Rudy has lived with us for 18 months now, the length of time I hoped would take for his rehabilitation. I don’t really put much credence in the idea of “normal” for humans or dogs, but I guess that was my goal: to help Rudy become “normal”. I don’t think he ever will be quite there. I am not sure I want him to be. Actually, I am not even sure what that is. I didn’t want him to be a danger to people or dogs, and he is not. He likes other dogs a lot, actually, and likes most people. He adores a few, like my friends Angi and Jason Lenz. They were the first people to invite us over to their home, even before Rudy was housetrained. They welcomed him in like part of the family, and Angi has given me regular advice all the way along. My parents (all three of them) came over to the house, and welcomed him into theirs, from the beginning.
We work on habits, behaviors, and counter-conditioning almost every day. Sometimes I think we work too much, and then we take a few days off. Even on days (or once, a whole week!) when we don’t work, I am thinking about what to practice, when to introduce new stimulus, and how to refine his behavior. Rudy is almost always in my thoughts. The number of things he is afraid now is small. The number of problems he causes me is very small. Overall, really, he is a great source of joy and pride for me. I have been reflecting on which work we have done that was effective, and which was not. It is hard to tell – some things worked, for sure, but we were trying a lot of things all at once. It was not very precise, and I suspect some things didn’t work as well as I thought they did, while others were probably more effective. Some of the challenges we faced, and the solutions we worked out, follow.
Fear of, and reactivity to, people, bicycles, motorcycles, etc. out in the world. Classical conditioning. Not surprisingly, this worked great. The sequence is simple, though the execution is not as simple as the theory. He sees or hears something scary, preferably from a distance, and I immediately feed him something wonderful. This works best when we go out intentionally looking for these things, rather than being surprised by them. We hung around outside of the UPS station for a few days waiting for trucks to come by, and outside the police station countless times waiting for motorcycles. I swear when he sees a motorcycle now, he drools instead of lunges. Instead of expending energy being mad at my neighbors for blowing off fireworks, I taught him that fireworks mean food is coming (see videos at end of post).
Mouthing/biting Pia and me. There was a month or so there when we felt like we were being abused by a family member. It started a few weeks after he came home. Rudy would become over-stimulated (the triggers varied from seeing or hearing something in the distance, to one of us coming home, to no reason whatsoever that we could ever determine) and jump on us and mouth us. We both had bruises on our arms. I was embarrassed, and Pia was afraid. I tried using the “ouch” technique to let him know he was hurting us. If it helped, I didn’t see it working. I think he was too over-stimulated to even notice or have any idea what was happening. I am not sure. What definitely helped: 2-250 sits/day + Doggie’s Choice. Doggie’s Choice is a game I play with my dogs in which I hold a clicker and a treat bag and wait for them to offer a behavior I like. Usually “watch” or “sit” at first. After awhile, I hold out for something more complex, like “settle” or “over”. This game, combined with so many sit repetitions we were both completely sick of it, helped habituate him to sitting and settling. When he started to get into that “jump up and mouth” mode, I would tell him to sit again and again, and it would snap him out of it. Early on it didn’t work, because he couldn’t’ concentrate enough to do the behavior. With more and more practice, however, he started being able to sit even when out of his mind from overstimulation. Sit, sit, sit. I recommend 50 sits/day for all dogs to facilitate manners and attention, but for Rudy we did 200+ a day for months.
Fear of people entering our home. I never encouraged or pressured to Rudy to interact with anyone. Instead I just fed him when people came over. At first, I would walk him out to the corner or down the block, meet folks there, and casually walk home together. This was much better than having him deal with people coming through our door directly. I mentioned the Lenzes above, and they came over lots. That helped immensely. My family visited, and that helped, too. 6-pack Wednesday has helped in ways I cannot even calculate. My dear friend and neighbor, Dave Crider, has a fearful dog named Elvis. Elvis is particularly uncomfortable being left alone, and Dave has an appointment every Wednesday night at 7pm. At 6 or so, Dave comes over to my house, hangs out with Elvis and Rudy and my other dogs, and we drink a beer or two before Dave’s ride comes to pick him up. Elvis hangs out at our house for the evening. I call this tradition 6-Pack Wednesday. It’s not that we enjoy it, you understand. Dave and I suffer through the indignity of sharing beers and conversation for the sake of our dogs. This schedule of Dave coming over weekly, in addition to the many other visitors I have arranged, has definitely helped Rudy be comfortable around other people, and having people coming into our home.
General obedience training, especially “stay”. I said before, a lot of these we did all at the same time, and I don’t know for sure which things helped and which did not. Along with sit, though, teaching Rudy a very solid stay seems to have helped his impulse control immensely. The better he got at it, the more calm he became. It makes sense to me – in order to hold that stay, he has to be somewhat calm. Once he learned to do that for his reward, it started happening other times.
Dr. Ian Dunbar spoke at Tails-A-Wagging last week, and he told us about a ritual he has in his life. When one of his dogs dies, the dog lays in state for a day so the humans and pets of Dr. Dunbar’s home can say goodbye. He digs a grave on his property, and his family and friends hold a simple ceremony the following morning. After everyone leaves, Dr. Dunbar fills in the grave himself. Then he covers the top of the grave with large rocks. That night, he reflects on the dog’s life, and his own role in it. The morning after that, Dr. Dunbar visits the grave by his self, and lays a single liver treat on his departed dog’s grave. Then he gives his release phrase, “That’ll do. That’ll do.” That is when his dog’s work is done, and that is when his own work is done with his dog. The work is not done when our dogs stop lunging or cowering. Our work is not done when our dogs learn 10 tricks, or 100. Our work is not done when our dogs stop barking at at strangers, or bicycles, or mail trucks. My work with Rudy will never be done, not while he lives. I no longer think of Sysiphus when I think of my life with Rudy. Now, I think of a long, peaceful journey with a treasured friend, who enjoys our path as much as I do.