Voyage with Cuba – The Next Leg

Long time RBDT readers will remember that once upon a time, this trainer brought home a wee Saint Bernard puppy from a land far away.

Puppy Cuba, pretty much the cutest thing in the world

Despite my best efforts in locating a very responsible breeder and diligently socializing this wonderful young man, he has developed into a very reactive and challenging adolescent.

Like many trainers, I sometimes get boxed in to thinking my clients, friends, and family will expect my dogs to be perfect.  It can be embarrassing and/or frustrating if this is ever not the case.  But I’m coming out of the training closet – my dogs aren’t perfect.  Mokie’s pretty darned close, but even now there are days when she is less focused than others and during these times, she needs a little more guidance than usual.  That’s ok.

Cuba, my Saint, is very much a work in progress.  I don’t know why he is as reactive as he is, and it really doesn’t matter – what matters is finding out how to help him feel better and live happier.

As a puppy, Cuba was almost unbelievably mellow.  Happy, relaxed, silly, always looking forward to making a new friend – human, canine, or feline!  After having previously rehabilitated a reactive rescued Saint, I had high hopes that this dog would be a lot more “Beethoven” and a lot less “Cujo.”  That’s not actually what happened.

The first time I suspected something was really wrong occurred at age six months.  We were out in the woods for a hike when suddenly Cuba had a full blown reaction (stiff, forward body position, ears pricked forward, corners of mouth/commissure pushed forward, deep low growl, full body hackling/piloerection, high, stiff tail position or “flag tail”) to a stump.  Yes, a STUMP.  With a little training, Cuba eventually would play “101 things to do with a stump,” even putting his paws on the stump.  We moved along.  Three minutes later we encountered another stump, this one worse than the last.  How did that sweet baby puppy turn into this?

What happened?!

What the heck happened?!

At the time, I told myself, “you did everything right.  This is just a second fear period thing.” I convinced myself of this despite the fact that his body language did not appear to be fearful.  The strange reactions continued.  Here is a partial list of things Cuba will react to:

  • Cats, dogs, horses, goats, and virtually all other animals on television.  He also barks at muppets.  Also, occasionally, to cartoon characters of animals on television.  Oh, yeah.  Last week?  He barked at the screen of a video game I was playing that featured only a desert and sun.  That’s it – sand and sun.  No animals, nothing.
  • Nothing.  Earlier this week, I was out walking the dogs with a friend.  A gentle breeze blew, Cuba began pacing and whining, then lunging and barking at the end of his leash.  I couldn’t see anything – no dogs, no people, no animals, nothing.
  • Ducks and geese, but only sometimes.  Sometimes he can walk by them no problem, other times we face a meltdown.
  • Strangers – women, men, children.  Equal opportunity reactivity.  Great.
  • Life surrounded on all sides by neighbors with dogs that have barrier frustration and love fence fighting.
  • Noises with unidentified visual sources, ranging from the sounds of children playing to a twig snapping to a cat jumping off the counter in the kitchen (bad kitties!).
  • The echo of his own bark.  Seriously, this one’s a “doozy.”  Since the echo always barks back, it never ends unless I get him out of the situation as quickly as possible.  More than a few grey hairs from this one.

I kept telling myself, “you are a good trainer.  You can help him through this.”  So we’ve worked.  Every day.

While Cuba’s foundation skills are improving and his focus is better every day, his reactions are still myriad and unpredictable.  Standard desensitization techniques were frustrating for me because they rely on me keeping him under threshold – tremendously difficult with so many triggers and with unpredictable triggering.  Manipulating distance was not enough since “suddenness” (SEC – Sudden Environmental Contrast) much more than proximity triggered the response.  Sometimes, it appeared as though nothing at all triggered the response.

I’ve become frustrated with our lack of progress.  I consulted with about a dozen of the best trainers on the planet, lamenting, “Where have I gone wrong?”  I had anticipated putting this dog in the show ring, competing, using him as a demonstration dog in my business – now I only wish to leave the house without suspecting a panic attack from him.

My belief that I was a good trainer helped prevent me from getting my dog the help he needed for almost two years.

When I write all these things down, I realize that my dog is not normal.  A well-bred, well-socialized dog that exhibits these types of behavior has, quite simply, a screw loose.  Something is misfiring in his brain, and it’s leading to a lot of anxiety and unhappiness for both of us.  Normal dogs respond well to extensive and appropriate training – Cuba did not.  I beat myself up for a while, until I remembered I’ve seen many dogs who were not well-bred or well-socialized that are still more normal than Cuba.  He’s just different, and thank God he landed in my home, because he’d be a handful for even the most diligent pet owner.

Much later than I should have, I decided to proceed with medical management – get the opinion of two experienced, behaviorally savvy vets (though not, admittedly, vet behaviorists – just awesome dog geeks like me!) and see what they recommend for how we proceed.

I’ll be back with another entry tomorrow to tell you what happened.  I decided to stop hiding the fact that I own a reactive dog I raised myself.  Blogging about the process will keep me honest, keep me diligent about continuing work with him, and maybe, just maybe, might provide a shred of hope to those who are facing similar training challenges.  Find out what our vets said tomorrow – we have an improved plan that will hopefully help us start seeing more of this:

30 comments on “Voyage with Cuba – The Next Leg
  1. I look forwards to hearing about your progress. Great and honest piece.

  2. Sorry to hear that Cuba is struggling with sensory input. Sometimes it sucks to be sensitive.

  3. Jamie says:

    Well done on working with this difficult guy 🙂 In going to the vet did you get all the normal tests done? Thyroid, adrenals, lumps, bumps and nerves? Sometimes it’s not a screw loose so much as a hormone missing or over active.

    I have a 10 month old Aussie/Heeler mix who was taken from the puppy pack and mom at 3 weeks old because she had an eye infection. She was isolated for 3 weeks and then I got her. I have worked with her from the beginning knowing that she would have not only the singleton pup issues (lack of frustration tolerance, no bite inhibition, etc), but also the lack of education from her mother. Granted I do have three adult dogs and they helped immensely.

    Brynda because mom, Storm her best friend and chew toy and Micah the grumpy uncle who wouldn’t tolerate any shennanigans.

    But still, she has major resource guarding issues (not with her siblings, just client dogs, fosters and board and trains). Despite the socialization she got, she is leary of men and sharp noises.

    So I empathize with you. It’s hard when you are both trainer and owner and still can’t fix all the issues because of medical problems or like with Temperance – a lack of a proper puppyhood.

  4. Maggi Burtt says:

    Good for you, girlfriend. I hear you. Good luck, I look forward to hearing how things go.

  5. debby says:


    You ARE a good trainer! You know happens. You CAN do this! I look forward to reading more.

  6. jo says:

    Bravo, Casey, for coming forward and writing such an awesome post. Sometimes, we do end up with a fruit loop – got one myself!

    The longer I’m alive, the more fully convinced I become that we always end up with the dogs we need – they come to us as teachers, and its up to us to embrace what they have to give to us.

    Cuba’s damn lucky he ended up with you – and you with him. No matter what, you both will come through this – and both be stronger for it. I’m going to try to wait patiently for your next installment

  7. Diane Garrod says:

    You have done the right progressive movements. Don’t give up and even if you find that Cuba has medical issues, he can live a normal life. He sounds a lot like my Chancellor and I look for the opportunities he presents me, not the mountains I have to climb. It is because of him the CED was developed and Cuba is now a writer as much as Chancellor is and it teaches us that a dog does not have to be abused to be challenging. It teaches us that we can do everything right, all force free, positive and still have challenges. It also teaches us, well me anyway, how awful confrontational training would be (agonizing even) if we used the “wrong training, the wrong direction” (and you know what I mean). So keep up the good work, keep researching, keep getting those professional comments! Cuba will be always the better dog for it.

  8. Nina says:

    Hi Casey,

    Bravo, indeed– Very hard subject to handle for the best and most articulate of trainers (of which I believe you are one!) I also have a reactive pup- have worked with her for many years and she has improved but because of certain life limitations in my life have never been able to FULLY socialize her in terms of reducing her threshold and differing locations= so I know some of the pain you’re feeling: It seems that sometimes even as you do, having a huge time-tested wealth of different training methods, a highly positive attitude, tons of commitment and insight into doggie behavior just isn’t enough and I admire your courage and conviction for putting yourself ‘out there’ with this issue. GOOD LUCK with the diagnosis/ referral and please do keep us all in the loop! Take your solace where you can find it, and keep having faith in yourself and Cuba…

  9. Michele Wan says:

    This piece resonates with me so much. Thanks for sharing your story.

  10. Sue says:

    Thank you for this post! We have a 2 year old bearded collie/red heeler with the same story. We raised him from a puppy and thought we were doing everything right…socializing…training…etc etc. Poor old Marty is a little “cray cray” as my daughter would say. Some days mellow…others ready to eat the cat because he saw a squirrel outside and forget about taking him anywhere. He is just too unpredictible and will go into a full blown frenzy…including snapping at anything…or nothing…that has set him off. All we want for him is to be able to walk around the block and enjoy all the new smells. But for now he’s still a prisoner in his own house…but we will keep working ;o) At least I don’t feel as though whatever is wrong is all our fault anymore.

  11. Deborah Colella says:

    lovely piece Casey. rings true with the rest of us trainers who have a “less than perfect” dog. u r not alone!

  12. Kirsten Rose says:

    Thank you for writing this article. Cuba is lucky he found you.

  13. Sheree Gray says:

    Very much mimics myself and my ridgeback. I too had to drop the guilt and high expectations and accept that despite all my good efforts researching breeders and positive training and socialising, he was always going to be this way. Phirun has generalised anxiety, much of which has increased in adolescence. He is currently on anxiolytics medication( to help his brain chemistry) and this, along with behaviour modification program, has improved him dramatically. I tried everything before resorting to medication but have now realised that there is nothing wrong with medicating- if he had diabetes he would b on insulin injections. This is still a medical disorder so why do we feel bad about giving him medication for it. Obviously this can only b recommended by a vet or vet behaviourist as it is not for every case but early intervention creates a much quicker response. Phirun is now more focused and able to take on the learning experiences whereas prior to medications he could not learn. He is better with passing dogs and unfamiliar objects. We are still working on people. Keep up the great work with your boy, as I tell myself frequently, he came to me for a reason and there is always light at the end of the tunnel! Good luck 🙂

  14. Louise Bishop says:

    It is heartening to read about other people in similar situations. I often feel that I have the worst behaved dog in the world. He is also incredibly reactive and aggression is first response to anything that he finds frightening.

  15. admin says:

    Hey, Sheree! Thanks for sharing your story – I know personally how hard that can be. I’d love to hear updates about Phirun as he matures, he does sound very much like my own boy!

  16. admin says:

    I feel pretty lucky, too. There were two really challenging parts about writing this article: a) people expect a trainer to have “perfect” dogs which is rarely attainable (though I got pretty darned close with Mokie), and b) he is the silliest, loviest, most wonderfully behaved boy at home that it really is a Jekyll and Hyde type situation. Thank you for your support, I really appreciate it!

  17. admin says:

    Hey, thanks! It can feel really lonely sometimes, and I think it’s important that whenever possible, we find people who understand what the experience is like – having a reactive dog is isolating enough, communities of support are necessary!

  18. admin says:

    Sue, do you have a good trainer and vet to work with?

  19. admin says:

    Thank you so much, Nina! I think for a long time I kept this to myself because I blamed myself. Now I’m realizing that coming clean will keep me honest, help others to feel like it’s not all their fault, repel the myth that there are “bad dogs” or that dogs with behavior problems are necessarily created by bad owners – some dogs are just different and they need different kinds of help as they mature. I really am very proud of Cuba, thankful for the opportunity to learn from him, and hope that sharing some of our experiences might encourage others not to give up on their “problem children.”

    Update posted today, check it out and let me kow what you think!

  20. admin says:

    Diane, I can’t thank you enough for all your support with Cuba. I hope you know that you and Chancellor set the bar pretty high in terms of giving me hope for Cuba and my future as a training team. You are amazing!

  21. admin says:

    Jo, wait no longer! I posted it today. Would love to learn more about your wild child, too! I keep trying to imagine Cuba in a home less prepared for a crazy giant breed, and have a hard time wrapping my head around it. Nonetheless, I think Monte prepped me (fairly) well for the training journey Cuba and I are setting out on together!

  22. I too am a trainer and I could of written the above word for word except my dog was not from a perfect breeder, but rather picked up wandering the streets at 6 weeks of age. I seriously have done everything I can and she still is exactly as you describe above. She has just turned 12 months and we are now at the point where we also need to look into medication. Going out of the house is so stressful for her that we have stopped doing it. I will be reading the rest of your blog intently 🙂 Good luck!!

  23. Gayle says:

    Thank you for your article. I like many of the others have a problem dog. I have a 3yr old sharpei, I researched the breed before I got him and was determined that if I socialised and trained him he would not be an aggressive dog. What I ended up with is a dog with massive fear aggression issues. He is the most loving boy with the family but the sight of the mailman will send him into a frenzy. I felt like such a failure because he is so bad and the first reaction from the trainers has been ‘oh he must have been abused’. That couldn’t be further from the truth! At dog school he is branded an aggressive dog and no one understands what an amazing dog he is. I’m persevering and can only hope that with time he will become less paranoid. I’m terrified that should something happen to me that no one will take him in because of his unpredictability.

  24. Jessica says:

    My dog Maple is *exactly* the same as Cuba and it also started when she was 6 months old. Up until that point she was the most calm and mellow dog you’ve ever met and she was to be my service dog.

    Fast forward 4 and half years – I worked intensively over the years with a behaviorist but it all came to a head when Maple incited a riot and attacked one of my foster dogs, bringing the entire pack into it with her. It wasn’t pretty, Maple went away for 5 weeks of behavior modification. I should have sent her sooner because the trainers panic disorder service dog figured out the problem for us. Maple has panic disorder. She was having panic attacks at all hours of the day and night and the behaviorists dog was alerting her to it!

    Medication has not worked, in fact every medication made Maple more aggressive. Her triggers are often invisible so I have learned how to manage her panic attacks and help her calm down. When nobody is home Maple is locked in a room by herself so as not to put the other dogs in danger.

    I call it The Sky Is Falling Syndrome. You never know what will set Maple off. A picture that’s been hanging in the same place for 3 years. The shed. Somebody blinked 5 miles away. Maple will always be managed, she will never be better than she is now. I don’t take her out because she can’t handle it and I want a happy dog, not a panicked dog.

    Ironically, Maple was to be my service dog for my anxiety disorder. It’s funny what the Universe throws our way, isn’t it?

  25. Sarah says:

    Is he neutered? You mentioned possible showing so I thought maybe not. This is something that could really help him if it hasnt been done yet.

  26. Robyn says:

    I am so sorry that Cuba has these problems. You did a fantastic job raising him so don’t let anyone make you feel like you did otherwise. Cuba is mentally unstable. He isn’t behaving the way he does on purpose and he isn’t acting like other dogs because his brain isn’t wired “right”. He can improve in many ways but he will never be Beethoven. Thank goodness he ended up with someone who understands. It could have gone very bad if he hadn’t.

    Have you been in communication with his breeder? If not, please do. I do not think his issues were inherited but the breeder needs to know.

  27. Swissshepherd says:

    You are not alone in this journey – my white shepherd is vaccine reactive and became fearful and dog and people reactive immediately after. He has an almost identical pattern but he is not as reactive to environmental things like leaves, bags, etc. anymore. He was to be my service dog also. It has been a long journey but he has taught me much. I am lucky to have found trainers who are experts at this- Hans is in a reactive dog class off and on, he has been evaluated and taken working seminars with Suzanne Clothier, and he now does nosework very well- he loves it. He is both people and dog reactive although now to his immediate family or other 2 dogs or cats in house or my friends dogs who he sees only every 3 months or so.

    He has made much progress these last 2 years (he is 3 now) and I anticipate entering him in a nosework trial come spring. Nosework is really made for reactive dogs and the trainers cater to the dogs who need the special accommodation – i.e. visibility screens, people and dogs in class moving back, etc. Nosework builds confidence in these fearful dogs. I ahve seen it over and over now over the course of these last couple years.

    Have you tried L Theanine and Lactium? This has helped my dog quite a bit when combined with regular classes and controlled exposure. You might try BAT with Cuba once he calms a bit. I will be interested to read more about your journey.

  28. Judith Chinea says:

    I can’t tell you how much Cuba’s story and all the other stories have impacted me! I am a retired woman with her first dog, a 2 1/2 year old male mix (1/4 Bordercollie, 3/4?). He was a fearful rescuded dog and I had 0 experience with dogs. I live in a large city and luckily found a dog walker who gave me great tips. I walk hours with him throughout the city and apply many of the things I find in internet and books like Culture Clash. But I still had the feeling that I was not doing well cause he was not “perfect”. He actually sometimes (oh my god!) still barks at other dogs or skateboards!!! Reading the expierences of so many qualified trainers made me realize that I have a pretty darn good dog and I am going to just enjoy him to the fullest. I will continue to work – not on him but with him – so that we are both relaxed but I will be realistic in my expectations and not expect a Rin Tin Tin or Lassie, just a happy, healthy dog. Happy New Year to all!

  29. Kate M. says:

    This post made me want to cry with relief. We’re not the only ones dealing with crazy reactivity. We’ve put our Wheaten on Zylkene, which has helped a little with his threshhold, and continued clicker training with known triggers. Who knew that this weekend he’d decide that airplanes flying overhead were no longer acceptable? Sigh, on to reducing reaction to this latest trigger.

    Good luck. I look forward to reading more of your story.

  30. Elizabeth I says:

    I was directed to your blog from this online article: I am so glad that I was because I came to find out that I am not the only one in the world with a large, reactive dog (who thought she did everything right in training her dog and wonders why her dog turned out the way that she did). My “Ivy” is a two-year old Boerboel who I obtained when she was about 3 months old from a good breeder in MD. I’ve always lived in a city so she was raised in a city environment …going for walks in neighborhoods ridden with people, cars, dogs, bicycles, etc., going to dog parks within the city and playing with several other foreign dogs. As a pup she was fine with all of this. Somewhere around the one-year mark she flipped the switch, though, and started becoming quite reactive to other dogs both on and off the leash. It didn’t help that I also have a Great Dane and he started jumping on-board her tirade when she would react. I used to be able to walk the two dogs together alone, but unfortunately that can not happen anymore unless I want the two of them pulling me down the street towards a poor unsuspecting lab or some dog of that sort. Her behavior seems to have only gotten worse. I have tried desensitization training with treats reenforcing positive behavior, but something about big dogs really pushes her buttons to where no treat will draw her attention from reacting to another large dog. I am wondering if medicinal therapy might help a bit.

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