June 2, 2016
Knowing nothing about blogs or blogging, I had a *great* idea this morning to start my own and write all about my dog. I considered writing a book…but would there be enough to say and would anyone care? At least this way, I can get it all out in writing, look at what I’ve got and see where it goes.
“Owning a dog with anxiety.” Sounds like she has anxiety, right? Maybe she does, but it’s really me.
We (my husband and I) brought home a 7.5 week Rottweiler puppy on January 17, 2014. We named her Liezel (sounds like diesel), I’ll spare you the long AKC registered name. I was apprehensive because we had just gone though a painful year and a half of caring for a very sick Rottweiler, Zelda. We put her down just before her second birthday in September, 2013, and it was heartbreaking. Zelda was my first dog, I loved her more than I knew was possible. Getting a new puppy was scary (what if she’s sick) and exciting (puppies are fun and cute). My intention for getting a dog was not only companionship but also to compete in dog sports (obedience, agility), ultimately Schutzhund.
We were supposed to start puppy classes right away, but Liezel not having her 12-week shots, I postponed classes until the “next semester” for fear she would get sick. From 8 weeks to 11 weeks, Liezel stayed home. I took a week off of work, my husband took a week off, and my retired parents stayed with her for a week during the day while we worked. Aside from hating the crate she seemed like a perfectly content pup. The neighbors came over to meet her and when she met their Rottweiler, she was in Heaven! She took to him like he was her best friend. I wondered if she thought “Wow! Something like me – just bigger.” I remember commenting that the neighbor’s dog looked at me with an expression of “get this mosquito away from me!” She loved when he came over.
During the 8- to 12-week age we had major snowfall in Michigan. We had to dig tracks in the yard for Liezel to go potty since the snow was deeper than she was tall. It was very cold and with the snow and salt we did not take her for walks. However, she went to the pet store (I carried her), the vet, and my parents house for small amounts of exposure. I know, I know “8- to 12-weeks is a critical time for socialization!” My thought process was I would rather delay socialization a few weeks than take the chance of having another sick dog.
At eleven weeks, Liezel started daycare. She couldn’t be with the other puppies yet because she still had a week to go for shots, but she was in the office with the employees – and out of the house. The daycare workers pointed out that she really hated being crated (yep, we know). At home or daycare, while crated she would howl and cry to the point of peeing and / or pooping herself.
“Why crate her?”
Never was the crate used for punishment. The purpose of crating her was to create her own private space. The idea being she can go to her crate knowing that when there no one will bother her. It’s her “safe place.” In the meantime, until she realized it was her safe-place she would be crated for naps and at night. It got to the point during what should have been nap time (she’s fallen asleep somewhere and we pick her up and put her in the crate) she would just cry, scream and howl. I actually called the breeder and ask “what should we do?!” Some dogs don’t take to a crate so the advice was to just let her sleep wherever she laid down. She would still have to be crated at night since she wasn’t fully potty trained. I slept on the floor next to her for four weeks, slowly increasing the distance from her until I could get in to bed.
Back to daycare, at 13 weeks she started playing with the other dogs (shots at 12 weeks, then a week to recover). She played with the other puppies and came home worn out. For one hour during the day all the dogs are kenneled (inside) for a lunch break. Liezel was still getting three meals a day so this was her lunch and nap break. Being in the kennel alone was as bad as being crated. She would pee / poop herself and cry and howl. One day they had to bathe her because she was in such a tither she got poop all over herself.
This was causing me to have some anxiety. I have a happy, healthy puppy who does not like to be crated. I start wondering ‘how am I ever going to leave the house?,’ ‘how are we ever going to leave her alone?,’ ‘what have I gotten us into?’ I talked to the trainer once we started puppy classes and she had some tips. 1) never let her out of the crate when she’s crying – doing so will teach her that crying gets her released. Um, she cries the whole time she’s in it. 2) hit a wall just outside the room where the crate is. It will get her attention and she will stop to listen. At that moment of silence go get her. 3) never tell her “good girl” when she’s coming out of the crate – doing so will teach her getting out is the reward. 4) do not show excitement when letting her out. Open the door and walk away. Getting out is not fun / exciting; going in should be.
So over the course of the next couple of months we worked on this. The living room crate for naps was removed and the bedroom crate for nighttime was moved from the foot of the bed to my side. The move would allow her to see down the hallway when she was crated when we went out. Here I should interject that “going out” meant running to the grocery store, maybe going out to dinner, or stopping by my parents (they live two miles away). This wasn’t out to dinner, drinks, and a movie – or even an extended family get-together. We were gone an hour or less. When we got home the crate would be covered in drool and she would be panting. Separation anxiety? Just complete fear of the crate? What is the problem, here?
At five months old we stopped using the crate all together. She was locked in our bedroom by a baby gate when we went out and this was a much better solution. She was calmer and we found (via recording) that she would curl up on the bed and sleep while we were gone. No drooling, panting, or pacing. She also started sleeping with us at night. It seemed a better option than the nighttime crying, panting, drooling, etc. She jumped into bed, curled up, and that was that.
We continued with classes. Puppy class was a great success! She knew sit, down, shake, watch, and touch before class even started (remember those several weeks she stayed home? We were teaching her some stuff.) so she was kinda the star student [proud smile]. By the time we got to intermediate / advanced obedience we noticed some undesirable behaviors. Also around this time, the weather had gotten better and we started taking walks where we also observed undesirable behavior.
At class she began barking and attempting to run toward (on leash) other people. On a walk, once we got about two houses away, she would turn around pulling toward home. Her happy disposition changed to a vigilant, nervous one. If anyone came out and asked to pet her, she would shrink back and avoid being touched.
When she was about 6 months old we were on a walk in the neighborhood. Approaching a driveway partially blocked by a Jeep, two remote control cars came toward us. Liezel barked and lunged at them. The cars were being run by two little boys and the adult started screaming, “Get that dog off of my property before I get my f-ing gun and shoot it.” Hmm. This seemed over-the-top. My then 6-month old puppy, was startled by the things coming at her, and she reacted. The guy went crazy! I pointed out to him that I was on city property and I had every right to be there. Well his threats continued so I called the police. He too called the police and was yelling “It’s a Rottweiler! A ROTTWEILER!” While on the phone with the police his wife approached me saying “Please, just leave. Please.” Another man in his group approached me saying, “Get out of here you bitch!” The whole thing escalated very quickly and it really shook me and Liezel up.
After this episode I became very nervous about walking Liezel. If you know anything about dogs, you know they feed off their owners’ feelings. So I’m feeding her nervousness and anxiety by being nervous and anxious. Round and round it went.
Around this time a few other things happened. We took a day trip to see the breeder and let her see Liezel. When Deb tried to pet Liezel’s head, Liezel back away. Deb asked me “You haven’t hit her have you?” Nope. We went camping one weekend and Liezel was so frantic and worried she barked the entire time and got to the point of vomiting from nervousness. We actually took her for a car ride hoping 1) to calm her down and 2) let the other campers have some peace and quiet. She started barking and lunging at all strangers – going into and out of daycare, at agility class, on a walk, etc. All strangers. And she would freak out at the sound of any car door outside, the doorbell (real or on TV), or the neighbors she could see in their house from the backyard. When I say “freaking out” she would jump up, front paws on the front door, scratching, barking, spit flying, hackles up. Most times there was nothing there. Then it would take an hour or more for her to calm down.
I spoke with the trainer about all of this. She did not seem very concerned and gave the impression that Liezel could outgrow it. This was insufficient for me. I needed an action plan.
The breeder recommended a “behaviorist” an hour or so from my house. We drove out to meet him and walked away with his advice of “This dog should never be taken out of the house.”
We also had a guy out to our house who represented a company that used e-collars. The company came recommended to us by a family member. His presentation and explanation was really off-putting. We didn’t understand the concept and wondered how could we expect Liezel to understand if we didn’t. Additionally, he said “The dog will have to wear a muzzle in order for me to work with her.” I’m not opposed to using a muzzle, but he made no attempt to interact with Liezel. His idea was put a muzzle on her and an e-collar and get started. Neither my husband nor I got a good feeling about this so the idea was quickly discarded.
The third trainer, Lynn, taught me about thresholds. Not letting Liezel get to the point of reacting because once she was over threshold she was unable to learn. I guess it would be like trying to learn a new skill while being chased by a bear? When something scary is happening to you, you are not in a learning frame of mind. Week after week for several months, Lynn came to our house and worked on keeping Liezel under threshold. Here’s how it started. Liezel was in the bedroom when Lynn arrived. She sat at the kitchen table while I went to get Liezel. Liezel and I came out of the bedroom one step at a time. When Liezel saw Lynn, I was to say “Good girl” give her a treat, and retreat to the bedroom. Her reward for looking and not reacting was getting to leave the scary thing/person. After weeks of this, we moved outside. Lynn would be across the street and I would walk Liezel. When Liezel looked at Lynn she was praised and treated. If Liezel went over threshold (barking / lunging) the lesson was over.
Lynn also gave me instructions on a dog training process that taught the dog to stay on a mat/bed/blanket while things went on around it. So day one you tell the dog “go to your mat” and treat her when she gets on it [Liezel already knew “go to your bed” so this was not difficult to teach]. Take one step away from the mat and come back with “good girl” and a treat. This goes on and on for weeks with progressively more difficult things like running around the dog/mat, leaving the room, opening the front door, and ringing the doorbell. When you get through the whole thing, you start all over again in a different room. We went through all of the weeks (it took twice as long as the plan because you can’t move on to the next day if the dog gets off the mat today) and then started the whole thing over in the backyard.
Also during this time, we hired a stranger to do stranger approaches. I found a local pet walker and paid her to sit at one end of the parking lot of an empty factory building, while we, 500 feet away, tried to approach and stay under threshold. The instructions from Lynn on this exercise was to come out from behind the building and wait for Liezel to see the stranger. Once she did, “good girl” and retreat. Do it again and try to get a foot closer. If Liezel went over threshold (barking / lunging) the training was over for the day. After a few months we could get about 450 feet away before Liezel reacted.
My husband stopped taking her in the front door at daycare because of her reacting to strangers (other owners dropping off dogs). He started calling ahead and an employee would meet them at a side door to take Liezel in and bring her out.
I stopped taking her to agility with our original trainer. Liezel seemed to really like running the agility course, but on the sideline she would panic over the other people and dogs. It came to a point where I decided the fun of the course did not outweigh the stress of the sidelines.
We talked with our vet about this, all of this. She had blood sent out to test for thyroid issues and the results came back normal. It was time to try medication. Our vet could not prescribe Prozac so we went to a recommended veterinary behaviorist who did. She put Liezel on 30mg / day. The intention of medication was to calm Liezel enough so we could continue working on training under threshold.
We were becoming a bit reclusive. An entire summer went by and we never took our camper out of storage. I was avoiding any talk of vacation because I didn’t know what we would do with her. When she was 14 months old we did go on vacation and left her with our original trainer. I checked in with the trainer everyday but got vague responses. Come to find out, Liezel just paced the whole time we were gone.
During said summer when we didn’t camp, I came across a trainer that I had emailed months before but never heard back from. He was a police dog trainer so I assumed my issues with Liezel probably weren’t what he was looking to work with. He had a booth set up at a city festival advertising dog training, specifically aggression. I found my original email to him, forwarded it with a note saying “Hey, just saw you at the festival. Please see my email below from several months ago and let me know if you can help.”
This is where things started to change.