top of page
  • Writer's pictureJoanna Lee

Dogs & The Spectrum of Behavioral Issues | Collaboration Part Two

Updated: May 12, 2023

This is a continuation of part one posted earlier this week, link below. Part two contains some very vulnerable stories and I am beyond thankful to these owners for sharing this journey with this. Like I said in the last post, the purpose of these stories being shared is to prevent people from feeling alone in their journey with a difficult dog.

Sydney, Oso, Riis & Sarge

To understand our journey it is necessary to understand where it started. This isn’t a pretty one, but I think it is a good one and extremely helpful for others. Our journey started in 2015. I was a collegiate athlete and was home for the summer when my family dog of 15 years passed, suddenly and traumatically. It was a hard time, and I was very glad to be heading back to school for preseason. My mom happened to need someone to run an errand about an hour away from where I went to school, since I was the closest and coming home in a week, she asked me to do it. Little did I know this ‘errand’ would end up changing my life and afford me the opportunity to pursue my dream career. This ‘errand’ turned out to be Oso in all of his wiggly, wobbly 8 week old glory.

Oso was an easy puppy. He went everywhere he was allowed, and even had approval in some places dogs normally weren’t. He met tons of people of different types, sizes and ages. He spent a lot of time with my teammates, my friends and even a couple of acquaintances when I was traveling for soccer. He was exposed to a lot of things. I lived in a house with my teammates, two of which ended up with puppies of their own. Oso was the middle child. With that, he was targeted by the other male in the house who was two months older. Oso and the other dog actually got along great almost all of the time. The issues didn’t arise until the other pups owners were around together. When they both happened to be home and if the dogs were out the other male would attack Oso if he went too close to either owner. This went on occasionally for about a month and a half. We did take separate routes and paths and the dogs weren’t out together any more, but there were continued altercations due to the stupidity of drunk college kids. We moved out of that situation when Oso was about eight months old. At this point he was still good with all dogs and not reactive. All of Oso’s training up to this point I had done on my own and was more towards the compulsion end of the spectrum.

When we moved to our new spot we were excited to find one of the few dog-friendly communities to live in. It was great. We met lots of dogs and owners. Riis was added to the pack during this time. Oso was a little over excited with the addition, especially looking back on how shut down and not into their first greeting Riis was. Her addition was so Oso would have a friend. Things were pretty good. Riis had her own slew of issues, she is extremely fearful and clearly missed important milestones. Where Osos issues came in later, Riis was a problem child from the beginning. She is the one who really opened my eyes to the dog training world and how the “traditional” approach didn’t work for every dog. Riis does not like strangers. Never has and, while she does much better now, she will never be that human social butterfly of a dog. This took a VERY long time for me to understand. Our walks, which used to be enjoyable, were not fun because we had THAT dog that everyone now watched out for. We sought the help of a trainer as neither my partner nor I had dealt with a dog that wanted to attack people before. Around this time, Riis was in basic obedience with a positive only trainer. While her general obedience skills were great, we hadn’t made any headway with her people issues. The trainer assured us if we just kept feeding her and had others feed her we would eventually get to our goal. Oso during this time was great! He was about a year or so old. We were able to focus on Riis and her issues.

When Oso was approximately 15 months old, my partner was out walking with both dogs and another person lost control of their two dogs. Initially the one dog bee-lined for Oso, who stood for inspection and went to greet the first dog that came up. That dog then launched at Oso and attacked him. The second dog then came up and went to join in the fight. Riis went after the second dog while Oso shook off and attempted to get away from the first dog. When I say Oso shook off the other dog, he literally threw the dog away from him and then went to my partner who was focused on helping Riis. The first dog came right back and launched at Oso’s face. He would have gotten Oso’s eye if my partner hadn’t been holding Os. The dog got my partner's hand and he let go of Oso. At this point the other owner came over and grabbed the dog that was going for Riis. Cue Riis losing her mind and running away to my partner. The first dog and Oso were still going at it. It was a smaller terrier and it had latched on to Oso’s scruff by his throat and wouldn’t let go. My partner kicked the dog off of Oso. The dog immediately launched at Oso again and this time Oso caught it in his mouth. The other owner was hysterical. My partner outed Oso, he had to cue it a few times, and then grabbed the dog and threw it at the owner who then ran inside with both of his dogs continuously yelling that he was sorry back to my partner. I was in school at the time and found all of this out when I got home. My dogs were shaken as was my partner. Our evening walk that night was a very good indicator for how our lives were going to change, but we didn’t know that at the time. The following morning my partner and I took both of the dogs out together and it seemed like they were over everything that had happened. They were a little hyper focused on the dogs we saw, particularly unknown dogs. We thought this was understandable. My partner was going to be taking the dogs into the vet to get them checked over and update two of their vaccines. That vet visit was the beginning of our new normal. During this visit Oso tried to go after every dog that they saw. Riis tried to go after every person. It was a nightmare and to this day I am extremely grateful my partner was the one to deal with that visit.

Oso became aggressive to other dogs, especially on leash, and the little bit of progress we had made with Riis and her people issues were clearly gone. I purposely am using the term aggressive here. From the beginning there was intent to harm with Oso’s reactions. We went back to the trainer we used with Riis and took part in their feisty fido class. Oso was the star student in class which was crazy because his displays were barking/lunging/snapping, compared to the issues everyone else had though he really was the easiest dog in the room. We made a little progress in class. There weren’t many options for trainers in my small college town and I started down the rabbit hole of dog training and learning as much as I could about it. I wanted to fix my perfect dog. I didn’t understand that this wasn’t necessarily a ‘fixable’ situation.

During this time we started fostering puppies for one of our local rescues. I knew I needed to get Oso around other dogs, but didn’t know how to do that safely. Oso was and is great with puppies and always had been so they seemed like a great starting point. We started some neutrality work just because he now had to wait his turn for things. The stuff I was learning online and from books were helping. Our walks got better. I implemented a prong collar and was quickly taught the importance of good gear. Os popped his prong a couple times and took off after dogs in yards or on a tie out. He never did anything to those dogs, thankfully, but seeing this dog who used to hang out with anyone/thing switch into this cujo of a monster was really hard for me. I didn’t want this type of dog and I tried to ensure I wouldn’t have that dog. It was just one of the many low points in our training journey.

Over the next few months Oso made some great progress and switched to what I will now call reactive on leash. There wasn’t true intent, he would simply respond to another dog barking at him. I was starting to immerse myself in the dog world trying to gain as much knowledge as I could to continue helping both of my dogs and those I was working with in the rescue and daycare settings. The daycare job is the one that brought me one of the most important teachers in my life. This is where I first met Sarge. He was dropped at my daycare for a groom in a crate that was full of shit. Naturally he was covered in it and had a few things to say about the matter. He went home that day and was back the next night in the same condition and this time the people wanted him to spend the night. So he did. They left no food, toys, instructions, etc. This wasn’t a first at my daycare and we had a rescue bin of food so we didn’t think too much of it. Sarge was left at that daycare for over a month as a 5 mo old German Shepherd puppy. He was not allowed in play group, his people said he wasn’t good with other dogs, and besides 5-10 min of play during our breaks he was essentially left in a kennel or room left to his own devices. When we were able my coworkers and I made it a point to get him toys and treats and even spent time simply hanging out with him in his room. I should mention his original owners were unable to be contacted, not for a lack of trying. Their phone was shut off and we heard nothing from them. My boss went as far as to drive to their house where there was no answer to his knocks and note he left. This puppy hadn’t been outside in over a month and was starting to go kennel crazy. He would spin in circles, chew bars to get out, explosive diarrhea on things and poop on purpose to get people to come in to interact/be around him. At this point my boss gave me special permission to take him out on adventures/walks with me to make all of our lives easier. I had big dogs and was not afraid of Sarge like most of my other co-workers were. I also successfully introduced him to play group, again I was the only one who was comfortable with him in these situations. After a month and a week of no contact from his original owners Sarge was turned over to county as their property. He had a 10 day stray hold, but my rescue was willing to take him and had a couple interested people. I heard this and was both happy and sad. Here was the German Shepherd puppy I always wanted but Oso was an unknown and I couldn’t have three dogs in my apartment. After his stray hold my mom adopted Sarge. She was a police officer and planned on taking him to be evaluated by the dog handlers at her district. That never happened. I should also mention that at this point I was still living with my mom when I wasn’t at school. Since I worked at the rescue and knew Sarge, I was able to take him to my moms which I did, but I first needed to get Riis and walk Os. Sarge and Oso met through a slightly cracked van window and Oso didn’t lose his mind. So my hope started.

Sarge went and stayed with my mom as I finished up my final semester at school. Oso and Riis were with me and my partner, but we often visited my mom. All of the dogs got along great. Oso was a bully sometimes, there was the odd altercation here or there mainly over a toy or bone but he got better with sharing and interacting with all of the dogs. Oso and Sarge ended up being really close for a time. Sarge was about 10mo old and Os at around 2 years now. Both were neutered. They played together, cuddled together and got into mischief together. If asked, I did not consider Sarge my dog at this point. We had found a new trainer to continue helping with Osos and Riis’s respective issues. We didn’t worry about Sarge because he wasn’t reacting to people or dogs and for the most part was content simply doing his own thing. As life goes my partner and I wanted to move to a place of our own. We did and while we were getting everything moved all of the dogs were staying with my mom. My mom had some issues with how Sarge reacted when I came home versus how he didn’t seem to care about her at all. She said he chose me as his person and she didn’t want to keep him. So at 23 I ended up with three dogs of my own.

Looking back this is the moment where I truly wish I knew all the things about dogs that I do now. There weren’t many rules and the dogs came into our new space and did what they wanted as long as they were listening, not getting on the furniture or being destructive. Oso snatching a toy here or there and Sarge pushing Riis out of the way of things were normal and nothing to cause concern. When Sarge turned a year old all of that changed. My partner and I were woken up by growling and then fighting between Sarge and Oso. Oso whipped Sarge's butt. We pulled Oso off of Sarge and sent them both to their respective beds. They shook it off and we all went to sleep. This continued at least once per week over the next few weeks. We figured they were growing pains and that they would get sorted in a little time, especially because Oso was literally coming out on top every time. We didn’t let them fight, but if they happened to be in the basement by the time we got down there Oso would be on top of Sarge and have him pinned. In the beginning, Sarge was very much the instigator in these altercations. We started noticing it more and tried to prevent these situations from occurring. We stopped wrestling, tugging, running around the house and playing with the dogs as a group. Things were individualized or done in pairs. At this point I was looking for a part time trainer position for Sit Means Sit who was the trainer we had been using for Riis and Oso. I had seen the changes in my dog and wanted to learn more. This was when I delved into e-collars, saw the importance of muzzle training and learned all about managing dog behaviors/situations because of what I was dealing with at home.

I used to hate muzzles and think that muzzled dogs were dangerous and bad dogs. I did not want any of my dogs being stigmatized for the things we used and, as far as I knew, only bad, dangerous dogs wore muzzles or police dogs that liked to bite. My first mentor as a trainer quickly changed this view in my mind. Oso was not allowed in a group class without a muzzle, but Riis was. So we sucked it up and fed him peanut butter through his muzzle all through our group classes. He was not conditioned to one, I didn’t know about that at the time. I just slapped it on and we went to class so the peanut butter really helped. During this time I was pretty much living, eating, breathing everything dog. I worked full time at a vet office and was offered a kennel attendant position with Sit Means Sit. When my mentor learned that I didn’t condition Oso to a muzzle nor did I even know what she meant by that, she started offering classes and book recommendations for all of the things that I was expressing interest in. We took part in and then ran a muzzle training class and saw how quickly some of the dogs were able to acclimate to their muzzles. We also saw the benefits of muzzle training happen pretty quickly. Dogs were calming down because their owners were calming down now that they weren’t as worried about their dogs harming others. So I got right on the muzzle train because I was literally seeing how they helped not only my dogs, but other people as well.

The muzzles really came into play and became an important aspect of dog training for me because they allowed me to attempt to repair the situation between Oso and Sarge. They boys were now able to be out together and we didn’t have to worry about anything happening. At this point we were living a crate and rotate lifestyle. Riis was out the most as both boys were great with her. As I started learning more about dog training I focused on getting to a point where Sarge and Oso could have a working relationship. I got cocky a few times or pushed for too much too soon. I have the scars to prove that because Sarge would redirect when he and Oso had an altercation. I have scars on my arms and legs where I took bites that were intended for Oso or simply because I caught Sarge before he was able to go for Oso. This is why muzzles were so important. I have been bit by my own dog more times than I have with any training dog. I was getting injured and that, in turn, was affecting my jobs. I learned how to properly break up fights with minimal risk to me, but until he settled down Sarge would always try to redirect on whatever was closest to him in those situations. We continued living in crate and rotate and working on Sarge and Oso’s relationship for four years. There were ebbs and flows. As my handling and their skills got better I started trusting them more. We followed Jay Jack’s reintegration protocol and had almost a full year of no fights. The boys could be out and about and as long as we kept an eye on them and managed any tense moments. It was as close to the peaceful harmony we used to have as we would ever get. Oso and Sarge would play together on trails, they would hang out on place together, swim at the beach together, could ride in the car free together and do a lot of the things that they hadn’t done together in years. Most of these things were done with a muzzle on just in case, but they didn’t always need them, they were there for my safety. I was so happy to finally have my boys back and able to be together. They both helped at my job and grew with me as I grew as a trainer. Oso taught me how to shake things off and have a good time. Sarge taught me alot. He illuminated the world with all of the things that I could now do with my stable, social German. They earned the title of demo dog. I was confident in both dogs and my respective bonds with them.

As is the nature of the world things change and when my mentor decided that she was selling SMS I decided to stay and hopefully, continue with my clients and friends there. Over the next month or so I essentially trained and ran everything training related for Sit Means Sit at my location. I was overwhelmed, stressed and hated my job. My happiness during this time was the time I spent walking dogs. One day I was planning on going out for a longer walk with Os and Sarge prior to work. We live in a crowded, urban city. I was double checking that I had all the necessary things for our walk with Sarge on leash to my left and Oso on leash to my right. The custom is as we step out of our gangway, I look both ways to see what's around and then, when I deem it okay we would go walk. On this particular day we were waiting in our gangway for another dog and owner to pass before starting our walk. Both dogs were sitting on their respective side. As the gentleman passed with his dog, his dog freaked out and started barking and lunging at Oso. Os flipped his head up and looked at me. As I went to reward him Sarge came across my body and went for Oso. He got him. The other dog then started trying to pull into our gangway to join in on the fight. The guy got control of his dog and got out of dodge. I separated Oso and Sarge and took them inside to crate because I could not get Sarge to snap out of it. While he was losing his mind in his crate I took Os out for a quick walk. When we got back, Sarge lit up again, barking and growling at Oso. I put Os back in his crate and Sarge tried to start stuff with him through the crate and divider we had between their kennels. I leashed up Sarge and he immediately went to Oso’s crate and started barking, lunging and growling at Oso’s crate. This was probably our biggest rock bottom. From this point on it was almost on sight that Sarge would try to start crap with Oso. We repeated the same protocols and attempted to work back to neutral. We never got back to where we were. Things were better, but we had a very strict management system. We started to toss around the idea of rehoming Sarge, but I wasn’t just going to pawn him off to another person. He was evaluated for bomb detection, but he was diagnosed with mild hip dysplasia and was no longer a candidate. I was secretly ecstatic over this. I didn’t want to rehome Sarge but I had multiple people telling me it was the smart thing to do. Again, I didn’t want to stigmatize myself or my dog. He is more than the fact that he was rehomed. He is so much more.

We continued with this strict management for quite awhile. At this point I switched jobs and my new mentor was everything I had hoped for. She taught me so much. I wouldn’t be the trainer I am now nor would my dogs have made the progress they have made without her guidance. I had been looking for something to do with just Sarge and found my way to bitesports. Sarge was a very good intro level sport dog. If I still had him I do think we would have done okay in IGP. With this new outlet, new work environment and learning a bunch of new things with training Sarge became my main work dog. He was neutral to people and dogs. If solicited for attention from either he was very fair and appropriate. He liked to play with other dogs and wasn’t a guarder of anything. Without a single doubt in my mind Sarge played the biggest role in teaching me how to help others. Sarge started off as a very independent dog. He was smart, wicked smart, and would pick things up so quickly. He also found my holes just as fast. He taught me patience and how to slow down. He taught me that each dog is a unique individual and just because certain things worked for one that doesn’t mean they will work for others. It took three literal years to get that everywhere dog that I loved having with me. I trusted children to walk him. He was tolerant and loving. I had no concern with him unless Oso was involved. Because of how stable Sarge was, I debated rehoming Oso. He was the harder dog with his dog issues. Sarge was the smarter one to keep around with my interests, line of work and life plans. I couldn’t do it. These dogs were my problem. My new job was partnered with a working dog rescue. I received a crash course in Malinois, Dutchies and Germans, most with bite histories or neurotic behaviors. I learned how to work through those things, but no one had an answer for how to work through my boys. There was no pattern to Sarge’s outbursts. Things he would be fine with Oso with one day would incite issues the next. While for the most part we had really good days it was a stressful life. One day, Sarge was on place as I was walking Oso to his crate. This is a scenario we had practiced thousands, if not hundreds of thousands of times before. Oso was wiggling and happy as I was praising him and Sarge got up and went for Oso. This was the first time Sarge punctured Oso in one of their altercations. This was a particularly nasty fight. Oso was able to listen when they would fight and I would get Sarge and tell Oso to either place or go to his crate. As I was doing this I turned with Sarge to put him in a separate room. When I turned and started taking him away from Oso Sarge grabbed my thigh, bit it twice and then latched onto my elbow. He had been wearing a dominant dog collar, specifically for these types of scenarios and I was glad we had one on because I couldn’t get him to out. I should note that Sarge had a muzzle on. He got it off, we were using an old one that was a little big waiting on his new one to get in. This was how I learned that management eventually will fail because we as humans get comfortable and complacent.

I went to my mentor, explained what happened and asked for advice. It was the same as before, but now I had a few options. Sarge was and is one of my biggest regrets but also one of my greatest accomplishments. He is a dog that I will forever be grateful for if only for the important lessons he helped me learn. This isn’t including the moments he protected me or licked my tears to comfort me. This dog was the culmination of all my dog work up to this point. I was told by many people I looked up to that this situation would always be what it was between the boys. Especially with the fact that Sarge joined another dog with trying to attack Oso. Over the next two months I waffled back and forth with whether I was going to rehome him, Oso or keep both. I had a lot of people telling me that I was abandoning my dog, I had a few people letting me know they understand. At the end of the day I chose what was best for me, my partner and Oso and Riis. Sarge was rehomed a month before his 4th birthday. I had the rescue that was associated with my new job do a courtesy post. He had lots of interest from correctional facilities, to private trainers and pet owners. It took a couple of months to find a fit, but Sarge went to K9’s for Veterans. He currently lives with his owner/handler and works as her service dog. I had been putting a service background on him simply to learn how to. This helped him get into a home faster. I haven’t been able to reach out to check on him. It’s been a little over a year now since I rehomed him. I recently was able to reach out and get the number of the person to check on him. I can’t even write this without crying so I think that phone call won’t happen for a while yet.

Some of the important changes to note that have happened since Sarge left. Oso has become more tolerant of other dogs and was even trying to take part in play group at the place I was working at when Sarge left. Riis is a bit more confident in herself. There isn’t a palpable, constant tension in my house. My relationship with my partner has gotten a lot better. We are healthier and actually able to do things without constantly worrying. They may not seem important in the grand scheme of things and, sure we COULD have just stuck it out, but I am so glad to have a playful Oso and Riis back. I have no doubt rehoming Sarge was the right decision for everyone. Part of me thinks it selfish to continue pining after him and missing him, but I do. I think of him every time I meet someone with an independent dog, when I am showing clients how to play with their dog, when practicing retrieves. Every time I hear a Shepherd whine or bark it hits me in a sore spot on my heart. I want another German Shepherd, yet I doubt I will ever have one again because part of me feels like I don’t deserve one anymore.

Rehoming Sarge helped put a lot of things into perspective for me. It hurt but also allowed me to grow. I would never have been able to help raise other dogs in my home or even board other dogs. This was growth I needed as a trainer and as a person. I learned how quickly people will be in your corner and how quickly they will leave. I learned how easy it is for people to stay in situations that make them unhappy simply because they’re comfortable. I look forward to my future dogs and am extremely grateful to Oso, Sarge and Riis for being the teachers I needed to grow and learn exactly who I want to be as a dog trainer. At this point Oso is 7. He is pretty neutral to most dogs. His “reactivity” these days is the odd stink eye at another dog talking crap. He has come a long way. He was able to happily and comfortably live with multiple other dogs of a variety of ages in our home. While the majority have been female, there have been a few other males. He can even be trusted off leash around other dogs. He now hikes with friends and as he is starting to slow down a little, really enjoys the naps that follow. He is a therapy dog and is able to work in a variety of settings with other dogs and people out and around. Oso will never be a dog park dog, nor will he instantly like every dog he meets, but he can now stand for inspection, walk away from dogs trying to engage with him, and has learned to use his voice to ask for help when he is overwhelmed. His journey hasn’t been the cleanest nor the prettiest and I regularly scold myself for some of the things I have done to and with him now that I know better. At the end of the day, I think if you were to ask him, Os lives a pretty great life and is so much more relaxed than when we were a pack of three.

Cristina & Jesse

I think I decided to get a dog to fill a void in my life. I was in a very unhappy long-term relationship at the time and I was desperate to find something to love. And quick. I, embarrassingly, didn't put a lot of thought into it at the time, but for some reason I was sure I wanted an Australian Shepherd. I was living in New York at the time and a friend of mine worked at a shelter nearby. The day I got Jesse, I was on my way to the shelter when I realized I had left way too early and it didn’t open for another hour. But the Pet Store next door was open. (sigh) In New York, there are still stores where you go inside and they’re filled with super cute “purebred” puppies and you can literally just buy a puppy at a store. I didn’t know any better. I didn’t know that these puppies came from a puppy mill and not breeders. Jesse immediately caught my eye and I thought I’d pass the time until the shelter opened playing with him in one of the little play rooms they have there. WRONG. Obviously, I maxed out my credit card on this $3,500 puppy instead and we never made it to the shelter. And the rest is history. He was 10 weeks old at the time. He’s 5.5 years old now.

When did behavioral issues start? How did they start?

Looking back, there were a lot of signs that something was wrong early on. But I had never owned a dog before (or even spent much time around them) before I brought Jesse home. Although he seemed super friendly at first, once he was old enough to start “socializing”, all the red flags were there. I remember walking him around the neighborhood at only a couple months old and we would pretty much be barking from the time we left the house until the time we got back. Where we lived, the only place to let your dog off-leash is at a dog park. So I thought I was doing the right thing, “socializing” and “exercising” him at the local dog park. WRONG AGAIN. Almost immediately his herding and protective instincts were showing. There were two sides to Jesse at the dog park. 1. Trying to herd all the dogs and running circles around them, barking until a dog went after him or someone asked us to leave. Or 2. Guarding me. Instead of interacting with anyone, he would stand in front of me and tell anyone off who tried to come near me.

What issues popped up and when, was there a progression or warning signs?

There were a few times at the dog park that he got into “fights” where basically he was trying to herd the dogs and they would turn around and gang up on him. No blood or injuries, but terrifying nonetheless. It was probably then that I was too afraid to let him near any dogs anymore. I pretty much avoided interaction with other dogs from then on. I don’t think he was in the same space as another dog (besides when he’d lose his mind if we saw one on a walk) after that from about 4-5 months old to around a year. People kept telling me to let him “work it out” with other dogs. Or that this was normal puppy behavior and he would grow out of it. He was small and cute, not bothering anyone! WRONG.

Was there a ‘rock bottom’ moment?

I think we had two major “rock bottom” moments.

  1. The first time he bit a person. Prior to this, I hadn’t picked up on any fear or aggression towards humans at all and I was mortified. He was about 8 months old and we were at my parents’ house playing frisbee in the backyard. My parents’ tenant unexpectedly opened the gate and started walking into the backyard when, for some reason, she spotted Jesse and just started running. And he chased her and grabbed onto her arm. I ran over and grabbed him and yelled and he let go immediately, but the damage was done. She wasn’t bleeding, but her arm was swollen and bruised pretty badly. I was hysterically crying and couldn’t understand what had just happened. Why did my actual PUPPY just attack someone? How could he not like people? I had had him since he was 10 weeks old and he’d never had a bad interaction with a human before. This is when I realized I was in over my head.

  2. The last time he bit a person. There were nips in between the first and last incidents, but we were in training and I felt like I understood why each of those happened. A stranger coming into our house or walking into our dark backyard at night. Those I could make sense of in my head. But 2+ years ago was the time he laid his teeth on anyone, and it was traumatizing. We were camping with a group of mostly close friends, about 10 total. But one girl that joined us was a new friend. And she had told someone else, who then told me, that she was afraid of dogs (and specifically of Jesse). By this point, Jesse was e-collar trained and hadn’t had any sort of incident in months and I was sure I could handle him. But knowing that she was nervous began to make me nervous. Which must have made Jesse nervous. I noticed he seemed to be “guarding” me a bit more than usual with her around, but that was really it. He never growled at her or barked at her or anything. He even fell asleep on her lap in the car at one point. 2 days in, I felt like we were at the point that he didn't need to wear his e collar just hanging out at the campsite and I sort of stopped worrying about it. AGAIN, WRONG. He was laying at my feet around the fire when that girl got up suddenly and ran by us to go grab something. As she ran by him, Jesse jumped up and bit her upper leg. Again, no blood but left a gnarly bruise and swelling. I spent the remainder of that morning dry heaving in the woods after she told me that “maybe Jesse and I would both be happier if you found him another home”

What training methods have you tried? Have they all worked? If some haven’t worked, why?

We started off Force Free, but I could never find a treat that was high-value enough to get his attention off of another dog. Our trainer back then told us to turn the other way whenever we saw another dog and lure him with a hot dog. He got much much worse during this time. His first bite incident was during this time. We were both extremely frustrated and it was an awful time.

We tried our first balanced trainer after he bit a human for the first time. I knew if I didn’t exhaust all my options, Jesse would be taken away from me. Someone was bound to report me eventually and I couldn’t let that happen. I knew if he ended up in a shelter, there was a good chance he would be euthanized. This trainer was great with dogs, but had awful people skills. She was honestly just plain mean. But she taught us how to use the e-collar and introduced us to pack hikes and showed me what Jesse was capable of, and for that I am grateful.

The problem was that, even though Jesse was spending lots of time around other dogs and people without incidents, every few months or so, we’d have an off day and he’d nip someone or snap at a dog. And that wasn’t good enough for me. I was still nervous each time we left the house thinking today might be the day he snaps again.

Current management or training schedule.

Jesse and I do best when we keep up with practicing just being around other people and dogs that are well behaved. So our current management includes lots of muzzling in new situations and around new people and dogs. And lots of group training, pack walk, hikes with friends with familiar dogs.

If you utilize a muzzle, for what?

We started off using a muzzle any time we left the house. And honestly, it worked wonders. I was relaxed from the very first muzzled walk, knowing that I didn't have to worry that this would be the day that he bit someone or their dog and he gets taken away from me. This translated into Jesse not worrying as much either. He seemed more submissive around new dogs and people (and he really needed to be honestly) and even started to make friends with some and happily greet dogs on hikes if we couldn't avoid it.

These days, we’ve stopped muzzling him around familiar people and dogs in most situations. It’s very obvious to me now when he’s comfortable around someone/dog (and once he’s accepted you into his world, he’ll never hurt you). We’ve been using the muzzle now in order to push our training farther and farther. Bringing him around more people, more crowded hikes, inside dog friendly breweries, having gatherings at our house, etc.

Words of advice for people on a similar journey

I feel like once I understood how scared and confused Jesse was (and that he wasn’t just being an asshole), I was able to have more empathy and patience with him. And this worked wonders. The muzzle helped us build trust by proving to me how capable he was and who he really was underneath all the anxiousness. And taught him that I was capable of staying calm and protecting him so that he didn’t have to.

What have you learned from your journey and your dog?

I have learned that I do not give up easily. I am brave and my dog is brave. I’ve learned to not judge someone for their dog’s (or child, or partner etc.) behavior. You never know someone else’s journey or what they’ve been through or where they are at in their training. I’ve learned that most dogs are not mean, or stupid, or aggressive. They usually are scared and confused and need direction. I’ve also learned that the people in my life who accept and love Jesse are the ones who also show me the most love and support. He’s been very good at helping me weed out some toxic people in my life.

Claire & Banner

Banner is a 4 year old heeler mix, most likely a border collie x ACD. I adopted Banner from a rescue in eastern Colorado when he was approximately four months old. Banner’s first owner was a single mother who got him for her kids and was unprepared to handle the ball of never resting energy that was Banner as a puppy. She had him for about a month, during which time she used a shock collar on him enough to leave him with a permanent bald spot and scar on his neck. He spent the next month in a foster home in rural Colorado before coming to live with me in Boulder, CO.

Over the last four years I have dealt with a number of behavioral issues with Banner and learned so much because of him. Banner is my first dog. At the time I adopted him I was working full time as a dog walker specializing in puppies and reactive dogs, so I was knowledgeable with dogs and had spent a lot of time with a lot of different dogs, but in retrospect I was not prepared to take on a dog like Banner. There are definitely things I would do differently if I could go back in time, but overall I am very proud of how far Banner and I have come.

I have worked with positive reinforcement focused trainers and methods with Banner. I did have a consultation with a balanced trainer, but decided that her methods were not right for us. Positive reinforcement focused training has been extremely helpful for Banner, but an important take away from my experience with Banner is that not all trainers are created equal, even within a certain training style, and that for challenging dogs it is more important to find a trainer that is a good fit for your dog and their specific behavioral issues than to focus on the labels. My first experience with a positive reinforcement trainer was similar to the one described by many people, someone who did not understand the severity of my dog’s issues and was not able to help him. I am really glad that I eventually worked with some amazing trainers who have made a big difference in our lives.

Issues that I have dealt with with Banner that didn’t make it into this post include; some separation anxiety, lack of food drive, resource guarding from humans.


The first year of Banner’s life was dominated by teaching him how to relax. As a puppy, Banner did not sleep unless he was in his crate and when he was awake and out of the crate he needed supervision at all times or else he would find something to keep himself busy. It was exhausting. I think the thing that best captures the first few months with Banner is an instagram story I posted when he was 8 months about how excited I was about Banner’s first ever nap outside of his crate. During this time he also struggled with overexcitement in the car and would bark excitedly anytime he thought we were approaching a fun destination.

These days, Banner is great at relaxing even when he is not at all tired. He spends his days at home napping. When we travel he sleeps the entire car ride and settles once we arrive at our destination. Some of this has certainly come with age. But, relaxation is something we have worked really hard on. The idea that I needed to teach my dog to relax was something I did not understand at first and I would just try to tire him out. But then I learned about tethered relaxation and Karen Overall’s Relaxation Protocol. The Relaxation Protocol made a huge difference for Banner and helped him learn that he didn’t have to care about every little thing that happens around him.


At various points in his life, Banner has been reactive to the sight of:

  • Dogs

  • All Vehicles

  • Only loud/large vehicles

  • Skateboards

  • Skiiers/Snowboarders

  • Wildlife

And to the sound of:

  • Dogs barking

  • Skateboards

  • Thunder

  • Fireworks

  • Fighter jets

  • Blenders/other loud appliances

  • Household thumps (doors closing, etc)

Banner’s reactivity is largely based in frustration and over-arousal. He is a dog-social dog and gets along well with pretty much any dog that likes him. A full blown reaction for Banner consists of lunging and barking. Less severe reactions may be a single, silent lunge or whining.

The first thing Banner showed reactivity to was vehicles, starting shortly after I brought him home (4-5 months old). He would attempt to hurl himself in front of any car that drove by as we walked down the sidewalk. Around this time he was also reactive to blenders/appliances. These were also the easiest and quickest to resolve, so much so that at this point I honestly couldn’t tell you exactly how we worked through those ones. At around one year old he started to show signs of frustration reactivity to dogs. Reactivity to fireworks/thunder/fighter jets began after a neighbor set fireworks off within 100 feet of us when we were out for a walk early in the evening on NYE when he was 2.5.

Dogs have been the primary focus of my reactivity training with Banner as it is the one that causes the most challenges in our daily life.

Training Journey

As a requirement from the rescue, I signed up for basic training classes with a local trainer in fall of 2017, shortly after I got Banner. Quite frankly, I chose her because she was the only person on a list of recommended trainers in the area that would accept my 4 month old puppy into classes (others said he was either too young or too old for their offerings) and that had availability for that fall. Not the best way to pick a trainer, I know. I continued to join her informal group sessions into the spring of 2018 and she was the first trainer I worked with 1:1 when Banner started to show signs of dog reactivity in the summer of 2018. In retrospect she gave me a lot of bad advice, and her training style embodies much of the criticism you see about positive reinforcement focused training from people who don’t have much experience with good positive reinforcement training. Banner kept getting worse while I followed her advice and eventually I stopped working with her.

In early 2019, there were a few incidents that made it clear to me that I did not have the situation under control and needed to seek additional help. In one incident, Banner lunged at another dog while hiking causing me to lose my footing, fall, and drop the leash. He made it to the other dog and the resulting incident left Banner with a puncture wound that required an emergency vet visit. I started to work with a new trainer who had me focus on “leave it”, something that Banner excelled at for everything except dogs so it didn't make a difference in his reactivity. After a few sessions, she told me that she didn’t think she could help us anymore. Getting dropped by this trainer was my lowest moment with Banner and left me with some feelings of hopelessness.

I really threw myself into training and learning with Banner in the spring/summer of 2019. I took the Grumpy Growlers class at the Humane Society of Boulder Valley. I had hesitated to sign Banner up for this class because the title did not align with my challenges with Banner at all. He is not even the slightest bit grumpy about dogs, but it turns out the class is focused on all reactivity and not just dogs that are not dog social.. At the same time I did an online course for reactive dogs with Dawn Mellon from the Hiker Pup. In combination, these two classes are what helped things start to change for Banner. Dawn taught me a new way to look at Banner’s reactivity and how to help change not just how Banner behaves around dogs he doesnt get to meet but also how he feels about them. And the chance to work in proximity to other dogs in a controlled situation at the HSBV class was huge. After that class completed, Banner and I did the Advanced Grumpy Growlers class and continued to seek out opportunities to train alongside other controlled dogs through training meetups.

Since fall of 2019, I have continued to learn more and evolve how I train with Banner as his needs change. I have taken online courses through FDSA and gotten valuable insights from podcast episodes from/with Hannah Brannigan, Amy Cook and Leslie McDevitt. Banner is by no means perfect now, but we have made huge strides.

Looking back on the last 3 years, I have realized how much I have had to adjust things as Banner has improved. Most of these changes have been related to the amount of choices I let Banner make vs requesting behaviors from him and taking the decision out of his hands. Early in our reactivity journey in most situations I would control the situation, either through giving Banner cues or through use of frequent food reinforcement to encourage Banner to focus on me instead of the trigger. This helped us get through the most severe reactivity at the beginning of our journey. Lately though, most improvements have come from letting him make more and more of his own choices (ie see another dog, choose to dismiss the dog and go sniff something else with no involvement or guidance from me)

Management has also been an important part of Banner’s reactivity journey. Most of the time this looks like giving space to a passing dog whenever possible. At several points we also suspended neighborhood walks for a few weeks at a time to decrease the amount of stress Banner was under from simply being in the neighborhood and remembering all the places he had seen dogs. Also knowing what places don’t make sense for Banner has been important and has helped me to be able to focus on the kinds of places I do want Banner to be able to go.

Advice for Other Dog Owners

  • Work with a professional trainer and choose one that has experience working with the types of issues your dog is facing.

  • Consider whether a trainer’s style/technique works for both you and your dog, but don’t get too caught up in labels.

  • Set goals based on what you want for life with your dog and remember that you don’t have to fix everything if you have a long-term sustainable management plan.

  • For dog reactivity, friends with well trained/managed dogs you can train alongside are invaluable.

Jaquoi, Rya, Enzo & Hayze

I am Jaquoi and this is my story about me, and my dogs . The stuff we went through and how we are doing today! I will start with Rya, Rya was from a BYB that I found on an online selling website. The reason I wanted a pitbull was because my brother got one and I fell in love with her so once I moved out and was on my own I decided I wanted a pitbull. I got Rya when she was 6 weeks (barf). She was the cutest little small baby and I was in love with her instantly! Brought her home and everything was going great! Of course, I did not know a single thing so that's that but she was just fine until she hit about 6 months old… That is when I saw her behavior change, she also got into a roommate's weed and that kind of messed her up. I could see she was more on edge with the dog we lived with but nothing other than just reacting when the dog came into our room specifically.. There was that problem for a while, just getting mad at dogs who would come into our room. The moment I knew there was something wrong when I lived with my best friend and she added a new husky to the family, Rya straight up went after her when there was food in play. Rya ended up getting my finger and ripping it open. She also did it to my best friend a previous time, but the husky didn’t fight back so it seemed to have “fixed” that issue. Rya is a VERY dominant dog and likes to basically run the show lol. Rya doesn’t like dogs in her face, that really triggers her into “fight” mode. The real problems began when we added Enzo. That is when I get into our real problems…

Now onto Enzo.. This will be the whole story between Rya and Enzo - We got Enzo from a friend that was trying to find a home for him, he was the cutest little brindle baby! We wanted another dog so we thought why not! Let me tell you, we were not prepared for what was about to come into our lives. lol We did not manage him and Rya well AT ALL. Rya attacked Enzo, over and over again even ripped his ear open.. There were times they were good when he was a puppy and growing up but once Enzo grew up nothing was ever pleasant.. Enzo grew up and he became severely dog and human aggressive, he did not care who was in his way, he would bite no matter what. The first real fight that happened with my dogs is when we had people over and Enzo was doing fine, nothing out of the normal, but one guy came in (a guy Enzo never met) all hyped and screaming so it triggered Enzo and he jumped up and bit him in the armpit (didn’t break skin but left a mark) Rya then looked at the opportunity to go after him the fight broke out, my boyfriend picked up Rya and Enzo was just jumping and trying to go after her so I grabbed Enzo to try and get him and he latched onto my hand and wouldn’t let go, my friend had to kick him off of me.. We got the dogs calm and split up but my hand was messed up, I had punctured wounds all over my hand, I ended up instacare. That was the first time he got me good. We got Enzo into training because of how bad he had gotten with people, even on walks.. The training helped and he was going to a structured day care to get socialization and it was going OKAY.. The other second major fight was when my mom came to let out my dogs.. I remember getting a call from her literally in tears and couldn't even speak.. It was pretty much the worst thing. She came to let my dogs out and they were out back, Enzo was following Rya and she clearly didn’t like it so she turned around basically to tell him off and the fight started. My mom couldn't get them off each other, she was smart and not getting involved but she was screaming at the top of her lungs that finally a neighbor came over and had to literally PRY Enzo off of Rya.. He wouldn’t let her go.. So I rushed home from work to come home and find Rya all bloody… Let me tell you that was truly the worst and most heartbreaking thing I have dealt with as a dog owner.. Enzo had ripped up her whole leg and left punchunced marks on her neck, luckily she was wearing her collar or I think the ones on her neck would’ve been way worse and I don't know if it would have been the ending we got.. We had to take Rya to the ER to get her all cleaned up and I just felt so sick.. My baby had gotten hurt and I just felt defeated. After that we were all on edge at the house.. You could feel the tension between all of us.. It was terrible.. But then of course, things got good and there were no fights.. Then the second fight happened.. We were outside together, me and the dogs, I can’t remember specifically what had happen to set them both off but they started to get into it. The only thing on my mind was NOT TO LET ENZO GET RYA. That is what I did, I jumped in front of Rya and put my arm out and Enzo latched onto my arm and wouldn’t let go so I ripped my arm out of his mouth not knowing what my injury was.. I got Rya inside and I was outside with Enzo and I looked down and I had blood ALLLLL over me and my arm was completely ripped open.. My boyfriend came running outside and the look on his face I knew it was probably bad lol. I was convinced I didn’t need to go to the ER (lol at me) but we went.. I was pretty much out of it because I was losing so much blood and I just felt completely lightheaded but we got to the ER and I had two big lacerations on my forearm and one on the back of my forearm, pretty much almost down to the bone. The doctors kept saying that this was the worst dog bite they have seen.. They cleaned my wounds out and I had to go see a specialist the next day.. Turns out Enzo had completely severed my ring finger tendon and I would have to get surgery to repair it.. That was honestly the worsttttttt thing I have ever gone through but of course, we kept Enzo and Tried to make it work. One thing about me, I do not give up even if it is the worst situation.. I got all healed up, had to go to months of physical therapy, I was on the mend. We kept working with Enzo and tried to make it work with him and Rya but the last and final straw is when the last fight happened… a bone was left out (a big freaking error on our part) and Enzo came running in from outside when Rya had it and the fight broke out. My boyfriend was home at the time and a guy that was living with us, my boyfriend tried to pick up Rya thinking he could just throw her downstairs and things would settled but as soon as he picked up Rya, Enzo latched onto my boyfriends leg and kept biting and biting so my boyfriend dropped Rya and Enzo went for her.. They threw a jacket over him and got him off of her but of course, we ended up back in the ER because my boyfriend had 16 puncture mark wounds on his leg… That is when we decided we couldn’t do this anymore. There was so much damage already done between us and our family that we couldn’t keep Enzo in this house. Things were getting out of hand, we were all defeated and destroyed that we weren’t happy and things in this house were terrible.. We decided to rehome Enzo to my boyfriend's mom and her boyfriend, because obviously Enzo couldn’t go to just anyone, especially with his human aggression.. It was a tough decision for me.. I felt like I did Enzo so wrong, I completely ruined him.. I went through some depression and I thought I will never own another dog. This was my rock bottom moment..

After I decided to stop feeling sorry for myself and Enzo was settling nicely in his new home and was safe, I started working hard on Rya and her training. We basically went back to the basics and did a lot of hand feeding and just really working on our relationship because it was sooo damaged after Enzo. Things were looking up, I got a job at a dog training/daycare facility and it helped me gain my confidence back with dogs. I really just kept my focus on Rya and making myself remember why I love dogs and feeling more confident in myself. I think it was about a year after all the things that went down with Enzo I decided I wanted another dog, a working dog to be exact. I loved the idea of the bitework world (am i crazy? Kind of. lol) . So I started looking for a German Shepherd. I have loved German Shepherds since I was little and I wanted one to be my next dog to do IGP/PSA with. So once I got on a waitlist and found an amazing breeder, I knew I needed to introduce this puppy WAYYYY freaking differently than I did with Enzo. I did not want to fail. So I did extensive muzzle work with Rya, I talked to a lot of my dog trainer friends, gathered up as much information as I could so I could be successful bringing in another dog with Rya. I knew it wasn’t going to be easy and I knew it was going to be a timely thing and I knew there was a chance that this puppy and Rya probably would never get along but I knew I wanted a working dog and I was going to do everything to make that work.

Fast forward a couple months then we got Hayze, my DDR/Czech German Shepherd. He came from Sentinelharts out of California. I had everything down to a T on what I was going to do to introduce him and Rya. So before Hayze even got home, I got all the stuff I needed to get these two integrated together. We brought Hayze home and literally his whole puppyhood he lived in an xpen, completely separated from Rya. The only interactions they had was from inside that xpen. Rya was curious at first, super playful but of course, I know her and I know if she ever got to meet Hayze outside that xpen she would have lost her chill lol.. Hayze would get free time out of the xpen and Rya would go upstairs separated by a baby gate. There are times where they were out together, Rya in a muzzle and Hayze on a leash so he didn’t get in her face and gave her the space she needed. We did a lot of place training out together too. Hayze would be tethered down and Rya would be in place, and we would all just chill together. My main focus was working on getting them to coexist together, learning that they are going to be living together but they didn’t need to interact or be friends. We did all of this for months and months. Hayze got older and a little more “behaved”, as much as a puppy could behave lol, but that is when I let them roam together. Rya muzzled, Hayze learning what was acceptable and not acceptable with her. I always advocated for Rya and made sure SHE was comfortable with what was happening between her and Hayze. I got very lucky with Hayze, he reads Rya VERY well.. Of course, he is annoying but he never pushes her buttons harder. He has always been respectful of her. He has always been a very good boy with her. I never rushed this part, I always played it safe and kept Hayze and Rya comfortable and protected. I didn’t want my new puppy to go through anything traumatizing, I wanted him to have good interactions with her and other dogs, I wanted to keep him VERY safe. This part is very boring because I did this with them for a year so let’s move on…

Fast forward to now.. Hayze is 16 months and Rya is going to be 7. Rya is not muzzled around Hayze anymore. They actually get along VERY well and Rya is very much okay with Hayze. I still make sure Hayze doesn’t push his luck with her. There is always going to be management with Rya and Hayze, they will always have rules and expectations on how they interact with each other and they will need to keep those expectations. Hayze is still a puppy and still has that dumb puppy brain so if hes too much for Rya they get separated. I read my dogs very well and I understand what they are giving me. Rya is still muzzled around dogs she doesn’t really know and my friends' dogs because there is always a chance she will snap and I will not take that chance for her to attack another dog and mess them up. I play it VERY safe with her. Rya will always be a management case but I have more knowledge and experience under my belt that I am comfortable with adding more dogs in the future because I am really getting into PSA and I am for sure going to be adding another working dog in the near future. Never be afraid to ask for help.. We have to understand that dogs are dogs, they can be reactive, aggressive and just not overly friendly.. Your dog doesn't need to be friendly to be a good dog. We need to get over that picture, all dogs have their issues. Just remember to advocate for your dog and their needs and don’t be embarrassed or afraid to stand up for them and how they are. More importantly, love your dogs and have fun with them!! :)

Jenny & Lena

General background

I started out getting a rescue mutt, Lena, my freshman year of college. I fostered some dogs over the next few years but didn’t add anyone else to the pack until 5 years later when I got my first well bred dog, an English cocker named Newt. Then my boyfriend and I moved in together, adding his first dog, a cattle dog mutt named Foster and his young GSP named Echo to the pack.

When did behavioral issues start? How did they start?

Lena is the dog with behavioral issues. When I adopted her, I first did a 3 week trial period. I honestly had a lot of concerns after those 3 weeks but I felt bad about not keeping her and everyone in my life loved her, so I kept her. She wanted to pull towards every dog and critter we saw, no matter how far away they were and I lived on campus where it was often hard to gain distance from other dogs. Then I went home for the summer and she started to live with my parents’ dogs. Everything went fine for about 3 weeks until she attacked my parents’ sheltie. At that point we hired a trainer and tried to work through it, but she’s never stopped hating that dog. After I went back to school, she got attacked by an off leash dog. At that point her reactions to dogs on walks got worse. We did start fostering dogs though and she never had a serious issue with a foster dog, partially due to my management strategies, which included off leash introductions and not having resources that could be fought about out, since she made it pretty clear she would guard almost anything from another dog.

What training methods have you tried? Have they all worked? If some haven’t worked, why?

We focused on force free style training for the first 3 years. I don’t regret this at all as she learned a lot and I did meet a lot of great trainers who taught me valuable things. We eventually introduced an e-collar because I wanted her to be reliable off-leash. We took our time and she is extremely reliable now. Eventually we introduced a prong to get through to her in a reactive moment, however her reactivity progress is largely attributed to simple treat scatters when she saw dogs. Also going to classes and GRC club really helped her learn that dogs are not a threat to her as well.

Current management or training schedule.

Currently we live a “crate and rotate” life in our house. Lena unfortunately does not tolerate Foster well in her space in the house. She went after him in the house shortly after Sean and I started dating and their relationship has just been weird since. She did not do any damage to him, in fact she’s never injured another dog in a fight. But she is very stiff and watches his every move in the house, waiting for something to bitch about. Luckily, they get along fine outdoors and can go on leashed and off leash walks together unmuzzled. She does well with the cocker and GSP who grew up with her, but that was a very slow integration. When I first got the cocker, I wasn’t sure I would ever feel comfortable with Lena and him hanging out in the house with her unmuzzled. We took things extremely slow. He was over a year old before they started to hang out loose in the house with Lena unmuzzled. Now I trust them deeply together. She has never had an issue with him because I never put her in a situation she wasn’t ready for with him. They play and enjoy each other and have a great relationship. They still don’t share toys or food, however they have played with toys around each other without issues. It’s just not something I push. With Echo, the young GSP, she has been pushed a little quicker since getting comfortable with how she accepted Newt. She has had to tell her off for being a puppy a couple times, but overall they have a great relationship and play as well. I do require more vigilant supervision when they hang out in the house together, but Echo is only 10 months old and I believe I will trust them more as time goes on.

If you utilize a muzzle, for what?

We use a muzzle when getting to know new dogs and sometimes when on family off leash walks depending on the situation. If I think she is likely to want to police Foster, then I will muzzle her as a precaution.

Words of advice for people on similar journeys.

Honestly, take a deep breath. Relax. I have major anxiety and Lena caused me so much stress for so long. But over time, I’ve learned to just accept that this is the dog she is and I work within the confines of her comfort. We probably could push for her and Foster to be more comfortable in the house together. But ultimately it would cause us so much stress, and I’m not sure we’d ever truly relax given her history. And that’s fine. I’m completely ok with that. Don’t set goals you don’t actually care to achieve. Don’t try to make your dog something they’re not. Sometimes management is truly the best option.

Molly, Harvey & Hero

The Boys: Background on Hero and Harvey

At the time we brought Harvey home, Hero was a high drive, three-year-old terror in the body of an English Springer Spaniel. He was overstimulated, pulled like a freight train, barked at everything, and was known for getting into resource guarding scuffles and for choosing, seemingly at random, houseguests to absolutely hate and lose his mind at. He was incredibly over aroused and would frequently expel his anal glands on our couch, as he barked at passers by. He was obsessed with the cat, lights, random spots on the wall, and anything else you could expect from an unfulfilled, over-exercised working breed. Honestly, he was miserable to live with.

For the second dog, we knew we wanted something calmer, with a natural off-switch, preferably that would get along with the cat. The sweet shelter volunteer steered us to Harvey, who was a rolly polly 5 month old bully mutt. He immediately became playmate extraordinaire to Hero, was very tolerant of the moments of grumpy resource guarding spaniel, and seemed naturally neutral to the cat. He was a dream.

It was short lived, however. A month later we started having minor scuffles. By the time Harvey was 7 months old, we started keeping them separate if we weren’t home. Around this time a nastier scuffle resulted in a bad bite to my husband's hand which required an emergency room visit. During the obedience class we signed both dogs up for, we watched Harvey transform from cute puppy, to highly reactive menace. Eight months later, our now even more stressed out and unhinged spaniel bit a friend. Ten months later, eyeballing a bone far out of reach, Harvey froze, stared, and then full on attacked Hero. That was our first emergency vet visit. A year and a half in, we had a second fight that returned Hero to the emergency vet. At this point the emergency vet and my regular vet recommended getting rid of Harvey. But by that point, we were knee deep in training and had already begun to see some hope.

The Art of Training

I truly believe finding a good trainer is an art and I am not sure it is something you can truly explain to someone. There are hoards of mediocre or downright bad trainers who know how to say all the right things. There are others who are amazing with one type of dog, and blind to their faults in handling another. In six years, I have worked with at least ten trainers personally, more if you count online classes. And sadly, many of them were bad experiences. I was always proactive and was working with a trainer before any of the ugly reared its head in our two-dog situation. But I did not have the right mentor for my situation or my dogs. One trainer had my dog for 5 days. I spent 3 years figuring out how to repair the damage done.

All the bad trainers aside, my biggest lesson is about working with instead of against your dog. Hero, my crazy, intolerable spaniel, is now one of the most reliable, stable dogs I have ever owned. He isn’t perfect, but understanding him, working with and not against him, and recognizing who he is as a dog has completely changed the dog I live with. No longer is he a whip smart dog who can learn any trick but is impossible to live with. Instead, he is a reliable, calm-ish creature who I generally trust to respond appropriately to a wide variety of circumstances. Most of the time, I forget his long list of former problems. In proper spaniel form he thrives on movement and exploration. He is also, much to my surprise, a very handler focused dog and loves cooperative activities where we work in a partnership. Making sure he gets a good dose of those things is invaluable.

Similarly, connecting with those who understand bull breeds has been invaluable to Harvey’s success. Learning how to teach responsiveness to equipment, appropriate outlets for his love of conflict, and just generally building confidence in me and the world has made a huge difference in his general demeanor. He loves playing and toys and realistically, he does not need nor thrive off of walks. The classic structured walk that some swear by is a good way to add stress for Harvey. So we spend more time playing ball and running around sniffing at the park on a long line. Harvey taught me less is more and play is king.

The Method to My Madness

Most of the time nowadays, a flat collar, a leash, some food, or a toy is all I use to train my dogs. But arm yourself with whatever helps you. Early on, a prong collar was helpful in teaching Hero to yield to leash pressure. For Harvey, we often had a harness on for when he pulled, so we didn’t poison the conditioning we did to get him to respond to his flat collar. E-collars certainly played a role in our training at various stages and still have a space and place in our lives.

Specifically with dogs that fought, for the year after our first bad fight, Harvey practically lived in his muzzle. My advice about muzzles is to splurge and pay for the nice one with the padding, the more customized fit, and the wire basket that is easy to feed through. I will admit, due to the emergency state of my life, muzzle conditioning was a thing we sort of did, but never full-on committed to. Later, I tried to go back and recondition it, but for a dog who loves to use his teeth and is easily frustrated, I decided tolerance was as good as it would get. So if you are feeling muzzle frustration, I think it is ok to accept good enough. They don’t have to love it.

One thing I truly believe in, and have had at least one trainer confirm as a strategy, is never truly separating and isolating the boys from each other. Crates are in the same space. Early on, we backtied in the same room, visible to, but separate from each other. Or we let them relax and roam the yard muzzled together. My dogs might have easily learned to hold a grudge if we had fully split them. But we never did. Instead, we taught them to live and co-exist.

We also encouraged, and guided play. Play is an amazing trust building activity, and a contributing factor in our success. For these two, the interaction and controlled experiences allowed them to trust each other and continue on successfully. I have friends who this didn’t work for, but for my specific dogs, I wholeheartedly believe in keeping them together with safety precautions in place. It’s a gradual release of responsibility. Start with more controls, and slowly create more opportunities to interact as they have success.

Adding Another Dog

Recently we added a third dog to the team, Spider. She and Hero have been integrated from day one. He grumbles at her when she wants to take his stuff, but has yet to engage in resource guarding. We do our best to support him and keep her away but she has been known to steal from him without incident. We have no intention of letting her think that is ok or normal. So we enforce and practice giving him space and leaving his stuff alone.

We’re three months in and I can count on my fingers how many times she and Harvey have been loose in the yard together. We’re taking it very slow. X-pens, crates, and baby gates keep them separated within the house. Supervised play started on my bed of all places with Harvey and Spider in downs so they could not go crazy and get over aroused. Some interactions have been with leashes dragging, or we meet up with my favorite trainer and she manages one dog while I manage the other and we carefully orchestrate greetings and interaction. Certainly, the muzzle has been used more frequently again. But I have plenty of time, and am happy to use it to avoid her ever having a negative experience with either of the boys.

437 views0 comments


Post: Blog2 Post
bottom of page