Despite what some crappy dog training TV show may have shamed you into believing, all unwanted behavior is not the fault of the owner. Maybe some, but definitely not all. Dominance Theory in reference to our canine companions as been extinguished decades ago through the real work done by actual animal behavior experts. Forget trying to "be the alpha" or "the pack leader" while attempting to make your dog behave. Instead, I believe that even canine behavior is shaped from both Nature (genetics) and Nurture (experiences). To modify behavior we need to step back, identify what is happening, recognize the limits of our dogs, determine what we have control over, and work slowly to try to change what we can change in safe and healthy ways. At least, this is my approach.
I hope by posting updates about our experience, rwe may be able to help other dogs and their owners realize the there are many different positive effective tools available to help manage challenge, distressful, even dangerous behaviors safely. I hope Yazzy and I can help others who are suddenly feeling overwhelmed find some peace.
Maybe we can even save some lives along the way.
We adopted Yazzy from NorthStar Pet Rescue on May 15, 2020. We were clearly informed that Yazzy was going to be a project and offered the chance to meet her before we determined if we could assist.
Yazzy and her family (mother and 5 other siblings, all guestimated to be just about 13 months old) were picked up as strays and brought to a shelter in Texas. NorthStar became aware of their need for help and stepped in. Medical care was the first priority as all dogs were suffering from two types of mange. Fosters step up to take on the challenging task of caring for these feral dogs while they healed. Karen had Yazzy and her brother Yoseph for most of this time.
When I met Yazzy, it was about 2 months after she was picked up. She had healed from her mange but she needed a lot of behavior work. Juli was fostering her in NJ until she found a home. She was able to share that Yazzy did bite her finger once when she was removing her from her crate after her transport but that was the only incident of biting that she was aware of. Otherwise, Yazzy preferred to stay out of people's reach. She was curious and highly food motivated. But she was quick to appear overwhelmed and fearful. She would approach people for treats but as soon as the treat was taken, she was immediately back to defensive growling. Despite her personality challenges, we decided to keep her and try to work on helping her relax.
Before agreeing to take on Yazzy, I made sure Sidney was just as interested in helping to manage and reshape all the behavioral issues that would come along with trying to give a sweet dog a good home. Sid was 100% all in. In hindsight, this is hilarious.
Yazzy is not our first feral dog. Lapis and Piper were both feral before we adopted them.
Yazzy is not even our first feral with aggression issues. 6 years ago we adopted Piper from death row based upon a picture (not recommended!). Unlike NorthStar, who was 100% upfront with us about all Yazzy's behavioral challenges known to them, the NC county shelter that housed Piper was simply thrilled to dump her on any unsuspecting fool that was willing to open their home to her. In part, this is because the staff at that high kill shelter truly wanted all he dogs to have a chance. Piper was slated to be euthanized in about 2 days when we asked about her. Unlike the rescue adoption process, the county shelter adoption process took minutes and felt like more of a first-come, first-served type situation. You want her... She's yours!
Piper came to use with severe anxiety, serious resource guarding, and a tendency to snap without any warning. After two days with Piper, she had tried to bite me 8 times and I was already in the process of looking for a place to help. I didn't think I could keep her. I had never been so afraid of a dog in my life and she was living in my spare bedroom.
I quickly learned that once you get an aggressive dog into your possession there are three choices: (1) attempt to use behavior modification to train dog to be safer, (2) manage any behavior you cannot modify (knowing your dog will ALWAYS need some special treatment), and (3) if you can't do 1 or 2, then euthanize. Of course, rehoming an aggressive dogs is possible, BUT there are a lot of ethical, morale, and legal issues that come with rehoming dogs with bite histories.
Patricial McConnell wrote this piece that was a huge eye opener for me. It helped me to see how much "trouble" we were in and how hard I would need to work to help keep Piper alive and everyone she is near safe.
I was fortunate to have had some people in the dog-rescue field offer to help me try to rehome Piper if I needed to but in my heart I knew this would most likely NOT turn out well for Piper.
I have multiple graduate degrees in therapy, psychology, and counseling. I work with humans who have behavioral problems as well as humans who want to improve their lives or skill in some way. So I rolled up my sleeves and got to work educating myself about how to use behavior modification techniques to help a feral dog reduce stress and anxiety . I felt like Piper's last hope to help her move towards calm safe behavior which was needed to save her life.
Enzo was our first dog as a couple. He was not feral. But he was a stray when we found him. He was extremely dog-aggressive. He was a sweetheart with people. To attempt to help Enzo overcome his dog-aggressive reactions we sent him to Dog School. He went 8 hours per day, 4 days per week for 2 months. At the end of that bout of behavior training, he was returned to us with the statement "Some dogs can just never be around dogs off leash safely. Good Luck."
But I sometimes don't believe what I am told. We wanted a second dog. When Enzo started to show small signs that he could tolerate at a distance the presence of other dogs, we decided since he to adopt Piper.
As you might imagine, living in a house with one dog-aggressive dog and one human-aggressive dog was no picnic.
So I called a dog trainer who claimed to one of the best "aggression specialists" in NJ. After one phone consult, he turned me down as client, stating that I was already managing their safety the way he would recommend, by keeping them separated, By using the classical and counterconditioning method I knew of and positive reinforcement I was already doing all I could do. He stated he didn't feel there was much more he could do for me that I wasn't already doing. He refused to take my money because he didn't feel confident in anyone's ability to try to help me change behavior that he wasn't hopeful could be changed. He got all this from one phone consult and he was the "aggression expert" He wished us luck.
Sheesh. Talk about feeling overwhelemd and hopeless,
So I built my own treatment plan that required a lot of Rotisserie Chicken, slow introductions with tons of positive reinforcers, and four months later... all the baby gates were removed. I had managed to successful counter condition two aggressive dogs at once to be both safe with people and safe with each other!
Keep in mind, this doesn't mean there are no rules or limits. Enzo and Piper never fought but I could never achieve helping Enzo to cease his dog-aggressive reactivity towards strange dogs out in the world, so we managed that. Piper stopped using aggression as her go-to response to anything new BUT as with all dogs who were once biters, I do not let her interact with strangers. Anyone who isn't a stranger gets a lesson about how to interact with Piper. Piper has two rules now: Don't take my stuff (but trade me and you can have anything you want from em) and Don't move me (ask me to follow you somewhere for a treat and I will happily move myself). Follow those rules and she is a loving brilliant dog is not interested in aggressing at all. Most people who meet piper have no idea she had such a challenging past. She presents as a very calm, well-behaved, obedient girl who follows all directions from me willingly. She absolutely adores anyone she see has family or friend. She has never tried to snap at anyone else since we adopted her, although I do know that if I need to handle her and I will always need to be careful with her. For example, I am certain that if she every had any type of medical issue she should be muzzled, which is fair and I can live with Piper's rules and she can live with ours.
So in summary with aggression, I believe we can only expect to modify behavior to the best of the ability of the dog, and the rest of the work to maintain safety needs to be done by setting limits and respecting boundaries.
Lapis is our third dog. She too was feral. Sid found her in Afghanistan while deployed. She was a very very young girl when she met the soldiers in Kandahar. Because she was able to be socialized before her adult teeth began to emerge, her association with humans is pleasant and positive. She is a sweet girl who just wants to play her heart out.
If Lapis is "dangerous" in any way it is because she is too rambunctious. She is still young, not quite 2 years old now, so we are expecting that with some maturity she will slow down a bit more. Her only undesirable behavior is that she get too excited when she see other dogs and out of frustration of being leashed tried to pull, jump, or bark to get towards them. She is making me work to try to figure out how to manage her. However despite how loud she can be sometimes, she is safe.
Ok that all explains how I ended up adopting feral dogs with behavior issues. So back to Yazzy.
It took three days for Yazzy to permit me to touch her. She had to drag her leash around during that time because it was impossible to convince her to sit still. She was so fear-reactive that it was almost impossible to get that leash back on her once it was off at first so we left it on.
She was great with going potty outside from day one. By day three started learning things, basic obedience (sit, lay down) or simply tricks (shake). She followed me everywhere. She stopped growling, lunging, and snarling at me.
I could see that Yazzy was a very fast learner. When she was calm, she was focused and could figure out puzzles (which is what obedience training is) easily.
However, he reaction to anyone else besides me was feeling unmodifiable! I was "in" her circle of trust, but everyone else (except Piper and Lapis) were "out" including Sidney.
Yazzy's behavior was interesting. She could clearly learn skills and retain them. Sit, lay down, back up, turn, shake, stay, wait, go inside, walk nice... all were learnable. But she could NOT learn that Sid was safe. Every single day for two months straight it was as if we were starting over. Everytime Sid left a room and returned it was as if she was meeting her for the first time, even if just moments before she was playing ball with him or taking food from him.
Her reaction towards him was violent sounding, clearly fueled by fear and distress. She would get hackled from head to tail, lunge, jump up and down in place, snarl, muzzle-punch his ankles if he walked away from her. He would do absolutely nothing that was obvious to us to trigger her. He presence was the trigger. I once watched her growl at him while he was sleeping quietly in his lazy boy chair. I once observed her get up from a nap to run upstair to growl at him because he opened a drawer in the kitchen.
After two months of making only minor gains at counterconditioning at a glacial pace, Yazzy then transferred her aggressive actions toward Piper. That was it. It is one thing for her to act out towards Sidney. We can modify this over time, but we draw the line at allowing escalating aggressive behaviors to be directed at one of my dogs. Piper has come too far to suddently be turned into a target.
The next morning I made an emergency appointment at the vet and asked if I could have her prescribed behavior medication. On 7/18, we started her on Prozac.
Prozac has about a 70% efficacy rate at reducing aggressive behaviors in dog. It takes 3-4 weeks to load up in the body before it reaches a therapeutic level. We are currently now just past the two week mark.
The aim of this treatement is to reduce the chance that Yazzy will tip over her emotional threshold into an aggressive behavior. A dog that is over their threshold cannot be conditioned to make new associations. By helping her say below threshold when around Sid or other people who frighten her (anyone but me), I should then have a better chance at using the desensitization and counter-conditioning methods of behavior modificaiton to reshape her emotional response to things that she perceives as threats which actually are not threatening in any way.
Once her behavior has been modified, there is a great chance that we can taper off the medications and the new learned behavior should stick (if not, we can stay on the meds if they work)..
Shannon McGinn, MS, MA, JD, EdS. is the owner of Shannon McGinn Creating Momentum, LLC.