Last year we worked with a dog that attracted a lot of attention due to his size, aggression and I guess his breed, we actually work with many dogs with similar issues, but to be specific, this article is about Thunder.
Thunder went through some amazing changes and those watching his videos commonly commented that “his whole face has changed” and “he is a different dog” and similar comments.
In this article, I am going to cover what some of the actual problems were and how we changed the way he looked at life.
I am also going to explain why he is back with us.
Piecing together history explained to me by his owner, Thunder, like many puppies liked to pick up rocks in his mouth.
Like most owners, the rocks were taken out of his mouth, save him swallowing them.
Now I want you to consider something significant here.
If a dog puts something in his mouth, you must agree he or she finds it rewarding to do so.
If every time the dog does this, you take away that “reward”, your painting yourself as a person who takes good things away.
This is easily countered if you use food in training and go a step further and run a program that teaches your dog to be optimistic when he or she has food and you approach.
Now I am not saying swap every rock for food, this may make the rock hunter worse, but I am saying that overall, your dog must feel you are rewarding to interact with you.
We give this program to all people who have a dog from our breeding and those that train puppies with us.
As far as I can tell, this conditioning was not carried out with Thunder, well at least not effectively.
As Thunder grew, he resisted giving up the rocks and the owner wrested them out.
This led to Thunder bearing his teeth and then growling and then biting as he entered into adolescence at about a year old.
Thunder became an aggressive resource guarder
In a conversation explaining this to the owner, there was a light bulb moment where he said “this explains why if I try touch his face he will attack me but my partner can do it no problems”
Motivated by negative punishment – the removal of an expected reward, Thunder had to learn to be aggressive to stop losing the reward (rock).
Once Thunder succeeded with aggression, I feel he began using this behaviour to enforce his authority over his owner in many ways.
This becomes a relationship built on fear, not trust, and Thunders problem was that he did not trust, so imagine the circle.
Many dogs learn this some way, what makes Thunder special is his well over 50 kilo size and power
I spoke to his owner at length and heard dozens of stories recanting why Thunder attacked and over what.
I agreed to work with him, and Thunder was brought to our kennels for rehab.
There are plenty of videos and information that show his remarkable changes.
Once settled here, part of our rehab is to look at animals holistically, their behaviour, their education, their ability to regulate their emotions, their instincts, their diet, health and structure all play a role in their behaviour.
Thunder had previous skin issues and ear infections, the areas around his eyes and nose were very red.
His nails were very long, he would not tolerate them being cut, he was overweight for a young, still developing two year old, had some joint pain due to the weight and lack of exercise and had a contact allergies on his belly and on his scrotum.
His testicles were enlarged and appeared inflamed and he would foam at the mouth and jaw chatter when he scented any urine and he was an obsessive territory marker.
Thunder had not been to the vet in over a year, because the owner was concerned Thunder may bite the vet, this is common with dogs in this type of situation. Responsible owners refrain from risking others, so this can mean no vet checks, no exposure and no social exposure either.
Once I had formed trust with Thunder, with the owner’s consent, I took him to my vet, given his absence of any vet work for a while, we did a full blood work up and examination.
Given that he would not be bred, the contact allergies he had and swelling, he was desexed as well as teeth examined and nails cut when he was in surgery.
We also found a deep ear infection that he had had received (incorrect) treatment for previously due to not being examined physically.
Bloods came back all good and we put him on a grain free diet of Prime 100 for his allergies.
He had a yeast infection in his ear that we treated with a two step process.
Recovery was short and we were back at training and rehab again.
We worked Thunder in some cardio and a low fat diet to help him shed some weight.
He was 56 kilos when he arrived to us and this was too heavy for a young dog still developing.
With exercise and diet, we trimmed a touch over 10 kilos off him in 8 weeks.
He actually would have lost more than 10 kilos of fat, but he has gained a lot of muscle.
As his training became more reliable and behaviour predictable, he gained more off leash freedom and was able to run and play on our 7 acres.
Thunders skin, coat and physique began to look amazing.
This was a dog that went from walking along bound by physical limits to one that could leap 6 – 7 feet off the ground when he saw me coming with pure excitement and joy.
He had learned to win in every way. He could follow our rules and boundaries easily as we had taught him how.
He was confident he could earn his rewards because he knew the system.
There really was just no reason to be frustrated, agitated, anxious or concerned anymore and this meant the motivation for the aggression was no longer there either.
People come to see me every day with dogs that are displaying very concerning behaviours, the secret to curing the behaviours is hidden within a functional relationship with your dog.
Very often, you get the relationship right and the problems will melt away.
Given the nature of the case, and the owner being interstate, we booked a 6-hour hand over session to go through everything in detail.
Thunders behaviour was impeccable, obedient, respectful, affectionate and happy.
His owners were visibly fearful of Thunder, especially at the handover, and let me tell you, I did not blame them one bit.
This reduced when they saw how great Thunders behaviour and attitude was. He was muzzled throughout the handover of course, to allow his owners to feel safe.
We of course demonstrated everything from how to fit the muzzle, handle him and so on.
Thunder left us and made the trip back to his home state.
Emails were coming almost hourly of how great he was, how settled he was, that they stopped for toilet breaks and Thunder was perfectly behaved around everyone.
They arrived home and continued to rave about his happy and relaxed attitude to life and how chilled he was in his crate, and life was great.
We got these updates daily and the future was bright.
Messages started to mention things that I had not advised to do, now don’t get me wrong, there was no conflict where the owner thought they knew better, but he was confusing what the previous trainer had said vs what I had said.
This is not to say what previous trainers had said was wrong either, it just wasn’t what Thunder understood.
I spoke to Thunders owner on the phone and it started to become clear that the owner was suffering from some health issues himself and at times was not able to focus and could become confused.
He was lacking confidence and frightened he would do something wrong or would never get it right.
I spoke to some other family members who agreed Thunders behaviour and training was so much better, but there was concern if his owner would actually be capable of maintaining order in the home.
There were some environmental concerns too, such as they are building a home themselves and living on site in a temporary building and this does not provide stability to a dog trying to make habit out of rehabilitation strategies.
Daily the anxiety was growing in Thunders owner and I could not see a way to ensure things would stay on the right path.
I was hearing sentences that were leading to giving up and I could see that these two pieces, were from very different puzzles and sadly, they were not going to fit.
Thunders owner was not able to make rational or let’s call them unemotional choices and this just would end in disaster.
We make it very clear before taking on a dog for rehab that there will need to be ongoing support after the dog returns home.
That owners may need to up skill to maintain and improve their dog’s behaviour as time passes.
We have, many times mentioned that Thunders owner was very dedicated, I still feel this way.
He worked with a dog that bit him and his father and others multiple times.
He researched all over the world to try and find help and sent him to me.
He tried even when he was frightened, and there is absolutely no shame in being frightened of a dog this size.
In the end he kept trying, but it simply was not going to work.
The home, at this stage was not a fit.
This happens sometimes.
Given the incredible effort Thunder made, to change the way he looked at the world, to put his trust in me and my staff, to learn different ways, to control and regulate his emotions and to focus just on his own happiness and not worry about what others are doing, I could not watch it come apart as I feel it would end up with Thunder being put to sleep.
Thunders owner made a big sacrifice.
He gave me his dog.
Thunder came back to us and is as bouncy, goofy, happy and responsive as he always was with us.
The dog that would explode around food now sits with me in the kennel kitchen whilst meals are prepared for boarding dogs.
He walks out with me, off leash, to a kennel full of aggressive / barking dogs.
Watches me feed them all, right next to me, then comes with me until I’m done, and then I feed him.
Not a single concern from him.
He is safe here and at some point, I may find him a home that he will thrive in.
Until then he will remain safe with me and work here with dogs to help them improve too.
I am not in the habit of taking people’s dogs, but I could not turn my back on him after he gave me his all.
Very few situations like this exist, in fact they almost never do, but when they do, we try and find a way to help regardless, and this time, we had the ability to give Thunder and his owner a solution.
When you watch our videos on rehab, keep an eye out for Thunder, he will be helping others now.
I do want to mention again, we are solutions based, we look forward not back.
In these programs we are trying to teach dogs the right way to behave, feel and respond.
Once the dogs understand what they should be doing, we train (rehearse and reinforce) these behaviours to be strong and resilient to distraction and impulses.
We then place the dog in situations in which they have choices to make and help them choose the new (desirable) behaviours instead of the old (undesirable) behaviours that they arrived with.
By rehearsing this a lot, dogs gain confidence and learn to regulate their emotions better and find it easier to make good choices, with our (well timed) cues of course.
We work hard to fit this process into the program times we allocate, 5 and 8 weeks and then working with the owners to help them learn how to support their dog when he or she comes home and how to continue the new path the dog is on.
Some people are incredible at becoming this person for their dogs, some people are not at the beginning but work hard to learn what they need to do and when, and some, not many but some, just can’t.
In the end, it does not really matter why they can’t if they can’t, so blaming them, punishing them and being upset with them is not going to change whether they can’t, it will simply push them further away.
It does not matter to us “how” a dog becomes they way they become, and therefore we do not allow any attacks or criticism of the owners of dogs we work with on videos etc
Many peoples best is not enough for the dog they have, we try to help the dog be more responsive and the owner to improve their best, and we are so lucky that we are able to make success happy at such a high percentage of the dogs we are trusted with.