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You are here: myPetSmart.com > Community > Blogs > Kyrasmygsd > The Reward Is Worth The Effort Training A Rescue

The reward is worth the effort... training a rescue.


Hiding his head under the curtains

Trying to be a water dog like his big sister

Quite the artist

With his most favorite toy - FRISBEE!

October 20, 2010 -

 You never know what you’ll get when you bring a rescue dog into your life.  He may blend in with your family seamlessly or you may be in for an adventure.

Most adopted dogs go through what I call the “honeymoon phase”.  For those first couple of weeks, or maybe even months, you think you’ve adopted the perfect dog.  He’s calm, obedient, sweet, and seems to have no bad habits.  Until… he realizes you plan to keep him!  Then he’s like an old married couple wearing their ratty sweatpants and letting it all hang out.  You wonder, “What have I gotten myself in to?” and you begin to realize why he was up for adoption in the first place.

Take my friend, Cindy.  She and her husband had lost their German Shepherd and were finally ready for another dog.  They had an older Golden Retriever and didn’t want to do the puppy thing again, so they decided to adopt an older dog.  They did their research and finally found a handsome, 5-yr-old white long-haired German Shepherd named Zeke.  They took the whole family to meet him and it was love at first sight.  He had excellent obedience skills and fit in the family beautifully.  Until… he realized they were going to keep him!  He started destroying things (namely food, windows, cabinets) when they left him alone.  He would watch at the window as they drove away and be at the window when they returned.  They tried crating him, but wouldn’t you know it, there wasn’t a crate on the market that could hold him. 

These things only happened when he was left alone.  He must be really anxious!  Since separation anxiety isn’t uncommon in a rescue, they set up a video camera to see how anxious he was when they left.  Imagine their surprise when they watched the video and Zeke clearly had separation celebration, not separation anxiety.  He could hardly wait for them to leave the driveway so he could get into trouble.  He turned out to be a handful on walks, a Houdini when you confined him, and a walking garbage disposal – eating anything in his path.  He could open refrigerators, cabinets with baby locks and bungee cords, microwaves, boxes, doors, gates, and anything else you put in his way.  They had a steel hog-crate made to hold him and that only barely slowed him down.  They threatened him to send him back, but he knew they were just kidding.  After all, who could resist the happy butt-scratching dance he did each morning, the way he barked in his sleep, his Frisbee obsession, his dislike of the rain, how he liked to hide his head in the curtains when he napped, his love of painting (yes – painting!) and that gorgeous face.  So began their journey of overcoming his bad habits and teaching him some good ones. 

They knew he had EPI (exocrine pancreatic insufficiency) when they adopted him.  EPI basically means that unless his food is treated with enzymes and prepared properly he can eat tons and still starve to death.  He was about 20 pounds underweight when they adopted him.  Once they got his EPI under control, he didn’t raid the cabinets, fridge, and microwave nearly as much.  The poor boy was just HUNGRY!!  Once he put on weight and was feeling good, he starting feeling his oats.  When they adopted him he was perfectly well-behaved on leash, but as he put on weight, he became leash aggressive towards other dogs.  Knowing how much medical issues can affect behavior, they had his thyroid tested and it turns out he was hypothyroid (thyroid issues can affect aggression). 

Giving the correct amount of thyroid medicine at the correct time (related to his eating and schedule) made a big difference in his behavior on leash.  It took them quite a while to get the timing right and by that time he had made a habit of barking and lunging at other dogs on leash.  A behavior that was once driven by a medical problem, usually becomes a habit and still needs to be worked on even when the medical problem has been fixed.

Since they had the medical issues under control, it was time to break his leash aggression habit.  Cindy took treats on their walks and would tell him to leave it when he saw another dog.  If she was able to interrupt him and get him to focus on her, she would reward with a treat.  She was constantly aware of the environment to make sure she knew where the dogs were so she could be prepared.  One morning on a walk, she had a lightbulb moment.  She realized that whenever she saw another dog (usually a loose dog), she got nervous and would unknowingly whisper a few choice words and Zeke would be on full alert.  Wisely, she wondered if she was accidentally cueing his “alert behavior” and causing him to get riled up.  To test her theory, she took him for a walk and waited for the right time.  While Zeke was in the middle of peeing on a tree, she whispered her “choice phrase” and wouldn’t you know it, he stopped mid-stream and went on alert scanning the environment to look for the other dog.  Needless to say, Cindy watched her language after that!  It’s not uncommon for owners to stress out about triggers in the environment and unwittingly add to the problem.  Have you ever heard the phrase “travels down the leash”?  It means that the human’s emotions are picked up on by the dogs.

She also discovered that she was treating too soon after he finished barking.  Pet Parents can accidentally reinforce a whole chain of behavior so that the bad gets included with the good.  To break any possible chain of behavior (i.e. bark, turn towards mom, get a reward), she started making him sit and wait a few seconds before treating.  This way there was some time, in addition to a couple of behaviors, between the barking and the treat.   He was doing drastically better after only a couple of walks.  Unfortunately, he passed away from cancer before she was able to completely fix his on-leash behavior.

Training a rescue dog is much like training a dog you got as a puppy: you work with what you have.  With any dog you need to realize where your dog is and start there.  You may never know why he fears the neighbor’s plastic yard-art donkey or why empty trashcans are the spookiest things he’s ever seen.  Frankly, it usually doesn’t matter what happened to cause his faults and phobias.  It only matters that you work on overcoming them.

Do a rescue dog a favor.  Don’t worry about their past – just make their future the best it can be.

This is dedicated to Zeke, who lost his battle with cancer on 5-25-10, after only three-and a-half short years with my friends. He’s wreaking havoc at the Rainbow Bridge now…

If you’d like to see Zeke’s separation celebration in action, he’s featured on YouTube.  Search “Zeke’s Greatest Hits”. 

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20 Oct 2010 4:10 pm

heartgard said:

You're certainly right about the rewards far outweighing what you put in!

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