Carly Davis, CPDT
A while ago, I wrote a blog titled Questions to Ask Before Adopting a Dog or Puppy about the adoption process, and things to consider when you’re trying to find the right dog for your home. At the time, I was searching for a dog, which I have finally found. From the time I got the go ahead from my landlord to the day I was sure the right pup had found me was about 8 months. And it was quite the process.
In my line of work, you’d think that dogs would be falling into my lap, which is fairly true. But most of the dogs offered to me are dogs with issues, and while I do have the ability to fix a wide variety of behavior challenges, I have a husband and a job and a parrot. And it was proving to be quite an undertaking to find a dog with the types of issues that my life would be able to accommodate. As I said in the previous entry, vocal separation anxiety in an apartment building can have a very detrimental effect on your neighbor relations, and a high prey drive can be very hard to manage in a small space with a parrot and a dog. So we visited multiple shelters multiple times, and just didn’t find the right fit.
Fiona. One of our clients had purchased multiple puppies at the same time and asked us to come help them get off to the right start. On our first visit, we discussed one of the puppy’s extreme social fear- hot dogs and string cheese were not enough of a motivator to allow us to pet this eight week old puppy, while her litter mate was crawling all over us like we would expect of a dog that age. We warned the owners that she was going to need intense socialization in a very careful manner, as well as lots of practice being separated from her brother to prevent dog/dog separation anxiety. Honestly, the first time I met this dog, I shook my head and wanted to have a discussion with the breeder about breeding for temperament, because this puppy was obviously genetically extremely fearful.
Two weeks later, the owners called and had decided that the little black labradoodle needed a new home. With three other puppies around, her fear was increasing, she was starting to nip and bite when over-aroused, and was very reactive when any play time was happening. Knowing that she was in a critical socialization period, and that it would be essentially impossible for them to provide the kind of socialization this puppy desperately needed, I offered to foster her. I drove to pick her up the same day (Surprise, honey! I have a puppy!), and fortunately had all of the dog equipment I needed to get her through the night. And so began my life with Fiona.
Fiona slept for the first two or three days she was with us. She woke up for potty breaks, to eat a little, and then went back to sleep. That was a pretty good indication that the owners had made the best decision for this little dog- I think she was so intensely over-stimulated with three other puppies around that she hadn’t been sleeping enough. Once she had caught up on her rest, we began our work in earnest. It took about a week before she would approach my husband, for attention, but the first time she wandered over and laid down in his lap, he was hooked. By that time, so was I.
Every potty walk was a training opportunity, and we did not bring her outside without treats of some kind. Every single person she saw was associated with treats, either because they gave them to her or because I was essentially shoveling them into her mouth as they walked past. She went to puppy class about twice a week, and had separate puppy play times in addition to classes. I exposed her to all my trainer friends’ non-aggressive dogs, my parents’ dogs, and my in-laws’ cats. She went to University Village to meet people and puppies, to Home Depot to receive treats around all the scary sights and sounds there, took tons of car rides, visited the vet for lots of cookies, and essentially had a socialization blitz for the next two months.
For the first month that I had Fiona, I didn’t have to worry about her jumping up on people- she was too scared to approach strangers and my husband and I had already taught her to sit for attention. When she did start investigating strange people, I was so excited that I would’ve let her jump on them, anyway. I’d much rather have a dog that’s so excited to see people that she’s bouncing all over the place than the dog that bites someone out of fear. Now that she’s 9 ½ months old, I hesitate to discourage her from the crazy greeting she gives her favorite people, since it took so much work to have her even tolerate direct eye contact without shivering.
The longer I have Fiona, the more I internalize (even though I’ve said this to owners a thousand times) that her training is a life-long project. She’s just now going through her second fear phase, and all of the things we worked so hard to counter-condition when she was tiny have become scary again. I find myself breaking out the treats and taking a deep breath before every walk again, and am still amazed at the things that trigger her. (Yes Fiona, I know there is an umbrella. AND that man has a hood?! How DARE he!) I also really see what a difference mental and physical exercise make in her reactivity. The days when I haven’t had a chance to take her for a good long zoom, she’s so much more alert to everything around her, and often picks up on things that I would never even notice if I didn’t have her with me. She is a lot of work.
For all the work that she’s been, however, there have also been some things that have been ridiculously easy with her. For example, so far she hasn’t done any counter-surfing. I have left a forgotten plate of pizza on the kitchen counter with her barricaded in with it, and it will still be there when I return. She also doesn’t chew on inappropriate things, she gets along fantastically with other dogs (so far- she’s still a puppy, so that may change when she matures), housetrained very easily, and has always ridden well in the car (with a Kong and stuffed animals and chew toys). She has endeared herself to Nick completely, which is very important to me, and has been fantastic with my parrot, Kiwi. (Actually, her fear was rather helpful in this case. It only took one instance of Kiwi unexpectedly flapping off of her play stand and landing near Fiona for my poor cowardly dog to decide this angry green ball of fluff was something best avoided.)
All in all, I got very lucky. Since I’ve found Fiona, I’ve also come across two other dogs that would have been much easier to own and would have probably fit into my life just as easily. But having this project dog has made me much more empathetic to the owners of the dogs I work with. And it’s brought me to the conclusion that it’s not about finding a dog without any issues, but one whose issues you’ll be able to work with. If you’ve seen RENT, it’s summed up pretty well- “I’m looking for baggage that goes with mine.”
Got any stories about your new puppy? Are you thinking about adopting a puppy? Do you have questions about finding a puppy or setting your new puppy up for success in your new home? We’d love to hear from you!!