Over the past ten or so years I’ve worked with many dogs. Most often dogs in our shelter to help them get out of the shelter. But sometimes with dogs that I’m trying to keep OUT of the shelter! Over the years these interactions have offered me not only great experiences but opportunities to learn so much.
As I read and hear of dog owners and their problems with their dogs, I am reminded of two dogs in particular…neither of which was ever in our or any other shelter. They both were in loving, responsible homes since they were very young puppies.
The first was Amelia who belonged to a young married couple and was no more than 2 years old. As I would learn from her “Mom”, they had chosen Amelia from her littermates at 6 or 8 weeks specifically because she was the quiet, calm one. She’d known nothing other than love, pampering and the best that this lovely family could offer her. She had never experienced on ounce of neglect or abuse. But if you met her, you might suspect otherwise.
Her owners had contacted me through a mutual friend when they grew concerned about her behavior as they were getting ready to have their first human baby in the very near future. Amelia’s behavior while tolerated before, was now a growing concern as she was very timid and antisocial.
She did not take to strangers well. For that matter she did not take to anyone well except her owners and even with them she was demonstrated severe insecurity. She refused to go outside even into the yard without the company of her owners. She would urinate in the car, if you could even get her in the one. She would hide under the bed the vast majority of the time. Refused to eat her food in the kitchen. Had to be drug out the door to go for walk and once out, would pace and pant throughout the tortured ordeal of a walk. And when company came to the house, Amelia would initially respond by charging the door and the visitor; barking aggressively and then retreat to her favorite hiding spot under the bed.
At first glance, one would likely assume this dog have suffered some horrific abuse at some point in her life but assuredly knowing the owners and soon knowing the dog, this wasn’t the case. But her behavior was certainly strangely neurotic. She lived up to her billing as when I arrived at their home the first time, she charged the front door barking and then disappeared to the bedroom and assumedly, under the bed.
As I sat with Amelia’s mother and talked about her past and what they had tried to do to help her, I would soon learn that they had tried everything they knew and just loved her so much but couldn’t figure out how to help her. As we talked, Amelia surfaced from the bedroom after just a few minutes to cautiously investigate me. I ignored her. After a minute or two she sat down right in front of me and looked at me as if asking “Well, aren’t you going to try and pet me?”
Her owner was shocked that she not only had surfaced from under the bed to check me out, but that she had shown such interest in my presence. Apparently no one had ever just ignored her before. A beautiful dog, it would have been easy to try to reach for her or coax her to welcome my attention. But I suspected that was not what she needed.
When I told her Mom that I was going to take her for a walk, she warned me that this was impossible. But with some effort, I’d soon take her out for a walk to experience that challenge. And by the time we had returned less than an hour later, I was confident in my diagnosis.
Amelia was like a 6 year old child that had been given the keys to the car. She was trying to drive without instruction and without the confidence or ability to master the task. Yet in absence of clear guidance and leadership and left with no other choice (all dogs will either take the lead or be led) she felt the need to assume the role. Even though she lacked natural leadership tendencies and had obviously been chosen from her litter in large part because she was the least assertive, she’d been left to her own decision making. And the stress of the freedom she was offered and the clear lack of leadership provided was making for an extremely insecure and incompetent dog. Just like a 6 year old driving a car, she gave it a shot, was not good at it and could be dangerous in fact behind the wheel.
The owners thought that her fears would be best served by love, positive attention and coddling. Unfortunately this was backfiring. Lacking a sense of direction and protectiveness from her pack leaders, she had become a complex combination of fearful aggression, defiance and insecurity.
Normally I would have left her owners with clear instructions on how to bring her around as the home is the best place for such change to occur and every member of the household must be involved in such retraining but we had little time. Mom was unable to handle her well or walk her in her condition (Mom’s, not Amelia’s) and I knew the quickest way to rebalance poor Amelia was to put her in a real live pack with a strong leader. My pack. My leadership.
Amelia was so in need of the guidance she would receive from my pack and me, within days she was making startling strides and improvement. She was like a different dog in a few days. While it’s not always this easy, Amelia was very open and willing to accept the rules and guidance we all would provide her. In less than two weeks I’d invite her owners to my home to meet their dog. Or at least the one that looked like their dog. They left with not only the memory of how she was with me and mine, but lots of instructions, rules and expectations. I was hopeful and optimistic for her and them as they were so open to my advice and so excited about the dog that was now trotting out to their car and jumping in for the trip home! That alone was an accomplishment in their eyes.
The second dog who I’ll call Cooper also came from a loving, wonderful family situation. Just like Amelia, he too had been purchased from a breeder at 8 weeks of age and had been treated with kindness, love and affection by his family of caring parents and three young children. However Cooper’s behavior issues were different than Amelia’s. Cooper had no such lacking of confidence.
While his parents had no concern for Cooper’s behavior with the children, it was rather how he reacted to everyone else. In particular, Cooper had become extremely protective of the children. Now a very large, strong adult male (neutered) Cooper seemingly had taken custody of the children in particular. He would challenge almost anyone that tried to get too close to the kids. He also grew irritated if the parents hugged each other, instructed him to move off the furniture or tried to ignore him when he wanted attention. Again someone had given Cooper the keys to the car and he was insisting upon driving no matter how dangerous it was for all.
He was a pretty scary dog at times and I would soon learn one of the most unpredictable dogs I have ever dealt with. He demonstrated this to me within minutes of meeting him when I tried to join the rest of the family on the couch. He went ballistic. While he did respond better with the “Dad”, even his direction was not respected as it should have been and “Mom” had little influence over Cooper’s behavior. A dangerous situation for certain.
His trip to my house lasted considerably longer, as he needed to learn not only how to live harmoniously as a pack member rather than a leader but needed to learn respect. I used every technique I knew at the time and even taught him how to use the treadmill to help burn off his extra physical and mental energy and slowly tried to help him find a place where he could relinquish his desire to be in charge and grow comfortable as a follower. He was a challenge for sure and even when I returned him to his family, there was still much work to be done to ensure that his progress continued. Especially difficult to ensure an entire family follows all the rules and guidance when there are young children involved, but every member of his family was instructed on how to take a stronger more consistent leadership role with Cooper. They also learned how to reward Cooper with their attention and affection when he behaved well rather than when he insisted upon it.
While I stayed in contact with both families for some time, I have not seen Cooper since he went home. But a year later I would see Amelia. She’d be trotting down Washington Avenue on a Thanksgiving morning along with her parents and their young baby in a stroller along with thousands of other runners and walkers during the annual Turkey Trot. She appeared very happy, comfortable (despite the chaos) and obviously fulfilling the dream her owners had when they acquired the darling Golden Retriever puppy years earlier. Yes, Amelia was a purebred Golden Retriever, one of the friendliest most easy going breeds ever!
And Cooper too was a purebred Golden.
While the Golden Retriever reputation is known to be the best family dog in the world, without the proper leadership, even this breed can have serious problems. When I researched Goldens I was surprised to learn that Goldens that bite are not so unusual as they have been bred to love everyone and in loving everyone, the extreme can be that they respect no one. Surprising but it made sense in many ways.
It is because of dogs like Cooper and Amelia that I so strongly preach that as dog owners we owe them more than just love. They need and deserve clear direction and rules, consistently and fairly provided with a positive energy. Along with that, plenty of physical and mental exercise. And then and only then, all the love we can offer!
But never the keys to the car. No matter how old they are or how much they want to drive.