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!




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

Living safely with Rugby always has to center around his crazy reactivity to sights and sounds in his environment.  If he can learn impulse control, that will help not only with his frantic, worried barking, but his explosive aggressive responses to the things that trigger his behavior.  He’s soon going to be ten years old, and speaking realistically, things are what they are, and I’m not holding my breath for him to sort all of this out in the senior years of his life.

However, I’m also an eternal optimist, and as long as Rugby lives under the roof of my house, I’ll continue to work on things in some form or fashion, because 1) he loves to work, 2) it improves the quality of our lives, and 3) why not?  If he can make progress forward, even if it’s in baby steps, why not give him the opportunities to try to improve and grow?  It hurts no one to try, and I’m all for trying!

I think far too often, when we work with our dogs, our eyes are always on the ultimate goal, which in Rugby’s case is his reactivity to his environment.  But if all I ever do is to focus on that ultimate goal, I will miss the happy little accidents that happen along the way in the regular course of work with him.  It’s not always about the final destination, but the wonderful events that happen during the journey from point A to point B.  In other words, don’t miss out on the journey, because you’re so focused on the ultimate destination!

If you live with a “Rugby” of your own, I really want to let that last statement sink in and make sense to you.  The memories that I will carry of Rugby are the hours that we’ve spent together, forging our relationship, and learning side by side.  We both learn in our work together. We both make mistakes together, and when we have successes, the celebration is so much more sweet because we’re in this thing called life together as a team!

Because Rugby’s progress is always a step forward and one or two backwards, I’ve learned to keep my eyes on the journey that we have together. That helps me remember to keep chipping away at his difficult behavior, and this way I can also see progress here and there as well.  It’s a conscious choice and decision to see the progress Rugby has made versus focus only on where he falls short.  I want to celebrate his success, not lament his failings!

From the time that Rugby was an adolescent, he has always had a very, very difficult time coping with watching his pack break up and leave the house.  It’s worse if both Michael and I leave together, but typically that doesn’t usually happen.  When the first person leaves, Rugby barks incessantly….and I DO mean incessantly….until that person is out the door.  He barks like he’s losing his mind, and the amount of barking nearly makes us lose ours!

On a typical work day, Michael usually leaves the house first.  Rugby knows this pattern all too well, so he is often a barky mess from the moment that Michael steps foot on the floor until he walks out the door, which can be thirty minutes or so.  I will freely admit that even with a cup of coffee behind me, ain’t nobody got time for that wacky behavior first thing in the morning!

I have done absolutely everything on the planet to get this behavior to stop!  And truthfully, all of the things that I’ve tried do work.  But  they all require that Rugby has to have a “babysitter” until the first person leaves.  As long as there is someone who is working with him pretty consistently for that thirty minutes, he can stay quiet, and he can focus on his handler, but he will definitely be very anxious about the whole experience until that first person leaves the house.  Once they are gone, Rugby moves on with his day, and everyone can relax!

Typically when the second person comes home, they are treated to some of the same levels of barking, but it’s generally a much shorter duration, and it’s excited barking versus anxious barking.  He will often find a piggie to bring to whoever is coming through the door, and then herding begins accompanied with plenty of piggie grunting.

Michael has been training Rugby to stay calm when I get home, since I’m usually the last one home at night, and Rugby has made huge progress in this department!  Again, it requires that Michael be actively working with him, but Rugby is responding very well, and it’s been good in building a nice bridge between Michael and Rugby as well!

Because of his background, I’m not sure he’s ever really going to be calm when one of us leaves.  I just don’t know how many times people that Rugby loved and trusted walked out a door never to return.  He feels a sense of panic when he sees that first person leave, but can easily transition once they are out of sight, which is wonderful!

Rugby just doesn’t cope well with most types of change, and when he can sense change is coming, he loses it!  However, the work that we’ve done in working through this issue has seen a good improvement in Rugby where focus is concerned.  He’s doing much better with his focus, and even though we have good days and bad days with this one, he does seem to understand what to do, and that’s progress in and of itself!


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

It’s that time of year again!  As one year ends and another looms on the horizon, I often reflect on the current year which is ending, and set some goals for the upcoming year.  Recently, I reminded myself that it was time to look back at Rugby’s progress in general.  When you live with a high needs, special needs, difficult dog, life is so often just a roller coaster.  Many of the individual days with Rugby are accented with mountain peaks of success and valleys of dismal failures over and over.  And often, there can be more valleys than mountain peaks in individual days.

It can be both frustrating and discouraging.  When I had my very stable and well bred Corgi puppies, we went through similar things.  The difference, however, was that I knew that they would grow up and the naughty behavior would eventually become extinct.  Without fail, in every instance, it did.  Rugby has been the perpetual challenging dog who can’t always seem to connect the dots on his negative behavior. Even after nine years of work with him, there are many things that keep him as a perpetual naughty dog, although he always trends toward general overall improvement…but in his baby step sort of way.

Adjusting Expectations

With Rugby, the progress has typically always been very slow, and often comes in baby steps.  In my early days of living with him, this was very hard to accept.  As a professional dog trainer, I’m blessed to work with wonderful dogs of all kinds, from strays to shelter dogs, to well bred, pampered dogs, and everything in between!  In most cases, I see those dogs make progress in leaps and bounds as they figure things out and the new behavior takes root.

With Rugby, so many of our early days were spent in trial and error, trying to understand and trust each other, and then figuring out what training methods seemed to work the best for him.  To be perfectly honest, in many cases, it was more error than success, and Rugby has been a wonderful and patient teacher while I have figured things out with him.

I’ve had to adjust my expectations with Rugby.  He is his own measuring stick.  I’ve had to learn to let go of my expectations of who he should be and let him just be who he is.  He’s definitely his own man.  Without a doubt, he’s a free thinking dog who has a brain and emotions and isn’t afraid to use either of them!  He lacks a lot of impulse control, and really isn’t very interested in learning about it.  It’s been our biggest obstacle in his progress.  He frustrates so easily, and just erupts into negative emotional responses…which are sometimes aggressive….and very often, those reactive responses continue far beyond the removal of the stimulus.  Once he’s all wigged out….he stays all wigged out for a long, long time, even after the stimulus that triggered the outburst is long gone.

So much of our work together is training on impulse control, teaching Rugby calm responses to trigger stimuli, and then teaching him how to calm himself quickly, once he’s in full bloom!   This is often where it’s most difficult to see consistent progress.  He’s a big worrier, and that definitely affects his responses to various stimuli! So much of his responses simply just depend upon the specific stimulus and the individual day.  Some days he amazes me with his ability to use self control, and other days, it’s like he’s completely clueless.  He will often look right at me, completely out of control, barking like crazy, with a look on his face that says, “Help me.  I can’t stop myself.”  It’s almost like his “on” switch, is permanently switched to “bark loudly and frequently,” most often over virtually nothing!


New Progress With the Garbage Disposer!!

As a result, it can be a bit tough to gauge his progress, because it’s such a slippery business.  Of note, however, is the fact that he’s doing better with the garbage disposer!  This reactive behavior started on a random day when he just decided that he no longer liked the garbage disposer.  Initially, he reacted only when he heard the garbage disposer running.  However, this has been a very difficult issue to train through, because once he decided that the garbage disposer was public enemy number one, he often started his crazy barking when I would simply turn on the water at the kitchen sink, in anticipation that I would maybe use the disposer.

This is where I’m both proud and frustrated with my little dog!  Rugby often reacts ahead of the triggers….because he understands patterns pretty clearly.  That tells me just how smart this little guy really is!  And, he has a memory like a steel trap if it’s something that he doesn’t like very much!  As a result, he can latch onto a behavior after just seeing or hearing it one time, if the trigger is strong enough.  I never, ever know what will trigger him, because he can go along just great with things and one day decide that he’s just not going to tolerate something anymore!

As a result, I have to constantly mix up my own patterns of behavior to help prevent new triggers from getting rooted!  It means consciously, carefully thinking about my movements and any noises I make throughout my day.  My little dog is always watching, and he fires up with out much notice or trigger!  It can be a challenge to stay two steps ahead of Rugby James!

Where the garbage disposer is concerned, Rugby has improved to the point where I’ve discovered that if I catch his attention before I turn on the sink, I can tell him to “Leave it” and flip the switch and he’s stayed calm!!  If I don’t catch him ahead of time, he still wigs out, so we definitely have more work on this one, but we are headed in the right direction, anyway!

I have to make sure that he is in the kitchen when I turn the disposer on, and get his full attention and focus before I flip the switch.  Training through this issue has helped me to realize that Rugby can stay calmer with virtually any noises if I can give him advanced warning that a trigger is coming.  Where he really struggles is when he hears random noises….inside the house or out in the neighborhood….and can’t readily identify them before they happen.  He just explodes in crazy barking in those situations, and it’s been so hard to train him through them, because I never know when they will happen, so I can’t set him up with a new neighborhood dog barking, for example.  But he has made some good progress with the garbage disposer this year, and that’s been a relief!

What I’ve learned with virtually anything I’m training, is that working through those tough issues is very often one step forward and two steps back.  It’s tempting to give up, but the reality is, that I never know when and if Rugby will suddenly figure something out, so I never, ever want to give up on opportunities to give all of us a better quality of life together.  We definitely take a team approach to life at my house, and it can sure make bad days easier to tolerate when you choose to view your dog as being a beloved member of your team rather than the enemy!


Tuesday Training Tip: Don’t Tear It UP!!

Mama Sally:

Rugby came to live with me when he was 8-9 months old.  I knew nothing at all about his past other than I was his fifth home.  I can’t tell you if he had good and loving homes or lived as a stray on the streets for part of his life, just trying to survive.


One thing I know, is that when he walked into my house and saw five toys laid out on the floor for him to play with, his little eyes sparkled and he came to life!!  He went from one toy to the next to the next to the next, trying to decide which one to play with, and wanting to play with all of them at once.  It was as if he couldn’t believe his good fortune to have five toys of his very own!

I remember almost getting tears in my eyes watching the look on his face.  He was so delighted!  Even after nine years, I can see that memory in my mind as clearly as if it were yesterday.  Toys have always mattered to my little speckled and spotted dog, and it was so much fun watching him investigate and have fun with them on that first day.


Over the next several months, we went through the massacre of several toys once Rugby was comfortable in his new home.  From eight to eighteen months, he was hellbent on destruction!    When it came to stuffed toys, he delighted in chewing off faces, feet, ears, tails, etc.  He was pretty good about spitting the pieces out, but I just didn’t want to take any chances with him eating something dangerous that I didn’t see.  Dogs can often swallow something that is too large for them to poop out, so if they don’t throw it up, it just becomes lodged, which will ultimately become life threatening.

So, I made the decision that Rugby needed to learn to play gently with his toys and not tear them up!  This decision was primarily a safety issue for him, but my checkbook thanked me as well!  Dog toys get expensive when they only last for a day or two!

The Training Method I Used:

Here’s how I taught Rugby to play gently with his stuffed toys!

When he got to the point that he wanted to destroy any soft toy that he had, I picked up all of this stuffed toys  and put them in a safe place.  I used stuffed toys only when I played fetch with Rugby, and then I took them away and replaced them with his safe chew toys when we were finished with our current game.  He was super happy to see his soft toys, and it really helped him learn to fetch well, because he wanted to play with whatever I held in my hand.  Once our fetching game was over, the stuffed toys went away and Rugby had his safe toys to play with….Nylabones, tennis balls, Kongs, etc.  About every three months, I’d try him out on soft toys to see how he would do with them.

Generally, until he was about 18 mos old or so, he continued to practice his destructive ways!  He only had to have five minutes with a stuffed toy before he began his reign of terror!  Because he chewed off small pieces like eyes, ears, tails, noses, etc., I bought stuffed toys without any decorative, small pieces to them.  I focused on basic shapes only….a bone, a Gingerbread man, a ball, etc.  He still wanted to tear those up, but he always started right at the tag since there were no decorative parts to chew off.  There is usually extra stitching right at the tag, and the tag itself provides a little resistance for a dog who wants to tug hard on it while holding the balance of the toy in his paws!

When I thought he was old enough to learn to play gently, I started training  him. Soft toys were given to him only when I could observe and train him to play gently with them.  I gave him a chance to play gently on his own with the command, “Don’t tear it up!”  as I gave him the toy.  When he would start to fuss at the tag, I cut off the tag, and sprayed the tag spot with Bitter Apple.  Then I gave the toy right back to him with the command, “Don’t tear it up!” Naturally he was offended with the Bitter Apple smell, and often just refused to play with his toy.  As the Bitter Apple evaporated and dried, he would often start to fuss at the tag spot again.  I would re-spray it and hand it right back with the command “Don’t tear it up!”  Over time, anytime he would start his ripping action, I would repeat, “Don’t tear it up” and he soon learned that if he didn’t stop ripping it, I’d spray it with the nasty tasting stuff and give it back.  He learned to mouth the toy gently and look to me for approval, so I made sure I praised him anytime he played gently.


It really didn’t take too long before he learned that mouthing his toys was okay, but tearing into them was corrected.  To this day, I honestly rarely EVER buy new toys for him.  I simply rotate the toys he already has, and he keeps them in very good condition.  Over time, his toys simply wear out from proper play versus destructive play.  Now, I can leave virtually any type of toy with him unsupervised, knowing that he understands the proper rules of play with them.

Some Important Considerations!

  • First of all, consider the age of your dog.  Young dogs, especially, really DO need to chew!  Puppies are losing their baby teeth between 4-6 months, and when their big kid teeth come in, dogs have a genuine need to chew in order to properly set their molars in the jaw.  However, that doesn’t mean that all of us have to sacrifice our financial future just to keep Sparky in toys!
  • Be sure to have an assortment of different types of toys to keep your dog from being bored. Remember that as puppies grow up, they will go through lots of different behavior and interest stages.  Toys that they destroy today may be toys that they will play with gently later, as well as toys that they show no interest in today, may very well be toys that they will love in a few months.
  • Carefully observe your dog to be sure that he’s playing safely.  Cut off strings, tags, and anything that can easily be swallowed.  Over time, you’ll figure out what sort of toys are the types that are best for your individual dog, but there will be some trial and error in the process until you get that sorted out.  ALWAYS supervise until you know how your dog plays!
  • Consider the breed of dog that you have!  Dogs with very powerful jaws have a really strong desire to chew, and need much harder toys for play!  Soft toys may not be suitable for them.

Rugby James:

I remember when we hadda go frew this whole deal!  <insert eye roll here>  When I was a lil pupper, I used to get so sad that the Mama wouldn’t let me play wif MY toys the way I wanted!  Now that I’m all growed up, I know the rules, so I can enjoy all of my toys and the Mama doesn’t take them away from me anymore.


What she does, though is rotates them.  So I getsa have different toys every day, and that way, I just don’t get sick of playing wif the same ones over and over.  I getsa have 2 noisy piggies, 2 quiet piggies, a Nylabone wishbone, and 1-2 udder toys what can change every day.  Sumtimes I getsa ball or sumtimes it’s a fuzzy toy….whatever I pick out of my toy basket for the day.  It keeps me from getting bored wif my toys, on account of who wantsa see the exact same fings all the time?

Doggers is just like Uprights and we gets bored wif stuff too.  And sumtimes, when doggers gets bored, they get into naughty fings what gets them into trubbles!  When I getsa see my toys in my toybox, sumtimes I forgets I gots certain toys and when I sees them, I gets all excited like they is brand new all over again!  Give this a try and see if it makes toys last longer and more fun for your doggers at home!!  Happy playing!!  🙂