Scary Things and Dogs!

The reason that many dogs are fearful is because they were not properly socialized from birth.  Socialization starts at birth!  Puppies are born blind and deaf, but they have a great nose, so that they can find the food!  Their eyes typically open at ten days, and their ears typically open at 14 days.

Our Happi with one of her ten day old puppies. She was a wonderful Mama!!

Once those ears and eyes open, especially in those first few days, puppies can be easily startled by all kinds of scary things that they aren’t expecting.  A careful breeder will ease them into noises and help them identify the source of the noises so that it makes sense to the puppy and won’t be quite as scary to them. As they grow and develop, a careful breeder will expose them to more and more people, places, and things so that their puppies will understand how the world works.

Backyard breeders, puppy mills, stray dogs having litters on the mean streets…..just don’t have the benefits of properly socializing these puppies, so they are more at risk for being fearful in life.  If socialization doesn’t happen, or doesn’t properly happen, these dogs are more at risk for having critical foundational skills that they will need in life as adults.  They are much higher risks for becoming aggressive at some point in their lives.

This is really what I suspect happened with Rugby James.  By the time I adopted him, the socialization ship had sailed, and left him essentially unable to make sense out of scary things in life.  As he grew from a young puppy to an older one, he developed “coping skills” which were patterns of behavior that helped him when he felt overwhelmed or stressed or scared.

When Rugby first came to live with me, his primary coping skill was a pattern of barking and running.  When he didn’t know what to do, he barked and he ran.  He dodged capture and continued to bark and run with a fearful look in his eye that told me just how scared and overwhelmed he felt.  In his mind, as long as he was running and barking, he would stay safe.  The running and barking was keeping him safe, so he knew that he had to continue to produce that behavior if he was going to survive.

In his previous life, before he came to live with me, when it came time for Rugby to be adopted, people saw this adorable little puppy, and couldn’t wait to bring him home.  Once home, they also saw Rugby’s crazy barking and running patterns, which are so very difficult to live with.  This is often where dogs get surrendered to a shelter, or tossed out into a back yard, because owners just can’t stand the crazy behavior.  As a dog trainer, I look at the behavior and know that there’s something behind it.  Owners often simply see a naughty dog who can’t straighten up and fly right!

Rugby’s first night with me. He was sooo scared, but trying so hard to put up an excited and brave front!

It’s really important to know that coping skills are learned behaviors!  They are behavioral patterns that dogs develop in response to other things going on in their environment.  Dogs are not born with these crazy behavior patterns; rather they learn them to help them cope with things that must seem crazy or out of control to the dog.  To correct the naughty behavior, we have to know what drives the behavior, and work with the root issue that causes the dog to respond the way that he does.  I’m part dog trainer, part detective!

Dogs are masters at spotting patterns in their environments, and they are also masters in problem solving!  They try and fail and try and fail until they try and succeed.  Once they figure out what works, they learn to create a habit of behavior.  This is true for learning good behavior as well as naughty behavior.  Often the naughty behavior is reinforced without an owner understanding that they are doing so, and as a result, strong naughty habits are formed, and sometimes coping skills as well.

Scared dogs exhibit many body language signals, such as lip licking or tongue flicks. This is why it’s so very important to understand how to interpret your dog’s body language!

In Rugby’s case, whatever overwhelmed or scared him made him run, and barking kept the scary thing away from him, and that’s what he learned to do.  When he produced that coping skill, he stayed safe, so in his mind, as long as he kept running and barking, the scary thing couldn’t get him.  Over time, he developed a habit of running and barking whenever he encountered anything scary.  It’s what worked for him, so he continued to do it.

Young Rugby taking a short break from running in the yard.

For an average dog owner, Rugby must have warmed their hearts with his looks, but his wacky coping skills were things that they just couldn’t manage, so he got surrendered when they’d had enough of him.  If his very first home had taken time to carefully socialize baby Rugby James, I think he might be a very different adult dog today.

As it is, when Rugby sees anything that’s scary or weird to him, his response is to bark and run.  When he’s on a leash, he can’t escape to run, so his response is to bite out of fear, frustration and anxiety over his situation.  He skips so many middle steps and leaps right to the conclusion that he will likely die, so his emotional response is to save his life, and he comes out fighting!

Rugby doing some training in the front yard. He’s got pinned bunny ears and a very stiff Down/Stay, showing how nervous he is training in that environment.

Over the years, I’ve tried so many different ways to help him understand that he is safe with me, but trust has been an ongoing issue with Rugby James.  This is the by-product of multiple homes.  People think that surrendering their dog will mean that their dog will get a “happily ever after” with someone else.  Sadly, that’s not always the case.  In Rugby’s case, he has a great, safe life with me, and I have worked to create an environment that is secure and happy for him.  I think that he’s very happy here.

Contrast Rugby’s body language hanging out on the patio in the back yard where he feels absolutely safe and relaxed.

But his world is so very small, and so very predictable.  Every time he was adopted out into an new home, he had to learn to trust new owners and figure out a new world with new rules all over again.  And over and over, he was surrendered to another home and new owners who started the process all over again.

New rules for living in a new house.  New hands on him.  New voices either speaking loving words or spewing mean, hateful things.  The only thing that I think was probably consistent for him was the inconsistency of his life.  So he learned to cope….to get by…to survive.  After so many homes and so many experiences with such a very young puppy….in his formative months….trust in humans to keep him safe and help him understand the scary stuff all around him just didn’t happen.

When the humans left to care for him didn’t carefully help him work through his fear and anxiety, he learned not to trust humans for help.  It took me five years to see Rugby transform to the point where he frantically ran to me with a pleading look in his eyes, asking for help when something scared him.  That was a huge milestone in our relationship together, and the beginning of his learning to trust humans.

This snuggle was one evening after we had had contractors in the house all day repairing storm damage when a tree fell on our house. Rugby was soooo happy to have me all to himself, and a quiet home!!

I’ll be writing more about this topic, because so many dogs that I see and train are fearful, and there is so much that owners can do to help their dogs feel safe and learn how to work through their fears!




Saturday Snicker: Bubba Teef and Why Rugby Speaks Wif a Lisp!

Bless him, Rugby is a little dog from East Tennessee!  He absolutely fits into the hillbilly stereotype of missing some of his teeth! Here’s the story:  He had beautiful, straight teeth  and a pretty scissors bite when I brought him home as a puppy.  They were pearly white, and I’m pretty sure when he smiled, you could even see a little “sparkle” on them to distinguish him as extra handsome!

However, probably about four years ago, two days before Christmas, he aggressively went after one of his polka dottie piggies when he heard a trigger sound, and he bonked his mouth really hard against the basement floor as he went after his pig.  In the process, he knocked three of his top, front teeth loose!  I went to the vet that afternoon, because he was clearly in pain, and one of the teeth fell out in her hand during his exam!  One of them fell out later, and the third one reattached itself, but it had moved, and became crooked as it re-anchored.  It looks like he has a big space on either side, and it’s right in the middle, crooked, but proud!

And then two years ago,  I noticed a swelling on his lower gum, and decided to keep an eye on it.  It started to grow, and as it grew, over the course of two or three months, I noticed that his lower front teeth started to move because they were being displaced by the growth on his gum.

If you look at his bottom teeth, you can see the large dark purple growth that was starting to shift his teeth out of place.

I mentioned it to his vet at an appointment, and she was very concerned when she saw it!  Two days later, he had surgery to remove the growth, and four bottom front teeth became casualties in the process! What was left after surgery, was an adorable crooked smile, that is so very endearing to me!  When he has his mouth open, he always looks as if he is trying to tell me something!

I giggle every time I catch him showing off his Bubba teef, and when he sleeps, his little tongue often sticks out in front, probably because there really aren’t many teeth to hold his tongue in his mouth!  It’s hard not to snap photos of him, because he is so flat out adorable sleeping with his tongue poking out!

So now you know the story behind how Rugby ended up with his Bubba teef, and you’ll also understand why he speaks “wif a lisp!”


Setting New Goals for 2017

Ah the smell of a brand new year!!  It’s so squeaky clean, and I always really love it when the calendar is brand new!!  Somehow, a new year always seems full of hope and anything feels possible!  I don’t set any New Years Resolutions, because for me, I might just as well stamp “epic fail” on anything that has the word “Resolution” attached to it!

Don’t get me wrong!  I like setting goals, and I like working toward achieving them.  I’m an eternal optimist!  I really am.  At my house, the glass is always half full.  When it’s a rainy day, if there’s a break in the clouds, I’m the one looking for the rainbow to appear at any moment!  It’s just who I am.  I have to admit that Disney’s “Pollyanna” is a favorite movie.  I love how she thinks and approaches life!

However, I’m also a realist.  Even though I’m optimistic about things in life, I understand the reality of life, and the limitations that are presented to all of us.  This is definitely true in my work with dogs.  I am always always hopeful that a reactive, emotional dog can change his way of thinking and responding to life.  It’s what keeps me working.

However, I know that realistically, much of the success with any given dog will be up to the dog himself to connect the dots and work through his issues to learn new behaviors.  Not all dogs can work through the process and I understand that.  Sometimes, the behavior has gone on for so long, that realistically, I’m not likely to change anything.  However, as long as the dog and owner want to try, I’m your girl, because I’m all in if there’s hope for change and a willingness to try.

I think dogs must surely be the most hopeful creatures that God has ever created!

So having said all of that, how in the world do I set any measurable goals in my work with Rugby James?  He’s soon going to be ten years old. Realistically, much of his behavior is pretty well set into stone at this stage of his life.  I’m not likely to see him completely stop resource guarding or learn to accept strangers or dogs.  For nine years, we have worked on these issues, and for nine years, I’ve seen some good results, but the changes have come in baby steps and with a whole lot of hard, consistent work.  In some situations, he can be an absolute rock star, and in other situations, he melts down into a ridiculous barky, reactive mess of emotion.

As a result, I’m selective in who and what I expose him to, and I’m always prepared for the worst possible behavior to erupt.  Because Rugby can be aggressive, I always have a basket muzzle if I ever think there’s a possibility that he could become dangerous.  He always wears his Thundershirt when we go somewhere.  I always use a harness with him, because if the situation goes south, I know I can’t physically harm him, if I have to give him a big tug on the leash to get him out of a situation.  And with Rugby, he’s far less reactive on a harness than he is on a buckle collar, so using a harness just makes good sense for us.

Generally, for all exams, Rugby sits/lays on my lap. I’m hoping to get him more comfortable on the exam table being handled by the vet staff.

Rugby is a dog who needs a small world.  He can’t cope with the everyday situations that other dogs can manage.  So I focus on improving the quality of his life within the confines of his small world.  I try to improve things where he simply has to be exposed:  the vet and staff, his house and yard, neighbors, friends, etc.

We have occasional fun outings to walk in a cemetery, for example, but I can’t do them very often, because Rugby gets very stressed if they are too frequent.  He loves to do the occasional field trip, so I try to schedule outings when it can be fun for Rugby and I know that he will have a successful, positive experience in the process.

This year, I hope to have some additional success in exposing him to the vet staff with “friendly vet visits.”  These are visits in which I simply take Rugby to our vet clinic during a slow period so that the staff can pet him, talk to him, and offer him treats.  That’s it.  It’s a friendly visit, where there is no poking or prodding, and his interactions with the staff are all positive and good in Rugby’s eyes.

If you look carefully in this photo, you’ll see Rugby wearing his basket muzzle. I never know when a dog will walk out into the lobby, so I’m prepared to keep all of us safe and secure….just in case!

Depending on how he does, I want to see if this year, I can get him comfortable being handled on the exam table rather than my lap.  He’s done super well with friendly vet visits this fall, and his vet said that his most recent annual exam was the best she thought he’d ever had.  I felt ten feet tall hearing that!  I was able to get him on the exam table for part of his exam, and he tolerated things really well for the most part.

This year, I hope to get him more comfortable watching humans walk in and out of the clinic without melting down.  He doesn’t cope well with change, so getting him to handle surprises like a new stranger coming into the clinic without completely freaking out would be great!  So far, this has been absolutely hit or miss with very little predictability in how he will respond.

At home, I hope to work more on getting him to tolerate our neighbors having friends over for cookouts in their back yards.  Rugby typically finds it necessary to announce to the world that the neighbors have guests over, and while he may feel that it’s important to bark loudly and for a long time, he really needs to learn that they honestly will not cook and eat him!  His primary concern is that it upsets the peace and quiet of his back yard, which is secluded and offers the same back yard experience day after day.  That’s the way that he likes it:  quiet, predictable and safe!  He loves the occasional squirrel or chipmunk surprise, but never appreciates people or dog surprises!!

I’d like to do additional yard training in the front yard, to see him feel safer outside the fence, trusting that I’ll have his back and keep him safe.  Right now, he’s clearly anxious, and his body language says that he’s very uncomfortable, and ready to explode at a moment’s notice. I’d like to see him improve with being able to see his neighborhood when nothing is happening, and learn to relax.  That’s really never, ever happened.  It will be a tall order!

In this photo, Rugby has “bunny ears” pinned back, and has not rolled over on his hip. It’s impossible to see in the photo, but his elbows were barely touching the grass.  He was unable to look at me or focus on a treat. He was ready to spring right up at a moment’s notice!

And those are our goals for 2017.  Some are realistic and more measurable.  Others are a bit lofty, but I think it’s good to have some balance with reality and daring to dream!  I want to give Rugby the chance to simply amaze me!  I always say that any progress forward is good progress, so even if it comes in the very familiar baby steps, I’ll take what I can get.  I’m an optimist, remember?




Looking Back at 2016: A Progress Report for Rugby: Part Three

For most people I know, 2016 has been a year full of challenges, and not all of them good ones!  This certainly was the case at my house as well!  In late February, Michael’s dad passed away, so we had to travel out of state for his funeral.  Because of Rugby’s shelter background and his trust issues with me, I’ve never left him at a boarding kennel, or even with a pet sitter.  That meant that he needed to come with us on this sad journey, and so I packed his bags and crossed my fingers that all would go well.

Rugby’s Big Adventure

We were gone about 8-10 days, and much of that time was spent in one motel room after another.  Just before the funeral, I became sick on our trip, so Rugby and I snuggled together in bed at the motel.  I was SO proud of my Rugby James!!  I think he knew that I needed to have him behave well, because I’m sure he felt my stress and worry, and he knew I was sick.

He coped so very well with it all, and handled every new situation like a champ! For every single day that we were gone, it was one change after another, and Rugby managed it all so much better than I ever expected.  I’m pretty good at dodging and weaving strangers in public places, so that helped!  And, we were also in a small city motel in the off season, so things at the motel were largely pretty quiet for us.

Our homecoming after such a long and stressful trip was one of the best for Rugby.  I’m not sure he ever thought that he would see his familiar home and yard again.  When I carried him in the house after being gone for so long, I’ll never forget Rugby’s joyful response!  He raced through the house…on the furniture….off the furniture….lots of very excited barking and piggie grunting!  That’s a memory I know I’ll never forget!  (I wrote a series of eight blog posts entitled “Rugby’s Big Adventure” if you want to read the fine details of our trip).

Summer Storm Damage to our Home

In July, we had a series of bad storms roll through, and tree limbs took out our fence and a tree fell on our house!  For days after that, Rugby’s quiet house and yard became a beehive of activity with insurance adjusters and contractors in and out of the house all day….every day.  He did not cope well with any or all of that ordeal, which was no surprise.  We got through the experience, and Rugby was hoarse for a few days, and that was that! ( I wrote a three part series called “In Which Stormy Weather Hits Home” if you want to read more details about our experience).

Nail Trims

Rugby has never been a fan of being groomed in general.  Baths, being brushed, nail trims, etc. are never anything that are fun at our house.  Rugby tolerates all of it at best, and it’s always a bit of an ordeal.  In the past several months, I have switched to a battery powered dremel tool to trim Rugby’s nails, and he will allow me to do them by myself now! The new dremmel is so very quiet, and I don’t think it gets as warm on his nails, so he’s able to tolerate it much, much better! I don’t generally get all of them done on the same day, but it’s huge progress that he lets me do them all by myself, and stays reasonably calm about it!  I can see a day coming where he will allow me to do them all on one day and that’s huge progress for this little dog!

Vet Visits

Rugby just had his annual vet visit in early December.  I’ve been doing some friendly vet visits for several weeks in preparation for his exam, and that investment of time and energy has really paid off nicely!  My vet said that she thinks that this was his best visit yet!  He allowed me to put him on the exam table, which he normally won’t do at all.  He did get a little growly in a couple of situations, but I’m blessed to have a vet who lets me call the shots (no pun intended) and she backs right off when I see that Rugby needs space.  As a result, Rugby has learned that I have his back, and he trusts me when he gets scared at the vet.  The friendly vet visits will continue in the upcoming year and I hope that Rugby will become good friends with the staff….which would be a wonderful occurrence for them all!


Housebreaking Signal

One last thing that has changed in this past year is sure to make you smile!  It’s how Rugby signals to let me know that he has to potty.  In our first home, Rugby always went to the sliding back door and pawed like crazy.  Then we moved to a split foyer home, and he began to bark at me, since the sliding back door was on the lower level.  We now live in a ranch home, and he’s continued to bark to me to let me know when he wants to go outside.

When it’s evening, and he needs to poop, he will often grab the leg of my jeans and start to tug really hard.  That’s a clear signal that he really has to go, and he’s not kidding!  He only does it at nighttime, and it’s random, but at least once weekly.

Lately, he’s begun barking at the back door when he wants to go out!  He’s done it far too many times for it to be coincidence, but it’s not frequently enough that it’s become a habit yet.  Why or how he has decided to do things differently is anyone’s guess!  It’s hit or miss at the moment, but it’s very interesting to me to see how this signal has made changes and progressed over the nine years that Rugby has lived with me.  This alone is reason enough to never give up on him!  His behaviors are always in flux, and he learns new things and changes day in and day out….in baby steps!