Today the German Shepherd mix in need of some good dog training came to visit us from Chicago. His family had contacted us and described his history of being protective of them and their property. Lunging, barking and a bite history were part of the package but we asked them to make the drive up to Southwest Wisconsin because we wanted to get a first hand look before giving any advice.
I was in the parking lot when I saw Luca for the first time. One of the family members was attempting to put a muzzle on him before bringing him into the training center. At 110 pounds plus, he’s a dog to be taken seriously if he decided he wasn’t going to like us. But it took about 20 seconds of evaluation and I knew it wouldn’t be necessary so I asked that we leave the muzzle off.
Maybe that sounds a bit crazy, but experience has taught me to avoid muzzles unless completely necessary and I could tell by this big boys body language he wasn’t going to hurt me unless I gave him reason to. A muzzle can be useful in giving an owner confidence in regaining control of their dog, but it can certainly make the dog feel more vulnerable when confronting new situations. I didn’t want to make him feel that sense of threat, so no muzzle.
We did take our precautions though. We didn’t make any attempt to greet Luca or touch him (good advice to anyone meeting a new dog – let the dog come to you and sniff, don’t encroaching in his space) While observing him, he whined and paced and frequently sought out his owner for comfort and petting. He was obviously stressed and his *mom* commented that he never behaved like this at home. She was amazed he wasn’t reacting to the other dogs laying around the training center, telling us he usually lunges at other dogs on the street. He did the classic head butt to his owner’s hand and she stroked him each time he did it (smart dog!) But also, as she stroked him, he stiffened if anyone in the room moved much at that time, a sign that his aggression was a learned behavior. He interprets the stroking as a cue to go *on guard*. The good news is, if it is a learned behavior, it can be un-learned.
After removing his flexi leash and getting something more appropriate for restraint, we had the owners hand him off and we walked with him.
Walking is the first way we try to dissipate stress. Movement is a good thing, for dogs, for us. The sedentary lifestyle we often have leads to a great deal of instability, both for dogs and their human caretakers.
We walked for a while and his owners headed home and are allowing us to keep him him for a few weeks of rehab. He will be busy learning better manners and obedience, appropriate greeting behavior plus some confidence building so he does not feel such a need to go into defense so quickly. I also noticed some possible health issues and we anticipate getting some blood work done while he is here.
Luca and I went for another walk in the pasture tonight. He sniffed to get a sense of where he was. But as he walked he never really took a deep breath, never opened his mouth or relaxed his jaw in the way dogs do when they are confident in the moment. I think he has forgotten how to *be a dog* and live in a moment of joy and contentment. We stopped in the far back of the pasture where there is a bench meant for just sitting and he laid his head on my knee. No head butt, just laid his head there and looked me in the eye for the first time. This dog has a very big heart and a confused head about his role in the world. I think we can clarify that and teach him how to be a dog again.
I love my job.