Dog park: body language

Hey, all! The other day while Doc, Lily, Cash and I were enjoying some sunshine and running in the dog park, I thought, “Hey! I could totally use this group of dogs for body language clips!” So I took a bunch of 3-10 second clips, and here we have some of them! More to come as I have time.

Both have high tails (want to engage) and relaxed spines (positive emotional state). The dog on the right also has more “bounce” to his step and tail. Bounce = play. Taking all into account, both dogs are ready to engage (high tails), but only one of them is ready to play. The other probably would like to explore, visit, and relax!

There’s so much going on here! Start with the chocolate lab: high tail = wants to engage, the tail is relaxed-ish, but the spine is very stiff (relaxed = positive emotions, stiff/still = negative emotions). I would worry, except look at his ears: pressed against the head and upward. That is a classic “Play??!?!” expression! This is a confident dog who really wants to play — probably a fast chase-me game or maybe even some wrestling. When Lily walks up and the spaniel shifts focus to her, the lab politely takes the hint that no one is playing, and leaves.

Now, Lily: medium height tail (“I want to engage, but not TOO much”), super relaxed spine (positive emotional state), lowered, relaxed head with soft, sideways relaxed ears (“I don’t want to play really, just visit). These are the signs of a dog who wants to say hi, but probably isn’t going to initiate play; just visiting.

Finally, the spaniel. From the start through the end, her tail is low. Low = do not want to engage. With the lab it’s pretty stiff, flattened against her butt, with only the tiniest sway at the tip. This is an anxiety wag. You can also see how she’s leaning away. “I don’t want to play! Don’t pounce!”

When Lily approaches without a request for play, the spaniel relaxes a little bit (the tail stops pressing so hard, and begins to swish). It’s still low, though; “My emotional state is improving because you’re not trying to make me play.” She also comes around; “Yeah, I’ll sniff you — but I don’t want to engage more than that.”

Again, there’s a remarkable amount going on here. We’re just going to look at the husky and the smaller dog in the vest getting sniffed.

Husky: high tail, relaxed spine, not a lot of bounce, head not erect: wants to engage + positive emotions = happy. Not a lot of bounce = visit, not play. Head not erect = not inviting to play, dominating, or challenging. In other words, this dog is friendly and not too forward.

Vest dog: tail down, spine stiff, retreating: doesn’t want to engage + negative emotions + escaping = fear. The entire time these dogs are sniffing him, he’s trying to say, “Stop! I don’t want to engage! I’m afraid of you!” It wouldn’t surprise me if his ears were pinched against his head, the whites of his eyes showing, and he’s heavily panting (or will be soon). Those would be stress markers.

Think you’re getting good at this? Think about what the lab and the mostly-white dog are saying, and then check the comments!



Socialization: quality, not quantity

There’s a theory that has taken the dog training world by storm over the last ten years or so, and it’s this:

The Theory: your dog should see 100 different people a month (or is it a week? I’ve blocked it from my memory) and some similar number of dogs from 8 weeks old (earlier if the breeder can manage it) to 5 months old. If you do not do this or if you skip a week, your dog will DIE. Or something like that.

First of all, as an introvert the very thought of that many people makes me feel faint. Excuse me, I need to go lie down.

Second off, if The Theory is true, it will show itself in the dogs who have or have not been socialized to that extent. SO! Let’s look at my personal examples.

Lily was a rescue several times over; while she had several families, I know for a fact (because I know those families) that while she saw a decent number of people — kids’ friends who came over to play, the people in puppy class — she definitely didn’t see even 5 new people a week after the first week or so.

Cash I had from puppyhood, so I know exactly who he saw. First, he was with the breeder until he was 14 weeks, so he saw her and her family. (Note he was already almost out of the ‘socialization window.’) Then he was with me. We saw my family, three regular horse training clients, annnnnd… no, I’m pretty sure that’s it. Probably a person or two on walks, if I didn’t do my introvert thing and hide when someone was coming.

Doc was found wandering (several times) in residential areas and picked up by animal control. Between whoever his family was, neighbors who found him wandering, the shelter, and his new families he probably saw the most people of all my dogs. It’s a lot of people. Maybe 100 a week, but that seems excessive.

According to The Theory, all my dogs (except maybe Doc) should be hot messes, and yet they all ADORE strangers, whether those strangers are dogs or people!

The last post I wrote talked about hereditary issues. That’s another factor about whether your dog is friendly or not. Were the parents super friendly? I recently went to someone’s house where they have two dogs, brothers, both of whom are hot messes in different ways. The dogs’ parents weren’t friendly. Neither were the grandparents. I’m going to take a leap and say that probably there’s a hereditary issue there.

Finally, there’s experience. This is what I want to talk about most of all. First, I’m going to posit my working theory. It’s more complex than The Theory, and not as easy to remember. Occam’s razor wouldn’t like it, but I think it’s more accurate.

My theory: genetics and experience combine and each dog must be treated differently. Some dogs will be helped by massive socialization. Others will not, either because it will backfire or because they’re friendly regardless. In any case (and this is the main point of my theory), quality matters over quantity.

Imagine for a moment I have a timid dog or puppy, and I’m out with them. Someone approaches cooing over how cute they are and, let’s face it, I don’t disagree. They’re the cutest. My timid gal drops her tail low and wags. She might approach carefully, or maybe even not approach at all. I encourage her to go forward, knowing she’ll enjoy the pets if she just tries it. She finally does, sniffing the stranger’s feet. The stranger pets her and rubs that special spot behind her ears. She rolls over and we all go, “Awww!” She gets her belly rubbed. When the stranger stops she jumps up, all wiggles, and crawls onto my lap. Yay! Great experience! Right?

Is it? Low tail means they’re nervous and don’t want to engage. A low wag means they have anxiety in this situation — it’s the dog saying, “I’m just a puppy, please don’t hurt me! See? I’m cute!” So my dog was saying they didn’t want to engage (be petted), and were worried, but I ignored it completely and encouraged them forward. Like any small child they don’t want to disappoint, so they got petted. They learned that I’m not listening and they have no choice in the matter. Then they ran back to me for reassurance. Was that really a great experience for my dog? Maybe it ended all right, but overall I don’t think happiness is what they’re going to take away from that experience. And yet, it’s exactly what we all do! I’ve even caught myself doing it, on both ends, and I know better!

Repeat this experience 100 times a month (or was it a week? I can’t remember, I fainted), and classical conditioning takes over. See person, get anxious. Even if it’s ending well, the dog is STILL learning that we aren’t listening and it starts out stressful.

For some dogs, this won’t matter. They’re so friendly and happy-go-lucky that they’re going to find friends everywhere regardless of the situation. (Those dogs are going to like everyone even if they NEVER meet anyone during the “socialization phase.”)

But what if I have a dog who is really excitable? He knows that when he goes out HE MEETS PEOPLE! He tries to jump on every person he meets (I don’t let him), and he’s SO EXCITED he does nothing but wiggle like crazy when he sees new friends! Maybe this will work out brilliantly. Or maybe I’m over stimulating an already excited dog. Now they walk out the door and the brain turns off — THEY’RE GOING TO SEE NEW FRIENDS OMG CAN’T THINK!!1!1!!

Maybe I have a super friendly dog, but in my efforts to meet 100 people day — hang on, I’m hyperventilating — I let him say hi to the elderly gent down the street. Turns out that guy was attacked by a chihuahua when he was a toddler, and when my dog approaches (because, as previously mentioned, my puppy is the cutest puppy ever) he starts screaming and flinching backward. Now my friendly puppy thinks some people might be unpredictable and frightening, and my would-have-been-friendly puppy has trauma. Meeting people just backfired.

But what about those 100 dogs I was supposed to meet every month? In the wild, a puppy would NEVER meet that many dogs. Possibly not even in his lifetime. But hey, we’re following The Theory (and we’re apparently not worried about disease), so we do it. Some of those dogs are over-friendly and try to play, bouncing on my puppy and scaring him on accident. Others don’t want to deal with a puppy and are stiff or even snap to make him back off. (“That’s okay,” the other owner says. “They’re just working it out!” Uh, I wouldn’t let a stranger yell at one of my step kids for mistaking social cues that are above their age level. Why is it okay when dogs do it?) BUT, not all dogs snap, and some puppies play nicely. Then there’s the leash aggressive dog we don’t even get near, who is essentially screaming threats at my puppy from across the street, which is rather frightening. What’s my puppy learning? Maybe that dogs are unpredictable, and even the friendly ones might be too rough.

I’ve over-stated my point, haven’t I? But now you get the picture.

None of my dogs saw tons of people or dogs. Lily and Doc both had issues when I got them; Lily barked fearfully at men, and Doc was leash aggressive toward dogs. Lily had had a pool guy come into the yard and frighten her; I have no idea what experiences Doc had. They both saw more dogs and people than Cash did.

Cash’s experiences with dogs and people were limited to those I knew well, and knew he’d have a good experience with.

I don’t have a big enough sample here to base real comparisons on, but I can tell you this: of all the dogs I’ve trained, whether they were friendly (to dogs or people) had no obvious correlation with how many people/dogs they’d seen as puppies. Whether or not they were unfriendly to people or dogs had a direct correlation to whether or not they’d had a frightening experience as puppies.

Quality over quantity: it doesn’t matter if they’ve seen 100 people or dogs, if some of those experiences were traumatic. If they only see a few people or dogs and the experiences are all great, that’s pretty confidence building!

So kick back. Invite some friends over. Take your puppy out occasionally. Think quality, so that they have a good confidence base to work from. If you want to meet 100 people a month because you have that many friends and you can know that the experiences will be good — and your puppy is down with that idea — go for it! But if you, like me, shudder at the very thought, don’t stress yourself out.

Now, excuse me. After thinking about so many people I need to go relax on my fainting couch.


Is it the owner’s fault?

One statement I hear from responsible owners is, “I know my dog’s behavior is my fault.” It’s one I used to agree with — behavior comes from what was reinforced — but nowadays I’m re-thinking my beliefs.

First, any animal’s behavior comes from biology. My parents are amazing. They are also clinically depressed on one side and recovering alcoholic on the other. This is something that’s written into my DNA, something that has been shown over and over again to be hereditary. Are they awesome parents? Man, I have nothing but awe for my parents. I don’t think I could have done as well as they did in their situations. I always know that I’m loved, even when I’m doing crazy things like moving to NorCal with nothing but a couple grand in savings and the hope that my business will flourish. I always know that I have a safety net: my parents would take me in in a heartbeat, if something went drastically wrong, and in their role modeling so would either of my sisters. I am truly lucky.

But we don’t think of “what did this dog inherit?” when we look at dogs, quite often. Then there’s the experience factor of it: my early life experiences said “strangers are dangerous; family is safe.” (I was nearly kidnapped twice, had bullies for teachers, and in every case it was my parents who rescued me.) Today, I have a social anxiety disorder. You can’t tell in training situations, but put me in a big party and it becomes immediately obvious — without my meds, Quin (jokingly my “service human”), and/or Doc, I would be the hyperventilating, bawling mess in the corner. Personally, I’d say that if it’s anything more than hereditary, it’s the strangers’ fault.

Okay, I guess my genes predisposing me toward anxiety came from my folks. But the bit the with the strangers only made me certain my parents would protect me from strangers. My parents certainly didn’t do anything wrong in chasing down the man on the beach who’d grabbed me and was walking away, and they did everything right in sending me with an older sister and keep us in eye line as we walked (thank goodness!).

Now let’s think about your dog. Specifically, I want to think about some of the dogs who have triggered this thinking in me. Let’s look at Bobbie. (All dogs shall now be named Bob. ;-D) Bobbie was bought as a puppy from a decent, if not show, breeder. She was put into my hands as a puppy, to make sure she was socialized. We went EVERYWHERE. Orchard and Home Depot before her shots, downtown and to parks afterward. She loves other dogs. She’s TERRIFIED of humans. She’s a year and a half old now, and still dealing with this terror of humans.

Her owner is a long time client. I know for sure there has been no abuse. She hasn’t had any run ins with bad people. She HAS seen many friendly strangers, and many people who ignored her. So what causes the sheer terror?

I’ll tell you what doesn’t cause it: her owner. I can’t, in any way, shape, or form, claim this is her owner’s fault. Sure, there are things we could do that would help, that due to physical problems can’t be done. But her owner didn’t cause this fear.

“Okay,” I hear you cry. “There’s some hereditary wonkiness going on there. But what about older dogs?”

Also recently I had a session with a new client. She has an 8 year old dog, Bob, who has had problems with people all his life. She adopted Bob when he was 1, and has dealt with his human fear aggression since. To date, he goes for walks early in the morning when no one is about, and no one comes over to the house unless he’s outside. (Talk about a hiccup in your social life.)

Whatever happened to him before he was 1 was certainly not her fault. After she got him, she hired two different trainers to help. One helped somewhat with his commands, but eventually Bob became too reactive even with that person and was banned from lessons. The other suggested putting him down. That was 7-8 years ago. I could say it was the owner’s fault for not taking him out more, but really, after two trainers ditching her, I’d say she’d done her due diligence!

When I met up with her for the first time last week, she kept saying, “I know it’s my fault…” But is it? He already had problems before he met her. She worked with two separate trainers with two very different styles, and both had given up on him. What more is she expected to do?

Let’s let go of this idea that everything is the owner’s fault. Sure, sometimes things you’re doing might exacerbate a situation, but here’s another thought: a dog is no more a blank slate than a human baby is. I came into this world with all sorts of possibilities in my DNA, and my experiences then shaped that into what I am today.

We all do the best we can with the information we have. Yes, owners should take responsibility for their role in their dog’s behavior — but I don’t believe they should take ALL responsibility for their dog’s behavior. On a more spiritual level, I believe all living creatures come into this life to learn something and to teach those around them. Anyone saying an owner is to blame is taking away that dog’s spirit, as well.

So, sure. A year ago, Lily wouldn’t come until I yelled, “Lily! Get over here!” That was my fault because I never reinforced it until then, and she knew that. But her general stubbornness? That was all her — and something I loved about her. There was no ‘fault’ in how stubborn she was; that was part of her personality, and as much as it drove me crazy, it was one of the things that cracked me up. I have to give props to her for that amount of tenacity! (Note: she’s still with me, still stubborn, but now she doesn’t come because she’s almost deaf. Fair ‘nough!)

Cash, at two years old, had anxiety. Do I take responsibilty for that? Actually, yes. I created the harsh experiences that gave it to him. I ALSO take responsibility for removing it, over years, after I realized what I’d done.

Doc howls in my car when I leave. Do I take responsbility for that? He had severe seperation anxiety when he came to me; that was not my fault. It’s much less now than it was then. Could I have done more? Maybe. But in my life and within my abilities, I have done all I could. In a perfect world, that would be more. In a realisitic world, I think we’ve done well. He’s no longer forcing his way through the car windows, eating the chairs, or breaking out of crates. Do I take responsibility when he jumps my 7 foot fence? Today, yes; I know he can and will if he isn’t properly exercised. I know what causes it AND how to fix it. But the first time? Heck no. I didn’t even know he COULD jump a fence that high! And even today, if I didn’t know what caused it or how to fix it? I don’t think I could take responsibility for that, either. I could take responisbility for not figuring it out, but I can’t take responsibility for not fixing it.

So — should owners take responsibility for their dogs behavior? Yes and no. It may not be your fault, but it is certainly our responsibility to try and make things safe, figure it out, and maybe — if it’s within our capabilities — make it better.

Notice to all new clients: you don’t have to tell me it’s your fault. If you’ve called for help (whether from me, another vet, or any other trainer), you’re doing the right thing. Don’t rob your dog of his or her own place in this world, and the things they need to learn and teach. Don’t ignore hereditary behavior, even if we know less about it in dogs than people. The owner’s only “fault” is pretending like there isn’t a problem. If you see it, and you take steps, you’re on the right path. Hang in there. We may not create a problem, but the awesome thing about being human is: when we’re ready, we can help fix it.



Sometimes people ask me, “Are your dogs perfect?” And my honest answer is: no. In large part, this is because there are things I just don’t care enough about to put in the training time. But another large part is that nothing stays the same, including dogs.

For instance: I think Lily’s losing her hearing. For a long while I thought she was just being stubborn when I called her to come, but now I’m not so sure. I’m not tuning up her recall because, well, what if she can’t hear me? So her recall is failing and until I know one way or the other, I’m just not going to worry about it.

Another for instance, and the point of this particular post: Doc got possessive. I’ve had him for a year and a half now, which means any issues he’s still dealing with probably don’t have to do with him being a rescue, they have to do with him and me. (Note: this is a rough rule of thumb, with a lot of exceptions.)

He’s never shown signs of possessiveness before, but about six months ago he started getting possessive of bones with Lily. He tried some growls and snaps, and he got in big trouble for it (poked by me and chased off, his bone given to Lily), then rewarded for tolerating her (praise and pets when he had his bone and he wasn’t being a bully to her while she was wandering around/sniffing it, etc.). The praise worked better than the poking with him, so I used that a lot more once I noticed, and he got over his issue in a couple of weeks.

Skip to six weeks (or so) ago, and he’s trying to be possessive of ME, with Cash. Mostly when we were snuggling or I was petting him, and Cash would come up to say, “Me too!” Doc would growl and try to nose Cash away, and went as far as snapping at him a time or two. Because I was standing right there, I’d push Doc away (to the other end of the couch, or chase him off a few feet if I were standing), then pay attention to Cash, THEN call Doc back over and love on him, too. Again, when Cash came up and I could see Doc wasn’t happy about it – turning his face away, ears pinching along his head, whites of the eyes showing – I would praise Doc for tolerating it. After a week or two, that went away as well.

Skip to two weeks ago, and it’s popped up again: this time being possessive first over Patience (my sometimes-helper and the dog trainer in the East Bay I refer people to), then Margo (my assistant) and finally Quin (my honey). In each and every case we did the same thing: push Doc away, love on Cash, bring Doc in and love on him. We also added a couple of things:

For Patience, since she’s also a dog trainer, I asked her to start making Doc calm down and think. One thing I’ve noticed about Doc is the more wound up he gets, the less he thinks overall. Now, it’s normal for a dog’s brain to turn off when they’re super wound up (with either excitement or aggression or anything else), but his brain turns off even when he’s not wound up, if he’s spent a lot of time wound up. Things that wind him up: not exercising enough, some of my playful boarders, fetch, the wild peacocks, squirrels. It’s a full time job keeping him centered! Getting a wound up dog to pause so they can think again (and guiding them gently but firmly through what to do until they CAN think) is key. So I asked Patience to get him thinking around her, adding in little brain-working things like sitting and calming down at doors before he goes out to play, sitting to get petted, things like that. That calmed him so his possessiveness also dropped.

I asked Margo (who does some minor training for me, but firmly insists she’s not a dog trainer!) to use a squirt bottle if he got possessive of her. It’s a good consequence: not emotionally very powerful, certainly not painful, just distracting and annoying.

With Quin, we put Doc in time out when he got possessive, in an x-pen in the house. After twenty minutes (which I judged to be enough time for his brain to wander off his possessiveness), he re-joined us. He was put in time out a couple of times before he got the point!

In all instances, when he became tolerant of Cash or wasn’t possessive, he got rewarded with lots of love and pets. Ex: I petted Cash, Doc watched but didn’t come over to push Cash away, so after a minute – before he lost his patience – I turned and loved on Doc. Repeat ad nauseum! For every time he got busted for naughtiness, I want at least five rewards. If I’m busting him too much, that’s my signal that I’m asking too much of him. I need to reward BEFORE he puts himself in trouble, so he knows what it is I’m looking for, not just what I don’t like.

It took a couple of weeks for him to cycle through everyone and figure out no one was going to let him get away with it. I’m still praising and loving on him when other dogs butt into “our” space to get pets, just to reinforce his good behavior.

During his possessive phase, I used different techniques for different people, depending on how he reacts to the people in question and what they were more comfortable with/capable of, and what worked best for him.

No dog is ever perfect. Even when a dog trainer owns them, even if I spent all my time making them perfect to everyone’s standards, living animals are always changing! I wouldn’t have it any other way. 😉


Getting Old Ain’t for Sissies

With many thanks to Quin’s grandmother for the titular phrase!

Well, Lily and Cash are getting older. Lily has a little bit of hip dysplasia and a lot of arthritis (she’s one supplement and, recently, pain killers/anti-inflammatories). Cash is in remarkably good shape, except for the added weight from helping himself to dog food. We’re working on that!

One of the books I’m reading for myself is called “Younger Next Year” by an MD and a lawyer who thought the information needed to be out in the world. There are several editions, and I can’t say it’s the most perfect book out there, but it is based on medical information, and it steers clear of the fad diets and whatnot, which I appreciate! The main message of the book is this: exercise an hour, six days a week, to help your body stay young. A brisk walk is good enough. It goes into a lot more detail about why, but that’s the basic premise.

Here’s why I mentioning it: the things they talk about have to do with being mammals, not always being human. Lily’s been sliding downhill slowly and I thought, “You know what? She’s a mammal, too.” So Lily and I (and Cash because I want him to stay in good shape) are now embarking on a get-younger lifetime regime.

Lily’s arthritis and dysplasia mean that her hips are sore and weak. To help with the weakness, I bought some anti-slip spray by Bio-Groom. [link] From what I can tell from the reviews and my own experiments, it seems to work well for dogs who have just a bit of slipping and weakness; too much, and it doesn’t make a great difference. I make sure to spray it on her pads and toe pads as well, and then pet her for thirty seconds while it dries. I re-applied every few days, and after a while I stopped using it; she stopped slipping.

I took her walking. Lily likes walking, but she gets bored walking the same thing all the time. I hadn’t realized this until I was distressed that she lagged so much, and then one day I took her jogging down a trail… and I’ll be damned if she couldn’t suddenly keep up! Now we walk or jog daily, and she’s gotten far more agile, much stronger, and happier. She’s playing again, and romping with other dogs.

I wasn’t sure, at first, if she was going to be strong enough to walk and jog, so I also looked up strength training exercises. Some things you can do include standing your dog on stairs (if they’re facing upstairs it works their hips, if facing downstairs their shoulders), practicing sit/down/stand/sit (puppy push ups and doggie squats!), and massage helps as well. Dogs are like us: some like a firmer massage, others a softer one. Start with the big muscles alongside the spine, and the ones on the shoulders and thighs. If your dog is pulling away, ease up!

Stretching helps, too. With your dog standing, very gently take a front leg and stretch it forward, stopping when you feel resistance. If at any point they pull their leg away with determination, let them! Give treats and praise throughout, because let’s face it, stretching is odd. You an also bring the front leg back (carefully), and then do the same thing with the back legs. Don’t do anything sideways without talking to your vet.

Finally, I made sure that Lily had enough Lily-time. It’s easy to ignore her and Cash; they have excellent manners, good confidence, and don’t ask or need my time like the younger Doc or any dogs I’m boarding. I started letting Lily on the couch for snuggles, and I make sure that I give Cash snuggles, too, though he’d rather I pet him while he lays on the floor.

We’re all feeling better for the exercise, and Lily is back on the 30-year plan: to live until I’m old!


About two years ago, we put Cash on Prednisone to solve some massive allergy attacks that made him so itchy he itched himself bloody. We were later able to take him off it, but the damage had been done.

I don’t mean liver or kidney damage, although that’s something to watch for. Nope, I mean behavioral damage. Prednisone makes dogs thirsty and hungry, and he’d discovered nirvana: counter surfing.

Now, he surfs like I surf: not standing on the object so much as flopping around it and eventually falling over. In his case, though, he didn’t have to stand on the counters to get the food, and falling over resulted in four feet on the ground… and whatever he’d gone up for. Perfect!

I mostly solved the problem over the next few months, and it helped that he was no longer starving all the time. I kept food off the counters or I put him in an x-pen while I was gone so he couldn’t get to the counters, and then I corrected him when he so much as looked at the counters while I was home — hissing and chasing him away.

Once in a while it would still happen, but only once a month or 6 weeks, and I got lazy. While it was frustrating to come home and discover he’d eaten all my bagels, I didn’t care enough to do anything about it.

Last winter, he started gaining weight. He wasn’t stealing food off the table (although he and Lily have started pulling the dirty bird papers out of the bird cage and eating everything from parrot poop to dropped fruits and veggies. I still don’t know how they’re getting the papers out!), so to the vet we went. His thyroid was a little off; we put him on meds. He gained more weight. I started taking him walking. He gained more weight. Then one day I came home to see his face in the dog food bin. Not only had he learned how to open it, but when it was more than half full he could help himself quite tidily! No WONDER he was gaining weight!

Yesterday, I came home to see that he’d pulled the dog treat bin off the counter and helped himself, gotten into the food bin, AND pulled out the bird papers to eat everything there. Enough is enough. Time to fix this!

There are two ways to fix this, and as with everything, it is to either spend more time or more money.

The more-time-more-training way would be to start limiting his access to things when I’m gone, probably by x-penning him, and then giving him consequences (hissing and chasing him off) when I see him looking at the counters or the bird cage, and if I hear him nosing/moving the dog food bin. This will work: I’ve done it before, though I quit a little early. The thing is I don’t want an x-pen in my living room right now.

The more-money-less-training way is this: buy a zap mat and put it in front of things, or a disk and e-collar system that will zap him if he gets too close to the disk (then I can put the disk — or several disks — wherever I don’t want him), or find a way to keep him away from the three things he wants: tie the birdcage tray closed, velcro the dog bin, put aluminum foil on the counter (this last won’t work with him, but it often works with other dogs).

In both cases, keeping the counters (and bird cage) clean is of utmost importance.

Now, in addition to myself (my desire not to have an x-pen up), I need to take into account Cash. A disk with an automatic e-collar to keep the dog away from the disks uses a zap (“static charge” or a shock). I think getting zapped would scare him too much, and I don’t want him to stay that far from the birdcage. (In fact, it’s kind of handy that he cleans up around it.) Since the dog food bin is right next to the bowls, I don’t want him wary getting water or eating, either. So an e-collar and disk system is out, and I don’t want the x-pen. That leaves me with a zap mat. It’s visible, which is good and bad: he can see it, so he knows how to avoid it. But I’ll have to use it for so long that he no longer thinks about it, so that when I pick it up he doesn’t think, “Ah! Now it’s gone! Now’s my chance!” This means leaving it down for 6 months. But I’m willing!

So my current plan is money over training, in a way that won’t distress either of us too much: three zap mats, one in front of the bird cage, one in front of the dog food bin, and one on the counter. (Or maybe two zap mats, and I’ll just velcro the bin closed.) You can get strips instead of full mats, and that’s what I’ll do. He won’t hit it every time, but that’s fine. It’ll make him cautious, and I won’t have to store a giant mat!

Phew. Home training done!

Champ: the journey’s end

Five months ago, when I adopted Champ, life looked like this:

He pulled heavily on his leash. He hard stared, then jumped and lunged and barked at many people while on leash.

The following things wound him up:
a knock at the door
a bath
a minor injury
wiping him down with a cloth
training basic obedience with positive reinforcement
any kind of consequence including “no” and a squirt bottle
other dogs playing too hard
the vet
anyone in any uniform
homeless people (which triggered massive barking and lunging)

When he got wound up, he would start tail spinning and/or nibbling hard enough to hurt and in more extreme cases, reverted to jumping at people, usually their faces.

He was also a world-class cuddler and lover, was great with dogs, housebroken, didn’t chew, and was crate trained. I could see even then that he was loyal to a fault. A congenital brain problem and past trauma had combined to create the above list of triggers. It was a mighty list, but he was smart, he wanted to be good, and his loyalty made him try incredibly hard. We got him on medication, and started full time training.

With a lot of work, three weeks ago our life looked like this:

He walked beside me on a loose leash through crowds, dog-friendly stores, and past homeless people. I started work on basic service dog training, and with his “in training” vest on we spent hours at a corner chair inside a busy Starbucks, where people were constantly within a foot of where he lay. He continued to lay, calmly. One guy with a big backpack startled him into two barks, but he calmed down and eventually ignored the man.

He was still wary of some people, but would take treats and decided that most people were okay for being petted. He was still leery of uniforms, but no longer barked or lunged; he just kept an eye on those people while sitting beside me or walking on his loose leash. He went to the vet and, for the first time since he was about 10 months old, allowed someone to give him a physical. He even let the vet and the techs pet him, and wagged and squirmed happily.

He stood calmly for baths (which once would have triggered near-biting), he was excited to get pets when strangers came through the door, he could play without getting aggressive, he let me examine and treat minor wounds even when I know it hurt him a little (ie, peeling off scabs and putting on hydrogen peroxide, once having to put goo in his ear for an ear infection, etc). The only thing that wound him up was when someone new came over; after he’d gotten his pets he’d often go outside to tail-spin, and sometimes if he couldn’t calm himself down I’d crate him for ten minutes until he regained his equilibrium. He NEVER lunged, barked, or pulled toward other people. He could be with me in crowds and be perfectly calm and relaxed.

I could even give a consequence, as much as a quick poke in the ribs if he was really naughty (like trying to bite and pull at my fence, which he had an odd affinity for). Except for needing a little extra time to check out new things (and biting the fence), he’d become the perfect dog. I was actively looking for a home for him. I had even started using him for work, because he was so good with everything.

Two weeks ago, we were standing on a sidewalk chatting with a client. Two dozen people had walked by, easily, when a woman with a purse walked past us. He lunged for her, grabbing her purse (and her skin, which his teeth mostly slipped off of) and refusing to let go. I held onto his leash, picking it straight up so that eventually he’d release. He did, and after many apologies the woman continued on her way. She was, thankfully, understanding.

I thought perhaps he’d regressed a little; I’d slacked off taking him in public for a couple of weeks. I decided to take him out with me more often while it was cool and he could be in the car (which he loved).

Tuesday my parents were here. They’d been here for a few days, and he knew them already. However, he started acting oddly with my dad, whom he’d previously quite enjoyed. I made a mental note.

Wednesday he went to work with me. We were meeting a client at the vet, and I got there early. I had Champ in the waiting room, just hanging out and getting treats. He was super excited to go inside, and was happily taking treats. One of the receptionists came around to give him more. We were chatting, he was taking treats, she was not trying to pet him or even really look at him. He took yet another treat from her and, with no warning, lunged and bit her hand. Again, he refused to let go. She managed to drag her hand out and shimmy out of her sweater, and I finally got him to release. Her sweater had a large hole, and her hand needed stitches.

That was the second attack without warning or provocation in two days, after months of calm, relaxed, perfect behavior. In fact, he’d never bitten anyone before — just scared the daylights out of them, or nibbled hard enough to frighten.

Warnings that dogs are going to bite vary from the obvious – lunging, barking, growling – to the subtle – lip licking, whites of the eyes showing, hard staring. Champ had done none of these. He had simply, in both cases, attacked. You can’t train a dog when you can’t predict what will set them off, and in both cases, there was nothing to set him off. I started to realize that something in his brain had changed, and it might be time to put him down. He was, officially, unsafe.

This was made more obvious over the next days. He began to get aggressive with my dogs, even his favorites, for no discernible reason. He’d never shown aggression toward my dogs. He began to get aggressive toward me; not attacking, but growling and being possessive of bones, toys, and even his food bowl. He’d never shown signs of possessiveness, either.

At one point he was in his crate, and when I went to say hi to him, he stood up and started snarling. I said, “Oh, Champ,” in a disappointed  tone; I knew answering aggression with aggression (“No!”) would, in his case, only make it worse. He started snapping toward me, tail down, his whole body shaking. Still snarling and snapping, he peed himself.

Another day, after getting home, I went to take Doc out of his crate. Champ ways laying about five feet away. I opened Doc’s crate door, and Champ started to growl at me. Doc ducked out, and Champ lunged forward. I had an x-pen sitting there, and grabbed it and slammed it between Champ and I, using Doc’s crate as another wall. A moment later, Champ started shaking all over, and rolled to show his belly. I hadn’t yelled at him or scolded him.

Those were the worst periods, but it was clear at other times he was in distress. A few times we’d be cuddling on the couch, and he’d start growling. Those times I was able to hush him and soothe him out of it. He began to mouth again, to get wound up at simple things. One day I touched his tail, a sensitive spot that hadn’t been sensitive in months. He turned around and mouthed me furiously.

Brains develop for the first 2-2.5 years in dogs, possibly longer. When you have a young dog with congenital problems, things can change in many ways during that time. Or perhaps it wasn’t bad brain development. Maybe Champ was having micro-seizures and something in his brain got damaged. There are probably a dozen things that could have gone wrong, and there’s nothing we could do about it and, often, no way to even know what happened.

Regardless, he’d become dangerous, unstable, and vastly unhappy. He was degenerating as I watched. I had him put down as soon as I could. It’s never easy to euthanize a young, healthy, sweet dog, but sometimes it’s all you can do. And perhaps it was the only way Champ could tell me that the was ready to go.

I love you, Champ. I hope your next life brings you a better chance.