Mean Dog” series in BCI), Mirk, age eleven, Echo at seven, and young Wyn of five years. Scout has always been the family pet, too old to care about leading the pack.
In her day, Deja was a tough lady, a talented sheepdog with too much of an independent streak. In her “hay day,” I suppose I might have thought her the next pack leader, but she now prefers to be left alone to sleep comfortably on her bed, next to mine.
Most of the dogs defer to Tulley, but he has no interest in the pack behavior unless it has to do directly with him.
Mirk was born here (Deja is his Dam) and lived with us for the first year of his life. Then he went off to pursue a professional sheepherding career. Over the course of the last ten years, he would come home on occasion. Just a few months ago, he retired and is now home for good, and the pack is still adjusting to him. He does have a very strong presence within the group, but strong enough to step up to the role of leader?
I love them all, but my heart and soul is Echo, a younger full sister to Mirk–she finishes my sentences. She’s not one that stands out as a leader, but she is well balanced within the pack and will step up to control any improper conduct with the other dogs. It’s said that the best leaders rule with a velvet glove, so maybe it will be Echo?
The truth is, I always thought that Wyn, a daughter of Echo, even though the youngest of the pack, would be the next leader. After Mirk she is my most talented sheepdog, by far the most boisterous and always into every other dog’s business. She may be too much of a busybody to rule the pack.
Either way it will be interesting to see how the dynamics of my pack eventually play out. For now, we’ll let nature take its course.
“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.”
by Judy Bonner
“Can your dog come over?”
The words refocused my attention to Gracie. We were at the vet’s check-out window, paying the bill. Gracie was tethered to a hook under the window.
I looked down at Gracie. Her eyes were dancing, her lips in a puckered up smile, her butt wiggling. Gracie loves people, especially children. Who was now the apple of Gracie’s eye?
I looked up. There was a woman at the next check-out window. She again asked if my dog could come over. Why not, I thought. But wait, what is that in her hand? A leash? My eyes narrowed in on that leash, following it down to the floor. Sure enough, it attached to a dog sitting tightly next to the woman’s legs, a dog not much bigger than Gracie.
Okay, take a step back, I thought to myself. I stood in front of Gracie. For as much as Gracie loves people, she is cautious around other dogs.
Gracie did not play with other puppies at break time in kindergarten class; she preferred a side seat with a good view instead. She made friends at our group dog training classes, but certainly not at the first class. She came to enjoy a good one-on-one play with her favorite friends. On her short list were a Golden Retriever, a Great Dane, a Cocker Spaniel, a Basset Hound, and a Wheaton Terrier, the only female in her circle of pals.
Otherwise, Gracie generally offers up calming signals to most dogs in her path…turning her head, sniffing the ground, making a C-curve, changing direction, all to avoid a face-to–face encounter. She is now a four-year-old Border Collie. I have one finger left on each hand to add to my count of dogs Gracie has shown a great displeasure of their presence and behaviors.
The woman, probably noticing my hesitation, went on to say her dog was a rescue, living with her four years now. “It’s only in the last year that I can pick up a broom without her running behind a door. This is the first time she has shown ANY interest in another dog.” Four eyes were pleading with me–the dog’s and her owner’s.
No words from Gracie. I glanced down at her. Hmm . . . now a sitting wiggle-butt. “It is up to Gracie.” I gave Gracie permission to “go visit,” thinking she would head straight for the woman, ignoring the dog. Nope. Gracie walked softly and slowly over to the dog. They touched noses and started sniffing each other’s muzzle and face. Good so far, but dogs in her face is something Gracie will tolerate but does not enjoy. Best not to push our luck. “Good girl, Gracie,” I said. “All done. Let’s go now.” Gracie returned to my side.
“Thank-you” the woman said. I smiled and nodded. Back to business. I signed the credit card slip, gathered all my papers together, and looped Gracie’s leash in my hand. We headed to the exit door.
“Can she come over one more time?”
I turned around. “It is up to Gracie,” I said. Gracie was once again doing her sitting wiggle-butt. “You can go visit.” I touched her head as she glided past me to the other dog. I let them greet each other longer this time before calling Gracie back to me.
The woman started crying. “You don’t know how much this means to me,” she said, kneeling down to hug her dog. “This is the first time I’ve seen her really happy.” The dog snuggled into her owner’s embrace.
Tears welled up in my eyes as Gracie and I tuned around to leave. I’d had dogs my whole life. My journey with Gracie was unlike any other. This was another entry into my journal of living with grace.
by Terri Florentino
“He’s a Border collie. He’s in the shelter. Can you go rescue him?” The woman on the phone was so upset it was difficult to make out what she was saying. “Please?”
“Calm down, okay? To whom am I speaking?
She took a deep breath and sighed. “Sorry, I’m just so upset. My name is Debbie.”
“Tell me about the problems you were having with your dog and what he did that landed him back at the shelter.”
“My husband and I adopted him from the local animal shelter. We named him Chase. He was quiet and well behaved at the shelter, but not long after we brought him home, he started barking, lunging, and growling at wildlife, other dogs, and strangers.” She took another deep breath and sniffled. “He also suffers from separation anxiety—you should see our spare bedroom.”
I could tell she loved this dog. She must’ve tried to help him. “What steps did you take to correct these behaviors?”
She began to relax. “We worked privately with a trainer. He had us use a shock collar, and now his behavior is worse than ever.”
“Now, you said something happened that made you return him to the shelter?”
“He bit us both. My husband and me. He was lunging and growling at a neighbor outside. My husband was standing near him, and the moment I pushed the button on the shock collar, Chase just whirled around and bit him. When I tried to pull him away from my husband, he bit my hand. I got so afraid of him, I took him back to the shelter.” Her voice started to quaver again. She sniffled. “He’s so lovable when he isn’t acting out.”
“I’ll make you a deal,” I said. “I can tell you care deeply for Chase. Go back and take him out of the shelter. I’ll put in a call in right now and let them know you’re coming and that we’ll be working together. Give me three months to work with you, your husband, and Chase. If after that time, you’re still not comfortable with him, I’ll rescue him.”
“Do you really think you can help us?”
“I am going to do my best. Call me once you have him back, and I’ll come out to your home as soon as possible. .”
A couple days later, I arrived at Debbie and Sam’s house. As I walked up the steps to their front deck, Debbie came out the door holding Chase by his leash. He was pulling toward me, frantically barking. As I stood at the top of the steps, I pushed open a gate and stepped onto the deck. Shouting over the racket he made, Debbie and I discussed Chase’s current state of mind. I could tell she was very frightened. “First,” I said, “you need to relax. I know it’s hard.”
While we talked, I intentionally ignored Chase. After not receiving any satisfaction, his obnoxious behavior finally settled.
“Go ahead and drop the leash,” I said.
“Really? Just let it go?” Debbie said.
“Yes. Let’s keep talking and ignoring him.”
Full of doubt, her brow puckered in fear, Debbie dropped the leash, and we continued to talk without looking down at the holy terror. He ran over and sniffed my shoes and pant legs. Then, I smiled down at him. “You smell my dogs, don’t you, boy?”
He looked up at me and then, in relaxed, fluid movements, he trotted back to Debbie. He made his way towards the railing on the deck and stuck his head through the wooden slats to get a better look at what was going on in the yard below. Just then, a neighbor stepped out of his house. Chase went into a barking frenzy and raced the length of the deck, back and forth. I calmly walked around a picnic table to the other side of the deck and blocked him from running past me.
Using a firm tone of voice, I said, “Get out of it!”
He stopped dead in his tracks and looked up at me.
“C’mon on now, inside,” I said. He followed me through the slider door and into the house.
“How is the world did you do that?”
“He knew I meant what I said. That’s all.”
“Can you teach him to listen to me like that?”
“No. I’ll teach you to talk to him. Okay?”
Debbie nodded and wiped away a tear. “I see. You bet. Let’s get started.”
“You said Chase has separation anxiety and damaged a bedroom. May I see it?”
As I peered into the room, I gasped. Chase had clawed deep gouges into a wall right below a small, high window. Just looking at the marks, I could see his fear written on the wall. He had almost literally climbed the wall trying to get free.
“He tries to reach the window,” Debbie said, sadly. “I’m guessing to escape.”
“I think you’re right,” I said. Most of the wood trim along the floor had been scratched and gnawed on.
“Look at the back of the door,” Debbie said. We stepped into the room and closed the door behind us. Almost the entire surface of the door was covered in scratches and gouges.
All the while, Chase had been standing quietly beside us in the room. I took a deep breath and bent down to offer him a gesture of my affection. As I scratched behind his ears, we made eye contact and shared a moment of silent, peaceful communion.
I Wish I Had a Crystal Ball
by Terri Florentino
He was awful small. He needed extra attention, more than I could give. “I’ll need your help,” I said.
She nuzzled Wee’s tiny nose. “You know how much I love taking care of the puppies.”
“He’s a bottom feeder,” I joked. “He makes his way along Echo’s underside to find a nipple. We need to keep watch all the time to stop the others from elbowing him away from the milk bar.”
My husband, my mom, my two daughters, and I arranged our schedules so someone was always there to rotate the puppies and make sure Wee was nursing. One of my shifts was two a.m. The first few nights, I’d lie awake and worry. Two a.m. just couldn’t come soon enough. Finally I’d get out of bed, make my way to the whelping area, peer into the box, and hold my breath until my gaze found little Wee and saw him move.
Echo’s daughter, Wyn, was a big help too. Whenever Echo left the box to eat, drink, or stretch her legs in the yard, Wyn climbed in, lay down, and licked and nuzzled the puppies. In fact, the puppies suckled on her so much, she started lactating. This phenomenon is perfectly normal, commonly found with packs of wolves. The pregnant female will select an assistant from among the other females to help her rear the puppies. Wyn was such a good second mom, I was able to let her have Wee all to herself. Thanks to her, Wee didn’t have to struggle to nourish himself, and she seemed blissful.
Once I stopped worrying that he might not make it through the day, I began to worry about Wee’s physical development. His littermates could drag themselves along by pulling with their front legs and pushing with their back. Wee could push along with his back legs, but he could not tuck his front legs underneath to pull himself forward. When you held him up he would extend his front legs out to his sides in a “splat,” position. He might never be structurally sound enough to walk. Several times a day I’d force him to exercise his limbs, and the more I worked with him, the more I saw he wasn’t developing normally. He was going to need constant physical therapy.
“OK, girls, let me show you a few stretching and strengthening activities I’d like you to do with Wee a couple of times a day,” I explained to my daughters, Amy and Heather.
“Not a problem,” Amy said.
“Do you think it will help him?” Heather asked.
“I’m not sure, but we have to try,” I said, and they were eager to help.
My second immediate worry was the shape of his head. It was dome-like, indicative of hydrocephalus, a condition in which the cerebrospinal fluid doesn’t drain properly, causing an apple-shaped head. Symptoms include loss of movement and coordination, depression, vision problems, and seizures.
I wished I had a crystal ball. Was Wee going to develop normally? Or would he only need more and more from us? Would he suffer? I began to wonder if I was being fair to my family. By now we were all emotionally invested. What if Wee didn’t make it? How would I know if euthanasia was the humane thing? How would I break the news to them? I dreaded the thought of putting my family through the pain of losing the little guy.
I decided that as long as he progressed and wasn’t in pain, I’d continue to help him to carry on.
Every day I watched him tussle his way through his littermates to the “milk bar.” I tried to find the balance between normal puppy interaction and frustration. I didn’t want him to develop a “Napoleon” complex. Whenever I sensed him getting overly annoyed, I intervened and either moved him right up to a nipple or allowed him nurse peacefully alone with Wyn.
Once his belly was full, however, he wasn’t content unless he was curled up with his littermates in this puppy Jenga-like arrangement. They were so charming all cozy and coiled up together.
As the days passed, he continued to grow. His development seemed to be typically a week behind his littermates. His legs became stronger, and he developed the ability to tuck his front legs underneath in order to pull himself along.
At about fourteen days, his littermates’ eyes started to open. I didn’t see Wee’s little tiny black eyes until he was closer to twenty-one days old. I was concerned that he might never have normal vision.
When the puppies are at about three to four weeks, I introduce solid food. The food is puppy kibble soaked in water, giving it an oatmeal consistency. I make sure they always have more than enough food. I never want them to have to fight for it. Once they’ve eaten their hearts’ content, the puppies look like they just had a finger painting contest all over one another. Echo would take delight in finishing the uneaten portion and licking all her puppies clean. Early on in the feeding process, Wee needed to be separated to be fed. He wasn’t coordinated enough to hold his head up to eat and swallow effectively. He sat in our laps while we held his head in position and let him lick the kibble off of our fingers. He loved these feeding sessions and ate so enthusiastically, we almost wished this sweet task would last forever.
When the pups were three weeks, my son was graduating from Navy basic training. I asked Megan if she would take care of Echo and the puppies while my family and I were out of town. Since Megan worked as a veterinary surgical technician, I knew she’d make sure the puppies had everything they needed. She was also taking one of the puppies, so this opportunity would give her ample quality time with them. I left her with detailed instructions on how to care for the puppies, especially Wee.
“I know you will do great,” I said. “If anything goes wrong with Wee, I trust you will do the right thing.”
“I won’t make any decision unless I speak to you first,” she said.
The next morning my family and I packed up and headed out to Chicago. As I left Megan smiling down at the puppies and stroking them, I worried about her. Yet again, there was another person emotionally invested in our adorable little runt. I felt bad leaving Wee. He was so used to all of us tending him, our smells and sights and ways of doing things. Would this stress him? I couldn’t help but wonder if he would perish while I was out of town.
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.
Nature, Nurture, and Dusty
by Terri Florentino
“What exactly do you mean by, ‘pack mentality?’” I asked Susan.
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!’”
“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.
“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.
“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.
Dust Comes Home
by Terri Florentino
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.
“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.”
“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.
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?”
“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.