The joys of helping a “problem” dog
Recently I realized I write mostly about Emmett. In truth, it’s because Emmett is larger than life. He’s confident and calm, he can go anywhere and meet anyone, and his tail never, ever stops wagging. He spends time sitting calmly with children at the library or performing tricks in boisterous classrooms. Emmett can meet any agitated dog and remain unfazed. Actually, that’s why Lucas came into our lives in the first place, and the reality is that Emmett does play a large part in Lucas’ story, which – bear with me here – this is kind of a long post but I included lots of cute pictures!
Tonight, for about ten minutes, Lucas dozed with his head on my lap. His paws splayed out above his head to rest against my stomach. While those ten minutes of snuggling may not sound like a big deal, for me, those ten minutes are a major victory.
We adopted Lucas in April 2007. I fell in love with his big, brown eyes and his enormous ears. When I walked past his cell, he raised his head and just stared at me. He was a one-year-old shepherd mix, they told us at the shelter. He had only arrived there in February, emaciated, and riddled with mange. He limped, which he might grow out of, they said. And he couldn’t be around other dogs. He can meet Emmett, we said. So we brought Emmett to the shelter, and the shelter staff allowed them to meet – sending two volunteers and their staff trainer, which probably should’ve been a red flag. But it didn’t matter. I was smitten. But of course Emmett and Lucas bonded immediately. Lucas behaved inappropriately several times, and Emmett let him know. Lucas fell in step behind Emmett within the first three minutes. The shelter staff was floored. We were floored. Lucas came home with us.
The mange never flared up again. The limp, though, was a big problem, which we’re still managing. In fact, we found an amazing vet when we moved to Indiana who did a full workup and discovered – to everyone’s absolute shock – that he had suffered a pelvic fracture, most likely from being hit by a car as a very young pup, that went untreated. The bones healed, so his pelvic bone is too narrow to support his large body. Dasuquin, by the way, has been a godsend. Beyond the limp, the skinny, frail pup started to bulk up with good nutrition and exercise. Turns out he wasn’t quite full grown. Compare this pic (taken on vacation eight months after adopting him) to the picture above (taken about one-two months after adopting him):
One thing the shelter nailed was that Lucas could not be around other dogs. Except Emmett. We struggled with some pretty serious fear-based aggression. My very wonderful, dear, dog-trainer friend helped us immensely in those early days, bringing her amazing dog Wookie on long walks through the park. Every single time Lucas saw a dog, even from a great distance, he would start crying, shaking, whining, barking, and would eventually lunge and snap at the dog. At the time we lived in one of the few dog-friendly condo buildings in Washington, DC, so obviously this was a huge problem for us. Without going into all the excruciating detail, it took a solid year of management followed by another six months or so of counter-conditioning (if you want the details, feel free to email me). Now, I am so proud to say, the dog who hated (HATED) other dogs, is now as friendly and social as they come. He now loves other dogs. Any whining or crying is out of excitement to get to PLAY instead of aggression.
His aggression wasn’t the only problem we faced. For the first several months, Lucas never wagged his tail. Not once. Lucas feared everything – the city bus, plastic bags, the vacuum, the hair dryer, really anything that made noise or was somehow new. One day our neighbor drove by and yelled “hello” out of his car window, which scared Lucas so badly that he took off at full speed, pulling me straight into a No Parking sign and down into the street, leaving me with cuts, scrapes, and bruises on my face and arm.
Lucas would not be patted, either. For nearly a year, the most we could get was a nice, even stroke along his side. Touch his head? He would freak out and run laps, barking, around our living room. Now, he doesn’t like to be snuggled nearly as much as Emmett does, but Lucas will casually walk over to me and sit next to me, allowing me to pat him. Or he’ll rest his head on my lap or on John’s leg. He’ll let me throw my arms around him and give him a big, huge bear hug, though he wiggles out of it after a few seconds. We can tug on his tail, tug on his ears, lay our heads on his belly.
Every single time I sit and snuggle with Lucas or he curls up next to me in “his” bed, I’m amazed at how far we’ve come in the past 2.5 years. He truly is a different dog. Almost everyone in my extended family has a dog, and most of those dogs are much, much smaller than Lucas – but he has a reputation for being a “gentle giant” and everyone gladly lets him play with their little ones.
Every single time he does something sweet – puts his paw on my leg, rests his head in my lap, wags his tail at me – I just burst with pride. He has blossomed into a darling boy who guards our house and keeps an eye on everyone. Lucas is one of the silliest dogs I’ve ever known – give him a one-inch slice of apple and he’ll keep himself busy winging it around the house and batting it under furniture for a solid ten minutes. He plays with Emmett and other dogs, he wags his tail a thousand times a day, and he brings so much joy into our lives with all his silly, playful antics.
Knowing how far we’ve come makes every moment with Lucas that much more enjoyable. The reality is that it took a full year to overcome the majority of his problems, and sometimes I realize we’re not all the way there. He can’t be by himself, which is rarely a problem, but just last week when Emmett and I had a school visit and John had to be at work, we had to hire a dogsitter to come stay with Lucas. Though it’s very rare, sometimes he will lunge at another dog, though we’ve been able to identify his triggers and can mitigate the situation (those rare occasions are, of course, those times when we’re not paying enough attention to our surroundings to distract or remove him).
We were in the very fortunate situation to be able to help Lucas. We had Emmett on our team. I have a best friend who’s a dog trainer. John worked from home for that first year, and I’ve worked at home since he started school. We’ve done four or five rounds of obedience training in addition to in-home training. I’ve read stacks of books about dog training. John and I argued a lot about how to approach his behavior. But knowing that he is a happy, well-adjusted pup who truly enjoys his life is so incredibly amazing. And yes, this is so cliche, but… it was all so worth it.