On Difficult Dogs

Let’s be up front about something: I’m a worrier. It’s pretty much “my thing.” I worry about car accidents, I worry about money, I worry about people dying, I worry about my own death. I worry about my dog getting cancer or needing a knee replacement or being shot by an armed intruder. Some of my worries are realistic, but many of them are not – well, realistic in that they happen, but unrealistic in that these things are not statistically likely to happen to me. At least not all at once.

So when I decided I wanted to get a dog, I worried about a lot of things. Would I have time to exercise him? Would he destroy any of our valuable possessions? Would he get along with our cats? Was I “good enough” as a dog owner to handle a large bulldog – would he be aggressive towards people?

No, seriously, he loves the cat.

It turned out most of my worries were totally unfounded. Cerberus has chewed one non-dog item in his entire life (although, to be fair, it was one of my fabulous purple boots). I’ve found plenty of time to exercise him, though I often wish I had more, and he seems perfectly content to sleep at the base of my desk when I have to work. He and the cats are best friends. Well, one of the cats. The other one hates him and frequently bullies him into the corner, where Cerberus will sit until I come along, move the cat and tell Cerb it’s okay to come out now. He loves people and happily wiggles up to those he knows for treats and cuddles, though he’s appropriately reserved with strangers until he gets to know them. Nothing that I worried about before bringing him home ever panned out. It was something I never even thought about.

He’s dog-aggressive.

When I thought about my “future dog”, I imagined all the things I would do with him. We would romp and play. He would have fantastic doggy play dates with my friends’ dogs. We would go to shows and see his brothers and sisters and everything would be peachy-keen – seriously, all of these thoughts were colored a pleasant, hazy orange in my creative mind. Things would be Mayberry-like. In retrospect, this was really naive on my part. If I wanted a love-everyone, go-everywhere, sniff-everydog kind of dog, a male bulldog was probably not the right choice. But I had made up my mind. Cerb was coming home with us.

Happier times: Puppy Cerberus at the dog park.

For many months, that’s just what it was like. Cerberus was a very submissive puppy. We would go to the dog park and he would rumble along behind all the bigger dogs, trying to keep up with them as they ran and played. When they sniffed and licked him, he would roll over and squirm. We introduced him to my father’s two miniature schnauzers and they “kept him in check”, or so I thought – everything I had read about puppy socialization said it was important to let older dogs correct young dogs for rudeness, so I let it happen. In retrospect, I think I probably allowed my puppy to be bullied, all in the name of “socializing” him. He was so sweet and submissive, I figured it would always be this easy.

Around 11 months of age, Cerb started growing up a bit. I recognized his rebelliousness as the much-feared “teenage” phase of a young dog’s life. He started ignoring commands, pulling us around, playing too roughly, and barking at other dogs. I felt prepared to handle this – after all, I had read all the books! We instituted a NILIF (“Nothing In Life Is Free”) policy and made him work for privileges. We went back to basics and strengthened his “sit”, “stay”, “down” and “come.” We upped the exercise and he started going for runs with my husband. I dusted off my hands, patted myself on the back, and told myself I was doing a good job.

Not long after that, he got into his first “fight” with another dog. I use the word “fight” in quotation marks because I don’t want to fear-monger. Cerberus has never drawn blood on another dog. There were no cuts or puncture-marks, no stitches, no emergency vet bills. I have always stepped in before anything escalated to this point. What I could see, though, was that my young dog would stare intensely. His tail would stiffen and bristle. His hackles would raise. He could not be called off once he had crossed over his threshold, and he would give chase. There would be a lot of noise and confusion and I would separate him from the poor other dog and we would leave wherever we had been – the park, a friend’s back yard, wherever. I think that the lack of injuries points to the fact that he was a young, inexperienced dog who was “reacting” rather than “aggressing”, technically, but also to his very good bite inhibition. He would try to sit on the other dogs, to push them down, to control them, but he didn’t immediately try to hurt them.

This is Cerb’s “thug” post. He’s just a hardened criminal, looking out on the world from prison… or our porch.

At this point, I was scared. Really scared. I probably overreacted in many ways and, looking back, I know that I made some bad choices. I immediately stopped taking Cerberus around other dogs. Sure, he hadn’t hurt any other dogs, but it was just a matter of time, right? We couldn’t afford to be sued or to pay someone else’s vet bills and, more importantly, my conscience couldn’t bear for my dog to hurt another dog, so I isolated him. I started telling people we couldn’t come out to play because Cerberus “isn’t good with other dogs.” Privately, I started looking for a trainer who would work with our “aggressive dog.”

I found one. He had a lot of credentials – impressive credentials, to me. He agreed to give us a discount on his (expensive) in-home behavior evaluation. One sunny afternoon, he came out to our home and we went down the street to our local park. He took Cerb’s leash from me and walked him around. “Sit.” When Cerb ignored him, he got his collar yanked. He looked at the trainer in shock and crouched. “Sit.” Yank. Cerberus sat. “See, he needs to know you’re the boss.”

I nodded my head, watching my dog and trying to squash down the feeling of dread that was bubbling up in my stomach. By the end of the lesson, Cerb was heeling nicely, sitting, sitting down, coming when called… and looking miserable the whole time. He slouched along beside the trainer, heeling, yes, but looking like the sky would fall on him at any moment. The trainer fitted him with a shiny silver prong collar and instructed me to work with him every day. This is what we would have to do, he told us. This was how things would have to be.

I tried it. I tried it for a week. We would go out for walks and I would yank his collar to keep him in line, every yank sending shockwaves of sadness, anger and resentment through my body. After a week, I just couldn’t take it anymore – I threw the prong collar in the corner and I cried and cried. I couldn’t keep up with this training method. I couldn’t stomach it. But what choice did I have? If I couldn’t go along with this, was my dog destined to turn into a dog-eating monster I had no hope of controlling?

This picture was taken on my phone after I dragged Cerb out of a show ring because he was pitching a fit. We sat in the car and I cried and told him “We don’t eat other dogs!” He seemed to listen.

We tried another obedience class, another prong-collar, crank-and-yank experience. Again, I saw that my dog had flashes of brilliance when under another handler’s control. They could heel him past and around other dogs without issue. They could make him sit and listen even when surrounded by other dogs. They saw me flinch away from other dogs when we walked by them and laughed, telling me I had to buck up, be confident, be strong. But I couldn’t. I was terrified. I didn’t have the brute strength to muscle Cerberus around and I didn’t have the iron will to stick to this training method. It didn’t even seem to be working – it worked when the other trainers did it, but when it was up to me, I was never able to time the corrections properly and they didn’t seem to do anything, anyway, especially when Cerb was in the middle of a meltdown.

I tried another approach. I Googled “positive trainers” and tried to find people who used these mysterious clickers and bridge words and all these seemingly new-fangled things. They gave me Gentle Leaders that rubbed the fur from Cerb’s nose. They marveled at Cerb’s obedience and used him as an example for the class, showing his lovely sit and heel, then had me go back to the corner where he wouldn’t react to the other dogs. I was always the first to arrive at class and the first to leave, hurrying in and out with a vice-like grip on Cerb’s leash, walking him away when other people approached us with their friendly dogs, and hating myself the whole time.

At some point, I think I gave up. We stopped going anywhere. We stopped going to shows – being in the ring frayed my nerves until I felt like my skin was on fire. I turned my face away from the stares of other dog owners when Cerb reacted and I had to drag him away. I resigned myself to the fact that I had an aggressive dog who could not be trusted and that somehow, somewhere, I had failed. I couldn’t tell you where, I couldn’t tell you what I should have done better, but I knew in my heart I was a failure. I thought about rehoming Cerb with someone more skilled, someone better than me, someone who could manage this dog and help him reach his potential. I resented him, I was ashamed of him, I wondered if I had made a huge mistake, but most of all, I loved him. My heart ached for this dog who wanted so badly to be good but didn’t know how, and I didn’t know how to help him.

Then I met Karen.

I met Karen Ryder through a mutual friend at the time (a friend who was a bad influence, but that all got sorted out in the end). This mutual friend invited me to weight pull practice at Karen’s farm and I went along, dragging my feet the whole time, already embarrassed and dreading Karen’s reaction to my terrible, no-good, very-bad dog:

Well, he is pretty bear-like, I guess.

“What a schmoogie-bear!”

… What?!

“What a good dog. He’s beautiful.”

This dog? I looked at the monster on the end of my leash who, in turn, looked at Karen with his soft brown eyes.

That day turned my life around. It turned my dog’s life around. Karen is a positive-reinforcement trainer who uses almost no corrections with her own dogs. She has titled dogs in almost everything I can think of and seems willing to try anything once. She has the patience of a saint and she loves my dog. She is his Auntie Karen and he is her Schmoogie.

Karen taught me about bridge words – not just what they are, but how they work. She taught me about timing. She showed me that Cerberus is willing and eager to please me if only I would tell him what I want. Before meeting Karen, I was constantly telling my dog what I didn’t want. Everything was NO, STOP, DON’T. It was no fun for him, no fun for me, and not productive in the slightest. Karen taught me how to say “Yes!”, how to shower Cerb in rewards, and how to throw a puppy-party when he nailed a new task. She taught me how to teach Cerb to use his body and his brain. She taught me how to use psychology and knowledge of dog behavior in the places where I had been using muscle.

Cerberus is still dog-aggressive.

We’re working on it.

We play “Look At That.” We get close to his threshold and back off. We reward Cerb for not reacting. We distract with high-value treats. When he has a meltdown, I stay calm and remove him from the situation, and then I sit and take stock. What happened? Where did I drop the ball – what could I have done differently to protect my dog?

I’m not going to say it’s been easy. I had to spend some time grieving for the Dog I Wanted, that Mayberry-esque dog that probably doesn’t exist in real life. Then I stopped moping and accepted that I got the Dog I Needed. I got a dog who has challenged me beyond belief but who has given me more happiness than I ever expected. I got a dog who makes me pull my hair out minutes before making me cry with happiness. I got a dog who tries to eat other dogs but grooms and nurses orphaned kittens. I got a dog who pulls 3000lbs on a wagon and then hides in the corner because the scary cat won’t let him go by. He’s an exercise in contradictions and I love him for it, because he had forced me to be a better trainer, a better dog owner, and a better person.

This is your token “Hopeful Picture” for the end of this rather melodramatic post. Look how hopeful it is!

To anyone out there struggling with a difficult dog: I hear you. I hear your tears and frustrations, your worries, doubts and second-guesses. I hear your thoughts about giving up, about rehoming, about quitting. I hear your shame when people talk about “bad dogs” and “bad owners” and “Why did she bring that dog here?” I hear your fears about taking your dog to new places. I hear your exhaustion and weariness because even the simplest damn things become so hard. A walk around the block with your dog feels overwhelming. I hear you.

I also hear your dog. I hear a dog who loves you and needs your guidance. I hear a dog who is scared and doesn’t know how to channel that fear except to shut down or react explosively. I hear a dog who is trying to hard to communicate with you, but you’re just not hearing him. I hear a dog who needs structure, who needs management, who needs compromise. I hear a dog who is begging you to try one more time, to ask for help, to reach out to others for support and to turn a deaf ear and blind eye to people who look down on you when you are struggling.

I hear you and I hear your dog, and I hope that you can learn to hear each other, too, and find a solution that works for you.

51 thoughts on “On Difficult Dogs

  1. Such a gorgeous post–thanks so much for writing it. Anyone who isn’t tearing up right now either doesn’t have a Dog With Issues or is made of stone.

  2. Hey Cerberus, Jet here.

    Nice to make your acquaintance.

    What an inspiring Mom you have. We read the post top to bottom, thank you for finding the courage to share. Thank you also for letting us know that there are positive reinforcement trainers. That sits well for us, too. :)

  3. This is honestly one of the most beautiful posts I’ve ever read. As someone who has a very reactive APBT mix, this really hit home.

    Thank you, so much.

  4. I just wanted to say thank you. I cried while reading this post because, to a “T” it is my dog. He is only 17 months old and we are trying everything we possibly can to help him. And although we are at wits end with him, we know he is in the right home because we will do everything and anything to keep him. He makes me so incredibly mad but also so incredibly happy at the same time.

    So, thank you. Thank you for making me feel less alone with our situation.

    • Thank you! Your dog is right in the middle of one of the most difficult stages of his life. People always talk about the difficulty of bringing a puppy home, but the whole potty-training fiasco has NOTHING on that period from 12-18 months when dogs seem determined to push every button you have. Bear with him and seek out help – you can do it!

  5. It’s so ironic that I should read this TODAY because last night, in dog class (where they use all positives) I had a total and complete melt-down over my fearful, grumbly, aggressive female dog. I know abut the isolation, which I absolutely hate. I don’t know what the naswers are but I sure do know about the melt-downs! Thank you!
    And best of luck with your dog! I’d like to think that he’ll continue to get easier for you! I’d like to think there is answer to prayer….

  6. I absolutely LOVE this! Not just for the truth it speaks of regarding what so many people go through with a dog like this, but also for the fact that I’ve found someone else with a dog named Cerberus! (Mine’s a rot, though he does have an underbite!) I wish every dog owner with a dog like this would read a blog like this before deciding on a trainer. *sigh*

  7. Thank you for writing about your journey with Cerb so eloquently. Having my own wonderful, special but reactive dog, I cried my way through your article. Thanks for not giving up on Cerb and finding the right approach and support.

  8. Awesome blog. Thank-you for writing about your story. I have a rescue who is at timess unpredictable with strangers and has extreme food aggression. I have often felt like giving up on him but we are going on 8 months now and I love him too much to give up. Thanks for letting me know I am not alone (even though we have different issues with our dogs, I sometimes need a reminder that I am not the only “crazy” person who doesn’t think it’s OK to just throw in the towel on these beautiful animals!)

  9. Thank you for telling your sweet story…very similar to mine with two pittirs I inherited from my son. One is dog-aggressive, and SWAT team squirrel hunter, the other Mr. Mellow. They’ve taught me many “stupid human tricks over the years. I too considered finding them a “better” owner, but I was pretty sure they might meet a tragic end. Years later, we share lots of fun and love. Just see if anyone tries to take them from me!

  10. Lovely, lovely post. I feel your joy and pain. Thank you for sharing all that mess we lovers of difficult dogs go through. You nailed it.

  11. I am in tears. You have described my journey with my lovely Staffie Patch! He sounds just like your dog. I too found violent trainers, but did most of my learning from the Internet. Patch is still learning, he is not the agility dog I wanted. I too have grieved for that dog. He is a loving intelligent individual and I love him dearly for who he is and for what he has taught me. All my dogs lives are better because of what I learned in order to help Patch. Thank you for your post. Liz

  12. Well written post. I’m curious… is Cerberus neutered? In the last image it looks like he’s still intact. Neutering can help with aggression issues, especially one’s that many arose when he matured. It also has health benefits for your dog and ensures for population control.

    • Cerberus is not neutered because he’s a show dog – unfortunately, neutering him would mean we could no longer compete in the conformation ring (although the UKC has recently added an “Altered” conformation event that we’re very happy about). Happily, Cerb is never in our yard unattended or around any female dogs, so there’s no risk of any accidental breedings, and while there are some health benefits to spaying/neutering there are also lots of health benefits to leaving dogs intact, especially until they’ve had time to properly mature – Cerb is a young dog, not quite 3 yet, so even if we were not showing him I would still likely have him intact until at least his third birthday, as he’s a large breed and an athlete and it’s important for his joints and tendons to develop.

  13. Hi Rebecca,

    We went through a very similar experience with our shelter dog and when he was about the same age. I haven’t seen much written about the 12-18 month period as having the potential to unveil fear aggression but that is exactly what happened with our dog.

    His fear extended to people as well.

    We definitely shared the grieving process you described so well. We adopted a young apparently healthy dog a few months after losing a senior dog who had been frail and sick for a long time and we were looking forward to taking this dog everywhere. And for the first six months that what we had. It was hard to lose it and to feel like we had done something wrong.

    The good news is that, thanks to Sophia Yin’s one-on-one consults and classes and, eventually, Prozac, our dog has made incredible progress. And, along the way, we have bonded with him intensely.

    I have wondered how much his exiting the 12-18 month period of development might also have contributed to his progress

    • Natalie,

      Thanks for sharing your story. I, too, wonder how the natural “aging out” process has impacted some of the changes I’ve seen in Cerb. I can definitely see that he is getting more mentally mature – he thinks more, he’s calmer, he works through things. I think that part of that is the natural changes of a bulldog approaching three years old, because I’ve always been told that that’s when their brains grow in! But I think that without the changes I made in my approach to working with him, we would still be butting heads and he would now just be a mature but still poorly-behaved dog, whereas now he is (most days) a mature and working-on-good-behavior dog. :)

  14. My story is so long, I won’t write it here, but the short version is: First dog Lori: WONDERFUL, easy… got her buddy Rudy who LOVED her. They played constantly. Lori was from Humane Society. Rudy from a rescue (had been passed from rescue to rescue). After we’d had Rudy for about 3 months, they were playing and as he grabbed her collar, she rolled, and it got wrapped around his jaw. Short version: he was traumatized, she was strangled and didn’t make it. Took months for us to be able to approach him with a leash or collar. He was protective to begin with (Korean Jindo x German Shepherd). We were devastated at the loss of Lori. Had never really bonded with Rudy (he was HER dog). Through the fog of our grief, we also were building a new house, and about to move into it. 2 weeks after losing Lori, Rudy and I were at petsmart, and a storm kept us inside for a while. The SAME rescue was there that we’d gotten Rudy from, and they had a 4 month old hound-mix puppy that waited out the storm with us in the training ring. I couldn’t let her go back to that rescue. They were asleep on the couch butt to butt within an hour of coming home. That might have been the smartest thing we did during that time. (even though people say to wait…. she needed us and we needed her). Rudy became VERY protective of Emmie. and of us. It was clear he did not trust me (either I’d killed Lori, or was unable to save her… or, maybe he thought HE’d killed her, I don’t know). We finally had a show-down about the leash/collar, and I won even though he growled and screamed and showed me his teeth.

    It’s been 2 years. We have had ups and downs. We do not take Rudy any place where he might be frightened for us or Emmie (he has nipped a few backsides). He is on prozac, and we are just all giving it time. He’s getting better, but I don’t know what the next step is.

    BTW – he also has a dislocated hip – which we noticed when he first came to visit us and Lori. We got him x-rays and he’d evidently lived with it (from rescue to rescue) for months.

    We have consulted behaviorists, trainers of both ilks, considered communicators…. my instinct tells me there’s no quick fix…. time, love, and trying to get past my own fears (because he is a very sensitive emotional barometer).

    Luckily Rudy is NOT dog aggressive, and goes to daycare (where he chills out and watches Emmie play with about 30 other dogs), and he trusts the trainers there. So, he’s CAPABLE. But when it comes to our home, and his peeps… (we tried adopting a boxer recently, and he seriously was NOT having it – even though they played fine in a neutral space).

    I’m rambling! And that’s the SHORT version. I guess I want to say thank you for your blog.

    • Hi Amy,

      Does it seem like the Prozac helps Rudy?

      Our dog has done well on it, but it is hard to tease out the effects of maturity, intensive training, Prozac, and pain relief. Our dog has a back problem and his tolerance falls significantly as his back pain increases. He takes an NSAID, Metacam, daily for pain. A few months ago, we experimented with leaving out the Metacam for a week to see if he could do without it and the change in his edginess and behavior was worrisome.

      So perhaps there is a pain component with Rudy – perhaps besides the hip, there is some pain in his neck?

      For the fear aggression, we went to Prozac when our dog continued to have a hard time trusting a family member. Someone he very much liked, but who is a “trigger” – a guy – and whose morning routine contained several other triggers. Our dog has completely gotten past that now thanks to a ton of training and the medication.

  15. Oh – and thank you for the bit about grieving for the dog you thought you had! Rudy was about 14 months when we adopted him. So 17 or 18 months when the tragedy of losing Lori hit. The timing probably couldn’t have been worse. Lori had just finished basic agility – and she’d done her test run perfectly – she was a natural. That was Monday. She was gone on Friday. And now, we had this dog who was a total emotional wreck, and so were we. It’s not that I had wanted “A” dog. I had wanted specifically “LORI”. She was my soul. And here was Rudy. I felt guilty for feeling resentful. I know he felt it, and he was probably resentful too. Lori could go with us EVERYWHERE, and did. To the realtors office – she sat under the table while we signed papers to buy the land we built on. To the builder’s house. She and his dog played and chilled together while we went over house plans…. She went everyplace with me that remotely would tolerate having a dog there, and people always fell in love with her. That’s been the hardest to get over, and is probably the reason we are struggling to move forward with Rudy.

    Sorry to monopolize your blog! It just brought up so much, and it’s good to know we’re not alone!

  16. This article so spoke to issues with a new dog I was supposed to foster and now own and my older dog. Worked with a trainer who also taught positive training. Some days it works and other days all the dogs hear is “blah, blah, blah……”

  17. I’ve had my rescue dog for about 2 months. We knew that he had some issues with “reactivity”…knew that he had been in some scrapes while in the shelter, but he’s been to 2 training facilities before we adopted him. So, yes, we encountered some expected barking, snarling, lunging while on walks, but a couple of weeks after we adopted him, we found out just how serious (and dangerous) his “reactivity” could be. (I’m quoting “reactivity” because we found out in the course of about 10 seconds that it could really be aggressiveness.

    An unleashed dog came charging at us from about 60 yards out, full speed. It says a lot to say that I wasn’t really afraid of what the other dog had in mind, as much as what MY dog had in mind. I got my dog to sit as our trainer had advised if such a situation were to arise, and tried to get between them. As the dog came closer however, it was soon evident that this wouldn’t work. My dog lunged, and grabbed on to the other’s face and would NOT let go, for what seemed to be an eternity of yelping, and pulling. It was not until another bigger dog came along to investigate that my dog finally let go and began to square off against the other, at which point I was able to pull him away.

    I could go off on a tirade now about, “this is what leash laws are for, people”, but in truth this is what woke me up to just how much work my dog would take if I was going to keep him. (And believe me, returning him went though my mind). But this dog had been in shelters for more than half his life, and came close to being euthanized more than once.

    The flip side of the coin is that he is so smart, and so sweet to people, that this diamond in the rough is too good to give up on. So, back to the trainer for a session, and we continue to work every day. Now, he can tolerate dogs, or cats, etc at about 20 yards out. Its only those unexpected “surprise” dogs that now make him go out of control. Like a few minutes ago, I just opened our patio door (we live in apartments with a 2nd floor balcony), and as we walked out there was a woman walking her 2 dogs right underneath us. 2 chairs and a plant were knocked over before I could get control of him and lead him back inside.

    Well, work in progress, but we take whatever small victories we can grab along the way. I will say, getting a little better each passing week with continued work. What seems to work best is long morning walks to start each day, and to help get both of our heads on straight!

  18. Hi Natalie,

    Wow – it must have taken a lot of observation to figure out the triggers! Rudy was taking 10 mg of the prozac, and when I dropped it to 5mg, the folks at his daycare could tell that he was more alert and responsive…. so I’ve kept him there. The vet feels that he should continue with that – thought I had thought of weaning him off it. Today, he had X-rays, and it was confirmed that his hip continues to degenerate – the vet thinks that his hip ball is actually migrating in and out of the socket – across the edge of the socket and causing calcification and arthritis. So, they are sending the film to an orthopedic surgeon to possibly perform an FHO.

    It’s possible that they will say since he’s using the leg, the surgery will be extreme. But if it means he will have less pain, I don’t see a down side except getting thru recovery. He has good muscle tone – which means at his age (3), he would have a good recovery.

    He is also fearful of tall males. However, the majority of people he’s nipped have been female (because they are the ones most likely to coo over Emmie and make her uncomfortable, I guess).

    I put his basket muzzle on him for the vet visit this morning. The tech who came in to talk to me was a tall male. Rudy barked his head off, but the tech was awesome. Unfazed. He crouched down while talking to me, and Rudy even went over to sniff him and let him pet him (rubbing his chest and everything). Of course, when the tech walked near me to get to the door to take Rudy to the lobby to weigh, Rudy went into protection mode, and if not for the muzzle, the tech might have ventilated scrubs. Again – nerves of steel on this tech. I was very much calmed myself by the tech’s calm behavior.

    Anyway, one of the other techs there used to work at Rudy’s daycare. (when Lori was still alive) They had her go visit him, and when she called his name, he ran to her and climbed into her lap tail wagging and going nuts. (they say dogs don’t remember – hah!)

    ANYWAY – I know I’m answering much more than your question. I agree… it’s hard to tease out what the prozac might really be doing vs what the ebb and flow of pain might be doing. He was on a too-strong dose at first, which made him disoriented, and even more aggressive. The lower dose was fine, but when we halved that to 5mg, he was more like our Rudy. He still “goes off”, but I can usually get through.

    There’s no definitive answer, clearly. Time, patience, love…. people to talk to about it? I wish everyone could know him the way I and my husband know him. But even if we can’t share him, that’s ok.

    • “I wish everyone could know him the way I and my husband know him. But even if we can’t share him, that’s ok.”

      Agree 100%!

      Our dog’s triggers were pretty easy to recognize and quite specific in a lot of cases. He is generally suspicious of men. And more so of men who are agitated or tense – regardless of why. Can be as simple as running late. And more still if that tense male person has something small in his hands, like car keys or a cell phone. If that man tosses that small object up and down, that’s it. He’s way over his limit. Any three of the four triggers used to put him pretty well over the top.

      The other thing people should not do is reach over his head. For a long time, he was fearful of everything over his head – light poles, porch overhangs, etc. And he doesn’t like it when anyone he doesn’t know and completely trust reaaches over his head.

      Rudy is so lucky to have you. He has a lot of challenges in his life, which he handles more gracefully than I would.

  19. Rebecca, you could not have made this blog any better! I thank you for sharing with the world the real struggle so many people feel when they don’t get ‘Lassie’ dogs or ones who where and are no longer! It is too hard for them to understand. We feel their eyes burning holes in our heads with disgust as we try to regain composure with our DINOS. I know the pain you describe. I know the joy you describe. And most of all, I hope others will find this post and use the contents to their advantage. So many of us scramble and struggle when we don’t know where to turn. We make many mistakes and our dogs pay for it.

    I have two DINOS, one beagle and one beagle x dachshund. They are a big difference in size from yours, but their reactions I’d bet could be just as intense. Unlike yours, mine have caused punctures and not only to dogs. Finding an animal behaviorist was a Godsend! I have fallen in love with positive training so much that I know am working towards becoming certified with CertificationCouncilPetDogTrainers. My relationship and bond with my animals, including our kitties, has turned into something that I can’t even describe. All thanks to learning to communicate and show them the tools they need to succeed in our cramped world!!!!!!
    I have a new love for dogs (and cats.. any animal really!) that are fearful and aggressive. It is now my passion and forte. I MUST thank my boy Maple Leaf for showing me that punishment only get you MORE of the behavior you are trying to suppress. I thank him for crying with me when neither of us knew what to do. And I thank him for loving me even after everything I did wrong; the feelings I’m being reminded of.

    Your blog and my response, I needed this. Thank you so much.

    Train the dog in front of you, not the one you wish you had. -anonymous

    I wish I could take credit for this quote, but it taught me SO much about my relationship with my animals.

  20. Hi Natalie, Yes, Luckily my husband is rarely irritated or anxious. It’s why we work well together. I am the emotional one. He’s the anchor. And yes, when we first moved into the new house, the builder surprised us as we went out for a walk, and I dropped Rudy’s leash! (the builder and a potential client were parked across the road looking at the house). Rudy ran up to the woman client, and just kind of put his paws on her looking at her and sniffing. I recovered him, and he sat by me. I suggested that while I walk the dogs, they go ahead and take a look in the house, and as I handed the (male) builder the keys, when he reached out to take them, Rudy went off – and did get his teeth on his arm…. Was just a scratch. But I couldn’t believe he’d done it. That changed everything for us. The builder was fine, loves dogs, and didn’t make a fuss. Point, though, is…. I was a BIT put out that when I walked out my front door, I was surprised by the builder and his client standing there looking right at me. I sucked it up and acted social. But RUDY knew I was irritated. And he doesn’t seem to understand levels of irritation. When Emmie barks at someone cooing over her – backs up, sits down, and issues a subtle whoofh, for instance, she’s just expressing discomfort – a good thing for a dog to do. It’s a warning. But Rudy takes it as a full on attack on one of the pack. (I also get annoyed when strangers do this to Emmie – so that might inflate his sense that something is really wrong, and since he started reacting to it, my anxiety over it has only gone up).

  21. I have to say that since I found this blog and all of the comments on difficult dogs, I have had a real attitude adjustment. I realized that we never really “celebrated” Rudy the way we did Lori before she died. He was great, but he was “hers”. We never truly bonded, even though I took him all through training to his CGC (he IS capable…). That was all before Lori died, though. And after we lost her, he became ultra difficult, and I guess he’d say I did too. Then (not sure if I wrote this part), I broke my ankle just a few months after we lost Lori, moved into our new house, and adopted Emmie. Surgery, pins, plates, the whole 9 yards. Rudy is not a dog to come loping up and keep you company. He’s more the “something’s wrong with Mommy – I need to go hang out elsewhere” type of dog. Poor thing.

    Ramble ramble…. anyway – since finding this blog, I’ve looked back at my relationship with Rudy over the past couple of years, and realize I’ve been going through the motions. So, I’ve started sitting on the floor with him rubbing on him more. Started recognizing when he wants to play (yes! he plays!), and just imagining him as a puppy, and kind of starting over. And it’s worked. The daycare people say he’s been more social lately. He asks for affection more often. Instead of hanging out in Bob’s closet when I work from home some days, he hangs out on my feet under the desk.

    I know I am verbose in my comments, but I guess it’s therapy, and I appreciate having people who will understand on the other side of the conversation!

    Thank you!

  22. Having lots and lots of self pity right now…. Just took Rudy to be evaluated for hip replacement. At one point he lunged for the surgeon, and if not for the basket muzzle, the surgeon would be having facial reconstruction right now. Needless to say, the surgeon deemed Rudy is NOT a candidate for hip replacement. He doesn’t think his behavior is caused by his hip pain, as he has good muscle tone in his legs, and is clearly using his bad leg well. The way he put it (aptly, I admit) is that Rudy just doesn’t vibrate to the same frequency as other dogs. He would NOT get through a hip replacement and the week of in-clinic recovery without coming out very traumatized – not to mention the next couple of months. All it would take was one lunge, and the hip could be pulled apart, leaving him with an FHO possibly, neither of which would give him the mobility he has now, unless everything went perfectly. Driving home just remembering Lori – and feeling soooo sorry for myself that I have Rudy to deal with and not my heart and soul, Lori, the way it should be!!!! Basically, he repeated what I always hear: Rudy’s lucky to have us – if not for us he would have been put down long ago – any time we give him in a loving home is more than he would have ever had…. all leading up to the eventuality that at some point, he’ll be unmanageable, and in pain, and there would be nothing left to do but euthanasia. He’s not there yet – not even close – but still…. Having a little pity party.

  23. Pingback: No more excuses! | Team Unruly

  24. Thank you, this is our story, down to almost every last detail. I just cried reading this as I snuggle up to the love of my life, the greatest cuddler of all time, face licker extraordinaire, lover of his pet sock monkey and two cats, who would just love to get another dog in his mouth and destroy it. It is hard sometimes, and we work with him EVERY single day to help him because it’s worth it, but boy is it tiring. Thank you again for this, it helps to know we’re not the only ones! xo

  25. Rebecca–

    Thank you for so eloquently describing the emotional roller coaster it is to have a reactive dog!! I too am finally getting over the fact that I don’t have the ‘perfect’ dog but one that challenges me to my limits and can simultaneously make me overwhelmingly proud.

    We have been been working with a positive reinforcement trainer and our boxer Bella has made visible strides. I can’t reiterate how nice it is to hear encouragement like this. It’s a nice reminder that all of our hard work and patient IS worth it!

  26. Love this! I have two dogs who don’t enjoy the fact that there are any other dogs in the world. Thankfully, they tolerate each other. When I only had Melvin and I realized he hated his own kind, we worked with several (positive reinforcement) trainers who helped us manage his needs and make it so we didn’t have to live as shut ins. One of the best days of my ‘learning’ with Melvin came when one of them said: melvin doesn’t like other dogs. I know you want him to like other dogs but he doesn’t want to like them. he shows no interest in playing. he likes humans. he adores humans. be glad for that and allow him to be who he is. why must he like other dogs? She then went on to say that she was not a fan of murderers and she would hate for her husband to take her training to learn to play nice with them. Our perfect ‘a ha’ moment! We let go of the idea of playdates and worked on how we live in a world where we have to watch out for other dogs, have commands to get through those encounters and enjoy the part where our dog is a lover of people. It was beautiful.

  27. I had tears reading this at work – I have had my staffy girl for over a year now and it has been the biggest challenge of my life. It feels like whenever we overcome one problem another one presents. I am sick of people saying to me you need to train her, do this, do that, I have been to class after class with her and they have ALL helped us with different things but we still go to work on new things. She’s my first ever dog and I don’t think I could have found a more challenging pup. But I am learning how to work with her not against her but the frustration sometimes makes me tear my hair out. I am trying to control my anxiety whenever I see a dog approaching and have strategies in place to distract her. We play a lot of ‘look at that’ too! But that pride in her (and myself) when I teach her something new, when we get home and she has walked really well with no incidents and when she snuggles her nose into my neck to get warm are just a few of the reasons why I know it is all worth it. I just hope I keep finding supportive trainers and friends who get that I am trying my butt off and don’t just think my dog is broken as I think we will be on this up and down journey for a while yet! I have just found this blog and it has quickly become one of my favourites. Thanks for telling your story to give hope to all of us in similar boats.

  28. I found the part where you mentioned the “prong collar yank and crank” trainers did have success with your dog, yet you couldn’t do it, and that it was your emotions that took over the choice to stop that training. Doesn’t this go away from advocating from your dog? you put YOUR emotional well being above his. I can fully expect that you will say “he felt sadness, despair, etc” How do you know this? it certainly didn’t seem he was “suffering” when a professional was handling him. It takes time to learn a skill.

    You can say all you want about “cruel” “punitive” balanced training is. But in honesty, what is cruel is you giving up after a few classes, and leaving him in a state of constant inbalance. This not only shows your lack of commitment, but your lack of concern over his overall well being. Way to go…

    • Just curious if you actually read the entire post or just run off with your conclusions? Let me paste a couple quotes in here since you clearly missed them.

      “He took Cerb’s leash from me and walked him around. “Sit.” When Cerb ignored him, he got his collar yanked. He looked at the trainer in shock and crouched. “Sit.” Yank. Cerberus sat. “See, he needs to know you’re the boss.””

      “By the end of the lesson, Cerb was heeling nicely, sitting, sitting down, coming when called… and looking miserable the whole time. He slouched along beside the trainer, heeling, yes, but looking like the sky would fall on him at any moment.”

      Sure he DID heel. He DID sit. And he was miserable. That’s often the fallout of such methods. And in the end, they frequently backfire and make a dog worse.

      And the dog? Is not in a “constant state of [sic] inbalance.” I’m not sure where you’re getting any of that from unless you’re simply not really reading it and just jumping to defend the, yes, cruel methods you use.

      • actually am not a trainer, but I am a scientist that also happens to be a dog owner. And like you I was at first taken back by the methods, but instead of writing them off or coming up with baseless explanations as to what was happening, I studied these methods…Scientific dog training at its core.

        Cruel methods are a definition that people with no understanding (nor a willingness to become educated) make about things that disprove their theories. It’s fine to disagree with someone else’s method, but to bash and make rather baseless opinions about the dog’s emotional state ( how do you know the dog was feeling this way? did you have an EKG or heartrate monitor attached? did you emply the services of a certified dog behavioral scholar to study the reactions? or did these assumptions come from your emotional state?) even then, one can look at it a different way. Your dog was shocked someone actually ENFORCED rules, and meant what they said! which no one ever had, so it is obvious he had that reaction.

        I’d like to hear concrete, SOLID, reliable proof (video is always a good example), of when these tools or techniques backfire or make a dog worse; If these methods backfire or made dogs worse, then why are police, military, and elite dog trainers using these exact methods and creating dogs that are solid, amazing at their job, and most of all, obedient and reliable?

        People are always trying to humanize a dogs emotional state, which is the main issue you have with pet owners your country. Instead of raising dogs, your’e raising babies. And from what it’s on the news, you Americans can’t even raise babies. The only that that suffers here is your dog. And I am sorry you don’t see that.

        • First of all, I am not the author of this post. Second of all, it seems that for a “scientist” you haven’t actually done any reading on the subject and you are getting rather emotionally involved (“you Americans can’t even raise babies”? Really? This is the tactic you’re going with? I’ll just point out that the author of this particular post is not American and leave it at that). Perhaps you should read actual studies, where they have indeed hooked up dogs and done brain scans and the like. Perhaps you should read all the work done on canine body language and what it means. Read people like Dr. Patricia McConnell, Dr. Ian Dunbar, people with degrees in behavioral science and who have made a study of dog behavior and training.

          Also, police are moving away from those methods. The police here train almost solely with rewards (tug). They no longer use shock collars and rarely use corrections. Science has shown that dogs who are rewarded work harder and longer than dogs who are punished (and no I’m not going to dig through my books and journals to find the information — you’re the “scientist” — go do the research yourself).

  29. I actually am not a trainer, but I am a scientist that also happens to be a dog owner. And like you I was at first taken back by the methods, but instead of writing them off or coming up with baseless explanations as to what was happening, I studied these methods…Scientific dog training at its core.

    Cruel methods are a definition that people with no understanding (nor a willingness to become educated) make about things that disprove their theories. It’s fine to disagree with someone else’s method, but to bash and make rather baseless opinions about the dog’s emotional state ( how do you know the dog was feeling this way? did you have an EKG or heartrate monitor attached? did you emply the services of a certified dog behavioral scholar to study the reactions? or did these assumptions come from your emotional state?) even then, one can look at it a different way. Your dog was shocked someone actually ENFORCED rules, and meant what they said! which no one ever had, so it is obvious he had that reaction.

    I’d like to hear concrete, SOLID, reliable proof (video is always a good example), of when these tools or techniques backfire or make a dog worse; If these methods backfire or made dogs worse, then why are police, military, and elite dog trainers using these exact methods and creating dogs that are solid, amazing at their job, and most of all, obedient and reliable?

    People are always trying to humanize a dogs emotional state, which is the main issue you have with pet owners your country. Instead of raising dogs, your’e raising babies. And from what it’s on the news, you Americans can’t even raise babies. The only that that suffers here is your dog. And I am sorry you don’t see that.

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