Rescuing Butterscotch 3


She didn’t eat.

That’s not strictly true; they took my advice and pushed the bowl farther into the kennel, so she ate a little bit. But it wasn’t much.



One of the images Renee first found, that started the whole process

Luckily, on the back end of things, my client Renee (who has given me permission to use her real name!) had gotten a whole team of people mobilized to look for a foster. I’d sent my videos Wednesday evening; by Friday morning things were chaotic, but we had a tentative plan: a rescue organization called Jelly’s Place was going to send over paperwork claiming her under their umbrella, and I would pick her up Friday in-between clients. (I wasn’t sure that strangers who weren’t professionals would be able to extract her safely. No one at the shelter had had any luck, after all!) She’d ride around in the car with me for the day since it wasn’t too hot, I’d take her home that night and keep her, and the next morning two people who’d agreed to foster her with Jelly’s Place’s help would get her from me and take her home.

When I got to the shelter, there was no paperwork from Jelly’s Place and no notice that I was coming had been recorded. The staff turned the office upside down, but something had gone wrong among the many odd rules and regulations about faxing claim forms from rescues. There was nothing. Because everything had been happening so quickly, I didn’t actually have any contact information for Jelly’s Place — I didn’t even know the name of the organization — so we couldn’t reach out.

The woman at the front desk, remembering me from just two days before, called over her superior (who also recognized me). While they put their heads together, I called my next client to let them know I wouldn’t be making our appointment. The nice thing about working with dog people is that when you have to cancel to help a dog in distress, they understand!

The front desk woman called another co-worker from a different section of the rescue to run ideas by him about way to make sure I left with Merida. When neither of them could find a legal way to release her, they called their manager,over, who ended up phoning the high chief of all.

By this time people visiting animals and waiting in line had learned what was going on. There were four people behind the desk, all bustling around or clicking rapidly on computers trying to save Merida, me leaning forward eagerly hoping to help somehow, and another two, then four, then eight people whispering explanations to the newcomers and trading hopeful stories.

Since Merida was still on the “unadoptable” list they couldn’t adopt her to me (plus there was that pesky $200 adoption fee that’s waived when a rescue org steps in). It wasn’t as simple as waiving that or changing her category; by law, she was there and couldn’t be moved either in category or out of the building with steps we didn’t have. Then one of the manager gave me a piercing look and said, “You’re a dog trainer?”

I provided all the information she wanted while she typed furiously into a computer. I didn’t understand half of what was happening, but she briskly gave the first woman direction on what to do with Merida’s computerized file. Both women tapped furiously away at their computers and satisfied smiles and nods came from the other two managers, looking over their shoulders before finally heading back to their own offices. A few minutes later, with great triumph, the manager yanked a form from a shelf, slapped it down on the counter in front of me, pointed out where to sign, and asked a nearby volunteer to take me back to Merida’s kennel.

With a wide smile another employee joined us, shepherding the volunteer forward and assuring her that yes, they were going to let me into the kennels where people weren’t normally allowed.

My greatest regret through the whole ordeal is that I didn’t think to write down anyone’s name. I was too focused on how we could make sure Merida left with me, and trying not to disturb their concentration. If you recognize yourself here, thank you.

I wasn’t surprised that Merida didn’t come to the front of her kennel when I arrived with the two staff members. I was surprised that, despite her fear, she clearly remembered me. She made brief eye contact and gave the tiniest of wags from the back of her room. Although the staff members were supposed to bring her out to me, when I asked if they’d move out of sight and let me get her they agreed. Talk about compassion over rules!

Once Merida thought the “strangers” were gone, she came up to sniff and nuzzle at my palm (even though she didn’t want me petting her). It only took a few minutes to put a slip leash (a long, soft rope with a handle at one end and a noose at the other, that tightens enough to keep from coming off but loosens easily, and negates the need for separate collars and leashes) over her head. That was when I discovered a thin black collar buried under her wiry, filthy coat.

IMG_5737I moved slowly but with confidence, letting her get used to my hands on her neck until I could find the buckle without panicking her. When I felt it, I unsnapped the collar and worked it out of her fur. There were no tags or other identification on it. It looked like an old puppy collar, long outgrown but not, thankfully, tight enough to injure. We stepped out of her kennel and found the staff members truly had left us to get re-acquainted. On the front of her kennel door was a clear plastic envelope with her information, photo, and ID number. With the exception of her photo, ID number, and sex, the entries for whether or not she’d been spayed or vaccinated, what her name was, how old she was, her general health, and other information was all blank. I slipped the black collar into the envelope with the mostly empty sheet, and we left it behind with her old life.

Outside, by my car, we ran head first into whole new problems: unlike most dogs, she was afraid of getting in. I had a Mazda 5, a mini-mini van, as I like to call it. With the back seats down it made a nice dog area, and with the middle seat down I could put a large crate inside. This was where I wanted Merida to go. For all I knew, she’d try to pee inside the car, jump out windows, leap into my lap while I drove; I wanted to take as few chances as possible!

She, however, was having nothing to do with this. I opened the trunk and sat back there myself. She didn’t care.

I gave long, slow pulls and released at any sign of movement from her (forward, back, IMG_5741sideways — I didn’t care which way!) since that will almost always get a dog thinking, calmed, and then moving forward. She still didn’t care.

I walked her back and forth past it to get her moving, then asked her to jump in. Forget it.

I tried running with her toward my car.

I tried tossing treats into the car.

I watched her while calling my next client and rescheduling them, as well.

I tried everything except lifting her into the car, which I didn’t think she’d take well to. After about fifteen minutes she must have decided it wasn’t too bad, because she leaped in as delicately as you please! I coaxed her into the crate and closed the door.

The final (and now only) client of the day was Renee herself. It was with a smile that I headed to Renee’s house, knowing how ecstatic she’d be to meet the dog she’d spent so many hours and sleepless nights trying to help. IMG_5743

When I pulled up I let Merida (who had ultimately decided to just relax and enjoy the ride) out of the car to potty (she didn’t), stretch her legs, and get some water. Then I put her back in her crate, relieved that this time she hopped right in, and went to knock on Renee’s door.

Renee’s first question, of course, was whether or not I’d been successful. Smiling, I told her Merida was in the car, and would she like to meet her?

Renee, ever thinking of others, first made sure it wouldn’t be too much for Merida. I assured her that I wouldn’t ask Merida to come out if she didn’t want to, and we headed back to the car.


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The difference in Merida once out of the shelter was obvious. Timid? Yes. Fearful? Absolutely. But she was far more willing to come visit and take chances, and after checking us humans out from the safety of the car, she decided to hop on out and do a little cautious exploring.


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I held onto her leash but didn’t push myself on her, and Renee and her husband stood quietly, taking pictures and talking softly to Merida, most importantly keeping their hands to themselves so Merida didn’t feel threatened.


It took a bit of time, but Merida started to approach them to sniff and take treats. She wasn’t ready for pets, but she certainly said “Thank you.”


butterscotch and me the day she was picked up

Merida and myself, as she felt safe to take treats and approach Renee and her husband



renee no liscence plate.jpg

Merida decides Renee is safe to take treats from

Renee filmed a few minutes as I was talking about getting her out; you can see Merida hopping out of the car and doing a little exploring. (She coughed occasionally for a day or two, and then stopped. We never learned why, but I assume a mild bug.)

Finally, after a very long day, we headed home. Since I didn’t know if Merida had something she could give to my dogs (anything from fleas to diarrhea), I put her in a small pen in my kitchen, and then gated the kitchen off as well. If anything, though, she seemed relieved to have a safe space to sleep where there were no dogs barking, only friendly dogs wagging at her from a distance, wondering why they couldn’t go say hi.

Merida settled in for the night and I set aside my future worries. For that moment, it didn’t matter if we could rehabilitate her, if the new foster would work out, if we’d be able to find her a home or if there would turn out to be something either behavioral or physical we couldn’t fix. The morning and meeting her fosters would be soon enough for all that. For now, at least, we could all rest.




Rescuing Butterscotch 2

Granted, these videos are a little rough. It’s not easy to film and dog handle at the same time!

It took fifteen minutes or thereabouts to get close enough to leash her. For me, this is a very long time, but as discussed last post the kennel space was working against me, and she was very, very scared. In occasions dealing with fear, patience is key.



Between these videos we worked on going in and out of the door, which she was too frightened to do without bolting. Had we continued, ignoring the bolting, she would have had the idea that we’d escaped (and maybe were still escaping) some terrible thing. She’d have stayed in that fear state, so instead we went back and forth through the door until she realized it wasn’t scary.


We took lots of baby steps; rather than leaving the building, we walked back and forth IN the building, so she could get the idea of a leash and the fact that, yes, I was there, and I wasn’t leaving, and I wasn’t hurting her.


What I couldn’t easily film was when we did finally walk out of the building. I knew there would be people wandering around, and I didn’t know how fearful or aggressive she might be, so I needed both my hands free and ready instead of holding a camera or even thinking about setting one up!

Initially she was very skittish around the people walking around, and there was a lot of stopping and keeping her from tearing off. But it was only a few minutes before she could walk past people within five feet or so. It was a hurried walk, but it was a walk!

We saw another dog or two and she seemed happy to see them, rather than aggressive or fearful, so that was good. We did a LOT of wandering around the place, even into the main part of the building itself and up to the reception desk. We waved and said hi, then I took her back to her kennel and put her away.

Next step: introducing her to my dogs.

I’d brought out Cash and Lily for this, as they’re my “old reliables” and I needed to be able to control and predict their behavior 100%. When I went back to the reception desk, sans dogs, to clear this with them, they seemed to realize what was going on. I got permission, they sent their assessor with me to supervise (I didn’t realize that’s what she was, and spent the time explaining what I was seeing and what I was doing and why, but she seemed more interested than offended), and decided since I hadn’t signed anything in the first place, it was a done deal and they weren’t going to worry about it now!




By this time I was pretty happy at how well she was doing. Having decided to call her Merida (she was nameless as of that moment) after the princess in Brave, I spoke with the manager of the place, offering to come by a couple times a week and work with her so she could be adopted out. I also offered to train the staff in body language and safe handling, but wasn’t taken up on it.

She was given a stay; they’d hold onto her as long as she started eating, and I’d do what I could to help her adapt and get adopted. Meanwhile, my client, Rebecca, was still contacting rescues and fosters. I sent these videos to her, and one of the people helping her said the videos would go a long way toward getting an organization take her in, especially given the status on her kennel door was still that she was fear aggressive!

Now we needed to cross our fingers and hope she ate.


Rescuing Butterscotch 1

A few months back, a German shepherd stray was wandering around one of my client’s neighborhoods. The client, who we’ll call Rebecca, had been following what was happening via an app called Nextdoor and, like others, had been trying to watch out for and catch the dog. People had been leaving out food and water, trying to lure the dog closer when it was seen, and generally rooting for it to get help.

Many people had tried catching it, with no luck. Finally, on a Friday, someone opened their back gate and the dog, trying to avoid them, raced inside. The person closed the gate and called animal control. It took several people to catch the dog even within the confines of the yard, but they finally cornered it and took it to the shelter.

It arrived at the shelter terrified (through no fault of the shelter). They were able to see it was a female, fully grown and probably intact. Probably, because they couldn’t touch her to see for sure. She panicked when they came too close. Hoping to help her calm down, they put her in a double sized kennel with water, food, an off-the-ground (indestructable) bed and even some toys, and let her rest.

When they went back, it was worse. She hadn’t eaten, and every time they tried to get close, speaking softly and offering treats and pets, she’d start growling. If they pushed, she snapped. They couldn’t get close enough to see if she had a microchip, give her vaccines, or even guess at an age. Their own assessor, trained to handle less extreme cases, couldn’t get near her, either.

On Saturday, aware that the kennel situation was making her even more afraid and unable to help her — unable to safely get close enough to temperament test, which is an automatic fail — and watching her starve herself to death because she was so afraid she wasn’t eating, they did the kindest thing they could, and slated to have her euthanized after just a couple of days. She’d have until Monday for someone to claim her.

When my client, who we’ll call Rebecca, heard about this, she was devastated. She called me to see if I knew of foster groups that might help, but I’d turned my phone off for the long weekend, adding on my voicemail that I’d be responding to messages Tuesday. Rebecca left a first message, then started contacting rescue organizations in the area. Many of those took the step of contacting the shelter, but upon learning the dog was fear aggressive, they knew they couldn’t help, either. Rebecca left updates on my voicemail, hoping I’d check in.

On Monday she and her husband went to the shelter, arriving even before it opened to beg for a stay of euthanasia until they could at least talk to me. The manager agreed to wait until Wednesday.

It was Tuesday when I turned on my workphone and saw the messages. I listened to the last one, got the gist of it, and called Rebecca. She asked if I knew a rescue organization that might help, but I couldn’t think of any that she hadn’t already contacted; not for a dog willing to snap at, and possibly bite, people. Instead, I offered to donate my time and see if I could get her out of the kennel safely, temperament test her, and help the shelter find her a home. I got in touch with the shelter manager, and in a flurry of emails we agreed on a time on Wednesday I’d come take a look.

When I got there Wednesday, no one seemed to know quite what to do with me. Finally, one of the reception women called over a volunteer to take me back to see the dog.

“That German shepherd?” was asked in doubtful tones, from the reception women and the volunteer, several times.

Yes, I kept saying. That German shepherd.

In the end, someone showed me to the back kennels and left me alone. I later found out (and this made more sense to me!) that there’d been a series of miscommunications. I should have been escorted by their own assessor, signed a liability waiver, and kept a close eye on so I didn’t get bitten. None of those things happened, at least not at first, which was fine with me.

The German shepherd was laying in the back of the dual kennel. I spoke to her softly and she looked up at me. A good sign, I thought. I opened the door and stepped inside, setting down my bag of treats and gentle come-along leashes, that just loop over a dog’s head and don’t need close contact to use. She remained laying down, watching. A better sign than standing up or trying to get farther away, I thought.

Her food and water bowls were attached to the front of the kennel, with clean, fresh food and water. They’d clearly been untouched. I took a few steps toward her, keeping my own body language and voice soft, and asked her how her day went. I don’t remember now if she growled at me or not, but I didn’t get any farther. Something clearly wasn’t right.

The kennel had, once upon a time, been two kennels back to back. They’d cut a hole in the back big enough for someone to duck low and go through, and plenty big enough for the dogs to get through for added space. But it meant anyone approaching her in the back of her kennel would have to bend over, looming over her while they walked at her, and bringing their face right into her biting range. I wasn’t about to push things that close, where I’d have no room to dodge and she’d have to think I was trying to attack.

I set up my phone to video the assessment, figuring I could at least use the time to explain body language and why I was doing what I was doing for a later blog post. Then I sat down on her bed as far away as possible — which was as close as I could get and still leave her somewhat comfortable — and started filming.

I’d planned on a 45 minute visit; it rarely takes me more than 10 minutes with the most anxious or aggressive of dogs to get them leashed and moving. But this little girl was more frightened than that, and so I made myself comfortable and started work.



Congenital Mental Defects and How To Spot and Manage Them 2

Last entry, I talked about what a congenital issue was, and some techniques for stopping specific ones. Today, I’m going to talk about something even more important: how to manage your dog’s life to decrease any “episodes” overall.

This is something I have a lot of first hand experience in, as Doc has a congenital issue. After three years of living with him, watching him change, and managing his life as best I can, I can say with 90% certainty that he is unable to regulate his emotions. He bounces between extremes with little provocation, and it’s my job to keep him balanced.

In part, this happens with commands as I mentioned last time. I know that someone petting him with great excitement and him jumping on them with joy will trigger mania (hyper-arousal, technically) within 3-5 seconds. So, the commands are “no jumping,” “sit,” “come,” and so on to manage his reaction when people come to the house.

But there are other things I can do in his life to make it easier for him to stay in a balanced mindset, and that’s really what I want to talk about.

First, exercise. We all know getting our hearts pumping is good for us. It releases endorphins and other happy chemicals and it calms down restless energy. Restless energy has to go somewhere; in a dog with congenital issues, it’s going to go into those.

Most dogs can manage with a 30 minute walk a day. (Assuming your dog isn’t a puppy or high energy breed, and with the knowledge that longer is always better.) Doc needs a 1 hour walk, and two BIG events every week — swimming, off-leash hiking, dog park, a long bike ride, etc. With that amount of exercise, his emotional state remains close enough to regular that most people don’t notice he has an issue. Without that amount, he quickly starts swinging from mania to irritation to depression, often over the span of an hour.

Ironically, you also want to make sure your dog gets enough rest. We all get cranky when we’re over-tired. If your dog’s brain is compensating for a glitch all the time, it’s even harder for them to deal with the world. Oftentimes dogs with congenital issues need more sleep or quiet time than other dogs. Doc needs more cuddle time, but not too much cuddle time or he gets possessive of me. It’s a balance. Lily and Cash can both get over-tired with boarders but still maintain good, if put-upon, behavior. Doc has a much harder time maintaining his hard-learned good behavior when he gets over-tired, and needs help in the form of leaving the house with me or being separated so others can’t bother him or trigger an emotional spike.

The other thing that will help a dog with congenital issues is a schedule. The more they can predict what their day will look like, the more brain power they can allocate to compensation instead of anticipation. If something unusual is going to happen, it’s best to wear them out a little extra and even make sure you have them trained to go hang out in a crate or separate area, in case they just need to be out of the new situation.

Finally, training. Practice basic commands, learn new tricks, have positive interactions with your dog that leaves them feeling accomplished and loved. Make it so they do their commands eagerly and quickly, so that when a problem crops up they’ll remember what to do and, hopefully, remember that they like it. Not only will you have a fail safe, but it’ll make them more self-confident that they’re good at something, and make them happier, too.

You might notice that these are all the same techniques recommended to help people decrease stress in their lives. Well, that’s because it’s exactly what we’re doing: decreasing stress for our dog. Along with decreasing stress, use compassion. Don’t think, “My dog is aggressive.” Think, “My dog can’t help this panic attack. I will get him through it, and we’ll be okay.” It’s key to keeping a relationship, effectively training, and keeping trust between you and your dog!



“I want to be awesome! I just need some extra help.”

Congenital Mental Defects and How To Spot and Manage Them 1

This is going to be a long entry, so I’m breaking it up into two parts. This first part consists of explanations and definitions, as well as common problems and trouble shooting, and commands your dog must know. The second part will consist of every day care for a dog with congenital issues.

First, some definitions. Anything “congenital” means the dog was born with it. Congenital heart failure means there was a defect in the heart when the dog was born, and now it’s finally causing heart failure. Congenital IBD would be a dog born with irritable bowel syndrome (which I’ve never heard of in congenital form, but I’m sure exists.)

When referring to mental, behavioral, or emotional problems, congenital usually means that something in the dog’s brain is hardwired wrong, or the chemistry is unbalanced due to genetic factors. It doesn’t mean the dog is hopeless, anymore than I am with my ADD, clinical depression, panic disorder, and anxiety disorder. (ADD means the biology of my brain is actually different than those without ADD/ADHD, while the rest are currently believed to be chemistry imbalance issues.) Some types of seizures can cause brain damage, leading to, essentially, a congenital disorder, as can brain injury or trauma.

Because we don’t typically do autopsies on dog’s brains, they can’t tell us really what’s happening in there, and MRIs, CT scans, and fMRIs are only started to be used and are cost prohibitive, we know even less about what’s happening in dog brains than we do in human brains. Right now, the big signal that a problem is congenital rather than learned is the age of the dog when the problem crops up. If someone tells me their puppy is depressed, anxious, manic (a form of high-energy anxiety, technically called “hyper-arousal”), or aggressive before 6 months of age, that’s going to raise red flags. (You’ll be glad to know that the vast majority of the time the behavior is still within the norm, if not what an owner has dealt with before!)

Congenital problems are VERY rare. Of the hundreds of dogs I see, perhaps 1% of them have congenital problems, while the rest simply need structure, better coping skills, or a little work. Congenital aggression is the one most commonly seen, simply because it’s the most threatening one. Someone with a dog whose congenital issues lean toward anxiety is more likely not to notice, not to realize they can get help for it, or treat it themselves/with their vet with varying degrees of success. Once a dog starts attacking or biting people or dogs, though, that’s when someone like me is typically called in.

There isn’t a lot of research on dogs with congenital issues, so what I talk about here is gleaned from experience, instead. Please note: if you suspect you have a dog with congenital issues, seek professional help. Don’t read this and try things out.

Since the most common thing I see is congenital aggression, we’re going to talk about that. Common themes in dogs with CA are reacting aggressively without much warning, aggression dramatically more intense than expected or warranted, aggression that gets exponentially worse when met with a consequence (even a “no!” or a squirt bottle), aggression that doesn’t back down, aggression toward unexpected triggers, and extreme anxiety/depression/apology from the dog once the moment is over.

This sounds like a pretty terrifying thing, and it is. What’s more, it’s just as terrifying to the dog. Because these dogs almost always start cowering after the fact, sometimes so much as to run away or pee themselves, even when no one has ever done anything to them, I think of these moments as dog panic attacks. The dogs act as if they, themselves, are afraid of what just happened to them, and they cannot control it in the moment.

“Why would anyone keep a dog like this?” I hear you cry.

Because these dogs, like all dogs, are sweet, cuddly, lovable, face-licking, tail wagging members of someone’s family. If this happens once every six months, and the rest of the time your dog is wonderful, you aren’t going to say, “This dog deserves to die.” For many people, it’s like having a kid with an emotional disorder who, unexpectedly, strikes out at classmates, friends, and family. You don’t give up on the kid, especially if the rest of the time the kid is a dog providing unconditional love.

On the other hand, some people do put these dogs down. The dogs are too aggressive or dangerous, or the dogs are miserable. That is never the wrong answer, either. I had to make that call with Champ, when he became both dangerous and miserable, and sometimes it’s the right call to make.

Either way, you’re doing the right thing.

Now that we’ve covered “Why wouldn’t you put that dog down?!” as well as, “How could anyone put a dog down for any reason?!”, hopefully we can move on. (Any comments disparaging the choices people make will be deleted. These are hard enough things to deal with without strangers who are unaware of the full situation layering on shame.)

Here’s the thing: you can’t change the dog’s wiring. You might be able to help his brain chemistry. While you NEVER want to use a sedative on a dog with aggression issues (it can mute their warning signs without muting the aggression, which means an attack will come out of seemingly nowhere), there are medications currently that can help. That’s too long a topic to handle here, but you should talk to your vet.

When dealing with a CA dog, not starting a fight is important. I’m usually a big believer in rewarding good behavior and having consequences for bad behavior (often a squirt bottle, noise maker, or body blocking), but when a consequence could lead to uncontrolled aggression and/or a fight, it’s best to leave it out.

CA dogs need more command training. Since we can’t have a consequence for a naughty behavior, we need to have an alternative instead.

So, if your CA dog’s trigger is your sock, and you come out of the kitchen to see that he has your sock under the table, and you know that if you try to walk past, much less take it away, he’ll go into attack mode, then you need an alternate command. “Come!” is a great one. “Sit,” and “Stay” are musts. Will she be able to hold those commands if she sees you head for “her” sock? Maybe not, so you want to be able to have your dog stay around a corner, out of sight. In the above scenario, you walk away from the sock, back into the kitchen. Grab several dog treats. Call, “Come!” Add your sit when your dog arrives, giving a treat each time. Tell them to stay, leave the kitchen, pick up the sock and put it away, and then release your dog. She’ll probably go examine where “her” sock was and, because these dogs seem to be more obsessive than others, be reactive around the space for a few minutes while she looks for it. This is the time to just give her her space, or distract her with a toy or fun, reward-based command practice until she forgets her previous prize.

Some CA dogs are possessive (and then aggressive) around items, as above. Others can be possessive around space. A dog who doesn’t want anyone near their bed, for instance, and will lunge at anyone who gets close to it, needs different treatment. Sometimes adding multiple beds will help, so they don’t feel the need to guard one; there’s always another. Other times tossing the current bed and getting a whole new one, in a different spot, helps more. If the latter, start right from the beginning sitting in the bed with your dog; bring it into the house, do NOT draw your dog’s attention to it, put it down, and sit in it. When your dog comes over to examine it, praise and love on them and let them join you (in your lap, if needed). From then on, sit in it periodically so it remains a “shared” bed.

If the problem is guarding a space/location in the house, the best way to fix it is to re-allocate the space. If it’s a corner, put a potted plant there. The center of the room? Toss your laundry there for a few days, preferably when no guests are coming over! Anything to change the scenery and make your dog think twice. Even if you can only do this for a few days, it will help break their obsession and lessen their need to defend that space.

Another technique for guarding items, spaces, and food is to change the dog’s emotional state around it. If your dog frequently guards the space under the table and attacks from beneath, then walk near enough so he doesn’t attack, toss a treat without speaking or looking, and keep going. Do it again. Then again. And again. Most dogs take no time at all to be excited to see someone approaching the table, because they know a treat is incoming. Decrease the space needed, and keep doing it.

A CA dog isn’t “most dogs,” but treats for non-reaction will still change their emotions around people approaching. They will probably need more frequent reminders and longer training sessions to write over their brain glitching, but it can be done.

Two other commands I frequently use in a situation where the dog is either guarding a specific location or simply guarding themselves (such as a dog who doesn’t want to be moved once they’ve laid down) are “come,” used just as above with an item, and “go on,” so that if the dog is sitting, say, on my lap and I’m worried, I can order them away. Teaching “go on” is pretty simple; hold a treat so your dog knows you have it, toss it away with a pointing arm gesture, and say, “Go on.” Your dog will dive for it. A few repetitions of that, and they’re diving for the area you gestured toward pretty quickly. Reinforce occasionally with food.

The other useful command for any situation is to teach your dog a “bed” or “place” command. If they’re aggressive over food and you drop something, a quick, “Place!” will have them dashing off, to be rewarded in a moment — after you’ve picked up your egg roll. If your dog, quicker than you, managed to grab the egg roll and is now in his place eating it, then your “come,” “sit,” and “stay” commands might just save the day. Even tricks to distract your dog and get them thinking about something else can be helpful.

I once worked with a dog who refused to let me out of the bathroom after I’d gone in, the very first day we met. His owners were too afraid to try and make him move, knowing that touching him could trigger a fight response. With the cheeriest voice I could summon, I said, “Hi, big guy! Sit!”

A little confused, he did. I tossed him a treat. He stood up to eat it, and I asked him to sit again in the same, cheery voice. After he’d sat and been rewarded a few times, he was no longer defending from me, but instead interested in listening to me. I’d changed the situation. I was then able to walk forward, give him a big pet, and we left the bathroom hall together, calmly. If he hadn’t known how to sit, that could have gone very differently.

It’s tempting to feel hurt, angry, or frustrated when your dog switches into one of these modes. Don’t. This is your dog’s brain glitching; they are not making a conscious choice to be aggressive, any more than I make a conscious choice to have a panic attack in the middle of Target. They’re probably locked in the back of their minds thinking, “Something’s wrong with me, and I don’t know what or understand what’s happening!” Take a breath and give them compassion. Always feed back love; feeding back fear or aggression will only tell them something’s wrong, which will create further stress and more brain glitching.

Hopefully, this gives you someplace to start. Next: helping them manage stress, reduce glitches, and stay safe.



Dogs and Dryers: Dealing with Fear

Recently, I boarded a one year old dog, Millie, who has been going to a groomer for her entirely life. In the last few months, though, she’d become terrified of the blow dryer. The groomer was no longer able to use it at all, and when they put Millie in a crate and set a gentle crate dryer up to blow her sloooowwly dry, she cowered in the back.

The following is the series of videos I took as I figured out, knowing what I do of Millie, how to get her to deal with the dryer again!


Something odd about this kind of fear: often, when a dog shows a little bit of fear to something and that things is taken away completely, the dog learns, “Oh, if I act afraid and a little crazy, people won’t make me do this slightly unpleasant thing.” After everything, I’m positive that’s what happened here. I’ve had many a well meaning groomer create problems with dryers and nail clipping not because a dog was ever hurt, but because the groomer didn’t insist.

Of course, insisting too much can also create a problem; it’s a delicate balance, and I’m always thrilled when groomers ask for tips in knowing when to gently insist, and when to back off!




A few weeks after this last video was taken, Millie’s new groomer (who has worked with me extensively) sent a video of Millie being blown dry on the grooming table. She wasn’t super thrilled with it, but there were no stress signs, no shaking or anything of the like, and she was happy to hop down and go back to playing after the fact.

Woo hoo!


Dogs, Treats, and Fairness

Fairness is a funny idea. Quite often I see a client ask one dog to sit and then give it a treat, and then and turn and give the other dog a treat. They think they’re doing this to be fair; if one dog got one, the other dog should get one, too.

This is one of those cases where we’re giving our dogs way too little credit. I remember reading about a study (I could look it up, but let’s be honest; I barely get these written, much less look up my sources. For the skeptics, I probably read about it in The Genius of Dogs by Brian Hare, and there’s an appendix if you really want to check my research) looking at whether or not dogs had a sense of fairness. Though I might get the command and the type of treat wrong, it went something like this:

A researcher asks two dogs to sit. Both dogs do so. One dog is rewarded with steak, and the other with a biscuit.

After several repetitions of this, the dog getting the biscuit stopped sitting. If I recall, that dog actually wandered off, despite the positive reinforcement in the form of a treat. (If I also recall, this wasn’t what the researchers had expected to happen.)

What was going on? The dogs have a sense of fairness. Equal pay for equal work, if you will. As soon as they started giving both dogs steak, both dogs started sitting on command again.

Now, as a kid, if I pulled weeds and was paid five dollars, and my sister didn’t get help but got five dollars anyway… There’s almost no chance I’d pull weeds again.

So let’s go back to that moment of doing what’s fair. We ask one dog to work for a treat. We give the treat to the other dog simply because it’s there. Is that fair to the dog who worked for it? Definitely not. Maybe dogs really aren’t that smart. Maybe I’m off base. But, funny, that’s what they thought about just giving a different type of treat… and the dogs objected to that. I’m going to suggest that the next time you ask one dog to work for a treat and then you start to hand a different dog a treat just because, think about how you’d feel if your boss gave your coworker a bonus for doing nothing, while you’d been working diligently for it. If you would feel that was unfair, it’s entirely possible your dog will, too.



“Now look, I’ve been patient while you dressed me up and paraded me around for Howl-O-Ween, but if you’re going to use me as a pillow, I think I ought to have the drink!” -Thor (aka Cash) to Tony Stark (aka Quin) circa 2012