Here’s the latest on Hope and Willie: Both Willie and Hope continued to be “spooky” to all number of things. This occurred both on and off the farm, and to all sorts of sights and sounds. Willie began high-arousal barking and lunging to other dogs when on leash, and off leash he growled and tooth displayed at familiar dogs he’s been fine with for years. He backed away, ears flat and commissure retracted, to men he’s known and loved for years. Hope growled, barked and lunged at dogs, strange shapes and heaven only knows what else. Out of the blue, at least to us, one of the dogs would run charging toward the window that overlooks the driveway, making low, growly barks, hackles up, and set the other off to do the same.
It was simple, in a way. Both dogs were insecure in their current environment, and were setting each other off. It’s all fine to say that we humans need our dogs to look to us for direction and security, but no one talks ‘dog’ more clearly than another dog, and Willie and Hope were both increasing each other’s insecurities. The irony was painful, because their relationship was improving in many ways. They played “tooth fencing/wrestle play” beautifully in the house, and Willie was just, finally, beginning to stop being such a victim when Hope bullied him in the house. Hope still would growl, lunge and bite at Willie’s shoulders as they moved to the door, for example, and Willie often responded by tongue flicking and dropping his head, but in other contexts Willie would discipline Hope for some perceived rudeness with an inhibited muzzle bite.
As I would with a client’s dog, I sat down and considered the options:
I. Do nothing and hope that the dogs would come out of it. In Hope’s case, it is true that some dogs seem to come out of what I call Juvenile Onset Shyness by themselves, but lots of dogs don’t, and in my experience, it is crucial with most dogs to actively help them through this stage with environmental management and behavior modification. As a four year old, Willie’s background level of being an inherently anxious dog meant he would most likely regress to his previous behaviors of serious aggression to unfamiliar dogs, and further degrade into being at least fearful, if not problematic, around unfamiliar people.
Probability of success: Small to Zero.
II. Actively treat both dogs with environmental management and behavior modification. That would include:
1) Full health checks, although a medical cause of this behavior was highly unlikely, it is still always good to check.
2) Physical support from Chinese Medicine, Vet Acupuncture, possible inclusion of pheromones (DAP for example) and scents (lavender for example) and homeopathic medicines (Willie is already on Shen Calmer, possibly add that to Hope’s diet as well?). Also included is diet, specifically the amount of grain and the protein source. In addition, Hope could not drink the well water from the farm without developing crystals in his urine, so he drank distilled water that we had to purchase. No chance of any improvement there.
3. Stimulus Management: Take dogs off the farm separately, so they don’t set each off and I could work with each of them by one on one. This is no problem when leaving the farm, but doesn’t solve their behavior at home.
4. Behavior modification: Use Operant and Classical Conditioning to condition the dogs to have a different emotional (classical) and behavioral (operant) reaction to the stimuli that are setting them off. For Willie I would continue going back to what worked in the past around unfamiliar dogs: Start by saying “Watch” which he knows means to look at me, whenever another dog appeared. When he turned to face me, he got to play a rousing game of tug. That reinforced him for looking away from the other dog in many ways–he got to play a favorite game and the tug game allowed him to release pent up tension. The goal was to get him to “AutoWatch,” or look at me automatically when he saw another dog, and then he’d get a game of tug. That not only taught him a behavior incompatible with barking and lunging, it classically conditioned him to feel good when another dog approached. For unfamiliar men, I’d have them toss toys or balls for him (can’t train other dogs to do that or I’d use it with other dogs!), conditioning him to love it when men approach.
For Hope, who spooked mostly at strange shapes (but that included a woman carrying a small bag while walking a small dog), I have been teaching “What’s That?” The meaning of that cue is to look at something, turn and get a treat or a toy. (Treats seemed to work better with Hope than play, so I began using them more often–every dog is different.). This works well if you can anticipate what stimulus sets off the dog, but is harder if you don’t know what the dog is responding to.
5. Lots more training… of course, always more training! Willie was taught to bow on cue, and it’s a great way to help him relax when he is nervous. (He does it himself often now, I suspect he uses it as way of relieving stress himself.) All dogs profit, as do their owners, by having lots of behaviors that they can perform that relax them, that are incompatible with the ‘problem’ behavior. Play bows are one of my favorites, because they not only relax the dog they often act to relax other dogs (people too.) The list of behaviors that are helpful to put on cue goes on, but you get the idea.
Probability of success? 70/30? 60/40? 50/50? Given the seriousness of Willie’s insecurities, it’s hard to say. Probably couldn’t make a good judgment about prognosis until about 4 to 6 months into treatment and Hope is older.
III. Re-home one of the dogs. Given that the insecurities of both dogs appear to be feeding off of each other, the last reasonable option is to re-home one of the dogs. I’ve re-homed 2 dogs in the past 25 years, always because I felt it was in the best interest of the dog. Every time it was brutally hard on me for a while, and every time the dog was better off for it. Here’s my criteria for doing so that I shared with clients for over 22 years: the new home has to be better than the home the dog is in now. Period. Pure and simple. (Of course, if one dog is putting others, either people or dogs, at risk, the criteria must be considered differently.) In each case, you have to carefully consider which dog would be better off in a new home; in some cases the answer is simple, in multi-dog households it can be more difficult. In the case of Willie and Hope, which dog to re-home would be simple. Willie is over 4 years old, I have moved heaven and earth to keep him alive and happy, I am bound to him as if he were a part of me, and my first commitment is to him. Hope is not even 6 months old, is a much sounder dog than Willie will ever be, and would be a much easier dog to place than Willie for a gazillion reasons.
Probability of success? 95 to 100 % if it was the perfect home, but where would one find that? How could you know what’s “perfect?” My heart goes out to those of you who commented that you have a dog you think is in the wrong place, but can’t imagine where the dog would go. It’s not always easy, I know. Because I have had Hope long enough now to know him well, in his case it would have to be a home in which he 1) lived in a settled group of dogs in which he could play with the young ones, learn boundaries from the elders and feel secure in a home with trustworthy people and dogs, 2) live in the house with people who are kind, clear, patient, humane and who would give him the kind of health care that, frankly, few dogs get and 3) once he is ready, work sheep on a daily basis with people who know what they are doing, who use humane versions of training and take learning how to do it well seriously.
I’ve been working on Option 2 diligently, wrapping my life around it, and then, like a karmic piece of toast, the perfect home for Hope popped into our lives. A home with a settled pack of 6 dogs–a puppy his age to play with, elder males and females to provide boundaries and security. A kind, loving home, in which the dogs sleep on the couch, get home cooked food and cutting edge health care. A farm in the country with sheep and people who devote their lives to working dogs, going to clinics, herding dog trials, taking private herding lessons from the best in the country. The dogs get far more work on sheep than one of my dogs ever would, at least until I can afford to retire, which isn’t going to be for awhile.
That’s where Hope is now. He’s been there awhile, long enough to know he’s thriving there. Willie not only went back to his old self in 24 hours, he has never been happier. Recently we were out walking on leash at a public park, he saw another dog, did a loose body wag, turned and looked at me, mouth open and relaxed, and turned back to the other dog as if he’d love to say hi. He is back to loving everyone, unfamiliar men included. Never once did he look for Hope, or act in any visible way that he wondered where he was or wanted him back. (But of course, who knows what he was thinking? Did he wonder where Hope went? If he did, he certainly showed no signs of it.) He has been happy and playful and relaxed at home and everywhere else. He is no longer licking his paws, alarm barking at the slightest noise or tongue flicking.
By all accounts, Hope is happier than he’s ever been. He plays with a five-month old female pup much of the day, has been corrected for rudeness a few times by his elders and is now on his best behavior. He is behaving beautifully around all people and all dogs, has never yet had a house training “accident” in the house (he did relatively often at our house and I suspect now it was as much about anxiety as anything else). He has “spooked” at one thing, one time, and nothing else. He fit in the day he moved in, and it sounds like he has never been happier. His new humans adore him, are eternally grateful for all of his training and socializing, and say he acts like he’s been there all of his life.
And so, the dogs are doing great. I don’t need to tell you who this has been hard on. I won’t belabor it, but what’s called “Separation Distress” in animals is the same thing we call grieving, and it’s recorded in a primitive part of your brain as if it were a serious, painful injury. (That’s why we talk about “healing” from the death of a loved one.) Willie and Hope have shown no signs of it; they appear to be happier than before. It’s the humans who are suffering. The first three days after Hope left were brutal, even though I knew it was better for both him and Willie. I gave up trying to do any work at all one day, just let myself give in to the sadness and the feeling of loss. It’s better now, but I look forward to the day when it still doesn’t feel quite so raw. One of my few regrets is knowing that, to a lesser extent, this news will be a bit hard on some of you who have followed Hope’s story with me throughout the summer. I wish I could wave a magic wand and make this change as easy for the humans as it has been for the dogs, but I can’t.
I knew it would be hard personally, and I knew it would be made even harder because of the public nature of this decision, and because some people will criticize me for it. But here was my choice: send Hope to a better home with the highest of all probabilities that it would be better for him and Willie both, or keep Hope because I loved him too much to let him go, or because I didn’t want to lose professional credibility with the people who believe that if I was good enough I would have ‘fixed it,’ or that it is never acceptable to re-home a dog, no matter what the circumstances. I can be a real coward sometimes, but I couldn’t live with myself if I passed up the best solution for two wonderful dogs because I was afraid of what people would say. This is a good place, however, to thank all of you who have been supportive during this process; there have been a lot of you, and I am forever grateful to you. Truly. Thank you.
As you can imagine, there was a lot of talking and soul searching before this decision was made. I talked to numerous other behaviorists and shelter/rescue experts–the list of people I consulted would drive a seminar host mad with envy. The consensus was clear: it ranged from “Of course that is the right thing to do” to “Why didn’t you do it sooner?” Most of our discussions ended up asking what we could do to help people understand that sometimes the kindest thing you can do for a dog is to get him out of one situation and help to find a place in which he will thrive.
A word of caution: Please don’t try to generalize this situation too much to any other. It concerns me that someone might read about the solution I have chosen and decide then that they should do the same. Every situation is different. If the perfect home hadn’t arisen for Hope, I never would have made that choice. What I will say to those of you who are struggling with this, based on 22 + years of working with clients, is that IF you have a situation in your home that is truly untenable, don’t assume that there isn’t either 1) help from someone to improve the problem or 2) another good home out there somewhere for one of your dogs. I have had clients work with trainers and behaviorists and end up resolving problems that they initially thought were unsolvable. I have had other clients who choose to re-home dogs with a variety of serious behavioral problems, and in many cases, the problems either went away, or the new owners managed the issues without any disruption to their lives.
Bottom line? There will always be Hope… sometimes it just lives in unexpected places.
MEANWHILE, back on the farm: The sheep still need feeding, the water tanks filled. Willie has just brought the flock out of the main pasture, through the woods, for their afternoon snack. The ewes get a little bit of alfalfa hay, and the lambs luxuriate with their noses deep in a mixture of corn, oats and a protein balance pellet. The lambs stopped growing for awhile when it was so hot, but they are doing well now.
Here’s a photo showing how big some of them are now. Hard to tell a few of the biggest from their mommas.
Here’s Snickers and one of her lambs, looking through a window in the barn. Is dinner ready yet?
It is very quiet here, but Willie is very, very happy, and that is a good thing.