Life at home with Rugby became more predictable, but it was clear that the roadblocks were all social issues. He just startled at everything, and his method of coping was barking and running. I was addressing his coping patterns and also shoring things up with continuing to expose him to everyday life. I knew he just needed to see how the world worked in order to process through the things that evoked his strong reactions.
However, as I continued to socialize Rugby, I noticed that he became more and more anxious the more that I took him with me. That was puzzling, as most dogs start to relax as they get used to the everyday changes of life. At home, Rugby was playful, snuggly and his overall bonding to me seemed to be going well. Once we went outside, however, he seemed to become much more fearful, and I could not get his attention on me whatsoever. He was anxious enough that he wouldn’t take any food from me, no matter how tempting that food was. I tried training when he was hungry, and got the same response. Anxiety ruled his world.
On a walk one day, someone’s garage door came up just as we were passing directly in front of their house. It scared Rugby, and he really barked at it, so I just got him moving quickly to get past the house. The next day, even though the garage door didn’t come up, Rugby remembered the house, and barked anyway, clearly worried that he’d get scared again. As day after day went by, he continued to bark at that house, but he started his behavior sooner….at the house just before the offending house, then two houses sooner and so on. Before long, he just seemed to bark for almost the entire walk….looking frantically from left to right as if something would grab him. We started walking after dark, so he couldn’t see things to stimulate him and while it was better, it was far from good.
One night, just as we were returning home, unknown to us, our neighbor’s 70 pound Hound/Pitbull mix had slipped out the front door. He’s a friendly dog, but in the dark, we never saw him barreling toward us, and he hit Rugby like a ton of bricks and sent our little 19 pound puppy rolling over and over….scaring ALL of us out of our wits! That negative experience changed Rugby’s view of dogs forever.
I immediately started taking Rugby to group classes every week, to work through his negative fear and association of other dogs…especially large dogs with slick coats and big blocky heads. This continued for six months, with essentially no improvement. Two of the trainers who worked with Rugby thought I was being too lenient with him, and as they worked him near other dogs, Rugby promptly bit both of them on their left legs to tell them they were pushing him too hard. The best progress I ever really made, was for Rugby to be calm within 12-15 feet of other dogs by the end of the class. Once he hit that threshold, he never moved further forward, despite additional work with him. He clearly was dog aggressive on the leash, and he also clearly didn’t trust me to keep him safe.
That’s the sad thing about learned behavior. I knew I needed to help Rugby “unlearn” his experience, but that was not going to be easy at all with a highly reactive, high energy dog who re-directed aggressive behavior and wouldn’t take treats when he was stressed….virtually every single time we left the house! His fiery little personality, and all of his anxiety definitely worked against him in this regard. Trying to get him to a calm state at all was a challenge, and now we had something new to overcome as well. My dreams for him were starting to evaporate to dust, and guilt was starting to take up residence in the place of the dreams.
Special Note: The photos were taken while we were sitting in the car in the driveway. After our neighbor’s dog rolled him in the dark, he became very scared anytime he was in the front yard. I started working with him to sit in the car with the windows cracked so that Rugby could just hear neighborhood sounds from the car and begin to relax with the safety of having a car around him. I recommend crating dogs or using a car harness with them when a car is moving to keep everyone safe in case of an accident.