Category Archives: Choosing a Dog

The Joy of an Uncomplicated Dog

Mischief is an amazingly uncomplicated dog. This worried me when I adopted her. Would I be bored? Would the anxiety issues of my other two dogs create issues for her? Would living with Layla be fair to her? And again, would I be bored?

Photo by Laura Caldwell

I’m very used to fixing dogs. Putting together behavior plans, working on carefully structured protocols, and keeping track of triggers and threshold distance have become second nature for me. I love special dogs. Reactive dogs, fearful dogs, anxious dogs, excitable dogs, aggressive dogs, and misunderstood dogs of all sorts have a special place in my heart. An uncomplicated dog? A just-plain-doggy dog? Now that was confusing!

And yet, I’m kind of getting used to the idea of not fixing. Of just… being. This isn’t to say that Mischief is perfect. She can be environmentally sensitive, and still struggles with mild separation and light-chasing issues. However, these aren’t issues that require more than the tiniest bit of management and awareness. Issues that a normal pet owner could readily deal with. Issues that, well, aren’t really an issue.

Mischief is uncomplicated. She’s sweet and joyful. She likes dogs and people. She likes my other dogs. She likes me. And I kind of like all of this.

I just dropped her off at daycare. She was happy to go – she enjoys hanging out with the other dogs. We walked calmly into the building. She checked in with me every few steps, just a little glance, a wiggle, and a quick wag of her stump. She kept her leash loose after one reminder, a quiet “this way” on my part. When she was let in with the other dogs, she greeted everyone calmly and sweetly with polite sniffing, then settled beside an elderly Golden Retriever. No drama, no fuss. Just… easy.

I love Layla and Dobby with all my heart. I love them for who they are, flaws and all. But I’m finding that I also love Mischief for her simpleness. Everyone needs a little lightness and joy in their life. Not worrying is liberating. An uncomplicated dog isn’t boring after all, but rather relaxing. Like a cool breeze on a muggy summer day, Mischief is just what I need.

Photo by Clara Yori

Leave a comment

Filed under Choosing a Dog, Dog Selection, Mischief, Rescue

Listening to Your Heart

I recently adopted a puppy.

I wasn’t looking for a third dog. I have my hands full with Layla and Dobby, who both have behavioral issues that require a large amount of training and management. In fact, there were a lot of really great reasons why I shouldn’t have adopted this dog, and I argued with myself about them for weeks. And yet, somehow, she ended up staying.

That’s right. Not only is this puppy nothing like my other dogs in personality or appearance, she’s also a female. Layla doesn’t have a problem with female puppies, but often dislikes adult female dogs. And yet, somehow, I kept this puppy anyway. Where many, many foster puppies have come and gone, she came and stayed.

I’m not generally an impulsive person. I have a life plan, a careful budget, and definite “rules” about when I felt I would be ready to bring a third dog home (hint: it wasn’t for another five years or so). Mischief came home and turned all of this upside-down within a few short weeks. Suddenly, I couldn’t imagine life without her. She smoothed into our household as if she’d always been here.

Was keeping her the right choice? I don’t know. Only time will tell. However, I do know that I haven’t felt this depth of connection since I met Layla. I felt the same instant, inexplicable tug with baby Layla, and couldn’t imagine my life without her. Layla’s brought me on an incredible journey. It certainly hasn’t been easy, and there have been times where I’ve felt like I was in over my head. I cared for Dobby from the start, but it took nearly a year to develop that deeper connection with him that happened instantly with both girls. I can remember looking at Dobby as he snuggled in my arms one morning months after I’d adopted him and thinking, “You’re my dog now.”

So’s Mischief. She’s my dog now, and so far the four of us are getting along splendidly. Here’s hoping that my heart was as smart as my head. I’m not used to listening to it, but when it spoke up so strongly I could do nothing else.

Welcome home, puppy.

1 Comment

Filed under Choosing a Dog, Dobby, Dog Selection, Layla, Mischief, Rescue

Everybody is a Genius

I hated high school. Throughout my school career, I always got excellent grades. I never caused trouble. My teachers mostly liked me. I had wonderful friends (many of whom I still keep up with today). I was miserable.

I felt bored and frustrated in class, and missed school as often as possible. I never cut school – I wasn’t going to get in trouble – but stayed home “sick” as often as I could get away with it. I was later diagnosed with a legitimate autoimmune disease, but quite honestly quite a few of my “sick days” in high school were really just “can’t stand to sit in a desk and be bored” days. I would miss whole weeks of school. I never fell behind in my schoolwork. I would spend a couple hours studying, writing papers, and filling out worksheets, then spend the rest of the day reading, surfing the internet, or playing video games. I would do anything to avoid feeling trapped in that desk, listening to the same material repeated over and over again.

Looking back at my high school career, a few bright spots stand out. Most notable were a small handful of teachers who made a profound difference.

Mr. Behrens, my sixth-grade teacher, listened to my ideas and assigned me different books to read when he found out that I’d already read the book the class was studying.

Mr. Snyder, my band teacher, wrote special passes to get me out of study hall so I could practice my flute in the tiny, echoey rooms behind his office (and looked the other way when my friends, who also had practice passes, would all cram into one little room together to play occasional cut-throat games of Scrabble).

Mrs. Dix, who came after him, kept up the practice passes and never flinched when I told her I wanted to play an incredibly complicated piece of music with 64th and 128th notes in it for competition.

Mrs. Gehrking, an A.P. English teacher, continued to expand my literary horizons with exciting and challenging work, keeping the class to a fast pace that encouraged me to attend class in order not to fall behind.

Most teachers, however, stuck to the established worksheets, rote learning, and tests. They expressed frustration at my poor attendance and seemed insulted that I didn’t participate more than half-heartedly in class. When I asked to earn extra credits towards graduation for very complicated work I had done (and documented) with color genetics in dwarf hamsters, I was told that such a thing probably wasn’t possible and given empty praise by a teacher who didn’t care to look further into the issue. In 7th grade, my English teacher told me that she would have cast me in the lead role of Titania in “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” since my audition was one of the best, but decided against it due to my poor attendance (I was instead given the role of Philostrate, who has 2 lines in the entire play).

So, how does this relate to dog training? I believe that the same characteristics that make me remember certain teachers with fondness or frustration are the characteristics that shape our dogs’ training relationships with us.

When I look back at my school career, the teachers who became my favorites were those who both valued and challenged me. They never gave me challenges I couldn’t succeed at, but always pushed me slightly past my comfort zone. They paid attention to my interests and skills, and nurtured those abilities. They were honestly interested in me and in what I could do, and because of this I was willing to work much, much harder for them. Even when they gave me much more work than I was given in other classes, I didn’t mind because it was work I enjoyed and was excited to complete.

When I look at my students’ dogs, I notice the same trend. Those students who support their dogs, who play to their natural strengths, who listen to and adjust to their dogs’ individual personalities: these are the students who have happy, willing dogs. Students who challenge their dogs, setting them up for success in training but always pushing slightly, these are the students whose dogs are the most excited to work. By taking note of their dogs’ interests and inserting them into a training program, these people develop a true partnership with their pets that others can only grasp at.

Clicker training is a partnership. It can’t be done with an unwilling dog. Sometimes though, this is what ends up happening. By relying on formulaic training plans (“first you do X, then Y”) or pre-conceived notions (“all dogs love to work for hot dogs” or “all agility dogs must play tug”), we can forget to listen to what our dog is telling us. We can lose sight of what makes the dog in front of us special.

When we forget to look for brilliance, we see only mediocrity.

Every dog is an individual. Just because your last dog enjoyed working for food doesn’t mean that this one wouldn’t prefer to play. While the channel method may have worked brilliantly to teach your last dog to weave, this dog may do better with 2×2’s. Dobby was initially too frightened to follow a lure, but learned to sit and down within a week by capturing these behaviors. Layla enjoys heeling practice where I stride out and make her work hard to keep up; Dobby still goes over the top if I move this quickly. Dobby does better with very light, cheerful verbal corrections if he’s starting to make a mistake, while the same feedback would make Layla anxious (and thus, more likely to repeat the mistake).

Layla's high prey drive, which could be considered an inconvenience in conventional dog sports, makes her a phenomenal lure courser.

My parents and I didn’t know about other options, such as an alternative art school or Post Secondary education, when I was in high school, and the overworked guidance counselor certainly wasn’t concerned about looking too closely at a student who was passing all her classes. I sometimes wonder how I would be different had I had a more supportive environment where I was free to engage in self-paced study and explore my interests. Just because that may have been a good fit for me doesn’t mean that my old school should change their curriculum though. Every student is different, and my recipe for success could very well have been another student’s worst nightmare.

I’m reminded of a quote by Albert Einstein: “Everybody is a genius. But if you judge a fish by its ability to climb a tree, it will live its whole life believing that it is stupid.”

Are you judging your dog by his ability to climb a tree when you could be focusing on how well he can swim? Time to change perspectives. Everybody is a genius. We just need to focus on their brilliance and help their light shine through.

Leave a comment

Filed under Choosing a Dog, Genetics, Rescue, Training

What the Dog Heard: On Discovering Words of Power & the Power of Words

“He’s so stubborn. He knows how to sit; he just won’t do it unless I show him a treat.” My client glares at his bulldog puppy. The puppy gazes back at him softly, waiting for him to produce a treat. The second the owner pulls out a cookie, the puppy plops into a sit, grinning and wiggling.

Keeping my amusement to myself (what a clever pup!), I demonstrate to his owner how to reverse expectations. Showing the puppy a piece of chicken, I ask him to sit.He immediately plops down and I praise him exuberantly, but withhold the treat. Very ostentatiously, I set the chicken chunk on a nearby counter, then ask the puppy once again to sit. He stares at me, at the chicken, back at me. He remains standing. “Told you so!” the owner crows. “Bulldogs just aren’t very smart.” Ten long seconds later, the puppy’s rear end starts to lower. Before he’s fully in a sit, I click his downward movement and hand him the chicken, telling him what an intelligent pup he is. After a couple of minutes the puppy is slamming his rear enthusiastically on the ground on either a hand signal or verbal cue with no food lure. Stubborn? No, just confused about the rules.

I can understand my client’s need to label his puppy as stubborn and stupid. Last winter, I adopted a broken dog. I had been looking for a dog for a while. However, I hadn’t been looking for this particular dog.

Shortly after adoption, Dobby was a study in stress signals.

Dobby started off as one of a long line of foster dogs. A neophobic bull breed mix from the local pound, he was adorable but was most certainly not the future competition prospect I had in mind. He was hand shy, terrified of doorways, and so overwhelmed with his change in circumstances that he skipped every other meal. Trying to use a food lure or hand target resulted in him hitting the ground and trying to become one with the floor. Guests to my home caused him to growl and back up quickly, eyes wide and tail glued to his belly button.

Layla had different ideas about him. She fell in love, sleeping curled up around this dog and spontaneously inviting him to play on a daily basis. For a highly dog-selective bitch who typically barely tolerates fosters, this was so out of character that I sat up and took notice. After two months of
her embarrassing love affair, I gave in. The adoption paperwork was signed, and I found myself the proud owner of a dog who flattened to the floor and peed all over himself if I so much as looked at him cross-eyed.

I joked with my friends that I was just attracted to “broken” dogs. My other dogs have also been less-than-perfect when they came to live with me. I tried not to feel resentful that my plans for a competitive sports dog were being pushed back several years. It was worth it to see Layla so blissfully happy.

That’s when it hit me. I may not be calling my new dog stubborn or stupid, but labeling him as a “broken” dog was just as damning.

Words have power. It’s easy to forget this. In fact, our culture refutes this truth on a daily basis. “Sticks and stones can break my bones, but words can never hurt me” is a lie that we tell ourselves from the time we’re little. It feels good to think that we’re immune to the power of suggestion. We’re stronger than that. We know how to look at facts and think rationally. How well we fool ourselves.

The real truth is that labels are incredibly powerful. One need look no further than the “Pit Bull problem” to see how this plays out. Two similar bite incidents happen on the same day. Both involve damage to a young child’s face by the resident dog. One involves a Labrador Retriever, one an American Pit Bull Terrier. The incident with the Lab is reported in two local papers. The incident with the Pit Bull is picked up by the Associated Press and winds up sparking debate on multiple national news shows about the need for Breed Specific Legislation. Label the biting dog with a different breed, and the headlines become so much less sexy. Pit Bulls are not Labradors, and Labs are not Pits. However, the “Pit Bull” label has come to mean something entirely different to the general public and the media than it does to those of us who work with these dogs on a regular basis. Dogs are profiled based on the size of their head and the mass of their muscles rather than being approached as individuals.

By calling my dog broken, even jokingly, I was damaging our prospects before we even started. Any time we label something, we create mental associations. When I think of the word broken, I think of having to repair something, of possibly not being able to fix it. Word associations pop up in my mind: discarded, unusable, neglected, thrown out, useless. These mental images were being attached, however unconsciously, to my new dog. Realizing this, I decided to try an experiment. I had already begun a desensitization and counter-conditioning program with Dobby, taking him to quiet places and rewarding him lavishly for brave behavior. I was working within his comfort zone and patiently encouraging him to explore the world. I changed absolutely nothing about this training plan. The only detail I altered was how I described him. Instead of speaking about Dobby as broken, rescued, neophobic, or terrified, I invented new labels. Clicking and feeding him a food reward for walking through a doorway without crouching, I cooed to him about what a “big, brave boy” he was. When he finally started to offer sits, I praised him as “SUCH a clever boy!” Over and over, the little dog heard, “Dobby’s clever.” “Dobby’s brave.” “Dobby’s a good dog.”

I expected results. I’d been seeing progress already, and I figured this small change could only improve things. After four months, if my little dog was still so terrified that it impacted his quality of life, I would talk to my veterinarian about a referral to a board certified veterinary behaviorist to get him further help.

Layla and her dog curl up together.

This proved unnecessary. Suddenly, my “neophobic pound puppy” was playing tug like a Schutzhund dog and jumping up on strangers in friendly greeting. He would go into the backyard with a ball in his mouth to run and run, tail up and eyes sparkling. He bounced around me as I worked in the garden, and pranced past the bikes, joggers, and baseball players in the park as if they were only so much scenery. He passed the “appearance and grooming” test in the Canine Good Citizen exam, sitting calmly by my side as a complete stranger handled his ears and paws, then ran a brush down his back.

Each day he became braver, and suddenly I had my competition prospect. Here was a dog with a great work ethic, drive to spare, and the intense desire to work cooperatively with me. Here was a dog who, while still unsure about new things, was willing to trust that I would keep him safe and to try his very best each time I asked it. The only difference? A few small words. The power of suggestion.

This can be a powerful tool for our clients. I believe this small shift in thinking spells the difference between those teams who succeed with behavior modification and those who never get things figured out.

How often do trainers hear that a pushy, anxious dog is “dominant?” The dominance myth has such incredible power that one can see the change in a client in an instant. As my clients describe their “dominant” dog to me, I watch as their faces change. Their eyes harden, the muscles around their lips tighten up, and they become tense. They glare at their dog. Their bodies unconsciously prepare for battle. If the dog is on a leash, the owner tightens up on it. Other labels cause similar observable results: dogs are stubborn, stupid, manipulative, guilty, aggressive, reactive. Owners excuse poor behavior by saying that the dog was abused, neglected, or rescued, or that the breed is “always like this.”

It’s amazing what words can do. When an owner labels their dog, we need to focus first on changing their perceptions. Problems can crop up here. The first thing that springs from most trainers’ lips when trying to advise an owner who’s doing something wrong is a phrase beginning with a negative (“Don’t….”).

This negativity affects our clients. The majority of people will try very hard to take a trainer’s advice. They will remind themselves over and over, “don’t say no” or “don’t pop the leash.” And what’s happening each time they issue an internal reminder? They’re mentally practicing that forbidden behavior, getting better and better at it. The more they remind themselves to stop, the more they picture the prohibited behavior in their minds. That mental imagery becomes reality. They can’t stop themselves from popping the leash or telling their dog no because they’ve practiced that negative behavior so many times in their mind. It’s firmly entrenched in their behavioral repertoire. We need to reframe the situation for them if we want to help them succeed.

As positive trainers, most of us find it easy to be kind to the dog. Unfortunately, not every positive trainer is as patient and reinforcing to the
other end of the leash. Try this simple experiment. Next time a client tells you that their dog is stubborn; prove to that person that their dog is
willing. Say it just as many times as the person repeats their assertion. Each time the client tells me, “He’s just so stubborn!” I counter with “he’s so eager to learn” or “he’s trying so hard to figure out what you want.” Sincerity is important here. If the rate of reinforcement is too low and the dog could care less about the person holding onto his leash handle, fix that first. Telling your client that his dog is cooperative while Fido lunges and barks at the cute Poodle across the room is a great way to drive business away. Give a concrete suggestion: “I want you to click and treat eight times in the next minute.” Shape success in your student just as you do with the other end of the leash. The laws of learning apply to all organisms, and humans are no exception.

It’s true that dogs couldn’t care less about words. Words are as foreign a concept to your dog as scent is to you. However, dogs live in a human world. In our world, words have incredible power. Mental imagery allows us to practice dealing successfully (or not!) with a given situation repeatedly before that situation ever arises. Labels create subconscious associations that influence our behavior, which in turn shapes our dogs’ behavior.

Simple changes can produce big results. My new dog is brave, clever, and willing. He recently started foundation agility classes, where he’s excelling, and qualified twice at his very first APDT Rally Obedience show. My client’s Bulldog puppy is stubborn no more. On graduation night of Beginning Obedience class, he proudly showed off his dog’s new trick repertoire: shake, wave, high five, and yes, sit on cue with no cookie in sight. As his classmates applauded, a fellow student expressed doubt that her dog would ever become so well behaved. My client’s answer? “My dog made it easy: he’s really smart.”

Dogs are incredibly gifted at reading intent in our tone, posture, and movement. Just because they don’t know the literal meaning of each word doesn’t mean they aren’t influenced by language. Stop for a minute and consider this: what have you been saying to yourself… and
what has your dog heard?

2 Comments

Filed under Choosing a Dog, Dobby, Rescue, Training

Introducing Layla’s dog, Dobby

A couple posts ago, I wrote about the possibility of adopting my current foster dog because Layla loved him. It’s official – Dobby (formerly Boots) is now a member of the family! I wanted to share how I went about the decision-making process, and what’s in store for the future with my expanded canine family.
This certainly wasn’t an easy decision, and I really agonized over what to do. My biggest two concerns were whether Layla would continue to love this dog so much as he matured, and whether he would really be happy living with us.

 

Whether the dogs will continue to get along is still a concern of mine, and I believe it’s a valid one. This is almost entirely due to Dobby’s age – somewhere between 12-18 months. In other words, not completely mature. It’s not uncommon for dogs, especially Terrier-type dogs, to become more dog selective as they age. This is a possibility I have to face with adopting a younger dog. However, my other option (a puppy from a breeder) was no more likely to continue to get along with Layla than Dobby was. Actually, since Layla has never liked another dog this way, I would say that the possibility of a great match was actually worse with a puppy than with Dobby. At least with Dobby, we had a solid foundation to start with. If Layla’s past behavior with foster puppies is any indication, she would absolutely hate a puppy to begin with. She would likely grow to accept the puppy and even begin playing with him on occasion, but her default would be bare tolerance. Here at least, the two dogs have a history of affiliative behavior to build from.

Whether Dobby will be happy living with us was another concern of mine. Frankly, I’m not the best home for a fearful dog. I foster other dogs. I take my dogs everywhere with me. I’m a complete clutz, and frequently trip on things, stub my toes, cut myself, fall over, and sometimes yell or swear while doing it all. My dogs don’t have the luxury of hiding in my house and yard and never leaving – they’re exposed to multiple environments through dog classes, hikes, friend’s houses, seminars, and trials.

However, I think Dobby can handle this. He has come out of his shell during his time with Layla and I. He’s still fearful, and is actually becoming more reactive as he becomes less shut down. But he’s trying. He tries so hard that my heart hurts for him sometimes. Unlike Layla, who’s completely out for #1, I feel like Dobby actually does want to please me. He desperately craves praise and is easily crushed if he feels I’m displeased with him. He’s butter-soft, but he’s also willing to try over and over again if I ask him to. This is both good and bad. It’s oh-so-easy to reward him, because even a smile has reinforcement value for him. On the flip side, I have to be careful not to allow petty disappointments or frustration to travel down the leash when things don’t go as planned, or he becomes frantically obsequious.

I’ve been surprised at how very attached I’ve become to this little dog in such a short time. His relationship with Layla has something to do with it. I will never get tired of watching the two of them play or curl up and nap together. Layla has never had a dog friend like this, and I love to see her so joyful and content. She’s like the cat who got into the cream – self-satisfied to the point of gloating. Dobby can do things to her that no other dog would get away with, and the two of them have a wonderful relationship. There are the usual hiccups of any relationship – some mild guarding, the occasional snark when play gets too rough – but for the most part, these two dogs are pals.

Not all of my relationship with this little dog comes from his ties to Layla, though. I’ve discovered that Dobby is earnest, soulful, and affectionate. He snuggles himself into an impossibly small little ball on the bed, as if afraid if he takes up too much room he’ll get in trouble. (Layla, on the other paw, takes up as much space as possible, and is not afraid to use her sharp toenails as “incentive” to push her bedmates aside if she feels she’s not getting her fair share of the space.) In the mornings, he looks at me with the softest, happiest eyes and snuggles in closer, sighing in contentment.

Photo by Megan Nelson

When we train, he tries so, so hard to figure out what I want. He’s thoughtful and careful during shaping, in total contrast to Layla’s wild gyrations. He still flinches sometimes when I move too quickly or speak too loudly, but is learning to enjoy touch. He no longer flattens to the floor or urinates in fear, and can move through doorways without crawling. He’s still terrified of new men, but has made friends with my father and a guy friend of mine and desperately wants to connect. His initial contact with new people is often done crawling on his stomach, tail tucked, but he initiates the contact in spite of his fear.

So, where to next?

I’ve decided not to have any expectations of Dobby, beyond being a good pet. I want him to be happy with Layla and I, and I want him to be well-trained enough that he is a pleasure to be around. Beyond that, it’s his call. We’ll dabble in dog sports to see what he likes – weight pulling, disc, agility, CFF freestyle, and rally are all available to him if he so chooses – but whether we ever compete is his call. I’ll keep insisting (gently) that he expand his horizons by taking him to new places and introducing him to new people, but if he never becomes a social butterfly that’s also okay by me. We’ll work on his reactivity issues, so that hopefully someday I can walk him and Layla together (I think they’d both really enjoy that). I haven’t discounted the possibility of anxiety meds for him, and if we hit a wall we’ll discuss the possibility with our vet. For now though, he’s making progress and doing okay.

Welcome home, little Dobby. I think you’re going to like it here.

1 Comment

Filed under Choosing a Dog, Dobby, Dog Selection, Layla, Other Dogs, Rescue

Lessons from Luke: Why the “No-Kill” Movement Hurts Dogs

[In respect of the privacy for all involved, names have been changed.]

I want to tell you a story. This is a true story, and it is not a nice one. But it’s a story that needs to be told, and we owe it to Luke to tell it.

Luke (name changed) is a two-year-old mixed breed. He was adopted from a rescue a year ago by his family, Ann and Joe. Ann and Joe are a young couple who wanted to do the right thing and give a loving forever home to a homeless dog. They met Luke and found him to be cute and friendly, so they adopted him.

Right from the start, there were some red flags. The groomer told Ann that Luke tried to bite her when she was brushing his hind end and trimming his nails. She recommended that Ann get Luke in training right away. At home, Luke guarded food and bones. After asking around, Ann found my business on a co-worker’s recommendation. She signed Luke up for Beginning Obedience classes, and she and Joe worked with him religiously. Luke proved to be an eager learner, quickly picking up not only basic obedience commands but several adorable tricks. He loved the clicker, and was both cute and smart – a winning combination! The family graduated from class easily.

Two weeks after graduation, Luke had an upset stomach. When Ann went to clean some diarrhea off his hind end feathering, he whipped around and bit her, breaking skin. She was frightened by this sudden change in his behavior, and didn’t know how to respond. Hurt and upset, she grabbed Luke and forced him onto his back, telling him “no.” She held him there until he stopped trying to bite her, then cleaned her wound and emailed her obedience instructor.

The instructor advised Ann to hire me for a private consult. Together, Ann, Joe, and I came up with a plan to avoid provoking Luke in the future. We discussed what to do in the event of a slip-up (and bite) – Ann felt horrible about rolling Luke, and understood why that wasn’t the appropriate response. She and Joe began working on desensitization exercises with Luke, teaching him to allow them to touch his hind end, tail, and feet without becoming upset. They hired me to groom Luke whenever he needed a bath or toenail trim.

I found Luke to be a challenge to groom. After one bite to the meaty part of my hand which broke skin and bruised severely, I began using an e-collar (aka “the cone of shame”) to groom him. Because Luke did not give much warning prior to biting (he would freeze for less than half a second,t hen whip around), the cone allowed me to feel safe working with him without freaking him out like a muzzle would. The cone would block his access to my hands and arms. During grooming, I gave Luke frequent food rewards for good behavior and frequent breaks. He learned the rule structure, and we were able to keep everyone safe.

During one grooming session, I noticed a round growth just below Luke’s eye. I advised Ann & Joe to get this checked out, and it was ultimately removed and biopsied. The growth was not cancerous. Luke was a difficult patient and had to be completely sedated in order to have the sutures under his eye removed.

Over the course of several months, Luke’s behavior grew more and more concerning. He bit several people, and his triggers could not be identified. Sometimes he bit when touched on the head or neck. Sometimes he enjoyed being touched on the head and neck. Sometimes he bit when a hand was just moving near him. Sometimes when he was touched on the hind end. Sometimes after several minutes of petting. Sometimes immediately upon being pet. Sometimes before he was pet. Oftentimes, these bites happened after he solicited petting. His body language would change in an instant from soft and wiggly to stiff and threatening, and he continued to give little to no warning (just that half second of stiffening up/freezing) prior to biting. Other than these occasional bites, Luke continued to be lovely – very affiliative, funny, cute, and playful. He loved to show off his tricks and had a blast with his family in a Beginning Agility class. 99.5% of the time, he was a great little dog.

Unfortunately, that other 0.5% of the time, Luke was a very unsafe dog. Due to his hard bites, lack of warning, and lack of definable triggers, he was a ticking time bomb. After sending Joe to the ER with a severe bite to the hand (which happened when he was snapping Luke’s leash on, which had never before been an issue), Joe and Ann made the difficult decision to euthanize Luke. They had worked with him religiously for a year. They had done everything right. They had been patient, fair, and done their homework. They had provided boundaries in the form of the “Nothing in Life is Free” program and had spent hours training, walking, and playing with Luke. Luke was not placeable in a new home as he would be a danger to any new adopter, and Ann & Joe were planning to have a child in the next couple years. My vet came to their home and Luke died at the age of three. He was dearly loved and he is missed. We all cried over him. The vet’s comment to me was that Luke was “a scary dog,” even with sedatives on board. 

Luke’s story, while devastating to his family, is sadly not unusual in our area. Luke is just one of many examples I have personally seen. While I am a huge supporter of rescue organizations, Luke and dogs like him are the reason that I do not support “no kill” shelters or rescues.

The idea of a “no kill” shelter is a great one, on the surface of things. However, many of these organizations do not assess the dogs they place prior to adopting them out. Not all dogs should be placed, and I believe it is the responsibility of the rescue to be every bit as humane to the community as they are to the animals they rescue. Luke’s issues were such that they would have been discovered on any one of the many behavior evaluations available to rescuers. These issues were there from the start, and the adopters were not responsible. Yes, they made mistakes as well, but they did everything they could to fix a problem they should not have faced to begin with.

Here’s the problem with not assessing dogs, or adopting out dogs with known issues. If we adopt out unsafe dogs, all shelter dogs ultimately pay the price. People need to feel that the very best place to go to get a wonderful dog is their local rescue or shelter. This will only happen if the rescues and shelters are adopting out safe, friendly animals. When rescues adopt out borderline dogs (or worse, truly unsafe dogs like Luke), people talk about it. The adopters’ friends and family comment on how much trouble they have had with that “horrible” dog they got from XYZ Rescue. When these people then decide to get a dog, they go to craigslist, internet puppy mills, or people who advertise litters in the newspaper, because they don’t want to “risk” getting a rescue dog. They have seen how much their friend/relative struggled with that rescue dog, and don’t want to go through the same heartache.

Manny is still being offered for adoption after severely injuring another dog. How many resources will be spent on him when behaviorally healthy dogs in our area impounds are still being euthanized for space?

How many homes do we lose to rescue for each borderline dog who is adopted out? How many backyard breeders do we drive people to? How many wonderful matches between homeless dog and adopter are lost? How many professional dog trainers with no kids and no other pets do you really know who are looking to take on a “project” dog?

I’m not saying that shelters should kill all dogs who don’t present absolutely perfect on assessment. Many, many issues are very workable. By all means, get that dog into foster care with an experienced foster family who will work with it! But please, don’t adopt out a dog who’s known to be unsafe. Please, assess all dogs prior to offering them up for adoption. Yes, even puppies. Yes, even that quiet senior who does nothing but sleep. There are lots of great formal assessments available to shelters now: SAFER, Assess-a-Pet, Blue Dog, Amy Marder’s assessment. Pick one. Use it. Ask yourself, “Is this a dog I would want to live with?”

As rescuers, we owe it to the public to be as humane towards them as we are towards the animals we serve. Luke’s story is not unusual in our area, but someday maybe it will be. Just imagine how much better the world would be if our community believed that the very best place to go to get a dog was the local shelter… and if they were right.

30 Comments

Filed under Choosing a Dog, Dog Selection, Other Dogs, Rescue, Training

In Which Layla Wants a Dog

I should know never to state things as absolute, since the universe has a habit of making me eat those words.

You may recall me posting, “It’s very clear to me that I am not getting a dog for Layla. She doesn’t want a dog. She wants to be The Only Dog and continue in her role as Queen of the Universe.” a few months back.

Yeah, about that.

Well, Layla has decided she does want a dog. In particular, she wants to keep my current foster dog, Bootstrap Bill Turner (Boots). How do I know this? It’s been a long time since I’ve seen her this enamored of a dog. The first day Boots came, she played with him for over three hours off and on, which is longer than she played with my previous foster, Manny, total, the entire time he lived with us. Their play was lovely, too. It never got too ramped up, and they took frequent, appropriate breaks. Their play style is highly compatible, with lots of “tag” type play and gentle mouth wrestling.

Since then, things have only improved. They play on a daily basis, and their play continues to be lovely to watch. They frequently lie together on the couch, stretched full out, with just their heads moving as they gently mouth wrestle. It’s incredibly rare for Layla to be this relaxed with a dog. There are very few instances of resource guarding between the two, and when things get a bit tense (such as when Boots accidentally hurts her infected ear, or when Layla gets guardy over a tug toy) they are able to work it out without intervention from me. Most telling to me is the fact that Layla chooses to spend most of her time hanging out with Boots. This is a big deal, because Layla is a very independent and private dog who usually chooses to be in a different room from the rest of the household. I would venture to say that she likes me quite a bit, but even with me she doesn’t spend a lot of time just hanging out by my side. Right now she and Boots are curled up on opposite ends of the couch like little bookends. This morning when I came home from work, Layla was sleeping in her open crate, right next to Boots (who was closed in a crate).

Below are some videos of Layla & Boots interacting. The first video (outside) was taken the first afternoon he arrived. The second (inside) was taken this morning.

So, what’s the problem? Frankly, I like Boots too. But I don’t think he’s the right dog for me. He’s profoundly neophobic, and I don’t think it will be fair to him to ask him to do dog sports. I don’t think he’d enjoy himself.

So, let’s review what I’m looking for in a dog, as it compares to Boots:

  • Male. Yes. Boots was intact when he was pulled from the pound, but has since been neutered.
  • 12-45 pounds. Yes. Boots is between 25-30 pounds.
  • Short haired. Yes. Boots has a lovely soft, short, silky coat.
  • Strong preference for sighthound or terrier type dog. Yes. Boots is a mutt. I’m calling him a Lesser Patagonian Pouncer. He may have some Boston Terrier, Whippet, or even Pit Bull in his background. Behavior-wise, he has many terrier traits.
  • Moderate drive. Yes. While he has quite a bit of toy drive, it is very easily channeled and he is quickly learning to “out” on cue. He has less food than toy drive, but can switch back and forth if I use high-value treats. His food drive is increasing as he’s learning that food isn’t available to graze 24/7. He has lots of play drive, and will play with or without a toy around. I find him easy to motivate without being over-the-top.
  • No strong preference as to age, except in the case of a rescue dog with an unknown background in which case he should be at least 2 years, preferably 3 or older. No. Boots is young, probably 10-18 months. I also believe that he will mature to be dog selective, as I see glimmers of dog selectivity in him now (and he is still quite young).
  • Good with people, especially children. No. While not aggressive, he is very fearful of new people. This is not a dog I would take to busy public events, as he wouldn’t enjoy himself.
  • Good physical structure for dog sports. Yes. He’s gorgeous!
  • Outgoing and confident. No. He is profoundly neophobic and startles easily.

Six out of nine yes answers sounds promising, but do these categories have equal weight? I don’t believe so. For example, a short coat is less important to me than a dog who is good with people and easily managed around other dogs.

Boots self-stacks

What are the pros and cons of keeping this particular dog?

Pros: Layla hearts him!  He is built well, and is unlikely to have chronic pain issues related to his structure, even with more intense physical demands such as dog sports like disc or agility. He is a breed type I enjoy, and is easily focused and engaged in training games. He learns quickly. He is easily motivated. Once given time to acclimate to an environment, he bounces back from stresses quickly. He is able to relax and be quiet at home. He is easy to interrupt and redirect when needed. He can be handled all over his body and shows no resource guarding. When frightened, he chooses to freeze or move away rather than to aggress. He has appropriate dog-dog play skills. He is statistically less likely to have genetic health problems due to his mixed breed hertiage.

Cons: He is very neophobic. It often takes 5-10 minutes in a new environment before he is able to eat, because he is initially too stressed. He is frightened of new people, especially men. He can be hand-shy, especially with new people. He will likely mature to be dog selective. Layla may not always love him as much as she does now, depending on what he grows up to be like with other dogs. Because he is shut down in new environments, it’s impossible to tell at this time what sort of reactivity issues may develop down the road. He is currently reactive to dogs and people behind barriers (my fence, the window) and slightly reactive on leash. He may be a candidate for anxiety medications, but I may not be comfortable having 100% of my dogs on meds long-term. He may look too Pitty for my landlord, who discriminates against certain breeds (this could likely be fought with a DNA panel, but these are expensive).

Moving

As things stand right now, I am going to continue fostering Boots and see how his concerning behaviors progress with some training and counterconditioning. He is currently taking a Beginning Obedience class and I am focusing on taking him out on several field trips a week, where we watch people from a distance and he eats treats. Regardless of my final decision about him (which I am putting off until I see his progress), I am confident that he will leave my care more prepared for the world at large and will be made more adoptable by his stay with me. I am still on the waiting list for a puppy from a breeder next summer.

So, what would you do? Would you adopt a dog for your dog? Would you adopt a dog who did not completely fit your lifestyle, knowing that said dog would still have a good life but may encounter added stress?

5 Comments

Filed under Choosing a Dog, Dog Selection, Layla, Other Dogs, Rescue