An Easter Story: Sir Panda Bear

For Christians, Easter has a very special meaning.  Easter is about the sacrifice of Jesus Christ and His death and ultimate resurrection.  It’s a story of loss and gain, of sorrow and joy, of despair and hope.  I want to share with you a very special Easter story that has touched me deeply, and I’m not sure that I’ll ever really be the same again.

As a dog trainer, I evaluate dogs prior to training.  I look at all kinds of criteria, but one thing I’m mindful of, is how the dog and owners interact, and whether or not I see trust or responsive behavior from the dog, and whether the dog fits well with the owner’s lifestyle.   Most of the time, I see a good dog, and a good fit, but once in a while, I’ll see that this particular dog in this particular home is like gas on a fire!  If the fit isn’t good, sometimes, training just won’t fix what’s needed.  Sometimes, the dog just needs a home that can supply what he needs in order to be healthy and happy and thrive.

Two weeks ago, I came across a very dangerous situation with folks who wanted to give their four year old the dog that he had been begging for,  and adopted a puppy without regard to breed, temperament, energy level, or leadership needs.  He was an adorable puppy, and he needed a good home.  He was six weeks old, and he came from a friend whose female had become pregnant accidentally.  His puppy Mama had only allowed three humans to ever get near her or touch her.  No one knew who or what breed his puppy Daddy was.  The puppy looked like a Corgi/ Jack Russell Terrier mix, and he was as cute as a button!!  They named him Sir Panda Bear, and brought him home with all of the usual excitement anyone feels when they get a new puppy! His new family had the best of intentions in wanting to give their new puppy a good home and life, but instead, what they got was a ticking time bomb.

Panda at 7 weeks Photo Credit: Barb Carson

At an early routine well puppy checkup, their vet had said, “You need to get this puppy some training!”  At a very early age, the vet was being able to spot a difficult temperament, and troubling behavior.   Not really understanding how serious things were, the owners never got around to seeking help, until things hit critical mass when the puppy was six months old.

Panda had always been a puppy with a lot of rough play and nipping and mouthing behaviors.  But things escalated when he had a couple of nasty bites with the parents over being asked to do something that he didn’t want to do.  Suddenly, they realized that this thirty-two pound, adorable six month old puppy could very seriously injure their son or a guest visiting in their home.  They called me to get some training for him.

Photo Credit: Barb Carson

When I arrived in their home, Panda was outside, sunning himself on a beautiful spring day.  He was a darling puppy, and I fell in love at first glance!  As we walked out into the yard, he came charging at me, barking, with full piloerection from collar to tail in a wide band, with the band of fur across his shoulders, higher and wider.  He stopped just short of me, and warily watched me, skittering a bit nervously when I shifted my weight from one foot to the next.  We went back inside for two to three minutes and tried coming out into the yard again.  This time, he didn’t bark, was calm, and cautiously approached to offer some very polite sniffing.  Once satisfied, he went on his way to explore his yard again.  It was clear that he was pretty scared around strangers, which is not a good behavior to see from a puppy!!

As we sat down to begin the questionnaire, he came running over to his human mom, and began roughly mouthing her with some pretty intense jaw strength.  I was told that this was his predictable behavior from sun up until close to bedtime most days.  Their son came calmly outside and I watched as Panda jumped on him and offered the same rough mouthing and nipping behavior, causing the child to wince, show fear, and pull into himself to withdraw from his puppy.

Photo Credit: Barb Carson

What was really alarming, was when the child began to jump on his enclosed trampoline.  Panda simply seemed to lose his mind over the activity.  He barked furiously from under the trampoline, jumping and nipping at the child’s feet over and over.  Again, lots of full arousal from the puppy, and piloerection across his shoulders and into maybe a third of his back.  When the child was ready to get off the trampoline, Panda was excitedly waiting at the ladder, ready to find success with the nipping and biting that he had not been able to successfully do while under the trampoline.  At his point, I had to  intervene, asking the child to wait and the adults to place the puppy on a leash before the child came down the ladder.  I knew a bite was moments away, and it was time to intervene in the situation before that happened!

Panda’s owners had resorted to using a tie out for him in their fenced yard to keep him away from biting their four year old son when he was playing outside. Photo Credit: Barb Carson

I really thought I had seen most of what I had needed to see about the dog’s negative behavior, and then the owners began to show me their battle scars from the puppy’s aggressive puncture bites.  They started to tell stories of his aggression, so I was all ears at this point.  His behavior went beyond the normal run of the mill puppy play biting, and into a more aggressive rough play all the time.  He produced aggression when pushed into something he didn’t want to do.  When aroused, he couldn’t calm himself, which is dangerous when small children are involved.  This is truly alarming behavior from a six month old puppy!

I knew that this puppy should never have ended up in this home.  The owners were clearly providing excellent physical care of Panda.  He was housebroken, up to date on his shots, neutered, and on monthly heart worm and flea and tick prevention.  He was very clean and at a very good weight.  Once on a leash, it was clear that he had been on a leash before, and he walked nicely with his owner.  But living well with a dog means being able to meet all of the dog’s physical, emotional, and mental needs, and this family simply couldn’t do that.  It was time to be frank and have an honest, open discussion with his owners about re-homing Panda.

Fortunately, they were in complete agreement with me, which was really a big sigh of relief.  I secured a promise from them to let me find a suitable home or rescue within two weeks, which they agreed to do.  They had obvious love for Panda, but his behavior was off the charts and creating a dangerous situation with a small child in the home.  They were quickly losing their patience, and things just simply had to change! I work with aggressive dogs as a dog trainer, but I draw the line at aggression with children in the home!

Before I left them, I gave them very strict requirements for Panda so that I would know that everyone would be safe until I could get him into a suitable new home.  They agreed to do everything I asked them to do.  So, with the time clock ticking, I left their home, knowing I would have to move quickly or this puppy would never make it.  I knew that if he had one more aggressive episode, he would likely be shot or surrendered to a local shelter, where he would have been immediately put down based upon the behavior that I saw in my visit to their home.

Photo Credit: Barb Carson

I knew that if Panda was going to stay realistically alive, it was on my shoulders…..a heavy weight indeed as I came home to stare into the eyes of my own thrown away puppy, Rugby James.  I didn’t want to fail Panda in the same ways that Rugby’s previous owners had failed him.  Panda was a puppy, a mere baby, just trying to figure things out in the human world.  I knew in the right home, this puppy would do well, because he wasn’t inherently a bad or aggressive dog.  He was scared in many situations and that’s what produced the aggressive behavior.  Otherwise, he was just a rowdy puppy with no boundaries for behavior.

I knew that placing Panda would be challenging, because most rescue groups don’t hang out signs saying, “Bring us your edgy or aggressive dogs!”  Rescues so often operate on a shoestring budget, and good foster homes are difficult to find, and fill up quickly with the number of dogs who need to be placed.  Finding a rescue group or foster home for a dog who is producing aggressive behavior when pushed into something he doesn’t want to do, is really tough!  No rescue wants to see any of their very valuable fosters or foster dogs injured by an aggressive dog who is being placed.  Dogs who are scared are more likely to be aggressive, and so safety with dogs like Panda becomes a huge consideration in any type of placement.

Photo Credit: Barb Carson

The honest truth, is that there really isn’t an easy place in the world for dogs who don’t fit a pretty standard mold of behavior.  Dogs like my own Rugby James often are bounced around because no one wants them. Rugby was repeatedly passed back and forth through multiple homes until he finally crossed my path and I chose not to give up on him.  My guess is that previous owners fell in love with how cute he was, but had no idea how to live with him, so out he went!!  With the level of naughty nipping and biting that Panda was already producing, I knew he wouldn’t get more than one chance to make it in the world, and he was just a baby at six months!  I had to find a home that was a good fit, or a rescue who could rehabilitate him, but where to start with a tough dog like Panda?

I contacted a Corgi rescue who told me that they didn’t think there was any Corgi at all from the photos I sent them, and they also had no fosters, yadda, yadda, thank you very much.  However, they were the catalyst in suggesting that I put a post on a Corgi Facebook rescue page, and mentioned key words that would turn heads!  So for a rescue that didn’t think he was a Corgi, they were actually the contacts who helped get the ball rolling for Panda to find his new home, and I’ll always be so very grateful for their help!

Such pretty pants on this boy!!

Once Panda’s post went up on a countrywide Facebook rescue page, within a couple of short hours, I had someone who said, I’ll work with him if you can get him here!  That someone turned out to be Brett Butler from Corgwyn Rehabilitation Sanctuary, and for thirty years, he’s been rehabilitating dogs at his farm in rural Iowa.  He’s fallen in love with Corgis, and they are the breed of dogs he currently works with.  He noticed right away that Panda was just a puppy, and like me, really wanted to see him have a chance at having a great life.

Panda at 12 weeks. Photo Credit Barb Carson

I breathed a huge sigh of relief knowing I had a definite place for Panda to go, but the transport turned out to be far more challenging than I had expected.  I knew of the huge network of drivers who selflessly donate time and hours to drive dogs from point A to point B. The problem was getting Panda from Chattanooga, Tennessee, to Iowa, which meant two days of driving, and multiple car and driver changes. I didn’t know how it could happen with an edgy, potentially dangerous puppy who was seriously afraid of strangers!

Photo Credit: Barb Carson

A really fabulous group of Corgi lovers circled me, all having different areas of specialty in the transport process. We all engaged in a Facebook messenger group chat to brainstorm and problem solve. Safety became the issue, and all of us were in agreement that Panda really needed to fly so that he could arrive at Brett’s sanctuary in hours rather than days.

The air transport coordinator began contacting her pilots to see who had time to fly Panda within my two week deadline, which was now under ten days.  Pilots promised to get back to her on it.  Meanwhile, we looked for a possible foster home, but I didn’t hold out much hope. Panda was a tough little nut, and I knew that he would really need to have a home where someone truly understood how to work with his aggressive bent.  As expected, there were no suitable foster homes.  Daily, his owner would faithfully text me for a progress report, and daily I mustered up encouragement about the progress we were making with his transportation.  The truth was, we were hitting one roadblock after another, but I couldn’t tell Panda’s owners about that!  I had to dispense hope, and buy time for Panda!!

Photo Credit: Barb Carson

A week into the process I received a rather frantic text from Panda’s owner saying that Panda had been really spun up that day, and she wasn’t sure that they would be able to wait the extra week. She wanted a foster home until we could arrange his transport.  And she asked the question I had been dreading, ” Did I have anything in place yet?”  My heart sunk, because this was my biggest fear!!

I dreaded the day that I would hear her say that she appreciated my help, but that they had decided that it was best to take him to their local shelter.  I asked her to hang on, reminding her that she had promised to give me two full weeks, and that they had agreed to that!  I reminded her of the safety rules I had put into place before I left their home, reminding her that those rules were going to keep everyone safe during the rehoming process.

Photo Credit: Barb Carson

Panic was rising in me, and I was trying to fight back fear while I waited to hear back about the flight schedule.  The transport team and I came to the conclusion that Panda and the family would be safest if we could put him in a boarding kennel until the transport could be arranged.  Trying to find pilots who were comfortable transporting a scared, edgy puppy who might bite as a major holiday approached proved to be very difficult.  I started researching possible boarding kennels, hoping that they would agree to keep that same scared, edgy puppy who might bite their staff!!  I found two kennels that might work, and contacted Panda’s owner, who shot down my idea.  She just did not want Panda to be boarded, because she knew that he would be scared, and she was worried about the safety of the staff.  So it was back to the drawing board as Panda’s owner reluctantly agreed to try to hang on for the balance of the week.

Photo Credit: Barb Carson

I was starting to really feel fearful for Panda’s safety, because unless we could pull together a fast transport, time was going to run out before I could rescue him.  It was time to post a prayer request for Panda’s transport on Rugby’s Facebook page.  One of his dear friends went to work behind the scenes, and a few hours later, I started to received email after email saying, “You have cash!”  A dear circle of dog lovers had sent me funds to pay for Panda’s transport and rehabilitation costs!  Flying him commercially became a new option, and really, our only shot!

Photo Credit: Barb Carson

Having never flown a dog before, I Googled “How to Fly a Dog on a Commercial Airline.”   I found a commercial business who did all of the work for the owner, and that was exactly what I needed.  Their reviews were really great, so I called them with excitement and hope rising.  In 24 hours, I left three messages and never received a return phone call.  In fact, in the six days since my original phone calls, they have yet to attempt to contact me at all!!  While waiting for them to respond,  I had watched another precious 24 hours slip by with no progress forward.  The clock was ticking, and I was starting to worry!

I truthfully did not know the first thing about flying a dog, but I was about to get a quick education!  The old saying that, “If it’s to be, it’s up to me” rang in my ears as I started the process of contacting the airline to get Panda aboard a plane and on his way to Iowa!  With no other options,  I decided that I was going to have to simply dive in and just sort it out as I went along!  It was now Wednesday.  Tick, tick, tick.  I had until the weekend.

Panda at 4 mos. Photo Credit: Barb Carson

The airline boarding request showed a flight available on Saturday, April 15th….the last day available to get Panda from his home and still be true to my word of keeping my end of the two week deadline!  I submitted the paperwork application online, and waited the airline’s 24 hours for someone to contact me.

As I waited, I knew that Panda would need an airline approved crate with a host of trimmings, so I started doing research while Panda’s owner tried to get reliable measurements from a six month old puppy playfully biting at her and her tape measure!  She sent me her very best guess, and we crossed our paws that the measurements were accurate!

Photo Credit: Barb Carson

Airlines have very particular requirements about the size of the crate and how the dog has to fit inside it!  Not even the tips of a dog’s ears can touch the top of the crate or its sides.  Clearance around the dog is very important, and they refuse to bend on these rules at all.  To be absolutely safe, I ordered a crate that I guessed would be too big, but that I knew would absolutely hold Panda and meet the requirements of the airline.  Thank goodness for two day shipping!  The crate and the extra kit of goodies needed to fly Panda were on their way to his owner!  Things were starting to finally fall into place, but if either of the shipments were late, all bets were off!

By Thursday morning, the airline contacted me about his reservation.  What exactly was Panda’s breed of dog?  Because of the breathing issues some dogs have, the airline restricts some breeds from flying for safety to the dog.  Not really knowing for sure what breeding Panda was, I told them my best guess, and waited again for confirmation.

Photo Credit: Barb Carson

Another email arrived in a few hours telling me that the crate was too large to fly on the jet that they would be using for his flight.  They sent me the maximum crate size that they would allow.  It was the next size smaller, and the one that I had originally thought would work.  However, it was likely going to be close with those cute ears of his!  With a Corgi, honestly, headroom is rarely ever an issue, but if the ears couldn’t touch the top of the crate, we could probably have an inch or less to spare!!  I told the airline that we would use the smaller crate, and waited again to hear back from them.

While I waited, I had to get the smaller crate for him.  However, it was now Thursday, and his flight was leaving  early on Saturday, so I had no time to order anything.  Nowhere could I find a company who could overnight his crate to his owner.  I knew that our only hope would be to call a local pet store and hope that they had exactly what I needed!  His owner told me that if I could find the crate she would pick it up.  Lo and behold, I found exactly what I needed, and they let me pay for it over the phone so Panda’s owner just had to go pick it up.

Photo Credit: Barb Carson

On Friday, the airline sent me an email with the proposed flight schedule, and it looked like all we had to do was wait for Saturday morning to arrive.  I was cautiously optimistic, waiting for the crate supply kit to arrive by the end of the day on Friday.  That supply kit had the required stickers, food and water cups, and metal screws and wing nuts to hold the crate together.  These things were required by the airline, and  I knew that without them, Panda would never leave the ground!  By late afternoon, the kit arrived, and I finally felt as if I could breathe for the first time in two weeks!

On Friday night, something just nagged at me to call the airline one last time, just to make sure that everything was in place for Panda’s flight.  Am I ever glad that I did!!  Somewhere along the way, Panda’s reservation had stalled, and the airline had not completed the final stage of getting things set up.  His reservation had not actually been completed!  Panic hit me in a huge wave,  and fortunately, I had a very kind, very patient ticket agent on the other end of the phone who quickly calmed me by telling me that he could easily complete the reservation for me and that all would be well for the morning.  It took forty-five minutes to an hour to complete, but I got an airbill number, and that was the golden ticket that I needed to get Panda on board.

Photo Credit: Barb Carson

Saturday morning arrived, and I left home at 5:20 am to be able to arrive at the airport by 7:00 am. Hopped up on coffee, I was bright eyed and bushy tailed, full of hope and excitement for Panda to begin a new life with someone who understood who he was and what he would need to rehabilitate him into a great puppy who could get a perfect home someday.

We started the check in process at the ticket window, and things seemed to be progressing without a hitch!  Panda would bark a bit aggressively if any other passengers got too close to him, but fortunately it was very quiet and few people were around.  The paperwork was long and boring, but finally, Panda was given last hugs, and placed into his crate for his big adventure.  The staff carried him into their back room, where he would begin the boarding process.

Panda at his airport check in! He was getting good and angry at this point!

We all smiled, and were just breathing a sigh of relief, when we heard Panda barking, and we knew that he was getting the last word!!  One of the staff members came back to us and told us that she didn’t think that they could take him because he was being very aggressive and she didn’t think the airline handlers would be safe.  I assured her that he was very scared, and that anyone with sense would  keep their fingers out of the crate!  With the nice ridge around the outside of the crate, he could be easily handled safely.  His flight was only five hours, so he didn’t need to be taken out of his crate until he arrived at his new home.  Grudgingly, she agreed, and we dodged one final bullet in getting Panda on his way.

Trying to get a family photo at the airport before Panda was loaded. He was like trying to photograph a flipping and flopping fish!!

After arriving at the sanctuary, Panda had the normal settling in jitters that I fully expected to see.  In less than twenty four hours, Panda was settling in nicely at Brett’s sanctuary.  He has been meeting some of the seventeen dogs who live there, and he is playing with them.  He’s stopped trying to nip at Brett every time Brett engages him, and he is relaxed and much more calm.  This puppy now has hope and a future.

What an absolutely incredible experience this has been for me!  The past two weeks have brought me emotions that were so high and so low that I can’t describe!  When I have thought back on this experience over the past twelve hours, I couldn’t help but think of what an Easter miracle this has been.  So many things had to fall into place at the right time for it to all come together as planned.  And at the very heart of all of it, is sacrifice.

The family is sad that they couldn’t give their puppy the life he needed, and they are sad that Panda couldn’t be the dog that they had dreamed of when they brought him home.  They trusted me, and made a sacrifice to let him go, trusting complete strangers to give their little guy a better life.

So many others have made sacrifices to give something of value to a family and puppy that they didn’t know, and will probably never meet. There were so many people who came together to help me with things I just didn’t know how to do, or really, where to even start!  Some sacrificed time, for others it was their expertise, and others sacrificed financially, but all of us came together to help one family and one dog have a better life.

When things in the world seem so very crazy and upside down, experiences like this renew my hope in life.  Just as the landscape around me is starting to green up and bloom and leaf out, somewhere in Iowa, there is a little puppy who has no idea what any of those sacrifices mean.  He’s just reaping the excitment of his new life, oblivious to the work behind the scenes that came together to make that happen for him.

Good has indeed come from a potentially dangerous situation.  The family’s anger and fear has been replaced with peace.  The panic I felt for much of two weeks has been replaced with calm. Joy reigns supreme over the entire experience, and hope in life has been fully restored.  Anything and everything feels possible once again!

And all I can say is, have a great life Panda!  God has special plans for you, and I can’t wait to watch you soar on new wings!







Mementos of Our Dogs’ Lives

For Christmas this past year I got a really unique and unusual gift from a dear friend who runs an antique store.  It was a box of very old dog tags that date from 1926 to 1950.  It’s a gift that I absolutely treasure!!

I’ve always been a big history enthusiast!  Maybe it stems from growing up in a huge Victorian-era house built in 1910.  It was a marvelous old home, full of history and stories of its previous owners.   I had a big imagination, and I loved to think about what life had been like at the turn of the century for those occupants.  I always wondered about the previous families and the kids who ran up and down the stairs and halls.  Did they get scolded for running in the house or for making too much noise on the wide pine floors?  Did those kids slide down the banisters just like I did?  What secrets or mysteries did the walls and floors of the house hold?

This was my childhood home, built in 1910.

And what about the family pets?  Did the previous owners even have pets? Were they allowed in the house with the family?  Did they enjoy sleeping in front of the fireplace as our Australian Shepherd/Border Collie mix had loved to do?

At the turn of the 20th century, most dogs were working dogs and not family pets in the same way that we currently think of a family dog.  They usually worked for their owners and had a specific job.  It was unusual for them to be allowed in the house to live with their families.  Generally only pampered dogs were allowed inside to live with their owners, and that just wasn’t all that common in the early days of the 20th century.  Things changed after WWII, and dogs started to take on the family pet role that we think of today.

Unwrapping the box of dog tags made my mind spin in circles!  As I looked at them carefully laid out in their keepsake box, they almost seemed too precious to handle.  Being a bit sentimental myself, I knew what these tags represented, and I knew the meaning that they would have held for me with my own dogs.  I didn’t touch them for a good long while, and then curiosity got the best of me, and I picked them up, trying to figure out which one was the oldest, and I put them in numerical order.

These tags are little treasures to me, and I absolutely love them!!

I was told that the tags had been purchased online from a museum that had received them as part of an estate that had been donated to them. No other information was known about the dogs that wore them, or the family who had owned the dogs.  The history of the tags themselves was very interesting to me.

Since the tags all came from one Virginia estate, it makes sense to me that these tags likely belonged to one or two dogs, since the years are sequential, and there’s only a three year gap between the first set and the last.  The first set of tags date from 1926 to 1936, and the second set  dates from 1941-1943 and then a lone tag from 1950.  Not knowing the breed of dogs, it’s difficult to know how long they would have lived, but an average dog probably lives 12-14 years, give or take.  Of course, a dog could have died younger, and another replaced it without any skipping sequence in tags, so there could have been more than two dogs.  It’s a mystery with no solution, so my mind is just working likely scenarios.

Most of the tags look like they are made of brass, except for two of the tags.  The one that was issued in 1943 is actually a tag made of pressed paper….a sort of cardboard.  That was a war year, and all of the metals were being saved and used in the war effort, so even dog tags weren’t exempt from WWII!  The tag issued in 1950 seems to be aluminum, just like you would expect to see today.

This tag is made of heavy paper….not quite cardboard, but close.

Some of the tags are so tiny compared to the current dog tags issued in my lifetime.  Each tag states the registration number, the state of Virginia, Male, and the year that the tag was distributed.  Some of the tags state “Male dog” on them.  Most of the tags are in unique shapes and sizes from year to year.  They also each have two holes on them, rather than the single hole that our current tags have.  I suppose that gave the owner the option to affix the tag flat to the collar, instead of having the tag dangling from the collar the way our current dog tags do.  I’m not sure how they were attached, but it makes sense to me that they might have attached them this way.  Perhaps the reason might have to protect the dog from getting them caught on anything, or from losing the tag altogether while he was working.

Many of them were unique shapes, but all of them have two holes drilled into them.


Some of the tags shared identical shapes, but only these two tags, from 1942 and 1943 are the only two identical tags that are sequential in years.

When I was a kid growing up in the 1960’s and 1970’s, most of the dogs in our small, Midwestern town just ran free.  There was no leash law, and no one had a fence to keep their dog at home in their yards.  Smaller dogs often didn’t leave their yards, but larger dogs just followed their kids around and explored all day.  At night, they came home to their family, and either slept on a porch or in the house, if they were allowed inside.

One of my favorite memories of our family dog, Lady, is that she loved to lay in the middle of the road for an afternoon nap!  We lived on a corner, and the roads were built of rock and tar, so the afternoon sun warmed them up quite nicely.  Lady enjoyed the warmth from the road and sleeping in a nice sunny place, and she often took her naps there.  The kind folks in our town just drove around her if she left them room, or honked to make her move if they didn’t have room to get around her.  They all knew that Lady liked to nap in the road, and it was no big deal.  It was small town living at its finest, and when I think back on those days I have to smile at the kindness of our neighbors!

These old dog tags just fascinate me! I try to imagine the dogs that proudly wore them! It’s impossible to know anything about the dogs, but the fact that the tags survived all of these years tells me volumes anyway.  My parents would have thrown out the old tag when the new one was issued, so it’s hard to imagine why the old tag would have been kept, unless it was for sentimental reasons.

Being a little sentimental myself, I like to keep little tokens like this.  They don’t take up much physical space, but they take up lots of room in my heart.  Looking at a dog tag makes me remember the life of a dog who held a place of honor and importance in my heart.  Long after my dogs run across the Rainbow Bridge, these little tokens of their lives matter.  They prove to me that my dog really did live, and breathe, and play and shed their fur all over my house!

In a day and age where animals in general didn’t have the value placed upon them that we see today, these small tokens from one family are so very special to me!  For these tags to have been saved from one year to the next, I have to think that this family loved their dogs, and wanted something to remember about them.  I want to think that they were crazy in love with their dogs, just as I am about my little Rugby James.  In my heart of hearts, I hope that the dogs’ owners would smile knowing that these small tokens of their dogs’ lives have ended up in the hands of a dog trainer who is crazy about dogs too.  It’s a fitting end, and a sweet remembrance that their dogs mattered and have not been forgotten.


Scary Things and Body Language

I’m big on reading a dog’s body language!  I look back on my early months with Rugby, and I see an epic fail on my part to fully understand what he was communicating through his body language and facial expressions.

As a dog trainer of many years and dog owner virtually my entire life, I had a very good idea of what my dogs were speaking to me most of the time.  I recognized many of the common signals that all dogs use to speak in some form or fashion.

However, until I lived with Rugby, I didn’t realize how many different ways a dog can communicate fear and anxiety.  I didn’t know how much Rugby was constantly speaking with his body and face, and I didn’t realize that I could mimic some calming signals right back to him with success!  If I had known this information in the early days of my life with Rugby, I might have seen him deeply trust me sooner, and I might have seen much more progress from him in those really critical late puppy months when he was sprinting into adolescence and adult behavior!

When Rugby is fearful, he furrows his brow, and pulls his ears up much higher on his head. He often loudly pants when he hasn’t had any exercise, and his body is very stiff.

When dogs are really fearful, and an owner disregards that fear, it’s like throwing your dog under the bus.  When high emotions of any kind hit your dog, no new learning is taking place.  This is why even excited dogs can’t easily comply with known commands.  Think of your dog’s response to a doorbell ring and company coming in. When I arrive at a lesson, I often hear owners telling their dogs to sit and stay on the opposite side of the door, and I know that the moment the door opens, that dog is flying up to jump on me.  The excitement has overruled any thinking taking place in your dog.  It takes time, practice, and maturity for a dog to work through the over-excitement to respond consistently to given commands.

When fear is the emotion, however,  your scared and fearful dog is simply thinking that he has to survive.  His survival instincts kick in, and the situation can quickly morph into fight or flight.  When a dog trusts his owner or handler, he can learn to ask them for help.  But when there’s no trust, your dog will feel very much as if he’s completely on his own in the scary situation.  This is why it’s so very important to read your dog’s fearful, anxious body language.  Dogs will often quickly show anxiety or fear in their body language, which will give an alert handler time to respond in a helpful way, which will engender trust from your dog!

Rugby had been in our home for less than an hour. He was heavily panting, his ears were flat and pulled tightly back, and he was leaning against my leg for support.

When Rugby is overwhelmed, even to this day, fight or flight is exactly the behavior that I see from him.  Once he’s outside the safe parameter of his yard, he is very tense overall.  His ears are high on his head, and his forehead furrowed.  He starts a heavy pant when he’s had no exercise.  He looks frantically left and right, trying to see something scary before it sees him!  He often yips an excited, high pitched yip, and he starts to pull on the leash as he looks frantically around him.

Rugby working on a Down/Stay in our front yard. He is very tense, his body stiff, and his ears pulled tightly back into “bunny ears.”  He’s tightly bunched up, as if he wants to make himself invisible.

Once he sees or hears a trigger. he tries first to bark….to keep the scary things away, and then he runs, as if barking and running will keep him alive.  Because he thinks he’s trying to save his own life, in his mind, he can’t stop either behavior and still survive.  In our early days together at home, this was my daily life….trying to catch my little spotted greased pig who evaded capture like his life depended upon it!  This behavior happened multiple times every day and for twenty to thirty minutes each time.  No matter how much you love your dog, that’s some wacky behavior to live with on a daily basis!

My first step was to stop the running behavior by leashing Rugby to me, so that he would have a safe protector in his corner.  I wanted him to learn that coming to me would always be his best line of defense…not running and barking to escape!  Puppy Rugby did respond well to this training, when the stimulus wasn’t too big, and as long as we were inside the house.  Big issues or moving outside saw a completely different response from him.  I had the opportunity to reinforce the behavior I wanted from him much more easily since he was right next to me. Rugby did continue to bark….only now, he was leashed to my side doing it!  Ugh!  However, he did stop barking a bit sooner than he had when he was running through the house, so I knew I was heading in the right direction with him, anyway!

Outside, because we didn’t have a safe fence to contain Rugby, he was always on a leash.  Instead of running to escape when triggered, his responses included lunging against the leash and wild barking, and when that was unsuccessful, he turned to aggressively bite the leash to free himself so that he could escape.  He usually managed to snag the leash, but there were a few times that he missed and got me instead!  Clearly, he was one scared, reactive pooch, but it has always been puzzling and challenging to know how to help him work through this issue because he reacts negatively in a nanosecond!  I can rarely get enough lead time to set up a successful trial to teach him new behavior.

When your dog is aggressively barking on walks, it’s absolutely terrifying!

When you’re a handler with a fearful, reactive dog, time and distance are your best friends.  Having distance from the stimuli gives both you and your dog time to think of and plan for what to do, and time will give you a buffer to re-direct your dog into new behavior so that he can learn to respond differently.  In Rugby’s case, if he hears a trigger he immediately reacts, and his sight triggers with dogs often start at a football field distance from us…that’s 100 yards!!!  It’s been virtually impossible for me to get the really tough stimuli far enough away that he can stay calm at all.  He often negatively reacts at everything….just in case!

In my early socialization work with Rugby, I missed his early anxious signs:  yawns, whale eyes, heavy panting, lip licking or a tongue flick, etc.  I am sure that he exhibited these obvious signals throughout our walks together, but I was focused on other things on our walks.  When he was showing obvious signs of fear that I recognized, by that time, I couldn’t get him far enough away from the scary thing or help him calm down.  I didn’t realize it at the time, but I needed to start much sooner to intervene before he exploded into his meltdown.

I kept thinking that if he saw a neighbor’s scary garage door go up and down day after day, over time, he would be able to generalize that garage doors do go up and down, but they never eat small dogs on walks!  Instead of helping him work through his reactive fear, all I did was reinforce his fear of garage doors and things that move!  Instead of calming down on walks, he became more and more reactive, looking around him in a panic, wondering what awful thing would overtake him next!  In all honesty, I think that those early days of repeated exposure to fearful things still haunts our relationship to this day….some nine years later.

For many, if not most dogs that I train, this socialization method works, especially when food is used as a reinforcer, and most dogs do sort out something like a garage door, over time.  It often doesn’t take many exposures for most dogs to figure out what it is, and when a yummy treat gets shoved into their mouth, just at the moment the door starts to go up or down, over time, they learn to stop reacting to the movement or noise.  In Rugby’s case, he has always refused all food when we leave home….a huge indicator of his stress, because my little dog is a chow hound when he’s relaxed.

In his early life with me,  I kept thinking that Rugby just simply needed more exposure to generalize things that set him off. I just never realized how terrified he really was, and day after day, I exposed him to terrifying things, without offering him tools to cope.  I wish I had worked more on helping him cope with his fears, but I just didn’t recognize his behavior as having a fear base.  I thought it was simply a lack of exposure, which was likely absolutely true.  However, the lack of exposure created deep fears in Rugby that triggered his fight or flight responses, and I was completely clueless to what he was telling me right from the moment that I leashed him! Rugby became the Guinea Pig to teach this dog trainer a different and better way to recognize and handle fear in a dog!  This is exactly why all young puppies need massive amounts of socialization well into adulthood!!  Doing so will prevent your dog from being socially handicapped as an adult like Rugby is.

More than anything, I had hoped to give puppy Rugby a safe home and a big, big world!

To be sure, Rugby does trust me now, and for the most part, I really do think that he believes that I am in his corner to have his back and keep him safe.  However, there are still times when I see shadows of his old fears surface, and the look on his face and body tells me that he’s going to revert to old behaviors rather than trust me.  I’m not sure Rugby ever would have figured things out….even if I had handled things differently in our early days together.  He had many critical puppy months of improper training long before he came to live with me.  I do wish I could have a “do over” with Rugby, to fix the mistakes I made in our early days together.  Unfortunately, that ship sailed, and Rugby is who he is.  The good news, however, is that to this day, I closely watch every dog’s body language, and when they talk to me, I listen!!  I’m able to intervene so much quicker and help frightened dogs learn to work past their fears.

For more information on understanding what your dog is saying to you, please read a book review I did on a book called, “On Talking Terms With Dogs: Calming Signals” by Turid Rugaas.  Here’s a link to the post.  It’s a great read and one I recommend for every dog owner’s book shelf!



What Happens When I’m Sick….or Rugby’s Stealthy Sofa Stealing!

Recently I had the misfortune to be sick for a couple of days.  It was nothing serious, just a really bad sinus issue that wouldn’t drain.  I’m not sick very often…in fact, my last cold was about a year ago.  But, when I get sick, I’m usually pretty sick, and typically need to rest and recover for a few days.

Enter Rugby James.

On normal, healthy days, I rarely hang out on the sofa in a prone position.  I generally keep going like the Energizer Bunny, until about 9:00 pm, and then I start to crash!  At that point in my day, I simply go to bed, and Rugby couldn’t be more pleased with that.  He often likes to go to bed around 9:00, so when I suggest going and he doesn’t have to bark me to bed, he’s one happy dog!  He’d rather not nag, but when pushed into it, he can bark me off to bed like a champ!

However, when I’m sick, I’m often laying either in bed or on the sofa.  Rugby looks at these situations as prime snuggle opportunities, so I know that I’m going to be inundated by a twenty-three pound furry heating pad with long legs!  There’s a delight that I see in his eyes when he observes that I’m getting into a prone position, and he springs into action!  He’s not a little dog who lets any kind of wonderful snuggle opportunities slip past his ever watchful eyes!

I appreciate the sentiment!  I really, truly do.  It’s sweet, thoughtful, and completely self serving on Rugby’s part, but he is a little dog, after all, and I can’t blame him for wanting to capitalize on a good thing when he sees it!  And to be perfectly honest, when I’m sick, it’s nice to have a family member who dotes on me and wants to make me feel all loved up. (I know that Rugby is truthfully only caring about how he feels in these situations, but I can fantasize right along with the best of them!)

I typically choose the sofa when I’m sick, because I know Rugby feels very strongly about snuggling me back into good health, and I would rather not have to deal with being sick and also dog fur in my bed!  (Because of Rugby’s aggressive issues, I also keep my bed as a dog free zone).  Rugby is extremely vocal and persuasive, and that comes with lots of grrrrring and barking, so I generally move to the sofa when I’m sick just to help keep the peace at home!  I honestly don’t mind if he gets on the sofa with me, as long as he asks permission first.  The bed…not so much!

Rugby says “Please may I get on the sofa” by sitting and quietly waiting for his invitation.

He can hardly wait for me to get the soft, fuzzy, snuggle blankie out before his bright little eyes light up and he starts the pleading looks.  It’s ridiculous the way this dog has mastered that sweet, soft beg in those two little dark chocolate drops peeking out of mountains of fluffy, marbled fur.  He’s almost become a professional beggar, and my show dogs had nothing on Rugby’s pleading looks!  He caps off his generous snuggle offer with a gentle brushing sweep of his fluffy tail, which slowly wags over his back to and fro like a metronome keeping precise beat for a musician.  How can I saw no to such sincerity?  Besides that, he knows he clearly has a strong advantage because he’s playing to my compromised mental and physical state.  I’m too weak to fight him off, so I succumb to the power of the paw and those beautiful, drippy eyes!


And who says that dogs are just dumb animals?

This is the face that starts it all! I’m powerless against those beautiful, sweet eyes!! I’m just putty in his paws!!

In my mind and dreams anyway,  I have this image of a sweet, dutiful puppy, who sleeps at the foot of the sofa, carefully making sure that I have all the room that I require, and looking up at me with adoring eyes from time to time.  However, when dreams and reality collide, sometimes the results aren’t pretty!!  Let me just say that we both have really great intentions, and the dream that we both share is a good one.  But that’s really where the similarities end!

The honest truth is that Rugby James is a sofa pig.  He is.  He just is.  Yes, the sweet, fluffy dog with those killer eyes and sincere angelic look is actually simply plotting a way to take over the sofa.  I’m convinced that is his ultimate goal in life when I’m sick.

He knows that the house rules require that he has to ask permission to get up on the sofa, and he’s extremely good about using his manners.  He can say, “Please” just about better than any dog I know.  That’s part of the issue for me.  When he’s so sweet to ask, and when he uses such wonderful manners, I sometimes feel like a Grinch if I tell him no, especially when I don’t feel well. So I cave in, and generally live to regret that decision, because it’s the exact same scenario played out each time I’m sick.

Every. Single. Time.

When I invite Rugby to get up on the sofa with me,  I always direct him down to my feet where there is extra room for him.  He gleefully jumps up at the far end of the sofa, no problem whatsoever.  But he quickly tries to maneuver his way to the middle of the sofa, where he can score a nap laying right on top of me, successfully pinning me to the sofa and ensuring that I can’t leave or easily boot him off.  In his heart of hearts, Rugby just loves a “puppy pile” where he can wallow all over his humans as he naps!  And, if he’s wallowing on me, he’s successfully stealing a large part of the sofa at the same time!  He’s stealthy, this one is!!

This is a mild “stink eye” because he genuinely wants to move up the sofa, but I have told him that he has to stay put right where he is!

I have to be quick to make sure that I prevent him from plopping down where he wants, because if I wait that extra nanosecond, he anchors himself in place and then there’s no winning in the battle for the sofa.  He’s not only adorable, but he’s cunning and quick like a fox!  He always looks a bit disappointed that I’m not allowing him to wallow all over me, but trust me on this one:  this story always has the very same ending, and it’s not a good one!

This was one of the most hopeful looks I saw from Rugby while I was sick. I think if you look up “HOPE” in the dictionary, this is what you will see!

At the foot of the sofa, he generally curls up in a ball, filling the adequate space quite nicely and he settles right down…wistfully looking at me from time to time.  It’s blissful for a while….maybe fifteen to thirty minutes anyway.  I look at him and smile, and in a few short minutes, I watch my little love sponge close those little chocolate brown eyes of his, and drift off into a sweet nap and I think to myself, “Life is good.”

After time goes by, Rugby starts to make his move.  He’s ninja-like….quiet and sneaky….stealthy and cunning.  He yawns….and stretches…..a big yawn, and a bigger stretch!  And so it begins!  As he stretches, he invades my space, and begins a systematic takeover of the sofa!  And he’s so stinking cute while he does it!  It’s genius!!  I’m completely disarmed by his good looks and that’s a brilliant plan!

The stealthy Ninja dog plots his next move….beginning with that charming face and sincere eyes….

What I really don’t understand is why Rugby thinks that he needs two sections of the sofa for his naps.  There are three sections to the sofa.  Clearly I need at least two of them.  I’m five foot four inches tall.  My full size doesn’t easily fit on one section unless I’m simply sitting on the sofa, which I rarely do when I’m sick.  I prefer to lay down, or at the very least, assume some similar position with my legs fully stretched out on the middle and third sections. Rugby clearly doesn’t think I should be entitled to that much sofa real estate.

He starts out on mostly one cushion section, but you can see the slow, steady progression as he is silently spilling over….

What really doesn’t make sense to me, is that we have a matching loveseat on the opposite wall of the den.  If Rugby really wants two comfy sofa sections for napping, he could ask for permission to nap on the loveseat!  He could easily have the entire thing all to himself!  But noooooo!  Rugby wants my two sofa sections, he wants his little puppy pile, and he is pushy and rude to get it all!

As the afternoon progresses, Rugby ends up laying on me in some form or fashion.  He is a master of  attaching himself like Velcro to human body parts! After a while, twenty-three pounds of a sleeping dog on your legs or feet will actually cause you to lose all feeling in them.  And really, who ever wants to disturb a sleeping dog?  Rugby looks so cute while he’s sleeping!  He is so angelic as he takes one deep breath after another.  My heart always sighs a big awwwww when I see him blissfully napping on me.

Eventually, I simply have to wake him up because I can’t feel my legs or feet, and I’m starting to cramp up after laying in the same position for too long.  When I wake him up, I always get his stink eye as I tell him that he simply has to move.  He often gets up and hops down on the floor, giving me a dirty look as he goes.  When I’m sick, I move his dog pillow bed so that it’s right next to the sofa to give him a cozy spot near to me, but the honest truth, is that when I’m sick, Rugby seems to think that his snuggles will make me well again!

Rugby offers an over the shoulder stink eye about having to sleep on his dog pillow!

Fortunately, I’m not typically sick for very long, which is a blessing in more than one way!  I can only take so much fighting over sofa real estate with Rugby James!  However, at the end of the day, these memories will be filed away into a very special spot in the file cabinet of my heart.  His sofa stealing behavior is both an annoyance and endearing, and it’s something that has always made Rugby a unique dog in my world.  All of my dogs have been so very special to me, but the memories I will have of Rugby’s Stealthy Sofa Stealing will earn him a very large trophy in my heart and smiles from ear to ear!