Calm Yourself!

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Last week, I was approached by someone who works with people I know. She wanted to know if I could help her with a dog that she was considering adopting. She told me:

The dog was adopted as a 12-week-old pup by someone else. That person has a full-time job, two young kids, and is suffering from an as-yet-undiagnosed but painful back problem.  The dog failed to get housetrained and after three months, she is declared to be “too much” for the house and the kids.

Her prospective owner took her home and though she likes the dog’s looks (she’s a chunky “blue” pit-mix) and thinks she’s a sweet dog, she agrees that the dog may be “too much” for her home, too. She is not housetrained, she chews everything, she jumps on people, and she’s got too much energy. Her 10-year-old son loves the dog and really wants to keep her, but the woman is thinking about surrendering the dog to a shelter.

So, I agree to take this “too much” dog for a few days and do some training, and give her my opinion about whether she is a good candidate to live in a family with a young kid.

We meet the next morning. She says she is feeling quite negative about keeping the dog this morning, as the dog “chewed up a couch” last night. I asked whether she has or would use a crate. She responds, “I put her in the crate last night but I must not have latched it right!”

She brings the dog out and she’s a typical wiggly, waggy, thumpy, untrained, adolescent pit-mix. No self-control, no manners, dragging her handler around, and immediately jumping on me and her handler. But, significantly, when she jumps on her prospective owner, the woman puts both her hands on the dog and pats and rubs and baby-talks to her. “You’re a good girl, you just need some training, don’t you?” she says to the dog.

I won’t go into too much detail here. Suffice to say, I think the dog is whip-smart and highly trainable. In five days at my house, she showed no signs of aggression toward people, other dogs, cats, or chickens. She learned “sit” in minutes, and “off” and “look at me” in a day. She would pee ON CUE after one day’s worth of practice, and after three days, would go poop on cue, too. I took her for a long off-leash walk out in our local wildlife area every day, and she came back and happily took a long snooze in a crate afterward. She didn’t try to pick up or chew a single non-dog-toy, but played with the toys my dogs had laying around quite nicely. And best of all (from my perspective),  she showed me in our very first training session that she was supremely capable of self-control; I just had to reinforce it – and make sure that no one she met reinforced its opposite.

I suspect that all the members of both families who have had this dog in their homes have thumped and hugged and rolled around with this exuberant, physical pup. On the first day, I saw that she leans – hard — into any physical contact, whether it’s a leash, petting, or someone trying to guide her into a crate. She LOVES physical contact with people, just absolutely eats up being petted and stroked. I used calm petting – no thumps or pats! – as a reward for her calm behavior. If she started to get riled up, I removed my hands and looked away, and only put my hands on her again when she sat calmly.

The question here is not whether the dog is a dud – it’s whether the dog’s prospective family is capable of managing their own behavior around her! I hope that when the woman sees how well-behaved the dog is capable of being, she’ll be interested and motivated enough to learn how to maintain that behavior, with regular exercise and trips outside to potty, a sturdy crate, appropriate dog toys and supervision, and most of all, support for the dog’s calm, quiet interaction. Exuberance and goofiness are fine – outside and upon request. But failing to teach a big, strong dog to be calm and polite (and maintain that behavior with calm petting, treats, and praise) and then sending her to a shelter to try to find another home would be a tragedy.

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