Guest Essay by Blanche Axton
If you’ve owned dogs for any period of time, you have probably had a project dog. A Project Dog is the dog that presents you with significant behavioural problems. Maybe the dog came to you with issues, maybe you created the issues, or maybe the dog developed them over time. Regardless of how it happened, now you have a Project Dog. It is a dog that brings out both the best and the worst in you. A dog that requires more of you than you had bargained for, tests your skills, and shows the chinks in your training and rehabilitation armour. The dog that makes you feel alone and lonely because sometimes you just don’t like the dog and there isn’t a soul to whom you can say that without fear of being tagged as a hideous human being.
How They Come to Be
I’ve had a few project dogs. I have one now. I’ve given a lot of thought to these dogs over the years. They come to us in a few different ways, in my experience.
They came with issues. I’ve had a few dogs that I’ve adopted or purchased that came to me with issues. Sometimes I knew about the issues, sometimes I didn’t, and sometimes the person from whom I got the dog either downplayed the seriousness of the issues or they simply didn’t know enough to see how serious the issues were. Sometimes the issues simply didn’t show up until the dog had settled into my home and had enough invested in life with us to let those issues to show up. My current Project Dog is one of those “late bloomers.” I fostered him so I knew he had some glitches, but the full force of the glitches—in this case “isolation distress” and, I suspect, some neurological deficits—didn’t show up until he’d been with us for several months.
You created the issues. Sadly, I’ve done this in the past. I had border collies many years ago and I created a suspicious dog who was inclined to lash out first because of my own ham handed use of compulsion. In those days I was solidly in the camp that believed dogs MUST obey every command (and I’m using the word ‘command’ deliberately) given, obey instantly and if they didn’t, you must MAKE them by any means necessary. There certainly was no use of food reinforcers or even much play as a reward. It was “I say – You do” training. I had been lucky to have had a couple of dogs that just rolled with it and did not resist. But my one bitch was not a “go with the flow” dog. She and I locked horns early on and in my misguided and overly forceful efforts to get compliance, I created a Project Dog. She lost trust in me, and approached most of our further interactions with wariness and a willingness to defend herself vigorously if needed. She may have turned out differently in the hands of a more skilled, less punishing owner. But I also think that she was somewhat hard wired to be less flexible and more deeply impacted by punishment than my previous dogs had been. I don’t know. But I definitely carry the weight of the issues that dog developed. I am confident I created them.
They developed them over time. This group of Project Dogs are probably the most disheartening. The dogs that develop issues and become Project Dogs for no discernible reason. They just do. I do believe these dogs exist, as I’ve worked with them. Some seem to be genetically more easily frightened, more inclined to anxiety, less resilient, less able to cope with the life that they live. They drew the short straw in the genetics lottery. Who knows why, but I have seen dogs that have come from solid breeders, had skilled and knowledgeable owners, and yet still developed significant behavioural issues.
The Good, The Bad and The Ugly
Life with a Project Dog is not all misery and grimly clenched teeth. There are good things about them—although you may not see it at the time. There are also aspects that aren’t so great and some are downright awful.
The Good: A Project Dog makes you look seriously at your skill level in your work with your dog. You have to review and evaluate how you work with this dog. A Project Dog should force you to research and read everything you can get your hands on about how to work with their specific issues. AND you will have to bring ALL your skills at analysing what is and isn’t a solid strategy for dealing with this particular dog.
A Project Dog forces you to break down your work into manageable pieces and to log observable progress if you hope to be at all effective. It forces you look at things objectively, to track what is working and what isn’t. If you are smart, you keep logs so you can compare what you think you see happening with what you’ve actually observed and noted. This can do two important things. First, it can show you progress that’s been made. Second, it can derail our tendency to project our desire to see progress that isn’t really there.
A Project Dog slaps you in the face with reality. It forces you to look at what you had dreamed of/hoped for/expected from this dog and then deal, realistically, with the dog that is in front of you. This is no easy task. I have a very fearful Japanese Chin. He was going to be my sports dog, my foray into all things competitive. Guess what? Not so much. It took me a long time to come to terms with what Meesh (my Japanese Chin) is as opposed to what I wanted him to be. He’s a great dog, but the competitive dog sports circuit is not in our future. Now that I’ve readjusted my expectations and quietly washed my sports dreams away, we are both happier.
Meesh has also highlighted some errors in my own thinking about working with a fearful dog. I thought I knew what baby steps were. I didn’t. Scared Japanese Chin baby steps are not the same as Scared Pug baby steps. The other thing that having Meesh in my life has done is made me realize that an accurate understanding of breed characteristics is useful. Chins, generally, are inclined to timidity, suspiciousness and aloofness with strangers. I didn’t take that particular description seriously enough. I love Meesh, but he has forced me to readjust my expectations and not dismiss breed characteristics out of hand.
A Project Dog can show you what you can and cannot live with. This is a good thing, although the process of coming to that realization can be painful. As a trainer, having a Project Dog reminds me of what my clients feel and live. It gives me fresh perspective on why people get so frustrated, so overwhelmed, so hopeless, so willing to try anything.
The Bad: Working and living with a Project Dog can be seriously isolating. People can view you as some kind of human monster when your dog fires off on leash or at the door. Or when they cower in fear as a well meaning stranger continues to encroach on your space even while you are body blocking them from your dog and asking them to “Please! Stop!” It is easy to feel like you are the only one with a dog like this and that if you had any skills at all, your dog would be happily frolicking at the dog park with all the other dogs.
I’m putting this in the ‘bad’ category because it is such a struggle for many people and lots of judgement can get heaped on you as a result. You may not be able to “fix” this and you may need to use medications to even get the dog to a place where their brain can take in any rehabilitation strategies. Many folks struggle away for months and years with “nutriceuticals”, homeopathics, etc when the dog needs serious pharmacological help. Just as many people have doubts and concerns with human psychiatric meds, many project that onto dogs needing medication assistance.
Beware the “Love Network.” My husband calls the well meaning but utterly clueless folks who think “Love and Time” can cure all ills of a dog as the “Love Network.” Watch out for these folks. They will make you feel like a penny waiting for change. They don’t mean to be soul destroyers, but they imply that if you only loved your dog more, had more patience, devoted more time to the dog, the issues would be fixed.
Project Dogs can require life long, life altering management. My shih tzu mix has serious isolation distress. And by serious, I mean that I need to be sure that my life is structured to keep him safe and minimize his stress. He is quite capable of jumping onto my office chair, onto the second floor window sill and flinging himself through the screen in his efforts to get to me. I have to be super vigilant about a great many things now that I didn’t have to be vigilant about before adopting him.
The Ugly: You may at some point come up against a dog that you simply cannot live with for any one of a number of reasons. You are then in the unenviable position of deciding if this dog can or should be re-homed or if euthanasia is the most humane answer. Let me be clear, I take the decision about euthanasia very seriously and do not euthanize a dog because they are inconvenient. However, the ugly side of the Project Dog can be that re-homing is not only not possible, it’s not humane, responsible, or in the best interests of the dog.
Some Project Dogs CAN be re-homed and can be happier in a different environment than yours, but this is not the case in every situation. I’ll use my shih tzu mix, Ty, as an example. Re-homing him would be one of the worst things I could do. He is already somewhere between 10 and 12, has likely been re-homed prior to coming to me and dogs with isolation distress and separation anxiety really suffer serious consequences from being re-homed, especially multiple times. And in all honestly, I would not wish on anyone what I’ve had to do to keep him safe and try to reduce his distress. I spend a fortune on dog sitters so he is not alone. I’ve had to turn down work because I either could not bring him with me, couldn’t get a dog sitter, or was going to be gone FAR too long for him to be without a human in the house.
I have to be very vigilant about all the possible cues I give that set him up for anxiety well before I leave the house. He is quite capable of seriously injuring or killing himself in his distress when alone. He’s on medication that, while not outrageously expensive, isn’t cheap. He’s clearly had some previous bad experience with people leaving him alone and has some generalized anxiety about a number of things. He’s a boat load of work, worry, and expense. And while money isn’t the most important thing in the world, I’d be lying if I acted like it isn’t a factor in what people with Project Dogs have to deal with.
Judgement and guilt. People are very quick to condemn the person who realizes that they cannot deal with or live with the issues of their dogs. I’m not talking about the person who is just not willing to put in even minimal effort. I’m talking about the owner who has seriously evaluated the dog, themselves, the quality of life for both the dog and the humans and the ability of both to cope with what they are facing over the long term. Re-homing a dog is not necessarily a wrong decision and is not de facto evidence that the human is a lazy, insensitive, and careless clod. Euthanizing a dog is also not necessarily a wrong decision. It can be the most humane thing we can offer a dog, not that I expect everyone to agree with me on that. What’s ugly in this scenario is the judgement from people outside of the situation. The nasty comments. And the guilt that it puts on an owner who has really gone the extra mile (or miles in some cases) in their efforts to help their dog.
The Guaranteed Fix. Those of us with Project Dogs can become so obsessed with finding the cure, the fix, or the answer to our dog’s problem that we can go where angels fear to tread. We can be easy targets for the snake oil salesmen. The newest protocol. The latest “quick” way for dealing with reactivity, dog aggression, separation anxiety. This can lead us to see methods we would never consider as viable alternatives. To see behavioural suppression as progress. To use flooding rather careful counter conditioning and desensitization.
We can place ourselves, and more importantly, our dogs onto a slippery slope where the welfare of the dog is sacrificed for anything that looks like progress. We need to check our own thoughts about what the dog needs. Does your dog really NEED to be able to play with other dogs? Is that a necessary condition for that dog to be happy? Says who?
Generally, when I see someone talking about guaranteed and ‘quick’ fixes to canine behavioural issues, my intuitive senses start tingling. Few serious behavioural issues are quickly fixed, if they can be said to be fixed at all. I can’t even guarantee my own behaviour over the long term so I sure won’t make any guarantees about the dogs. Be careful when you read about the newest, fastest, guaranteed fix for a canine behavioural issue….here there be dragons.
Why I am writing this
Because it’s five in the morning on a Sunday when I had hoped to sleep in. But I have to work later in the morning and my shih tzu mix is having an anxiety day. I had to abandon sleep for some extra time to try and get his stress reduced before I leave the house. He won’t be alone, my husband will be home, but he’s stressing NOW so I have to deal with that. These can be the dark moments of the soul. The times when I close my eyes and think “I wish I hadn’t adopted him” and then feel massive, overwhelming guilt for even having that thought.
But I do have that thought. Not often. And I wouldn’t change what I did. I did adopt him. I will work on his issues. We will get through this. But some days are easier than others and I need to learn that it’s not a crime to feel some negativity from time to time. I need to be able to think those thoughts. Sometimes I need to be able to say them out loud to someone. Anyone. I have been fortunate to know a very few people that I can say those kind of things to and not be cast into the lowest circles of Hell.
And on the days where I can’t say those things out loud to anyone, I write them. I add them to the behavioural log I keep about Ty. And at some point, I will hopefully look back and think “Wow. We’ve made such progress. I’ve made such progress”.