Good morning! Today’s post is coming at you from Bird (at Queer Skies Ahead). Bird’s blog is one of my favorites because she is a dog-training goddess and has talked a lot about dealing with dogs with social anxiety (which my own dog, Ranger, has a LOT of). I seriously wish I could pay her to move to Austin and help me help Ranger get over his issues. So, I was really excited when Bird said she wanted to write a post about defective dogs, and I couldn’t wait to see what she came up with – I hope you enjoy! 🙂
When Amanda told me that she was looking for guest posts that aligned with the general theme of her blog, I got really excited. Most of the blogs I read are about weddings (I am married and mostly done with that), food (I always like the idea of cooking, but rarely actually do), babies (not having any), or buying and fixing a home (we are happily renting a house, and still in the process of unpacking. Yes, three months later. That’s how we do it, thankyouverymuch.). The point is, I enjoy reading these blogs but don’t have much to contribute to most of these topics.
But Amanda and I have something in common: we both have defective dogs (e.g. awesome dogs who need a lot of love and maintenance). So that is what I am going to talk to you about today: my defective dog, and how she got better.
I had been dreaming about getting a dog since age 2, and when I found myself in dog-friendly housing, I couldn’t wait another minute. Daphne was the first dog I looked at, and she was mine within two days of meeting her. She had spent the first six months of her family life living with four kids all under the age of five, and they had returned her to the shelter the day before we met her. She had never been properly socialized, and she had spent her time with them being crated all night and tied up in the yard all day. You guys, she was afraid of mailboxes.
At first, I was in dog-owner-honeymoon bliss. Sure, she did refuse to go up the stairs, but I didn’t mind carrying her; what’s 50 pounds if it’s only one flight of steps? And, okay, she wouldn’t let anyone in my household touch her, but truth be told, I was living in a co-op and the people were pretty quirky. Maybe they just weren’t dog people?
I got away with a lot by simply managing her. She learned to go up and down the stairs, we avoided my housemates, and I took her to a park early in the morning and late at night, so she could walk there off-leash. We worked around her problems, but we didn’t fix any of them.
Then we moved and had to start walking her on leash, and all of her issues became more pronounced. She began to lunge at dogs across the street, people passing by, trucks, cats, and inanimate garden decorations. Once, a man was walking towards us on the sidewalk, so I pulled Daphne into a driveway to get out of his way; rather than passing us, he walked up to me and said, “Is your dog friendly?” I smiled (because it’s the polite thing to do!) and said, “No, she’s not.” Apparently he didn’t believe me, because he reached down to pet her… and she lunged at his face. Luckily, I was prepared, but let this be a lesson to all people who don’t want to listen to the owners: if the owner says the dog is not friendly, don’t try to pet it if you value your limbs.
The final straw was when she bit my cousin. Yes, folks, my dog, the one that I snuggle with and whose face I kiss and who I swore would someday get better, that dog – she leaped over to bite a child. She tore his shirt but not his skin. Long story short, it looked unprovoked, but it turned out he had been harassing her all day when I wasn’t around. In this situation, it probably seemed to her that she had to defend herself.
There are two good things that came out of this scary story: 1. A reminder that our dogs’ perspectives and interpretations are very different from our own, and 2. A trip to a veterinary behaviorist.
The trip to the behaviorist was sort of a disaster in that it took four hours, Daphne was incredibly stressed out, and I didn’t especially like the $100/hour veterinarian we saw. But what they told us was (almost) worth the money. First, they said that there are different “levels” of bites and that a dog that bites but does not break skin is not a huge concern; rather, the dog is expressing itself but is showing immense control. A dog that doesn’t break the skin is saying, “I am very upset, something is scary/stressful/awful and I want it to go away, but I’m not going to hurt you.”
Second, they told us, “Your dog is clearly very attuned to you, and you are doing things right.” While it was frustrating to have to pay $400 to hear that, it was comforting to hear real live professionals tell us we weren’t failures, that our dog wasn’t doomed, that there was hope (and a lot of it!).
Since that visit a year ago, a lot of things have changed. Daphne turned 3, and this marked a major shift in our life with her. She has mellowed out a lot. We moved out of our apartment and into a house, so we no longer have strangers on our front porch the way we did when we had to share an entryway. And I have worked with her.
The work isn’t always focused on a problem. Yes, we work on using the cue of knocking on the door to mean that she should go to her crate. We work on tossing treats whenever guests came over. These things have helped. But also? We work on fun things, like spinning in a circle or taking two steps back or picking her toys up on command. We work on things that were interesting to me, and because of that work, she looks to me for direction more and more. We continue to work, even if it’s only for ten minutes a day for a few days each week, and our patterns of communication are getting more reliable.
This is not to say that things are perfect. She doesn’t always come when called, but she’ll come eventually. She still barks like crazy when someone comes to the door, but we can put her in the back yard. She’s not all fixed, but you know what? She is manageable. We can have guests come over, and we know the right pattern to have her asking for belly rubs within 10 minutes (as long as they follow our rules).
Out of all of this – the money and the stress and anxiety around not having the “perfect family dog” I always pictured – we have found a lot of good. We are incredibly grateful for the well-behaved dog we finally have. And I have realized how much I love training and teaching and (shocking, after reading this) talking about dogs, and I am going to school for behavior analysis in the fall.
If you have a dog like this, here are some things you should remember:
- It’s not your fault, and you are not the only one. It’s lonely to be the owner of a high-maintenance dog (HMD), because most of us HMD owners hole up in our houses and don’t take our dogs out. But we’re out there! Look online, go to the dog parks early in the morning or late at night, and you will meet other people experiencing the same things.
- Your dog is a dog and thinks like a dog. Example: if your dog barks at cars, it’s probably because he thinks cars are scary, and barking makes the cars go away. We humans know that the cars are driving by whether or not your dog barks, but to him it seems like the cars leave every time he barks! It’s like magic!
- It’s not your fault if your dog is neurotic/a handful/difficult, but you can do things that will make things easier on your dog! The work is definitely worth it in the end. It would be nice if we could all have magically well-behaved dogs that came 100% of the time we called them – but that’s pretty unlikely. And there’s something to be said for the satisfaction you get from seeing your dog do something that you know you taught it.
- You are responsible for keeping your dog safe from the world. It is tough to say to people, “No, you can’t pet my dog.” Especially if your dog is cute, and it probably is (have you SEEN Ranger? ADORABLE.). But often this is the safest thing for everyone, and if your dog can see that people can approach and walk away without trying to touch him, then he’ll probably relax a little more with lots of people around. Some good “no” responses are, “Sorry, we’re training right now,” “He’s working, but you can give him a treat,” “You can’t pet him, but you can ask him to sit and give him this cookie.” I recommend not saying things like, “He’s nervous” or “He’s scared,” because people are nice and want to comfort scared and nervous dogs. Often by hugging them. This is not a good solution.
Since Daphne joined our family, we have come and long, long way, and I am proud of the dog she has become and the dog owner I have become. Over the past couple of years, I have only gotten more excited to work with people and dogs with, ahem, issues. I can’t wait for school to start, and in the meantime, I am doing some online consults with people who want training tips and assistance. If you have any questions about issues with your dogs, I would love to discuss them with you!
What are the best dog training and managing tips you have? What has worked well to help you live better with your dog?