Walking etiquette

Recently, someone from rover.com approached me about writing an article on walking etiquette. (Rover.com is a new website for finding local pet care. After quizzing them on their protocol for emergencies, what they expect from the people they list, and checking out their customer service, I can honestly recommend them.)

Since walking etiquette is one of those things I assume everyone knows, but in fact, everyone doesn’t know, this seemed like a great idea! There are differing opinions on etiquette, and different expectations. I want my dogs to be welcome everywhere, so my expectation are high! If I’m out with my dogs or a client’s dogs, these are the etiquette rules I teach.

1 Dog-dog interactions

Unless your dog has perfect voice recall when off leash, don’t let it off leash. It’s great if your dog is friendly and comes running over to say hi to another dog (or person), but how friendly your dog is doesn’t matter if the other dog is aggressive or anxious (or the person is afraid of dogs). Your dog’s friendliness doesn’t transfer to that other dog, and in fact, may cause emotional and psychological trauma to a dog in a distressed state (or frightened human).

This is also true when your dog pulls to say hi to another dog. That other dog might not appreciate a visit, or might be working or training at that moment. If you do want to say hi, the most polite way to do so is to stop, ask your dog to sit, and ask the owner if it’s okay for them to meet. Now no one is invading anyone’s space, and you can find out if it’s a good idea! (See body language posts for whether or not that dog and your dog are being friendly and appropriate.) Dogs often assume other dogs are friendly, even when those other dogs aren’t.

If you have an aggressive dog, give way to other people. Most folks with aggressive dogs do this anyway, but it’s worth repeating! Step aside, try and get your dog to sit, and let people pass. (This will also help with your dog’s aggression.)

2. Dog-human manners

If you’re walking your dog past someone eating something, it’s also polite to catch your dog’s attention so it doesn’t catch their meal. At the very least, shorten up your leash and step away! People on benches and whatnot seem to especially appreciate knowing they’re not going to have a hound in their lap, after their ice cream!

When walking down crowded areas, also keep a short leash. Being unable to get around someone, or getting hamstrung by a dog, is no fun whatsoever.

Many people want to pet dogs, and I think that’s wonderful. Obviously, though, we don’t want our dogs to jump on them, if only to avoid fat lips! I ask my dogs to sit when someone wants to pet them, usually like this:

“Can I pet your dog?”
“Yes, after they sit! Sit, Doc!”

Now, let’s be realistic. As soon as they start petting Doc, he’s probably going to stand up in the hopes of a back/rump scratch. If I know he’s not going to jump, I may not care. If I’m worried about jumping, I probably want to sit him back down. I could tell the people to stop petting him, but generally speaking they don’t hear me; they’re too busy enjoying his wiggling. So instead, I just focus on Doc. I hold his collar (to keep him from jumping), and lift slightly up and back while pushing down on his butt. Usually, this gets him to sit again — at least for a second! I continue until the petting is over, and bit by bit, the dogs learn to stay seated, or at least stay calmer, when they get petted. Woo hoo!

Now, most people who engage with me want to pet my dog. But there are plenty of people out there who are afraid of dogs (or just afraid of my giant shepherd and two pit bulls), so I’ve also taught my dogs not to approach anyone until I tell them it’s all right. This keeps wayward tongues from greeting hanging hands as we wait in a crowd at a stoplight.

3. Dog-business manners

Finally, there are many businesses now that allow dogs. Yay! (And that list isn’t nearly comprehensive. Nordstrom’s, for instance, is also dog-friendly, and many bars, if they don’t serve food, will allow dogs.) I, personally, have a high expectation level for going into stores. I want my dogs to stay near me, preferably keeping fur and wet noses off the furniture/clothes, etc. I have a friend who is allergic to dog protein. This means that if a dog licks a shirt, and he later tries on that same shirt, he will break out in hives. Knowing this, I try and keep my dogs off and away from items that other people will be handling later!

I expect my dogs to keep four on the floor as we walk through, and not jump on things. I have a “if he pees on it or breaks it, I buy it” policy! I also want employees to be happy to see my dogs, rather than complain to management and have their dog policy reversed entirely.

4. Accidents happen

Everybody poops! And pees, for that matter. Obviously, if you’re out walking and your dog needs to potty, clean it up! If you’re on a sidewalk and it was a little soft, I try and take dirt from a planter and sprinkle it on top. This way, it’s covered until it dries out, and people are less likely to step in it and track it.

Here’s an embarrassing situation: early in Doc’s service dog training, he peed in Safeway. I was mortified. Instead of abandoning my cart and running out of the store, which I wanted to do, I placed my cart so no one would step in it, and went to find an employee with a mop. I apologized profusely, and offered to clean it up. (They cleaned it up, but the offer tends to make people more compassionate about the situation!)

If your dog messes up (or just messes!), admit it and make amends. This keeps everyone happy, even if we owners might be mortified.

There you go, my etiquette list! Have anything to add? Feel free!


Champ: The Journey Continues!



We’re officially looking for the perfect home for Champ in the San Francisco/San Jose/Santa Cruz area! Champ is a two year old pitty, a pro at snuggling, hiking, walking, and bike riding. He’s dog and people friendly. He’s been through major trauma, but after five months of rehabilitative healing, he’s ready to step into a new life! Are you patient, loving, and ready for a dog who will give you his whole heart? Keep reading!

If you’ve reached this place, you probably want to know about Champ. Glad to have you here!

Champ has overcome his issues and major trauma, and is now looking for a fur-ever home. I’m looking not just for any forever home, but the perfect one. He’s already dealt with major trauma in his short life, and now he needs to just enjoy himself and get some love!

Awesome traits13770527_573257576179905_1647106001996775667_n

Champ is an amazing snuggler. I mean, AMAZING. He snuggles in ways people want, and is responsive to being moved. He even lets me lay on him and use him as a foot stool or a pillow!

He’s aware of his body and other peoples’ bodies, so he’s careful when he snuggles and leaves cups and things on the coffee table, 13508964_563327663839563_4157731224826481405_ninstead of sweeping them off with his tail. He gives people personal space and is gentle with my unsteady friends, walking slowly and carefully around them. He’s good with the majority of strangers (sometimes a large backpack or coat will alarm him, but he’s learning those aren’t dangerous), allowing them to pet him, while keeping his loose leash! He’s always good with people I’ve invited into my house, both adults and children. (Actually, I think he has a soft spot for children!) He’s also very protective, though; people I haven’t invited into my house are greeted with some pretty intense barking.

At just two years old, Champ is fit and ready to go on any long hike you’d like! He has great stamina and is very heat tolerant. He’s also bike trained (he can run alongside a bike 13882131_580372962135033_3283632990589839332_nwithout pulling), and he loves quick rides! He also enjoys a good romp at the dog park — about twenty minutes is his perfect amount of time. That said, he’s mature enough to settle for a twenty minute walk a day if he must, and not seem to be overly bothered by it. He walks beautifully on a leash, and isn’t bothered by other dogs on leash or behind fences barking at him. (He does love to chase cats, but remembers his manners when told to sit!) I can walk him through crowds, fields, businesses, and dogs all without being pulled on.

Champ is crate trained and x-pen trained, but has no problems in the house and can be 13346423_555954557910207_1476946729380138661_nleft alone for hours if needed. He loves yards, and wouldn’t mind being left to sun himself while his humans are gone, either. (This does NOT mean he should be an outdoor dog! He needs love and his humans, and to be inside and warm at night.) Champ won’t steal food from you, even if you’re eating on the floor, right in range of him! You can leave food on the coffee table and walk away, and he won’t steal that, either. He’s even left food-dirty napkins on the coffee table overnight, untouched. All this, despite being highly food motivated!

He is super eager to please and emotionally sensitive. His “reprimands” often consist of a firm voice, then me taking his collar and showing him what I wanted. Occasionally, I employ a squirt bottle, and if he’s done something VERY naughty (like join my dog, Doc, when Doc barks at the fence) he gets a quick poke in the ribs. Afterward, because he’s so eager to please, I always reward him for leaving the fence alone, or stopping his barking, etc. He doesn’t bark at much these days, and when he does, it’s usually something new and I either praise him (if it’s a car pulling onto my property) or give a quick hiss (if it’s something new but not worrisome — like a stray dog), and that ends it. This means he barks appropriately, at things I should actually take notice of! Without Doc there to antagonize him, he doesn’t fence bark or worry about dogs, children, or adults in yards adjacent to mine.

Champ is extremely intelligent, and that combined with his food motivation and eagerness to please makes him a joy to train. He is one of the few dogs that I would say will bond with his owner so strongly that he would harm himself to do what was needed. I’ve started the basics of service dog training, because he could be an excellent service dog depending on what was needed. (I would use him as a mobility dog, possibly a psychiatric service dog depending on the psychiatric issue, and probably many other things that do not include anxiety in a human. Their anxiety will translate to his anxiety.)

Finally, Champ is over-aware of flickering lights. I haven’t tried using a laser pointer with him, but I have a hunch it would be hours of fun for him and his humans!13331019_551916291647367_9137330530800200484_n

“If he’s this wonderful,” I hear you cry, “Why aren’t you keeping him?”

Doc (my recent rescue and current service dog) and Champ are an awful combination; Doc decides to do naughty things, and convinces Champ to add his muscle. (When I remove 13557682_563268937178769_6841368415791339272_nDoc, Champ doesn’t get in trouble.) Doc also picks on Champ, and when Doc gets in trouble (which is more often than I’d like!) Champ gets distressed on Doc’s behalf! But mostly, Champ would like to live with a human who has more time to devote to just him. When I boarded him before I had Doc, he was perfectly happy. Cash and Lily, as older dogs, were happy to cuddle with him, play occasionally, and let him get the TLC from me that he needed. But Doc also has trauma and needs TLC, and there’s not enough time in my day for both of them. Champ needs a house where he is the focus, and he’s not splitting it with another young dog.

Champ is amazing, and I want the perfect home for him. His former owners gave him up only because they realized that long work days and living in an apartment weren’t fair for a young dog, and they wanted the best for him. (More on that in his history.) Second, of course he has some quirks! Who doesn’t? His quirks, and the things I want people to keep working on, are:

1. A high prey drive towards cats and squirrels (he’s been fine with my parrot, Tango, when Tango flies around, as well as my friend’s chickens and another friend’s rats). No homes with cats.

2. He’s wary of vets and people in uniform, due to past trauma (more fully explained in his history).

3. He’ll need someone who keeps working on socializing and loose leash walking, which is true of any dog. (This isn’t really a quirk, but I do want someone who will keep working on these things.)

4. He has some kind of allergy. Daily 24-hour antihistamines (which I buy at Costco for humans) and daily fish oil tablets (also for humans, at Costco!) have helped dramatically, as have regular baths with anti-allergy shampoo. We’ll be headed back to the vet soon to see if it can be better diagnosed and treated. *Edit: I think it might be a wheat allergy. After almost a month with wheat only when I forget and give him a wheat-treat, his little hives have almost vanished.*13435579_557046157801047_458150402976802659_n

But the main thing, which will take someone with patience, is a sensory disorder. A lot of chaos, an owner’s anxiety, or a new, alarming stimulus triggers manic behavior. Sometimes this behavior is tail spinning (the first sign that he’s feeling stress). In the past it was barking/lunging at the “threat”, or furious nibbling at the weird sensation. Of note, he has the best bite inhibition I’ve ever seen. When the weird sensation was coming from the hose nozzle during a bath, and I couldn’t get him to stop panicking and biting the nozzle, I put my hand in his mouth. He immediately stopped biting down, though he nibbled furiously!

To address this, he is currently on 40 mg of prozac daily. If I know there’s going to be a lot of chaos at my house, or I forget but notice that he’s tail spinning, I either give him some xanax and/or put him in his crate to calm down and be safe. There may be other medications that work better; I have not tried changing them. Prozac costs me about $10/month at Costco (my vet calls it in for me).

Given this issue, I would not recommend a household where there are small children, or older children with a lot of loud friends over.

Want to know more about Champ? Awesome!13882215_578296392342690_8485917087881395545_n


At two years old, Champ has already lived a hero’s journey.

He was born with a cognitive issue (which I believe is a sensory disorder; surrounding sounds and chaos seem louder, sensations stranger, and emotion bigger to him), and as a puppy, his disorder would have shown itself in frustration; too-rough play, jumping, odd behavioral (and mental) tics (like obsessive tail spinning), and so on. When he reached nearly adult sized (8 months old) his owners re-homed him.

His next owner was a young man who loved him dearly. This young man worked on his manners, but in just a few months tragedy struck. Champ’s person was fatally injured. The police, paramedics, and fire department arrived, but could not save the young man. Champ saw his person die. From Champ’s perspective, people in uniform arrived, and his person died. He began now to see anyone in uniform as a severe threat to his family. Compounded by a sensory disorder, which would have made the whole process more physically painful, this was even more traumatizing than it otherwise would have been.

The young man had been living at home, and his father kept Champ in their apartment. The whole extended family pitched in to help, because Champ was a young dog in an apartment and the father worked long hours. Everyone, including Champ, was grieving the loss of this young man. Champ’s congenital issues, now compounded by a severe distrust for strangers and his own and his family’s grief, blossomed into frustration showing as more tail spinning, destruction and aggression, and dangerous over-protectiveness. Trying to support and protect his grieving family who were clearly at risk from uniforms coming in and killing them, while dealing with his own grief and undiagnosed sensory issues, was too much for him.

This is when I met him. I kept him for a week, trying to re-balance him, and recognized there was a congenital issue happening. (“Congenital issue” means he was born with it, but we don’t know what’s causing it.) We put together a schedule for Champ to help him manage his congenital issues, and the family kept to it. However, within a few more months it became obvious that apartment living wasn’t fair to a young, active dog, and Champ’s current owner asked if I would take him, foster him, and find his fur-ever home. (Compounding apartment/long-work-hours was the fact that Champ’s associations with the apartment were mostly frightening and painful, despite the love he was given.)

When I took him in, the first thing we did was bloodwork to see if his congenital issues were related to organ malfunction. (They weren’t.) Because of his distrust of people in general, taking blood was extremely difficult. It took us twenty minutes, a muzzle, and major restraining. At the time, I didn’t know he had a sensory disorder, I just knew something was wrong. Looking back, I’m sure his sensory issue made everything so much worse. Now “vet scrubs” were added to his list of “dangerous uniforms.”

I’ve had Champ for several months now. He’s learned that while some things (like baths) feel funny, they won’t hurt and if he tolerates it, it’s over soon and he’s praised. He’s learned that loud vacuums will not hurt him, and if I introduce something new and get an odd reaction from him, I’ve learned I can either put him in his “safe crate” to calm him down and let him think about it, or I can reward him with quiet praise and treats, and he adapts. He just takes a little more time than other dogs.

The Martinez Police Department has helped me with his uniform issues, which are better but far from perfect. His vet and local vets have helped with his vet problems, but those will also take more work.

He’s learned that people invited into my house are welcome, and now — after he sees me invite them in — he greets them with a wagging tail. He occasionally jumps in excitement, but is pretty good at remembering to stay down. He no longer barks except when appropriate, and he’s become a settled, wonderful dog, but will need an owner who takes the time to introduce new things with patience, and keeps him socialized. This dog has been through everything, and it’s aged him; he acts like he’s four instead of two, and he needs the love and assurance that comes from being someone’s special dog. He’ll respond twelvefold to it. He is the type of dog people write books about; major trauma, overcoming it, and bonding to someone so tightly that it’s almost unbelievable. He just needs that person to bond to for the perfect ending!


I’m going to miss Champ a great deal. He’s my best snuggling partner at night. He’ll lay at my feet and let me use him as a footrest, lay on my pillow and let me lay on him, lay beside me if I’m sitting, or spoon with me on the couch. He’ll even lay on top of me, like a blanket, if I ask! He is so loving and calm, while always being willing to go for a walk, run, bike ride, hike, or dog park. He runs my errands with me, and is good waiting in the car (on a cool day) or going in with me (if it’s dog-friendly). I’d like someone who will keep him in the bay area, preferably the south bay area. I’m offering three free training sessions, and his previous owner has offered, many times, to baby sit for free just to see him occasionally. (We would like to keep him local to the San Jose/Santa Cruz/South Bay area, if possible.) Champ is a well loved dog in a bad situation, and we need to improve his situation!

Are you ready for a doggie partner? Email me at jenna.b.mcdonald@gmail.com, or call me at 951-704-5766 and tell me a little about yourself!


Leaving and returning: how not to create seperation anxiety

Separation anxiety (a dog being stressed out when you leave) is something that a lot of people deal with. In puppies, I would go so far to say it’s normal, and important that they learn that just because you leave doesn’t mean you aren’t coming back. (That’s true with adults dogs, too, but most puppies go through it.)

So here we go: when you leave and return is when you have the best shot of creating, or not creating, separation anxiety.

When you leave the house, give your dog something good. This could be breakfast, some treats, a bone. I’ve handed my dogs toys that are laying around. (They look at me like I’ve gypped them.) It doesn’t need to be fabulous, just okay. Then, leave the house. At most you can say something like, “I’ll be back later!” but don’t make a fuss over it. If you’re upset at leaving, your dogs will pick up only that you’re upset but not why, and they’ll be upset as well. If you act like it’s a non-event, they’ll believe it’s a non-event.

The harder part is returning home. Everyone wants to greet their dogs and get kisses, but it’s important to remember what’s best for your dog. If you act like coming home was a big deal, and you reward their hyper behavior, they’ll start to believe that hyper behavior will bring you home. Hyper behavior turns into anxious behavior rapidly.

So when you come home, stay calm. Put down your purse or your wallet, take off your jacket, get yourself a glass of water. Wait until your dog is wiggly but not manic and then, calmly, say hello. My dogs get pets, ear rubs, and they give me happy wiggles and kisses. They don’t need to be totally calm, but they need to be on the calm end of happy.

Now what your dog is learning is that you’re happy to see them, but returning is still a non-event and, more importantly, what will get rewarded is happy, calm behavior.

If your dog doesn’t have separation anxiety, congratulations! I’d still do this, just to make sure it never develops. If they do, start with this (and the other tips under the anxiety tag), and it will begin to help.


Service Dogs

It’s official: Doc is a registered service dog! Quite a long way from being on the to-be-euthanized-in-24-hours list at the shelter.

Here’s a little about me: I deal with anxiety. A few years back I finally got on medication, and WOW, what a difference it makes! But a few months ago I started having panic attacks on a regular basis — any time I’m in a crowd of strangers. This makes going to Costco, my honey’s work functions, or the kids’ sports games rather challenging. What we did notice that was that Doc helped.

Because I’ve never trained a psychiatric service dog before, I bought a book. It’s always hilarious for me to buy dog training books; in this case, I was able to briefly skim the first eighty pages on general good manners, and go straight to the last ten pages on psychiatric training! I learned some nifty new things, and got Doc trained.

Before this, I hadn’t known you could have a service dog for panic attacks. I thought that fell under the purview of emotional support animal, which aren’t allowed in many places and wouldn’t do me much good. But a service dog — a dog who is trained to actually DO something in certain situations — can alert to a panic attack, do certain things to make a panic attack less likely (in my case, lay behind me so that people are forced to give me extra space), and if it happens, help short circuit a panic attack (by pressing on the stomach and abdomen with their bodies). Cool!

To have a service dog, you must first have a disability (mental, emotional, or physical) that requires outside service. Anyone can train a service dog (note: a guide dog provides a service, but is not the same as a service dog and specific trainers need to train them), so for those people who can’t afford a trainer, they can do it themselves. A service dog MUST be housebroken and not a nuisance; those are the two reasons an establishment can ask you to remove your service dog.

By law, people can ask what service your dog provides (but may not ask for a demonstration; a good thing, as I can’t have a panic attack on command), but may not ask what your disability is (that is between you and your doctor).

All of this is really just to say, Way to go, Doc! He’ll have his badges and whatnot in the next couple of days. (By law, he doesn’t have to be registered or have any sort of identification. By practicality, it makes life easier if he does!)



Training Interest

So, my current project is Champ. After the vet shenanigans three weeks ago, it took me a solid week just to get the bandages off his back legs. I continued to pair touching his legs with treats, though, and now he’s not bothered at all when I handle his back legs. We also went back to the vet’s waiting room, and hung out getting treats while I handled his legs.

As Champ has settled into my house, he’s discovered the yard. I think he’d be happy to spend all his time out there, and at first, I let him. As he’s spent more time out there, though, he’s become progressively less interested in me. I’d like to keep his sweet, adoring, cuddly nature, so it’s time to do something about that.

When you have a dog who isn’t overly interested in people, you have to create interest. Every time they tune in, they get rewarded. In Champ’s case, I’ve set up short training times during the day. He and I get together (I put any pushy dogs outside so we’re without distraction, though Cash and Lily stay inside for role models if needed) and we train.

It doesn’t really matter what we work on; what matters is that because I become a source of interaction, praise, pets, and food, I become much more interesting. We worked on sit (which he already knew), touching all four feet (which he’s now quite good at), looking at his teeth (which he shrugged off), and “down” — which confused him entirely. Poor kid really had no idea! At first I rewarded even a downward inclination, and when I started doing that, he got it after a few more minutes.

Often, I can create interest simply through talking to the dogs (a reward) or giving an occasional treat when they come. Champ, however, has massive emotional trauma, and was happy to ignore talking and even treats, if it meant he could entertain himself outside.

It’s really handy to have a dog who tunes in. If I’m at a dog park, I’ll reward my dogs whenever they tune in, whether it’s with a loving word, a pet, or a treat. If I’m walking, it’s the same thing — usually a smile and something like, “Hey, kid.” Just an acknowledgement that we’re in this together.

If my dog gets acknowledgement every time she tunes in, soon she’s tuning in often. Now when I need to catch her attention, we’re halfway there. If a fight breaks out at a dog park, and my dog is already in tune with me, I have a MUCH better chance of getting them away from the fight than if they’re thoroughly ignoring me. If a group of bicyclists goes racing past and my dog has been tuning in, it’s no problem to quietly tell them it’s all right and for them to hear me.

If my dog doesn’t get acknowledgement when she checks in, and she’s not bred to be a dog who checks in, what’s to keep her doing it without something nice? If she doesn’t do it when things are calm, she’s certainly not going to do it in any of the above scenarios!

It’s also handy to use when you’re losing your dog’s concentration frequently. The other day I was working with a client to teach her dog not to leave the yard. While there was a consequence for leaving the yard (a sharp tug on her rope — usually caused by her own speed), there was also a reward if she saw something interesting, and instead of investigating tuned back into her owner — whether or not we had to remind her (a noise or word was our reminder). It didn’t take long at all before she realized that tuning back in got a reward, and that was better than staring at whatever she was staring at. Soon, she was seeing something interesting, checking in for her reward, and then watching the interesting thing BUT remembering her manners (not to leave the yard) because she’d just checked in.

There’s so many things in this world that are fascinating to dogs, we have to make sure we’re more fascinating, that it’s worthwhile to engage with us. Rather like a relationship with another person, wouldn’t you say?


Coping with Failures and Setbacks

Everyone has those times when things go wrong, and your training is set way, way back. If you can think through those moments, you can often mitigate some of the trouble. The rest of it, we just work through. This is my set back story, so you can see where I messed up, what choices I made and why (for good or ill; in most cases only time will tell!), and how I mitigated it as much as possible.

I have a new foster. He’s a year and a half old pittie that I boarded this past spring for five days to try and fix some major behavioral problems. Those problems improved greatly, but in the end his owner realized that a small apartment and a 12-hour-a-day job wasn’t right for a young dog, and it would be better for Champ to be re-homed. (His owner had inherited Champ after a death in the family.)

It had become apparent during the initial boarding phase that Champ had some congenital aggression issues. (Congenital aggression means the dog was born with it; there’s some funny hardwiring in the brain or body, much like people with personality and mood disorders. Much like people with disorders, what the dog goes through in life will partially determine in what way and how severely the disorder develops.) We’d implemented behavioral changes that helped quite a bit, but since I started fostering him (just two weeks ago) I thought blood work and medication might be a helpful route, as well.

Today, we needed to do blood work. As it happens Champ’s vet is the vet I use, and they already know many of his issues. (The vet, owner and I were all working together. I love having good working relationships with the vet!) I didn’t have to prep anyone, which was really nice. Champ and I were let into a room for a tech visit to draw blood, and I spent a few minutes practicing his handling skills; holding his head still, giving a treat. Holding his legs, giving a treat. I did as many of these types of things as I could think of.

When the tech, Amy, came in she had a muzzle with her. Champ isĀ  muzzle trained due to vet issues in the past, and I was able to put it on him with not much fuss. Amy suggested we use a hind leg instead of a front leg, as it might be easier. I agreed.

Here’s where things went haywire. I held Champ in a big bear hug, head restrained and body snuggled up against mine. We needed two vials of blood, and the first one went pretty well. It was mostly full when he decided he was done, and kicked out.

In kicking out, the needle blew his vein. This isn’t anyone’s fault; this is animal medicine. When Amy tried to switch to his other back leg, things fell apart.

In most dogs with learned aggression, there are a few body-hold tricks you can usually do to make them submit and give up. I don’t like using these, although I will in a dire situation. This was a dire situation: it would take six months of training to MAYBE get Champ to let a stranger take blood from his back leg. We don’t have that kind of time; if we can figure out what’s wrong and treat it through supplements or pills, his whole life will get better and training will go much smoother immediately.

Back to Champ and our vet visit. He started thrashing, but wasn’t growling. I did a few restraining maneuvers while Amy tried to get blood, but each time he felt the needle Champ would thrash madly. He began growling. Knowing it might not work at all (but hoping), I decided one of those submissive-give-up holds might be kinder in the moment. If I could get him to give up, then we could get blood and be done. I could build back up trust later.

I tried a couple of different holds; Champ kept growling and fighting. One of the most common symptoms of congenital aggression is that dogs don’t give up. “Normal” dogs realize when they’re trapped and will not win, and go lax. They give up. Alternately, they realize when they’re out matched in a fight, and flee (or stop the behavior you’re trying to eliminate). This is where the idea of an “alpha roll” or pinning a dog down comes in. (For the record: I prefer to use many other methods.)

So, what did I say? Oh yeah. Common symptom: they never back down. Champ doesn’t have many of the common symptoms (and has many uncommon ones) of congenital aggression, so I was hoping a pin to make him give up would work. You can pin a dog in various ways, both to the floor and not. For a moment, I had him on the floor and I thought it was working. He took a breath, settled, and relaxed, belly-up. I cooed and rubbed with my fingers for a minute — and then he lost it again. When I couldn’t hold onto him, I knew that wasn’t going to work.

Eventually, I got his head restrained in such a way that he couldn’t toss us around anymore (me sitting on the floor, his shoulders against my chest, my arm wrapped around his head in a head lock — thank goodness pitty heads are so big!), but I didn’t have enough hands to keep his back leg still. Amy got another tech, and we finally got the blood.

The whole process took about 20 minutes. (Props to The Whole Pet Vet and their awesome techs, especially Amy, who didn’t give up on us and didn’t panic about the snarling, thrashing, 60-lbs pit bull in my arms!) Afterward, Amy and the tech (whose name I didn’t catch) left, giving me permission to use the room for as long as I needed.

To give you an idea of how much thrashing there was, my abdomen is scratched and was bleeding slightly through my shirt, I have bruises mottling one thigh despite jeans, more bruises across my arm, and I believe I either pulled or bruised my bicep and deltoid muscles. Because I was taking the battering rather than letting Champ hurt himself, he came out of it better than I did!

From a training perspective, what just happened? Well, I’m not ashamed to say it was a clusterfuck. While I know that getting blood to get him on meds was important for the long term, I also know that this is a major set back in the short term. For a dog who is already wary of strangers, he just had a horrible experience. Thanks to the staff, I was able to mitigate it as much as possible.

Still sitting on the floor, I held onto Champ until he was no longer rigid. I didn’t want to let go of him until he was willing to be with me, relaxed. While we have a relationship, I had broken his trust, pinning him still while strangers did scary, painful things to him. I needed to make sure that he and I separated with him remembering that I also provided love and cuddles.

When I felt that he’d relaxed, I let him go. He retreated, and I reached out to take the muzzle off, but didn’t otherwise try to pet him. I pulled out my phone and played Candy Crush, giving him the time he needed.

A “normal” dog is going to snap back to love pretty quickly, but Champ isn’t that. If I press love onto a normal dog while they’re stressed and anxious, they will probably respond with relief and love. If I press an abnormal dog in the same situation, they’re not going to be able to think clearly, and may even react aggressively. So my next step was give him time to relax and calm down, so that his maladapted brain could function a bit better.

I let Champ set the pace. He laid in various spots in the room, sniffed the edges, munched some fallen treats, did a lot of panting. I kept an eye on him, and when he started relaxing still more, started calling his name. If he didn’t come, I went back to my game and gave him more time. But eventually, he started coming over to take a treat. At first he would immediately leave. The temptation is to catch a dog at this point and force pets on them, but I’d already broken his trust. I wanted him to come to me of his own free will.

Bit by bit, he started coming to me and staying long enough to get petted. By the time he was lying on the floor within the reach of my arm, about fifteen minutes had passed.

My next goal was to make sure I could touch his back legs without him freaking out. I wanted to do this now, before the idea that people touching his back legs was horrible became set in his mind. I worked carefully, with lots of treats and quiet persistence, until he was all right with it. (Initially, he chewed lightly but with frustration on my hand. I would blow on his ear to catch his attention, give him a treat when he looked up, and let go. My goal here was to reward him for being calm while his leg was being held. Note: I knew that he wasn’t aggravated enough to bite me more than a pinch, maybe a bruise if it got out of hand.) If I wasn’t holding onto him and he walked away, I let him go. This wasn’t the time to bring him back by his leash; I want him learning that he can always walk away, that walking away is more effective than aggression.

Finally, when we could manage all that, we left the room and sat in the waiting area. We did more foot-games. When someone went into the room we’d been in to clean up, we walked to the door and watched her. I gave her some treats to TOSS to Champ — between his general wariness of strangers, his new extra wariness of techs in scrubs, and his general agitation, I didn’t want him jumping at her if she tried to hand it to him and, in his unstable state, he thought she was attacking.

We went BACK to the main waiting area. We did more foot-games, and calmed down even more. I wanted his surety of the vet as The Place of Evil to be shaken, though I knew that I wouldn’t be able to undo it in one session. I just wanted to make sure it wasn’t set in stone.

Goals: get him to be calm in the vet’s office, calm seeing the techs, and allow me to handle his feet again. Done.

As we were leaving, I messed up and had to adapt one more time. The vet’s office was actually closed and they were putting things away for the night, and they’d locked the doors and had to let me out. As we stood there, I asked the receptionist (in scrubs much like the tech’s) to give him a treat open palmed, without touching Champ. She said no problem! He took the treat, but then jumped at her, catching the edge of her sleeve in the process. She froze (appropriate) and I made him let go of the cloth.

I had thought he was calm enough to take a treat, but that’s the thing about congenital aggression: they don’t always signal when they’re in distress (he hadn’t), and it takes them hours to come out of distress, instead of the minutes it takes other dogs.

I baited him past her with a treat, then asked her to toss him some treats. Again, I wanted him to know that aggression wasn’t working (he had to go in and do it again, instead of leaving like he wanted, and he STILL had to walk past the receptionist again), but that vet people were awesome treat dispensers. I can always work on his trust with me, so I don’t mind being the “bad guy.” I want strangers to always be the awesome treat dispensers.

Let me tell you: that is a lot of set backs for one day. It’s a lot of set backs that are going to take time to overcome. I’m lucky: I have a fabulous vet and staff who are willing to work with me, and Champ is incredibly intelligent. We’ll get through these.

Some time in the next six months, he’s going to become an amazing dog. He’s already loyal and protective, happy to cuddle, pretty good at walking, great with other dogs, and allows all sorts of indignities such as being laid on and having his ears and tail tugged. (I did check!) The rest of this, it’s trauma and biology. That can be overcome.

As for me, I’m covered in bruises. But hey, given the responses from the vet staff (some of whom I hadn’t met yet) I think my reputation as a badass is firmly lodged. *laughs!*



Dealing with Human Anxiety

As you’re dealing with your dog’s aggression, anxiety, or over-submissiveness out in the world, our anxiety as humans can increase — especially if you know each dog-dog or dog-human interaction may not go perfectly! We remember what our dogs have done in the past, and those memories re-play themselves.

Dogs pick up on our stress and anxiety, and our stress and anxiety can even get in the way of our training. If it’s a miserable experience for you even when things go well, then it’s unlikely you’re going to continue training.

So how do we lessen the anxiety for people? I don’t know. I’d have to be a therapist! But these are things that work for me, and things that have worked for some of my clients.


I visualize things going well. But I also visualize things going horribly, and me somehow saving the day so it all ends well, anyway. This re-frames each experience so that, good or bad, I end feeling confident. Visualizing is one of the best things you can do to help yourself be able to stay calm in the actual moment. With very anxious clients, I suggest they visualize (and write it down if they’re amenable!) at least daily.


Sounds silly, I know, but I can’t tell you how many people forget to breathe when they’re thinking about what their dog may or may not do in the next twenty feet. On a physiological level, when you hold your breath your heartbeat picks up and your muscles have to work harder. It increases stress! (It also stresses out your dog.)

Furthermore, if you stop and tune in to taking deep, slow breaths, it fractures your hyper-focus on what might happen, because you’re also having to focus on breathing.


You can always stop. I can’t tellĀ  you how empowering it is once you realize that, hey, you don’t have to keep walking forward! Any time I’m feeling a little unsure, uncertain, stressed, out of control (physically, emotionally, or mentally) I stop walking. I often even back out of the way of whatever is approaching, taking the dog with me. I take stock of what’s going on, what I might need to do to solve it, re-organize myself, and start again. Half the time, by the time I’ve done all this the problem has actually resolved itself.

Talk to my dog

Not to the person and other dog approaching. No, I talk to my dog. I say things like, “We can get through this,” and “hoo-whee, this is hard but we can do it!” Talking forces you to breathe, and gives you another focus. If my dog is anxious, then I’m going to talk as if everything is fun. My words might indicate my stress, but my tone is light.

And finally,

Focus on my dog

If I’m working with a dog who gets super submissive and rolls over to show her belly to another dog, then sometimes gets stressed and snappy when they take her up on her offer and sniff her too much, then I’m going to focus on talking to my dog, keeping my tone light and happy, taking her away when she starts to roll over — probably trotting backwards with her, then trotting forwards with her to see the strange dog again, on our feet instead of her back. But I’m going to focus on my dog, and her body language. Is her spine relaxed, indicating a positive mood? Is her tail tucking, indicating she’d like to leave now? Are the whites of her eyes showing, indicating she’s stressed and we should leave the situation? It doesn’t matter what my dog has done before. What matters is what my dog is doing this instant. To know that, I have to watch her body language. It’s the easiest way for them to communicate!

Other general ways to lessen human anxiety are things like meditation, relaxation, quiet time for yourself — the usual things you read about! And while you’re doing that, think about how awesome your dog is going to do at the next formerly-difficult situation. It helps.