Dogs & The Spectrum of Behavioral Issues
Having a dog with behavioral issues is without a doubt the hardest challenge I have been handed in my adult life. I went from knowing nothing about dogs and dog behavior to being invested and inspired by the world of dog training. I was forced to take a deep dive into this world because of Kane. I would never wish a journey like this on anyone because it is emotionally exhausting, traumatic and just plain hard. I am beyond thankful for the people I have met along this journey because without you all we would not be where we are. The worst part about the early stages of this journey was the feeling of isolation. I didn't know anyone else with a dog like Kane and felt so alone and helpless. I never want anyone else to feel this way; I am always here to offer support, love or just listen.
We adopted Kane from a local rescue when he was about 1 year old, the shelter’s best guess. When we met him at the rescue he was social with the other dogs, friendly and excited to meet new people and overall just crazy high energy. We brought him home two days later knowing very little about dog ownership, as I know it now. We both grew up with happy go lucky family dogs but did not contribute much to caring for them or training them. For the first year we owned Kane he was social, happy and full of energy. We went to the dog park a few times a week, ran along the Chicago Lakeshore with him and took him to forest preserves outside the city on the weekend. He loved every dog and person he met.
All that changed around the time he turned two. Looking back we brushed off some early warning signs, not knowing anything about dog behavior. He got in a couple scuffles with dogs at the dog park, snapped at a few dogs during leash introductions and he growled at a couple of new people who came into the house but overall he still loved most dogs and most people, so we blamed the situation, the other dogs and the people. We could never imagine what this would evolve into. There were two moments that stick out in my mind as thinking we had hit rock bottom, looking back we weren’t even close to the worst it would get. But these were the moments that triggered me to realize we were in over our head and needed help. The dog related incident was at the dog beach where we went frequently, with no previous issues. A tiny puppy tried to take a toy from his mouth. He “attacked the puppy”.In reality, he made a lot of noise but did not physically harm the dog. But he definitely mentally hurt that puppy. We left the dog park ashamed and embarrassed, this was the last time Kane went to a dog park. The human related incident took place outside our apartment. My grandma arrived to visit and after dinner I was walking her back to her hotel, I decided to take Kane with me. She had never met Kane and like most people do she reached out to pet him. Again, he didn’t physically harm her but he made a lot of noise on a busy street surrounded by people and scared her, and me.
Our first dive into these issues was with a positive only trainer. She came to our home and did an evaluation of Kane. She explained dog maturity to us and blamed his increased selectivity and aggression on this. She explained that in rescue dogs, these maturity changes can happen later because they never got to have a puppy stage and are delayed in their development. She made recommendations like start a Prozac prescription (which we did), introduce him to dogs off leash and have all guests feed him treats before petting him. Let’s talk about humans first because in my mind this is the much bigger issue with Kane, even today. Her methods seemingly worked for a while. He did well with most people who came over, but overall we stopped having people over as much. I was beyond overwhelmed and had absolutely awful anxiety about him biting someone new or someone he already knew. Avoidance was the easiest way to handle this. The treat before pet method worked until it didn’t. We went on a trip with my friend’s brother and his friends. They were at the airbnb alone with Kane, in hindsight an absolutely awful idea to not have him contained. They used the treat then pet method without me there and he bit my friend’s brother, the first time he had broken skin. Thankfully injuries were very minor and didn’t require medical attention. But, I think that is when we realized how serious this problem was. This was the first time it had been more than noise. After that, we told guests to ignore him and once he was comfortable they could feed him and/or pet him. It is hard to remember the exact progression of this process but I also started to muzzle train him.
About 6 months before we left Chicago I met Emma Stoddard at Canine Sports Dog Training. I reached out to her for help with recall training after I lost Kane while hiking. Little did I know that this training journey with her would change my life. When I reached out to her I explained his human and dog issues but said I had them under control (LOL) and just needed help with recall and was interested in the e-collar. I truly thought I did have his issues under control at this point, but looking back I didn’t. As we worked through recall and e-collar training we also dove into this behavioral issues and training overall. I have Emily to thank for my introduction to dog training, dog behavior and the true progression in Kane’s training journey. I learned that he was not the only dog out there with these issues. I started listening to podcasts, reading books, talking to people on Instagram and actually training my dog. When we moved to Colorado in 2018 I still wasn’t sure how to handle Kane with new people, we were playing it by ear depending on the person. We were living with our friends so we were having more people visit than we previously had so I worked with Emily virtually and met Sarah Bayles, with Kathy Santos Dog Training, through the GRC Club we had formed out here. From here we established more clear boundaries and rules for Kane. I also solidified his obedience training, especially his place training, which helped in so many aspects, I could actually control my dog.
While we were making amazing progress in his training, we were training a lot more and our relationship was getting stronger but that didn’t mean it was going to be smooth sailing. He was very neutral to people and other dogs by this point but still did not enjoy interaction with either. I was still in the mindset of thinking he would warm up to people after they had been around for a while so we were still allowing people to pet him, after he ‘warmed up’. Ultimately this unfortunately led to him breaking skin on my mom (December 2018), my dad (January 2020) and my sister (May 2020). In addition he also snapped at a child, which caused bruising but no broken skin in January 2020. It is so embarrassing for me to write about this and list out those dates. I wonder how I didn’t see these events coming and how I didn’t change anything. After every one of these incidents I felt like I was back at square one and that Kane was unpredictable. But I wasn’t and he wasn’t. I was still learning. In reality, we were making incredible progress in these years but there were handler errors thrown in there to remind me that this dog I own is very difficult, that the training journey never ends. I think our biggest progress has happened in the past 2 years and I think our relationship is the strongest it has ever been.
He is currently 7.5 years old and I think we have finally developed the level of trust I have been striving for since day one. I think there are a few factors to this. The first one is me accepting the dog that he is. He is not the dog I ever planned on owning but he is who he is.While I will always push our training to be better and our relationship to be stronger, I accepted that there are situations he will not enjoy or be successful in. When those situations arise, he stays at home. The second component is play based training. While I remain balanced in my training style, utilizing tools that I have found success in, utilizing play and toys as a reward has taken our training and our relationship to the next level. Kane was not a toy or play driven dog; I built this in him, for us. We learned how to play together and I think that was the key. We started with tug, his preference, and have built fetch drives and personal play drives. We now play almost every day. The third was muzzle training. Muzzle training allowed me to test our training, with limits, and feel comfortable. For a long time my anxiety made situations worse, the muzzle took this strain out of our relationship. I think it's important to mention that while we are in the best place we have ever been, he still isn't the dog I wanted. I still grieve this life I was forced into, I still sometimes wish that I hadn't been handed this challenging dog and most importantly, this journey will never end. He will always be a difficult dog to own, no matter how good things are.
Briefly, I will discuss Kane with other dogs throughout this time. Kane does have the skills to live with, play with and enjoy another dog. Nyx is proof of this. Since moving to Colorado he has been successfully introduced to about 6-7 new dogs. He also has dog friends from before his issues started that he remains comfortable around. However, it is a slow process to introduce him to a new dog. Like really really really slow... In general, he does better with younger, smaller and submissive dogs. He is happy to coexist with absolutely any dog, even in our house and off-leash on trails. But the interaction piece is where he struggles. Upon a new dog entering his space, even just a normal/appropriate greeting, he will usually over correct them. If they back off he will go back to not interacting and choose this route. He severely lacks social skills and is very insecure around new dogs. He has never hurt a dog, he is all noise in his corrections, but I wouldn’t take this chance and he is always muzzled around dogs he doesn’t know.
Now, we do things a little differently. Kane does not get touched by anyone except his very small circle of people. Everyone else who is around him is told to ignore him and under no circumstances to touch him. In addition, he is always muzzled around people he doesn’t know. The muzzle serves as a visual reminder to people and protects me and him if someone neglects to follow the rules. When new people come over he doesn’t always see them and sometimes doesn’t meet them. He sometimes stays in the basement and sometimes he is upstairs but on his place cot. It depends on how I feel, who the visitors are, how long they are staying and many other factors. It is a constant risk and benefit assessment to set him up for success.
Kane has taught me so many things about life as a whole. He also introduced me to the world of Dog Instagram and many of my closest friends now. Without the community of dog Instagram and the training opportunities it opened up for me, I do not think we would be where we are. It has been a long journey and it definitely isn’t over yet, I don’t think it ever will be. But a vast majority of the time he is a very easy dog and we live a great life together. I have learned to accept that those difficult days will come, and when they do it will be hard on me. Some will be really really hard. I think it's important to mention that my relationship suffered for a period of time because of Kane and the anxiety that he brought to my life. I had friends that couldn't or wouldn't understand his needs or this world I was diving into, and we didn't continue to be friends. It takes a huge toll on your life. Handling and processing my own emotions related to living with a dog like Kane has possibly been the hardest challenge of my life. Don’t let anyone diminish that challenge or dismiss those feelings, they will never understand and they are lucky for that. So, if you are in a similar situation please take care of yourself first and foremost because no one else will if you don’t. Make sure you grieve the loss of the dog you thought you were getting but also appreciate the parts of your dog you do love, even if they are hard to remember some days.
- Tags: Puppy Training