Molly and Jay: Two Stories of Challenging Dogs
In 2002, I adopted a six-month old lab mix from my local animal shelter. According to her history, she had been rescued after being locked in a basement for most of her life. She was the first dog I’d ever had, and I thought a lab mix would be best for my five-year old nephew. The very day after I adopted Molly, I discovered that she barked, lunged and growled at other dogs and people. If I could have been objective, I might have been impressed by the intensity of her reaction, but not being objective, I was horrified and embarrassed. I almost brought her back to the shelter but at the last minute, I realized I had to stick to my commitment to her or I wouldn’t be able to live with myself.
Desperately searching for some kind of help, I asked my vet for suggestions. I don’t know who the vet tech was who answered my question that day, but her answer probably saved Molly’s life. Her suggestion to read Pat Miller’s The Power of Positive Dog Training made me realize that Molly was terrified of new things. If I was going to help her, I needed to get her slowly used to new things and help her change her reaction to them.
Throughout her long life with me, I learned about using small steps to get her used to scary things. I worked on changing her reaction from “This is horrible!” to “Oh, my human has chicken!”. In my neighborhood, there was a small dog frequently outside on a light chain. Ever so slowly we got closer and closer to that small dog as I rewarded Molly for calm behavior. I’m not ashamed to say that I had tears in my eyes when my 50-pound girl skittishly decided she was ready to greet this 10-pound dog.
Getting Molly used to humans and any other dogs was a constant effort. Humans tended to look at me as if I was crazy when I outlined the slow, careful process that Molly needed to get to know someone. Some people insisted that Molly would be okay with them, but I knew better and if I couldn’t change their mind, she didn’t meet them.
Molly died in March 2017 at 15 and ½ years old. During her life she had several absolutely treasured human and doggie friends. Never an extrovert, she and I were both happy with her small group of companions. I miss her terribly, but I know she’s not afraid anymore.
A couple of notes: Although I introduced Molly to the little dog in the story, I should not have. Despite the work I put into it, having a challenging dog meet another dog – especially while on leash – is never a good idea. Also, while another dog who had inherited a confident, outgoing personality might have come through unscathed from the experience that Molly had as a puppy, she could not. I believe that her shy, fearful personality combined with a lack of socialization made her the reactive dog she was.
I first met Jay in early 2021. His devoted owner works long shifts as a nurse, and Jay has severe separation anxiety so he can’t be left alone. At his first stay with me, Jay spent about 45 minutes nervously pacing and howling sadly for his owner. He eventually settled down but it took several more stays before he could be calm when his owner left him. In addition to separation anxiety, Jay could spin himself into a frenzy of barking and lunging when he saw another dog. Some dogs have deep, threatening barks but Jay’s bark is so high-pitched that it might be able to break glass. Based on how frenzied Jay could get, and several incidents with other dogs that his owner had described, I knew Jay would be challenging.
To make it even MORE challenging, Jay is a three-year old Australian Shepherd with an extremely high level of energy. A typical day with Jay includes two thirty-minute walks as well as play or training sessions mid-morning and mid-afternoon.
Because of his history with other dogs, Jay is always an “only” dog when he stays with me. Building on the training his owner has done, I practice a careful sequence when walking him. It goes like this: 1. Jay sees dog, 2. I ask Jay to sit and look at me, and 3. I give treats and praise. Jay is very smart so he caught on to the sequence very quickly.
Jay is, and will always be, one of my favorite dogs. He puts every ounce of his soul into whatever he’s doing – whether it’s walking, chasing a ball, or catching water from a hose. He is also, along with Molly, the biggest inspiration I’ve had for providing services for challenging dogs.