Shell and Zero, Aggression Rehab

A guest blog post by Shell Gurney, written about her dog Zero, on Aggression Rehab

Most people celebrate special days with their pets like birthdays, “gotcha” days and Christmas. My Siberian Husky, Zero and I celebrate another day, July 12th – the day he started his journey to becoming a balanced, easy to manage pet. Today, July 12th, is the 5th anniversary of the day we met Steve.

Few people, after meeting the Z-man believe me when I tell them the problems he once had. To most people, he appears to be a happy, well adjusted, well socialised dog. He’s gentle, easy to get along with and is pretty well trained (if I do say so myself). Five years ago though, he was anything but.

Zero looking handsome!
Zero looking handsome!

Zero came to me in 2006 from Renbury Farm Animal Shelter. I had met a lot of potential adoptees before meeting Z but from the second I saw him, he was coming home with me. He was huddled in the middle of his run, hunched over, staring at the floor and looking incredibly sad.

It was the middle of January, stinking hot and he was the only dog in the whole place who wasn’t barking. We took him for a walk and he wouldn’t pay any attention to us. He just wanted to get away and be left alone. Call me a sucker but when I heard that no one had looked at him and he was on “the list” (a nice way of saying he wasn’t long for this world), I paid my deposit right then and there.

If I had known then what I know now about dogs in shelter environments, I might have been more wary of him but at the time, I was in love and was absolutely convinced that he was going to be an amazing dog…

To start with, he really was the perfect companion! Quiet, fine with other dogs, just sat around and didn’t do much but sleep (perfect for a uni student). However, once he stopped requiring high dose pain killers for his (very complicated) desexing and wasn’t as high as a kite all the time, he wasn’t so perfect. Over the next few weeks, Zero’s “quirks” showed themselves in full force.

He wouldn’t let you touch his head, groom him, or grab him by the collar. He was nervy, a nightmare to manage and not very fun to be around. These were nothing though when compared to what happened on a walk – from the second the gate opened, Z was on the hunt. He refused to take food (which is now unheard of for him – even when coming out of a general anaesthetic a few weeks ago, he was tarting up to the vet nurses for treats), was on high alert and jumped at almost any sound.

If we happened to see another dog (even if the dog was a kilometre away), Z would turn into a snarling, lunging beast who was close to impossible to hold back. Our walks were military operations, early in the morning or late at night to avoid other dogs and usually involved at least 2 people – one scouting for dogs up the front and one being pulled along by Zero. If we had a third person, they would walk behind and make sure no dogs snuck up on us.

Months of trainers, behaviourists and vets later and Zero was no better. Thousands of dollars were spent on training aids, lessons, drugs, supplements and behaviour modification techniques with no results. Our trainers and behaviourists gave up, recommended other people to me or told me that I couldn’t “fix” him and I should have him put to sleep. Even our vet behaviourist told me that they couldn’t do anything for him except drug him up to the point where he couldn’t feel feelings anymore. I just couldn’t do that to him. No matter how hard he was to deal with, he was MY dog and I loved him.

I gave up on trainers for a few months and even though people kept recommending someone called K9 Force (the old K9 Pro!) to me, I didn’t think anyone could help us.

Zero with his buddies.
Zero with his buddies.

One Sunday morning about a year after he came home, I decided the risk was low enough to attempt to walk him on my own. I mean, who walks their dog at 5:30 on a Sunday morning right? For the first 45 minutes, we were fine. On the way home however, he saw a dog, went off his nut and ended up pulling me through a gate, dislocating 5 joints in my hand. I don’t think the upstanding residents of my suburb had heard anything quite like the stream of swear words that came out of my mouth that morning! I ended up not walking him for over a month after that.

Then, not long after we had started going on walks again, Zero walked around a corner one morning, caught sight of his shadow on a fence and attacked it. I went home and cried, then decided it was time to try K9 Pro.

Appointment day arrived and I nearly ended up in tears before I had entered the consult room. Z didn’t make a good first impression at all, pulling me down the (very steep!) driveway and then attacking Steve’s garage door. I didn’t know it at the time, and they didn’t react at all but Kandy and Kane, Steve’s German Shepherds were sleeping in their crates, in the garage. Steve calmly took his leash from me and took him into the consult room where he got into EVERYTHING, wouldn’t get off the couch and wouldn’t listen to anything I said. After Steve exploded my brain with information (anyone who has been for a consult with Steve will know this feeling! Brain overload!), we left with a training program to work on.

Z’s training program was what rehabilitated him, not the tools or his age or anything like it. I learned to communicate with Z and read him and with some of Steve’s help physically control him too, which enabled me keep control of him so he could actually learn what I wanted.

I emailed Steve religiously once a week for the next 8 weeks – our training program changed and evolved as Zero’s problem behaviours changed, diminished and disappeared. For the first time, we were moving in the right direction and I wasn’t afraid to walk him. I started to be able to read his body language and I was giving him consistent cues that he could understand. He was able to see other dogs without needing to kill them and I was able to control him. Instead of trying to hold him back, now I was walking away from other dogs, Zero happily beside me, with my head up.

About 8 weeks after the consult, we went back for an aggression workshop. Until Z was put in with a lot of other reactive dogs, I didn’t realise just how far he had come. Steve asked us to come and stand close to where another reactive dog was going to walk,  we were a little too close and the dog lunged at Zero. There are three photos of it happening – the first is of us just standing there, Zero looking up at me, the second is of the dog beginning to lunge and Zero just looking up at me, and the third is of me (freaking out a little because there is a dog lunging at us!) starting to move away and Zero, still in his spot, just staring at me.

Having my fear-aggressive dog just sit there, trusting me to take care of the situation rather than dealing with it himself made me realise just how close our bond had become in those 8 weeks, and it only got better and better from there.

Once I had the confidence to try him in a group class, encouraged by my amazing friend Nik Boyd, we started training at an obedience club. Zero excelled in class, hot on the heels of Nik’s keeshond Jedi (who is still Zero’s BFF) and eventually made it through to the trialling class. Trialling with the Snow Man was always going to be interesting, and there were a lot of times when I wanted to throw my hands up in the air and give up, but after hearing “you can’t train those” so many times, we had something to prove.

Zero the DELTA Dog!
Zero the DELTA Dog!

Fast forward a few years and not only is Zero now a (retired) Delta Therapy Dog but he’s also titled in Rally Obedience and an Australian Flyball Champion. His health has slowly gotten the better of him though, and he is slowing down with age but he continues to be my fluffy shadow, my constant source of laughter and, best of all, my heart dog.

He is TOTALLY unreactive around other dogs and very comfortable  – is allowed to be off lead around the other dogs at training and loves going to the (very busy!) dog beach. He has also welcomed a Finnish Lapphund puppy into the house (who he absolutely loves) and she’s now following in his (big) paw prints in the performance arena.

And so, on the 5th anniversary of the day we met, to Steve, I want to send my heartfelt thanks and gratitude for everything you have done for us. You have shared in our triumphs and our (mostly hilarious) failures and have given me the most amazing dog I could have ever asked for. You have helped me realise that I am a stronger person that I would have ever known, and through Zero, have inspired quite a few Siberian Husky owners around the world to get their dogs involved in sports. Best of all though, we have gained lifelong friends in you, Al and Bec.


Shell and Zero are good friends of K9 PRO and Zero has always held a special place in Steve’s memories. He has added some of his thoughts below.

I remember Zero from the moment I laid eye on him at my front gate 5 years ago, he was hiding from the world but also ready to take it on. I would like to give you a rundown on what I remember about Shell, but I have to admit I didn’t remember her lol. I have some file notes that I wrote though I am sure she will be ok with me adding here:

“Owner is desperate but defeated”
“She doesn’t have any hope but I think she will push through if he (Zero) improves”.
“The dog is bad, will need very precise rehab, let’s see if she will put in the work”.

Shell did email me every week, a few times in a week sometimes, she followed every step of the program with Military precision, she must have learned that from walking him haha. Each week the emails were more filled with positives and I looked forward to seeing him again at the workshop I was holding for aggressive dogs.

Zero turned up and wow was he different, his eyes… they were a different shape, warm and and relaxed. He was within metres of other dogs walking by, some going off at him and he just took it all in his stride. I thought to myself, “wow this girl has done well!“.

A few people asked me at the end of the workshop “who is that girl with the Siberian and why is that dog here?‘ I told them he was dog aggressive and they asked “when?”.

I didn’t remember Shell after that first lesson, but haven’t forgotten her since, she has become a good friend of mine, she did and still does an outstanding job with Z, her work and commitment would and has put many a professional to shame.

And Zero? Well we are bro’s, we email each other regularly.

That boy isn’t a mean dog, he never was, he was fighting for his life, I just helped him realise that Shell had it…

Steve Courtney.

About SteveK9Pro

Steve Courtney is a Nationally Accredited Canine Behaviour Specialist, Obedience Trainer, Law Enforcement Dog Trainer and ANKC Breeder. Steve has been training dogs all his life and in these articles he shares with you his experience...

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  1. Thanks, Steve, I am not inexperienced training GSD’s but last week I took my wonderful 4-month-old GSD to see a well-respected trainer, I was concerned that his barking at unfamiliar things was going to need sorting out quickly.
    I was not surprised when she told me that he was fearful and acting aggressively to scare off the stimulus, however, I was devastated when she told me he could never be cured, would never be trustworthy enough to do trials, would become over aggressive if we did IPO, and as a show dog should never be bred from. She gave me some tips, watch for the reaction – stiffening of the body, call for help bark, and remove him asap to a safe distance where when he calms down reward him for his good work.
    I have followed this regime but was surprised to find that he seems to have a really good bounce back and forgets bad experiences (especially imagined ones) very quickly. So I have added a few things which I think are also helping because the ‘fear’ seems to be induced when he is in unfamiliar surroundings, I have deliberately taken him to different and very varied areas during his walks, if I see a reaction to anything I turn him around and walk away until his reaction abates, I reward the now good behaviour and he watches the ‘thing’ from a safe distance, this started on day one at 50 yards and today 5 days later is now less than ten yards, which I see as good progress. Due to my not seeing it another very bouncy dog came bounding over to him on day one, he was friendly and invited play, my lad wanted to join in so I let him and when I felt he was safe I let him off the lead, he not only played well with this dog but was joined by two others and walked back with the three dogs off lead and then on passing two other walkers with dogs showing no reaction. This has continued. whilst we have some backsliding usually at the start of the walk when he is unsure about the surroundings he is socialising well and spooked maybe two or three times all of which are easily manageable and always at the start of the walk.
    Am I on the right track? Or is the trainer correct this is a genetic problem which cannot be cured, any other tips would be welcome! Cheers

    • Hi Carol, keep in mind that at 4 months there is a fear period which can look very much like what you are seeing in some dogs.

      To make a judgement that a dog can never be cured if you see the dog once in a fear period is a big call.

      Your dog may not be (or may) a good IPO (now IGP) prospect, but fearful dogs do not trigger into prey drive easily making training bite work etc more difficult, it will not increase aggression, trained incorrectly. Does your trainer train for IPO /IGP? If not there is not much point seeking advice on a dogsport the person does not train.

      I have very different opinions to your trainer or you have interpreted what she said incorrectly.

      The bark is not a call for help, it is a distance increasing signal (if your dog is fearful), which means the dog is trying to add space between him and the stimulus.

      Therefore taking him away after he barks would be reinforcing the unwanted behaviour.

      There are many more variables than we are discussing here, you may simply have a working line GSD with low threshold to defence which many people will call desirable for IGP and there are no problems at all, he simply needs some rules and boundaries to work within.

      I would be seeking a second opinion asap. Where are you located?

  2. Aw Zero – I remember Shell and Zero from that aggression workshop – all those years ago, it is truly a great story!

  3. Shell, your blog bought tears of hapiness for you, to my eyes. Us dog owners know that everything is possible if we want it bad enough. Steve at the moment is helping me with my Malinois (without me whilst I recover from a major op at home). I can’t wait to go up and join Steve for my training with my dog.

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