Years ago I worked with a dog and her person. It was a pretty standard introduction.
Hello, I just adopted a dog from a rescue, and I would like to learn how to work with her. She is a mature female, she apparently ran around on a bunch of land all day while her original family was at work, and then they didn’t want her anymore. I think she may have chased some cows, but I’m not sure. They think she is Chow Chow and Labrador cross.
I LOVE when people call and say “I want to learn”, it lets me know that these are the people who have an understanding that it is not ‘putting behaviors’ on a dog, but rather the Handler learning how to teach and learning how to understand their new dog better.
When I first met Flex, she was a bit over weight, but not overly so for an older female. Her new Handler wanted to learn how to walk her in the neighborhood, how to hike safety with her, and how to introduce her to new dogs. Fair enough.
She had a bunch of sweetness in her, but also an edge that was hard to place. From the first day I met her I had a feeling something was not right but I couldn’t put my finger on it. Her and I worked well together, she was willing and curious, and seemed to enjoy our time together.
She was loved, well taken care of, went traveling, on outings, and had a nice house and yard. I set them up with a dog walker for more outings and exercise, and saw them about once a month. But she was a dog that was not easy or as straight forward as previously thought.
She presented with fence barking, fear of getting into a car, opinions of some other dogs, not able to handle the social pressure of trail hiking, and some odd destructive behaviors. For some time I would get calls about Flex. Mostly during the day, but some in the evening. The ‘I’ turned to ‘We’ as there was a new significant other.
We need to learn how to deter her from chewing through dry wall. We need to learn how to teach her that it is okay if my friends to come over. We need to teach her that walking past another dog is okay.
And I still had that feeling I couldn’t put my finger on. For who she was, what her life had been, the new skills she learned, Flex was awesome. She was the dog not of their dreams, but they loved her and decided that she was where she was supposed to be. Her life was good.
I told them to get a full health check up for Flex, with blood work. I just had a feeling. Their veterinary told them that would be nonsense, learn how to be a leader, learn to have control, say NO for gods sake.
Then I started to receive calls late in the night, and into the wee hours of the morning, this went on for weeks. And I kept saying, please, please, please go to your veterinarian and get blood work done. If they don’t want to do it I can suggest someone else. Each call had a unique story.
Flex is chewing through the wall.
Flex ate the sleeve of my leather jacket.
Flex is panting and we have four fans going but I can’t seem to get her any relief.
Flex is waking me up four times a night to go outside and then she just digs.
Flex is barking until all hours of the morning.
And I kept saying, please go to your veterinarian, this is not behavioral this is medical, this is about her health, and there is nothing I can do for her. And their veterinarian turned them away again, nonsense, your dog needs to learn how to behave is all.
Finally, after I had had too many 3am calls I told the ‘We’ that I would take her in, they are missing what is going on. They agreed to take her in in the morning, to a new veterinarian. After blood work, x-rays, and several calls, the news was dire, and Flex had maybe hours to live. Her health reached such a state that there was no coming back. She was in horrific pain, and it wasn’t one thing wrong, but pretty much everything.
I received a call that ‘We’ had euthanized Flex, her state of health was unbelievably bad. They were so upset, so sad, and so flattened by this. The dog not of their dreams and yet she occupied the most compassionate and loved place in their hearts to the very end.
They really were incredible people to Flex, this I have no doubt. But sometimes what is lost is the ability to see beyond a behavior to what is driving it. They asked for help and were turned away, a dismissal, a bit of shaming, and a bit of intimidation. It was truly not their fault, they were trying, and they were not heard.
I tell Flex’s story because this has played out every year over the past decade and a half, and only the names and breeds change. Health drives behavior. Period. And if what I see behaviorally does not make sense, I do not hesitate to say, please, please, please, get a second opinion.
I work and teach dogs every single day of the week. Lots of puppies, lots of dogs, I am grateful. And then, every once in a while I meet a dog and I get a feeling. It can be from how they move, what they are looking at, their gestures, their way of responding to me or not, and a host of other things.
Flex taught me a lot, she taught many of us a lot. Never dismiss what you are feeling at a gut level. If we all listen, with honest unfiltered ears, we can hear what needs to be heard. So be that person for your dog. When they need your help they will let you know, and then you need to stand up for them.