DOG QUEST: Rescue dog ten month review, and what do you do with a reactive dog?

(spoiler: you give her cuddles)

It’s now been about ten months since we adopted Abby-dog, so I’ve decided it’s time to reflect on how it’s all going. This is a long post. There’s a lot to be said.

Two dogs

I always kind of wanted to have two dogs, but the main impetus behind the decision was the fact that Amos was bored during the long periods of time we couldn’t spend playing with him, walking him or training him. We had puzzle toys that could keep him occupied when he was inside with us (the treat ball!), but there was nothing that could really be used outside (we live on a property with a distinct slope, post-and-wire fencing, and a creek at the bottom on the other side of the fence. Anything that rolls has a high probability of ending up in the creek).

That is, to be honest, often the life of a dog. When their people aren’t around, they get bored. It’s a bit easier for dogs in their twilight years who are happy to sleep all day, but for younger dogs it’s a near-universal cross to bear.

This is the reason that many people get a second dog. “They can keep each other company,” we say happily, but some people go further and decide that for this reason, two dogs will be less work than one.

No. No, no and hell no. Two dogs are, in many ways, more than twice as much work as one dog. This shouldn’t really surprise anyone. Two dogs may love to play and leap and bound and entertain one another while their owners are away, but when you get home, you are the big attraction.

Suddenly, when you’re training two dogs, you have to deal with dogs that get in each others’ way when a command is given. You have two dogs to feed – and you need to keep them from interfering with one another (read: keep Abby from eating all Amos’s food. All hail the crate). You have two dogs who need veterinary care (who may infect or accidentally injure one another). You have two dogs to get into the car to go to training, and you have to have two handlers to deal with them once you get there (i.e., both Husband and I have to be in good condition for training). You have two dogs who wrestle inside (vale standing lamp, we miss you). You have two dogs who can’t be trusted with the treat ball because, if the other dog is around, the dog who has the treat ball will get ridiculously possessive (the treat ball is a solo toy only). You have two dogs to accommodate if you want to go on holiday, which is much harder than just the one, especially if one of your dogs is reactive (see below).

And, at least for a while, you have two dogs at very different stages of socialisation and training, which is more complex to manage than you might think.

I refuse to walk two dogs at a time: Abby is dog reactive, and the one time I tried it, she reacted to a small dog tied up outside the supermarket, and started pulling. That’s not so bad – she’s not as muscled as Amos and doesn’t really know how to use what she’s got – but then Amos decided that if Abby was acting up, there must be a good reason, and he should defend us all. Amos is very stocky, and knows exactly how to use what he’s got, so even with all the feet-planting in the world, I found myself being dragged inexorably by 75 kgs (165 lbs) of combined dog weight, and if a nice older man hadn’t consented to hold Abby for a minute (apparently he’d always had rotties, so he was quite charmed by their puppy antics) while I looped Amos to a pole, I would have gone A over T. Worse, I was terrified that one of them would run onto the road.

The whole situation was ill-considered and unsafe. They’d both been behaving so well on lead that I’d been lulled into a false sense of security. Never again, dear readers. Never again.

I honestly don’t know how so many people make it look so easy. I see a woman pushing a pram uphill with not one but two golden retrievers and I think, “That woman must be a genius. Or an Amazon. Or a WIZARD. Or those golden retrievers are angel dogs.” Then I look a bit closer, and one dog is trotting along happily and the other is getting relatively frequent corrections.

So, how’s it actually going with two dogs?

Surprisingly… not bad.

We’ve got them into a good routine. Oddly enough, I think Amos has been the one who has had to make the most difficult adjustments, and he has worked out a system for coping with some of the Abby-inspired irregularities (he is Clever). For example, when I go to let them in, I generally make them sit. Amos, who has been sitting before he comes inside for his whole life, would sit, and then get bowled over by Abby, who would sit. And then get excited. And bounce. And push in front of him. And sit again. And then get excited… So Amos has learned that when I open the back door, and wait expectantly, it’s best to back off. He backs away and waits politely next to the water bucket while I get Abby into a sit, let her in, wipe her off, and release her. Then he comes forward for his sit. I try not to give a command these days, because he can’t actually do what he’s told under those circumstances, and it’s not fair. If I wait long enough, Abby sits, and Amos backs away.

That’s great, because it means I can concentrate on Abby’s behaviour without interfering with Amos’s training – and if he didn’t have a good foundation before we got her, it would be quite the headache. Correcting one would be confusing for the other (that sometimes still happens, but Amos seems to respond to body language – eye contact, etc. – and works out when I’m scolding Abby and not him).

Abby usually trains with Husband and I train with Amos (although I did get to train with Abby once weekend because Amos was unwell, and Husband was wearing ugg boots… long story… and Abby is just super-cute when training. She dials everything up to 11). When I take Amos for a run, Husband walks Abby and concentrates on her basic loose-lead walking and heeling.

We’ve learned that both dogs are happier if they get a little bit of solo time with us.

So two dogs is much more work, but it’s very rewarding, and it’s working.

Abby on the left, doing her "Princess Flathead" impression, and Amos looking worried on the right.

Two dogs, no waiting! Abby on the left, doing her “Princess Flathead” impression, and Amos looking worried on the right.

Abby herself

Abby herself is a fascinating study in how a good nature can overcome crappy beginnings. In spite of the neglect she originally experienced, she still adores people, adores physical contact, and desperately wants to play all the time. Amos loves to play, but even when he was Abby’s age, he didn’t want to play as much as she does. If she’s not curled up on the couch next to you, snuggling with desperate needy canine love, she’s fetching various dog toys from around the house and bringing them to you, or trying to baff Amos in the face with them to make him play with her.

She is, unsurprisingly for a rescue pup, very food motivated.

She is mostly very sociable with humans, with two exceptions:

  1. anyone wearing a high visibility vest (fluorescent orange or yellow). We don’t know why this is, but it doesn’t matter how tall or short someone is, or whether they are male or female, or any other characteristic – she seems to get honestly frightened when she sees them, and there is growling and barking, and hackles. My plan is to try and get hold of such an item so that I can slowly desensitise her by wearing it, but so far all I have is Husband’s cycling rain-jacket which is not the right shape, so I’m not sure it will work.
  1. Big guys. It doesn’t matter how a guy is big – he could be big in a buff, muscular, gymster sort of way, or he could be big in a tall, roundish, tubby sort of way – Abby does not discriminate in these matters. She doesn’t react with terror in the same way she reacts to high-vis vests, but she will take longer to warm up to such a person. She will back away. She might even bark. She’ll come back and sniff shoes, desperate for attention. Then she’ll remember OH NO THIS GUY IS HUGE and back away again, her tail between her legs. She’ll spend a lot of time in a little crouch, licking shoes and hands, with the tail down, before eventually she calms down and starts leaning on their legs. It can take a few encounters before she gets used to a Big Guy™, but now there are at least two we know of where she will immediately start sucking up to them the way she sucks up to everyone else.

In terms of Abby’s murky beginnings, there is one other behavioural quirk that causes problems, and it causes far more problems than the above two issues.

She is dog reactive.

Note: she is not fear defensive or aggressive. She is reactive. This is a very different thing, and I get very cross when people accuse my dog of being aggressive when she is throwing a tanty. Is she jumping around like an idiot and nearly pulling me over on lead? Yes. Is she barking and whining like a complete nutter? Yes.

Are her hackles up? Is she snarling? No.

Abby was not properly socialised with other dogs as a puppy; this is very clear. When she is off lead, all she wants to do with other dogs is sniff and play. She absolutely does not get a clue when another dog doesn’t want to play; she’ll keep trying, and get herself in trouble unless we take her our of the situation. Amos was the same at her age until he learned what I like to call “dog manners”, so I have hope that at least this part of her brain will re-wire as she grows up.

The problem is that she has had limited exposure to free play with dogs other than Amos and Lenny, so when a dog gets in her face (in some way we haven’t worked out yet), or steps on her tail, she cracks it. She snaps at them, and snarls, and loses her shit. She doesn’t bite or do damage, she just throws a tantrum. Would she do damage if she really lost her temper? It’s possible. She has the equipment.

Generally speaking, she won’t start a fight; but if another dog (usually a smaller dog) looks at her, and decides to growl to warn her off because she’s too big to play with, she takes this as an attack.

I think the difference is confidence, and experience. Amos has been snarled and growled at (again, nearly always by smaller dogs who look scared by him), and he just stands there, blinking, and eventually just sighs and turns away. He copes. He doesn’t feel threatened by the warn-offs, just – apparently – kind of bummed out. Sometimes he gets an alert look, a guard-stance, and gets between me and the other dog, but it’s a very calm maneuver, like an experienced bodyguard saying, “Just move along, mate. Don’t cause any more trouble, eh?”

Abby seems to feel genuinely threatened. Which is ironic, and makes it very sad that you can’t explain things to dogs, because it’s usually the other dog who felt threatened first.

This, however, is beside the point, because it’s not the usual state of affairs. The usual state of affairs is that the other dog isn’t scared of Abby, but is interested, and wants to sniff and lick and do the things that dogs do, and if Abby is off-lead (which is very rare around other dogs), she is delighted to participate (up until she feels threatened by another dog).

In the usual state of affairs, though, she is on lead. And she can’t participate. She can’t sniff and lick and play and roll about with the other dog, which is what she would love to do, and she gets frustrated, and her brain disappears into some sort of weird toddler tantrum, and she cracks it, and I think the toddler tantrum really is a good comparison, because there’s no aggression in it, no malice, just intense, poorly managed frustration. She jumps, she barks, she whines, she makes a huge goddamn fuss, and to people who don’t know dogs (or who – sigh – think that they do, but really don’t), it looks like she is winding up for an attack.

She is not. She honestly wants to play, or at least investigate. Does it mean she wouldn’t crack it later at the dog if they crossed some invisible line? No, sadly, it doesn’t mean that. As I said, she easily feels threatened by other dogs, and we haven’t worked out what her trigger is (I think going anywhere near her tail-tip – crooked and deformed as it is – might be part of it. It seems a bit more fragile and sore and sensitive than Amos’s more standard pointy tail tip). She has happily played for hours with Amos and Lenny without cracking it, though (she cracked it at Lenny once; he – understandably – cracked it first, because these two big rottweilers were charging around in his yard, stealing his bones; but all was forgiven in about thirty seconds and she kept trying to lick him and suck up… poor little Lenny), and apparently at the kennel she was fine with free play with other dogs most of the time. They couldn’t find her trigger either. And yet she has, to all reports, never bitten, never done any damage; it’s all an explosive tornado of snapping and snarling and “get away get away get away!”

I feel I need to add here (in case any meatspace visitors are made nervous by these revelations) that Abby has never, ever reacted to humans the way she does to dogs. I can wiggle the tail, poke her in the eye (not that I do it for fun, mind you), syringe her ears, take her food away, and all her favourite toys, and accidentally step on her foot, and the most she’ll do is give you sad-puppy-eyes, and maybe yelp. When friends come to visit, she is equally tolerant of them. Even when she is scared of the Big Guys™, the most that happens is a little growly whine. While she has not been well socialised with humans, she clearly has much more experience with them than with other dogs. Where humans are concerned, she is ridiculously sweet-natured. She just wants to cuddle and lick and play, all day. She has no invisible line when it comes to human interactions – only when it comes to other dogs.

As you can imagine, this causes some problems.

What can be done with the dog-reactive dog?

Firstly, neutral socialisation training.

Our training company is a big proponent of neutral socialisation. There is no free-form, off-lead doggy play. Dogs are not allowed or encouraged to interact with one another. This is a good thing; you don’t want your dog to get stupidly excited when they see another dog if you’re out for a walk. You don’t want them thinking, “I know what other dogs are for! They are for playing!” You want them to be thinking, “Oh, another dog. Seems nice enough. Whatever.” The minute your dog starts getting super excited about other dogs, they switch off, and they stop paying attention to you.

They must always pay attention to you when you ask it.

This might sound terribly narcissistic, but as I’ve explained previously, dogs live in a human world, full of dangers for them, and the way that they navigate it safely is by listening to their humans. You need to be able to call a dog away from a busy highway, a poisonous snake, or even vulnerable native wildlife (because I do not want to be the person whose dog killed the ringtail possum. Brushtail possums, I can live with, but not ringtails). These are high level distractions, and in all honesty I’m not working at that level yet with my dogs, but we’ll get there.

We took Amos to a dog park when he was a puppy, and I honestly regret that. He is getting better at resisting distraction, and now I can actually see that he is dividing his attention between me and the other dog (which is an acceptable compromise; of course, I want him to be aware of his environment!), but it has taken time and maturity to get past his learned response of “Other dog! PLAY!” I also now know that it is amazingly risky to take a puppy to a dog park. If they get attacked, that leads to trauma, and then you can end up with a fear-defensive dog, through no fault of their own. There’s often no reason to expect an attack, either. It is so easy for these things to go wrong.

But people love the dog parks, and for the most part, their dogs look so very happy that it’s difficult to let go of the idea. Is the only answer really to never let your dog play with other dogs?

Of course not! That would be very sad for everybody!

I think the idea of “puppy play dates” is a good one. You have a known, familiar, safe dog that comes to visit (or you go to them), and that is how your dog can get fun dog-on-dog interactions, and learn dog manners (very important!), in a controlled and safe environment, without them learning that every dog they meet out in the wider world is a potential friend (or enemy). In this sense I think Lenny has been very good in helping Abby learn that she has to be gentle when playing, because if she is not gentle, he either snarls at her, or high tails it off the property (he’s a kelpie. She’s not catching up with him until he is good and ready to deal with her, and to his vast credit, he usually gives her another chance. Occasionally he is just overwhelmed and done for the day, and that is quite fair. Our dogs are very intense).

Amos is not good at teaching “be gentle”. He has no inclination to be gentle with Abby and the reverse is also true. They play rough.

But back to training: the great thing about a dog training school that practices neutral socialisation is that your dog learns to be around other dogs without losing their mind. This is very hard for Abby, and sometimes she has to be taken a bit away from the main group to find her working distance (i.e., where she can be close enough to the other dogs to benefit from the exposure but far enough that she doesn’t melt her brain), but the more we go, the better she gets (lately we have not gone to training much, due to an outbreak of kennel cough in our household that I would prefer not to spread around. Apparently the vaccine is not perfect). If our timetable worked for it, I would take her twice a week just for that alone.

What else can be done?

Desensitisation. I am a big fan of desensitisation, i.e., where you expose your dog very gently and lightly to the stimulus that causes the reaction, and then you get them to look at you – pay attention to you – and you give them treats. The more they look at you, and not the stimulus, the more treats and praise they get (or playing. For some dogs, a quick game of tug is better than a treat. This will never be true for Abby). It can take some time to find the right working distance – not too close, and not too far – but it’s worth it. Desensitisation helps if it is applied consistently and frequently. I’ve used it with Amos to get him more comfortable with horses, teeth cleaning and claw clipping (that last one has not been super effective, but probably because I don’t do it very much. It is just so traumatic for everybody!).

The usual disclaimers apply: I am not an animal behaviourist or a qualified dog trainer, and while I have seen this tactic work on genuinely traumatised dogs, perhaps it doesn’t work for all of them. It cannot hurt, however.

Do not give them treats or rewards if they are staring at the other dog. They must be paying attention to you for this to work. The only exclusion would be if the other dog is making a fuss and throwing a tanty, and your dog is keeping an eye on them, but has deliberately chosen not to respond. Then they get a reward. I have definitely rewarded Amos for this, especially when his body language indicates that he wants to react and make a fuss, but he is restraining himself even while the other dog is carrying on as though the world is ending. Deliberate impulse control is hard for dogs, but it is such an important skill to learn, and should be praised and rewarded whenever it manifests.

Other than neutral socialisation and desensitisation (and to be honest, the former is a subcategory of the latter), I am not entirely sure what is to be done for the reactive dog. Consult a professional trainer, for sure. We’ve asked ours, and this is how they’ve responded.

The other thing to note is that these are not magical solutions. Rewiring a dog’s instinctive response – however they acquired that instinct, through genuine trauma or simply poor socialisation – is a slow process. It takes time, patience, and consistency. We’re good with the first two but haven’t always been great with that last one.

Conclusion

In summary, Abby’s reactivity is an issue for us. It makes it more stressful to take her for a walk, to take her to dog friendly cafes, and to take her to even the most tolerant of kennels (they are happy to take care of her, but not during busy periods, i.e., over Xmas. We’re having to leave her with a different place over the break; they’re also good but the environment is not nearly as nice, and they won’t have time to monitor her, so she won’t get the controlled socialisation she would get at the other place; she’ll only have play time with Amos, and that’s it).

Do I regret getting her?

Not for a second. I am not sure I have ever met a dog that was so extraordinarily sweet-natured towards humans, so desperate and determined to form bonds and be loved, and even though this is an expression of separation anxiety, it is a bit heart-melting. She is a genuine darling.

She is very clever (Rotties usually are); she’s a problem solver and a quick learner and she has, dare I say it, street smarts (that have made life a bit more complicated in terms of keeping her contained, I confess, but it’s impressive what she can figure out).

The time we spend with our dogs is varied. There’s inside cuddle-time; there’s outside be-followed-around-and-“helped” yard work time (Abby is very helpful, especially if Husband is carting around pieces of bark for a burn-off… dangling pieces of bark…); there’s go-to-a-café-time (and sometimes she is fine, particularly at our favourite café where the owners are her personal friends. I think that makes her feel a bit safer, so she will watch another dog and whine a bit, but usually won’t make a fuss there); there’s training-time, there’s tug rope time, and there’s walking-time. The dog reactivity issue makes up a very small percentage of the time we spend with Abby.

I still look at her from time to time and think, “I can’t believe someone didn’t want her. I can’t believe they didn’t love her enough to take care of her. She’s just so extraordinarily lovable.” It’s inconceivable to me that anyone would neglect a dog so much (she was so thin when we met her! And that was after our awesome foster carer had been carefully feeding her up!), but what is truly staggering is how well Abby’s nature has overcome it. A few hiccups here and there are nothing compared to what neglect and abuse can do to a dog’s ability to trust and feel safe.

Nothing, it turns out, can keep our girl down.

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One thought on “DOG QUEST: Rescue dog ten month review, and what do you do with a reactive dog?

  1. […] may have accidentally come one step closer to resolving Abby’s dog-reactivity issue. I’m not sure why exactly it works (theories abound), and I’ll be asking our trainers at the […]

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