Right now I’m mainly focusing on Abe, my lab/BC mix. Here’s his story, as far as I know it.
Abe was transferred from a high-kill shelter when he was about a year old because he was heartworm positive. The shelter he was transferred to treated him for heartworm and adopted him out; at that point, he was a normal dog. The adopter returned him, and he was absolutely terrified of people, especially men. He was sent to a prison program where he learned basic obedience, but someone other than his main handler went to pet him, and he nipped, so he was returned to the shelter. That’s when I met him, in November 2016. I went to go see him after seeing his petfinder ad online. Both myself and my boyfriend graduated from the school of Agricultural and Biological Engineering, colloquially abbreviated ABE, so I just had to go see him. Of course, I fell in love immediately, especially given his unique set of “quirks” and “issues.” I specialize in timid horses, so a dog couldn’t be that much different!
Abe has some fear aggression issues, as I found out when I brought him home. He will bite if he feels cornered and endangered, and it doesn’t take much for him to feel cornered and endangered. He has bitten my dad, after he did exactly what I told him NOT to do, and he’s bitten me when I’ve been too careless about how I handled him.
A few weeks after bringing him home, I had to take him to the vet to get him established in their system. During his physical exam, he screamed, shook, and cowered like he’d been hit every time the vet touched him. He became very aggressive, and even though he was muzzled, he tried to bite the vet and the techs. After the limited exam, he continued to growl at anyone who came in the room. The vet prescribed Prozac for him, and we started him on a very low dose. It has turned him into a different dog, but we still have some work to do. He’s more relaxed now and is handling being touched better. He still has an issue with having his feet touched, but he’s okay with being touched elsewhere, and we’re working on his feet.
The goal for Abe is to get him to essentially function as a “normal” dog; that is, be able to process and experience normal, everyday experiences without a lot of anxiety. These normal, everyday experiences include, but are not limited to:
- Being petted all over
- Being picked up
- Being bathed
- Having feet touched all over
- Having nails clipped
- Having guests over to the house
- Allowing strangers to pet him, or at least interact with him in some way
How I’m going to go about getting him to this point is a two-part approach. One includes medication to get his anxiety under control. I am very open about the fact that I’m on medication for my anxiety, too, so I have no hesitation about doing what Abe needs to help him feel secure and less anxious. Being on an SSRI has changed my life; he deserves to have his life changed for the better as well, and if medication is the way to go, we’ll do that. The second part of my approach includes positive desensitization to the things that make him nervous. He’s an incredibly fearful dog, so everything must be approached with that in mind. Trying to “dominate” him or force him to do anything he isn’t comfortable with will NOT work; he will only get worse. I have to build up his confidence in me and lead him through situations where he can learn to be confident.
My secondary focus is Piper, my mini. I’ve worked with her a lot already, but since it’s winter now, I’m not super motivated to go out in the cold to work with her more. As of now, her basic skills are fairly solid while on a halter and lead. She stands tied, loads in a trailer (and hops up into the back of my pickup), and lets me handle her without a whole lot of fuss, although she’s still nervous about it. Her main issue is with being caught, and with allowing me to touch her face and head. I have been able to figure out why she’s so scared: she has a huge scar running between her ears and down the center of her forehead. Something, or someone, made that scar. I don’t blame her for being scared to have her head touched!
For now, her issues are not hindering my ability to care for her, so I’ll resume her training in the Spring when it gets warmer. In the meantime, she still gets daily handling and attention, but I’m not terribly worried about progressing her training at the moment. The goal for her is largely the same as Abe, but the approach is a bit different. She doesn’t seem to need any medication to help her cope, so I will continue her positive desensitization process as with Abe. Watch for more updates on Piper in the future.