I Returned My Puppy

Today I did something I have never done before. I returned my puppy to her breeder. After 6 days at home. She was 17 weeks old. I have advised clients to do this very occasionally, but I have never done this myself, and I am battling loads of guilt and self doubt, and just plain sadness, pain and heartbreak. I’m writing this to help others know that there is no shame in returning a puppy or dog to a breeder or shelter or rescue. It doesn’t mean the puppy is “bad”. It doesn’t mean that you are “bad”. Sometimes it’s just the placement that is bad. There is such a thing as the wrong home for a dog, and there is such a thing as a better home for a dog.

I loved my puppy. Our family loved our puppy. Especially my husband, whom she especially loved right back. She was a Turkish Boz,, Nehir, which means river in Turkish. She was beautiful, smart, well put together, soft and loving with people, and eager to learn new things and experience the world. Her head and ears were covered in soft downy fuzz, and she enjoyed having those ears rubbed. Her body wiggled like a big spaghetti when she saw someone coming to pet her. She was a huge puppy, around fifty pounds. She was social and appropriate with our 13 pound dog. However, she hated our Collie, Merlin, from the moment she saw him. The first time they met, on a walk, he avoided her, looked away, curved his body away, she stiffened and air snapped at his flank. Things escalated from there.

I am a professional dog trainer, and a professional behavior consultant. This is my job. Though I am constantly second guessing myself when it comes to my own dogs, I do know what I’m doing, of which I was reminded by my husband, and many of my professional colleagues. I’d like to thank all of them for their support and guidance.

Our puppy did great riding in the car, walking on a loose leash, hand targeting, relaxing on a mat, meeting and watching new people, playing games, coming when called. She was an escape artist, though. She got out of the 10 x 10 dog kennel, and slipped a harness 3 times, and a collar once. She did not like to be contained at all. She did not like to be separated from her people, and made it known. We worked on that, and things got better. But her interactions with Merlin didn’t. All of my skills, all of the ways I know to change a dog’s behavior toward another dog, (and there are many!) did not work. She escalated her aggressive behavior toward Merlin. it got worse as the days went by. When she got loose, she went to the patio door to stare in and growl at him. On Day 3 we had lots of growling and snapping while on our walk. On Day 4, as he walked toward the house after our walk, she stiffened and held him in one spot. He tried to stay still, but I stupidly called him, and she grabbed him. They had a scuffle, from which Jacob and I had to drag them away.

The next day our puppy went with my husband, to meet another pup. She did very well. She was soft and appropriate. I was excited and thought maybe we’d had a breakthrough, meeting multiple dogs, maybe deciding that dogs were okay in general.

This morning, as soon as our puppy saw Merlin, she started yodeling, snarling, lunging at him. This was moments after a nose to nose greeting with our other dog. She was so frantic that we were unable to distract her, and could not take her on our walk. She took a long time to settle back down. Jacob had to remove her to another area by the outdoor kennel, and I knew when I had to text him from the driveway, to ask if he had her contained, that management was not going to work.

Why did I return my puppy? This was a bad placement for her, and for us. We all tried. We did all kinds of training. She did all kinds of learning. Her breeder advised. But in the end, she and Merlin have a personality conflict that is not going to go away. She is going to be an enormous dog, and one open gate could mean someone’s life. Is she a bad puppy? No, she is a smart, beautiful, engaging puppy, who happens to hate my resident dog. Is he a bad dog? No, but he triggers her ire in some way that is a mystery to me, so I certainly can’t change it, at least not in a reasonable, safe, period of time. I know that we need a livestock guardian dog that we can put in place, who will see our resident dogs as just more of their flock, and I know that she could not concentrate on that job if finding and eliminating Merlin is her biggest distraction. I know that management will fail in our home. A gate left open, a door ajar, a low fence. The more people living in a home, the sooner management fails. Then tragedy ensues. It was clear to me that despite intervention, the behavior escalated, instead of decreasing. I have a responsibility to my resident dogs to keep them safe in their own home. Merlin is going to be 10, he deserves to live his elder years in peace, not fear. I don’t want Nehir to bond to us any more than she already has, or us to her. I want Nehir to have a home where she can achieve her greatest potential. That is why I returned my puppy.

Does Your Dog Guard Resources?

It occurred to me today while working with a client’s dog that many dog owners really don’t know if their dog guards resources or not. So many people never give their dog anything that is truly considered high value by the dog, that sometimes we find out the hard way that the dog will guard something he or she considers valuable. Many dogs who live in single dog households also have never really had an opportunity to guard something from another animal, so it may not be recognized until later in the dog’s life, when he or she happens to have something valuable in the presence of another animal. I once had a client dog with no history of guarding begin guarding me and my treat pouch from the other household dog, she had never had a high value treat and wanted to keep them all for herself! We worked through it quickly and easily, because I recognized it immediately, she was not given the opportunity to practice it successfully over time, and, because training and behavior is what I do for a living, I already had a plan in mind to change that behavior quickly. But if the dog had been left to continue and become successful in the guarding behavior, it could have escalated quickly into a dog fight, and both the dogs, myself, and the owner could have been injured. Resource guarding is a normal, adaptive behavior in dogs. If a dog in a group of dogs with no human intervention didn’t protect what he had, he is likely to miss a lot of meals! Normal resource guarding looks like a slight hunch over the item, or lying on the item, a low growl in the direction of the other animal, a hard eye toward the other animal, and possibly a lifted lip.  In an appropriate interaction, the other dog will read the signals clearly and move away.  In normal dogs, I expect some low level of intra-species guarding (dogs guarding from other dogs), and some inter-species guarding (from the family cat,possibly), of things the dog considers super-high value. For instance, a raw, meaty marrow bone. The best policy for giving your dog a super high value food/chew object is to manage carefully, keeping the dog either in his or her crate, or in a space where no other animals or people will disturb him/her while chewing, until the dog has finished with it, or you are prepared to take the object away, by trading for a consumable of equally high value (slice of bacon, perhaps?). Resource guarding becomes maladaptive and unacceptable in household dogs when it is directed toward people, or is focused on various, random objects, like tissues, Legos, bits of paper, or specific spaces, like the couch, the landing on the stairs, or the space near a known food source like the pantry. The good news is, with professional help and good management, resource guarding is definitely modifiable, and most dogs who guard objects or space can be worked through the issue to the point of being safe for other people in the home. If you should happen to find out that your dog has started to guard something from you, don’t panic, don’t chase the dog, or threaten, it may cause your dog to swallow the object, or to bite you. Move away to a non-threatening distance, throw a high value consumable item, bacon, braunschweiger, cheese, etc., into an area with a door or barrier you can use to separate the dog from the guarded object, remove the object, then release the dog, and find a professional to work with you on this issue, before it becomes a bigger problem. If your dog begins to guard an object from another animal, move the other animal away, then trade your dog a consumable item for the object, and move it to a place out of reach of both animals. If the object was extremely high value, plan to manage your dog carefully next time he or she is given that sort of object, and don’t allow those items when both animals are present in unconfined space. If you feel that the guarding is escalating, consult a professional for tips on management and training plans to minimize risk for both people and animals. Things to remember about resource guarding:

  1. it is a normal behavior, but can escalate into behavior that can create a dangerous living situation
  2. guarding can crop up unexpectedly, the dog decides what is valuable, so watch carefully when giving new toys/treats/beds/etc.
  3. proactive management to prevent the guarding from happening is the best course of action
  4. If you have issues with resource guarding, working with an experienced professional who understands positive reinforcement and behavior modification, like a CBCC-KA, CAAB, or Veterinary Behaviorist, is going to be the most productive use of your training time and dollars

Treibball is a fun sport for ALL dogs!

I am currently teaching a Treibball class for two dogs, owned by two delightful trainers. One dog is a Border Collie, no surprises there, right? Herding dog doing a ball herding game. The other dog is, wait for it…a Chihuahua. Yes, a tiny, wee, Chihuahua. He is enjoying himself as much as the Border Collie, and learning the skills needed to play the game just as well as the BC. He may actually be more fun to watch!

My main goals as a trainer in Treibball classes are teaching my students to have fun with their dogs, what it means to work in tandem with their dogs, and the basic, foundation skills required to play the game. There are a surprising number of things a dog and handler need to know, before they ever even get to moving a ball!

If you are interested in playing a fun and challenging sport with your dog, which doesn’t require the handler to run much, and is still busy and exciting for both members of the team, come out and give Treibball a try! We have balls for all sizes, and rules of the game for dogs from teacup size to giant breeds! Kids and adults can play, pups and seniors, too!

My hope for the future is to be able to train enough Treibball students to form a team, or a league, and play together frequently! Come on out and join the fun!

Canine Life And Social Skills BA Level Evaluations!

Last night, 5 of my student teams from the last 3 sessions of C.L.A.S.S. did their formal skills evaluation for the BA Level. They were a self-selected group, and of the 5, one team, Deb and Zorg Frank, passed the evaluation, with Honors. At that moment in time, I was feeling terrible, and thinking I was not a good instructor and had somehow failed my students. In retrospect, after some time to process, and some input from students, and a half a night’s sleep, I have a better outlook!
After my initial distress about several students not passing the Canine Life And Social Skills BA Level Assessment, I have had some time to reflect. I think that it’s a great curriculum and a great assessment tool. I think it actually does require mastery of true public access skills, unlike any of the other assessments available for pet/family dogs. I really appreciate that it requires independent assessment from a qualified Evaluator (thanks again, Susan!) And I think my students did a great job. After all, this is what assessment is about, finding the points where you need work. If everyone passed, every time, the assessment would hold no value. Like any formalized competition (even ones in which you must meet criteria, not compete against other teams), if the criteria are so low that all teams meet them, it’s not much of a challenge, and doesn’t show much about the work you’ve put in, or your skills mastery.

I also am proud to have been among the early adopters of the program, and I think I’ve learned some valuable information about things to tweak in class, and ways to adjust class practice to prepare human students better for testing situations, and have their dogs rock solid for the little details that make all the difference.

Teaching classes is alway a learning experience for me, possibly even more than for my students.  I thank them for the opportunity to learn from them and their dogs, and I hope I get the opportunity to work with all of them again.  I hope that my skills continue to improve, as theirs have done.

I am excited to continue offering the C.L.A.S.S. series, and look forward to great success for all of my student teams in the future!

Working with My Own Dogs

I began writing this post on January 30th, and as I re-read it today, I realized that I haven’t gotten to work with the dogs every day, even though I’d really like to do so.  They are making some progress, though slowly.  We have been working on Pooch to 5K, to get them some basic exercise, and to get them fit for agility and running with me this summer.  Well, here’s the post…

This is going to sound weird, but for me, and I think for a lot of professional trainers, it feels like a luxury to work with my own dogs. Because my days are filled with other people’s dogs, and childcare and education, and because no one is paying me to work with my dogs, they are often bumped to the bottom of the priority list. I wonder why they act antsy, weird, and hyper, and I realize it’s because they are not getting enough training, or enough mental stimulation at all. So I have vowed to get at least a few minutes of work in with both of the boys every day, and with Nilla, if time allows. She is 13 now, and was always my husband’s dog (before we met, and still), so she doesn’t enjoy working with me as much as she enjoys his company.

Don’t get me wrong here, every day is work with the dogs, they have to work on house manners and basic social skills, and relaxing (not easy for the herding dog crew!), but they don’t get a lot of interesting, physical or mental challenges on a daily basis. In fairness to myself, it’s not easy to challenge a Collie and an Aussie! It requires a lot of thought and preparation on my part. They are smart, busy, active, quick learning dogs, and it’s not easy to stay a jump ahead.

Today was a good day. Nitro the Aussie got to work on some Control Unleashed stuff (in a rather impromptu fashion) when a neighbor dog who is quite reactive and whom my boys do not like, walked by during our work on fronts. He did react a bit, but quickly moved into a LAT exercise, and recovered quite well. I was proud of him. His fronts were decent, too. And enthusiastic, always enthusiastic! Merlin worked on pivoting with front feet on a telephone book platform, and becoming a little more rear-end aware. He’s maturing, and has no idea of his size, or where all his limbs are located.

Both boys are hard workers, and smart, and I need to remember that, when I’m frustrated with their activity level and behavior!  I have the power to calm that behavior down, and they ask for work, the least I can do is assign them some.