Things That People Don’t Like to Talk About- I Have a Dog with Issues

A few months ago, I talked about some of Leroy’s flaws and the difficulty that presented when I went on a vacation.  While he is of course the apple of my eye, he is also the most challenging dog I’ve ever had the pleasure of working with.  I am a dog trainer at PetSmart and have had enough fosters and short term guests to know- Leroy is not your average dog.  He excels at being the Worst Dog at Puppy School; but he typically is one of the smartest and often knows the most commands.  About a year ago, we started training class at Opportunity Barks.  We did one day of Real World Manners, but our amazing trainer Michaela was smart enough to know that Leroy had the whole curriculum mastered.  While it was hard for him to be in a new place around strange dogs, he buzzed past the Watch Me’s and Down’s with ease.  She suggested that we move into a Self Control class to work on well, self control.  He was, as I’ve become used to, the Worst Puppy in school.  But we enjoyed the class and learned a lot.  A year later, we are enrolled in Reactive Rover.  I had a brief moment of excitement- “HEY!  These are all of the Worst Puppies in school!  It’s a class just for them!  Maybe my baby Le Le won’t look like a ‘crazy Pit Bull’.  They will understand!”  Well,  my boy is still the Worst Puppy. 😦  He has epic meltdowns that involve whining, crying, barking, and lunging.  He did this all in Reactive Rover on Week 1, when he was shown the stuffed decoy dog.  Yes- stuffed.

And yes- this is the same dog that I call a “pretty gosh darn excellent foster brother”.  So how does it all fit together? How can he be so patient with fosters but so terrible with an innocent stuffed dog?  How can he be so good at his Sit Stays, but so bad at “keeping his shit together”?!  Well.. I’m going to get to the bottom of it all!

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The first thing that I want to explain is a fancy word called “threshold”.  When Leroy is trying to attack a stuffed animal- barking, whining, lunging- he is over his threshold.  I have been reading about this fancy word and I decided to email our expert trainer, Michaela, because I was a bit confused.  Here is her wonderful insight!

“Threshold” is used to differentiate between the state in which your dog can still “think” and respond vs. when arousal level makes it impossible for them to be responsive.  Neurologically, your dog is using a part of the brain and nervous system that goes with the basic “fight-flight-freeze” survival instinct.  If you imagine yourself, say, responding to a robber in your home, your body goes into survival mode (e.g. pumping adrenaline, etc) and relies heavily on action-not thought.  It’s a more primitive bodily reaction that is important to survival but which actually suppresses the decision making part of the brain.
As a dog’s arousal level rises, you see changes like muscle tension, ear and tail position changes, body weight forward, faster breathing, brief “stillness”, staring and targeting, etc…Once a dog goes “over-threshold”, he’s having a full barking-lunging meltdown, acting purely on survival instinct. Little can be learned in this highly adrenalized state because the “higher thinking” part of the brain is suppressed for optimal survival mode.  So learning must be done sub-threshold (that is, when arousal levels are low to moderate, but not over-the-top).
So, yes, Leroy is challenging because he goes over-threshold very quickly, once outside.  However, he’s making great progress at being able to “come down” more quickly in classes.  I hope this helps a bit!
So there you have it!  Threshold is like ‘fight or flight panic’.  It’s all just too much stress and stimulation for my little Pudding Face to handle.  Therefore he has his special meltdowns and looks like an arse.  😉 Another reason that Leroy has so much trouble doing things outside of his comfort zone is because of his past.  Leroy was a lawn ornament.  He was chained.  We can only speculate on how long and how severe his circumstances were, but we do know that he was found with the heavy burden of his past life.

When he was found, the chain was wrapped around his neck and padlocked closed.

Because of his past as a chained dog, Leroy struggles with something called “Leash Reactivity”.  This is actually a pretty common problem among dogs, but especially an issue with dogs that lived with the long term frustration of being at ‘the end of their chain’ every  day.  Imagine for a moment that you are given an 5 foot  radius to live in.  Then picture a sweet smelling flower, or exciting squirrel, or happy human face- standing right past that boundary.  I would not enjoy that.  So when Leroy is on his leash and I’m not letting him go any further, he feels severe frustration and aggression.  If I wanted to use my imagination a bit more, I would say that maybe his childhood puppyhood memories of a cold lonely yard come flooding back.  And he remembers how terrible it was to be stuck in one place without love or freedom or stuffed kongs.  My point is, I would be unhappy about being on a leash too.

Tofu was also a chained dog.

(pre-rescue) Tofu was also a chained dog

I was worried that Leroy’s general stress level and anxiety was one of the main reasons he was not making any progress.  So I talked to Michaela and she agreed that it was time to see a Veterinarian Behaviorist.  Most trainers or behaviorists that I’ve talked to seem to think that medication is very over-prescribed, and often used by people who are lazy not committed to training.  However, Michaela said that she supported my decision and hoped that it would help.  As it sounds, a vet behaviorist is someone who is both a certified behaviorist and trainer, and a fully registered vet.  The best of both worlds!  So we went to Dr. Reisner for a professional opinion.  Here is Leroy’s list of issues, written by a professional.

DIAGNOSIS:

  1. Generalized anxiety
  2. Resource-guarding
  3. Reactivity/impulsivity
  4. Fear-related aggression
  5. Tentative: Predatory behavior

Holy Issues! I knew Leroy was the Worst Puppy, but gosh.  Dr. Reisner said that she was very impressed with me and Leroy.  We are a good team.  He was a bit of a nut case during our consult (as expected, because it was a new place).  But he was a good boy and listened to my commands and hand signals while I talked to the doctor.  At one point I gave him the hand signal for Quiet- putting my finger to my lips (Leroy was whining like a baby about being in a strange office and not getting enough attention from the doctor).  Dr. Reisner said, “Does he know what that means?”  Leroy was trying very hard to listen to me because I had my trusty treat pouch, and he was sitting silently waiting for his reward.  I thought, “How silly, why would I be doing it if he didn’t know what it means!”  But apparently he proved to her that he is a very smart puppy, even though he was also being the Worst Puppy.

So what happens next?  Dr. Reisner decided that Leroy is in fact a good candidate for medication.  He is currently on 20mg a day of Prozac to help manage his generalized anxiety.  Prozac takes 4-6 weeks to become effective, so we haven’t seen any changes yet.  But I’m keeping a close eye on him for side effects or positive changes. Dr. Reisner also seemed to think that our training skills were really great- not that there isn’t always room for improvement.  This made me proud of my boy but also sad, as he was flopping around the exam room like a stressed and anxious fish out of water.  He was unhappy, as he usually is when we do something new.  He did not enjoy this or find it a fun adventure.  He was stressed.

Above all, I want my dog to be happy.  If he doesn’t like new places or new people or new anything, that’s OK with me.  If he can never happily go on a walk without thinking that the world is out to get him, then we won’t go on walks.  He can stay with me in his “happy place”, also known as my bedroom.  But at the end of the day, I want to know that I gave it my all.  I want to say that “Yes, I have a dog with issues.  I did my best to work through them and make him more comfortable in the big scary world we live in.  I accept him and understand his issues.  And I love him anyway.”

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A big *thank you* to Michaela at Opportunity Barks and Dr. Reisner for all the help and support ❤

Vacation panic- To board or not to board!

Well I’m backkk!  🙂  I had a lovely family vacation in the Dominican Republic and I enjoyed 7 days of sun and alcohol and dancing and water.  While I’m sure you’d love to hear about all of that, I wanted to write about my pre-vacation-panic about what to do with my beloved Leroy.  Now, many people may not believe that Leroy comes with a list of issues challenges.  I will give you a brief rundown.

1. Can NOT be around cats.

2. Difficult to walk on leash.

3. Takes a few days to acclimate with other dogs (and honestly, I only trust myself in this department).

4. Food/bone/toy aggressive around other dogs.

5. Leash aggressive/ reactive.

6. Uncomfortable being leashed/ restrained around new men.

7. Unreliable recall when outdoors.

8. Stressed in new environments.

So who knew?!  Well I did 😉  And we manage to the best of our abilities.  But the main points are hopefully enough to explain my concern with throwing him just anywhere for a week.  While many incredibly lucky people have that one friend who loves animals but doesn’t have any due to work or apartment constraints, I’m not in that boat.  My parents would typically watch him but this is our once yearly trip that we do together.  The majority of my friends check in under a few categories- allergic (or someone living with them is allergic), have cats, home for school break, full house (anywhere from 2-7 dogs already), have cats, no fenced in back yard, weigh under 90 pounds, or have cats.

So onto a solution!

I had to board Leroy at a traditional facility once for an emergency weekend.  It was a regular boarding kennel- Indoor/outdoor runs, concrete floor and lower barrier, chain link door and fence.  The benefit was certainly the cost.  These types of kennels will generally run around $25 a night.  The kennel owner did admit that he was concerned when I was dropping Leroy off.  The barking, stress, and shelter-like feel were a lot and my boy did not handle it well.  But the kennel owner reassured me that after only 15 minutes, he settled down and was just fine.  When I picked him up, he seemed unaffected by my presence but thrilled to leave the building and hop in my car.  He was also limping (a normal symptom, but I felt bad nevertheless).   So basically, I’d be OK with this again for a weekend or quick trip.  But for 7 days, I wanted to feel more comfortable with where I was leaving him and aim for a less stressful location.

I ended up leaving him with a wonderful positive reinforcement trainer who we’ve worked with before.  She does limited boarding out of her home with dogs she knows.  Here is the website.  We didn’t to their training program that’s listed on the website, just traditional boarding.  Leroy stayed in a room that was about the size of my living room and dining room combined.  And their “small” yard was a quarter acre fenced in.  He enjoyed playing, running, and fetching in the yard, followed by meals and chewies in his room.  This is about as low stress of a place as it gets.  Plus I felt great knowing he was with a behavior specialist and trainer.  She sent very nice updated and a picture that made know with certainly that I left him in good hands.

Sweet Spot Farm

Haii momz! Iz playid witf a jolley ballz!

 

This lovely place like this ran me $50 a night.  Not the most expensive place I could find, but not the cheapest either.  But peace of mind is worth a lot when you have a boy with a list of challenges.

Another excellent option that I wanted to share is having your fur friends stay in someone’s home.  I offer this service for one dog at a time when I’m not fostering.  Here is a website to show you my profile.  There are great new sites starting up such as this one that allows you to search for people in your area who can watch your animals either in their house or sometimes in yours.  I would recommend doing first a meet and greet, then a night or two (while you’re nearby), then a regular week long vacation.  Especially if you’re leaving the country, you want to make sure you and your animals are comfortable with the set up.  Doing this can run you anywhere from $25-$50 a night as well.

So there you have it, a vacation rundown by Leroy and Company.

And don’t forget, our little Jora is still looking for her forever home.  Email me at Casey@caseyheyen.com with any questions about Jora or the adoption process!