When you live with a special needs dog, progress is often slower, if your dog makes progress at all. And let me tell you, Rugby doesn’t often make a lot of progress, and sometimes, that’s because we’re taking a break from actively working on the really serious behavior I don’t like. With a special needs dog, you need to give yourself permission to take breaks!! That’s really important to keep from feeling burned out and discouraged! Take that break, but just keep working!!
What the what? Take breaks….but keep working???? Huh? Are you kidding me?
I know it sounds like I’m saying two completely different things, but I’m really not! Rugby and I are always working on something, but we don’t always actively work on his really serious stuff….which is typically reactive aggressive behavior.
I’m always working on self control issues with Rugby. Impulse control games and work. My dog has very little impulse control, and unfortunately, that drives much of the negative behavior that I see from him. He doesn’t take time to stop and think through any process….he simply reacts….and it’s often just an explosion of raw emotions: fur, barking, snarling, etc.
Why does he react? That’s a huge question, and I’m not sure I can answer it, because I think that there are many different reasons.
- He’s afraid he will miss out on something good if he has to wait.
- He’s frustrated.
- He’s worried.
- He’s excited.
- He doesn’t trust his handler.
And he can feel all of those things all at the same time, so it’s very difficult to dissect a specific cause, because all of those factors can play a part.
Michael calls Rugby a conundrum. He’s so very complex for a little twenty-three pound critter. When he’s working a puzzle, he’s very patient, methodical and thoughtful in his approach. He can get frustrated if it’s a more difficult puzzle, or when he’s first learning something complex, but he always trusts me to help him work through the problem so he can earn his tidbit. The same can hold for learning tricks, although he’s more impatient in learning new tricks.
However, if I ask him to sit/stay in the kitchen….two commands he knows well, and put food in his supper bowl, he’s going to start an immediate ugly growl and bark, if he’s not immediately released to go to his bowl. He doesn’t trust me to be around his food if he’s away from it. Doesn’t make sense, does it?
However, Rugby has made HUGE strides in resource guarding over the years!! He used to guard his toys and his food, but we’ve completely worked through his toy guarding issues. He will still cover them with his paws, and sometimes I get some playful growling, but he’s not aggressive at all in his approach with them.
I used to think that there would come a day when Rugby really would bite over guarding his food. I don’t feel that way at all, any longer….not even a little bit. I can’t even remember the last time that he growled or barked over food, and at one time, it was a daily battle!
I knew in an open bowl, he could see a lot of food all at one time, so he had a lot to risk if he thought that someone was going to push him away from it. As long as I poured the food and immediately placed it on the floor and left him, he was fine. But if I lingered a moment longer than Rugby wanted, the growling started.
Mealtime used to be in a puzzle feeder, like a Kibble Nibble, Buster Cube, Kong Wobble, etc. Those are little puzzle toys that a dog pushes around with his nose or paw to make the kibble tumble out of a specified hole. For many months, Rugby was fine with this form of eating, but one day, started growling at anyone who was in the room with him, and that became a daily behavior, so I had to change things before it became a habit.
I really hated losing puzzle toys as a way to feed him, because the puzzle part of things was clearly something Rugby loved, and it was a great way to add a little more exercise into our young dog’s life. For the first five years that Rugby lived with us, we exercised him with a minimum of 90-120 minutes of fairly strenuous exercise every day.
Yes, you did the math correctly. He needed and hour and a half up to two hours of exercise on a daily basis. Did we want to take that time every day? Honestly, no. I expected forty-five minutes, and was prepared for that. Rugby needed double that, just to be able to live well with him. So believe me, for a good, solid five years, my life centered around finding ways to wear out my dog!
So I started to feed Rugby in a bowl again, but his resource guarding got a bit worse before it got better. It seemed like the more I tried to improve things, the more suspicious he became, and then he started to expect that I would try to work with him, so he got a bit proactive and growled when there was no reason at all to growl.
So I just put it up on a shelf for a long time, and I stopped trying to “fix” it. I simply put his food in a bowl, and as quickly as I could, put it on the floor and walked away until he was finished. Anytime I walked back into the room where he was eating, he would pause, look up at me, and the growling would start.
Today, at mealtime, I put him on a placemat in an adjoining room. He’s not even in the same room as his food while I’m dishing it up. I dish up his food, put it on the floor for him, and then grab four or five little kibbles which I throw to him to catch as a reward for staying on his placemat while I was dishing up his food. Then I simply release him to go eat and he flies into the kitchen to gobble down his meal.
He’s learned to relax enough that I can walk up to him and even walk past him and brush against him gently while he’s eating and he will look up at me, but as long as I ignore him, he’s completely fine with that. There’s something about making eye contact that makes him convinced that I’m threatening him to come after his food, so I’m careful to put him at ease so that he can eat in peace and feel safe.
As if he’s never tasted my food to know that what I eat is way more exciting than what he eats, right? <insert my eye roll here>
Still, he is who he is, and I have no idea what my little speckled and spotted dog went through before he came to live with us. If he went hungry, or had to fight for the right to eat, I’m sure that experience(s) taught him not to fool around at mealtime so his tummy didn’t hurt all night long. Experience can be a very powerful teacher….for the good….and…..for the bad.
I’m so very proud of the progress he’s made in this regard, because it tells me that his ability to trust me has grown and improved. I can hand him new toys and he doesn’t growl and cover them any longer. He’s like a regular dog eating from a bowl comfortably and just the thought makes me smile, because I wasn’t sure I’d ever get to this point with him.
And if he can work through this area of aggressive behavior, I always hope that he can improve in other areas as well. So we work, and we take breaks. And then we work some more.
But when you’re working through a significant issue with your special needs dog, please keep a journal of your dog’s progress. Write down every little milestone, and when you look back on things, you’ll be able to see progress forward….even if it’s only a little bit. Even little bits can be building blocks for keeping that hope alive in your hearts. And hope is everything when you have a difficult dog or one who has special needs.