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 is 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!*