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.
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?
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: