The Training Studio
Savvy, a 9-year-old Australian Shepherd mix, was adopted in January from the Plano shelter. We’re extremely busy and needed a dog that would fit into our life, one that was already potty trained; I personally didn’t want to go through the puppy stage. She just happened to take our hearts when we saw her. We had a discussion as a family that we might only have her 3 to 5 years, as she was an older dog. Aussies live to about 13-15; so I thought we would give her a home for her twilight years.
The only thing they said about the person who surrendered her was that it was a single
dad with two kids; it sounded like the kids were not in the home anymore, and he
could not take care of her. It sounded like she was in the back yard 22 hours a day.
I stay at home and my husband travels for work. All three kids are in sports.
Even though we’re all really busy, there is still someone home almost all the time.
Finding out she has issues was a weird situation. She was very sweet in the shelter. I had
a checklist: For instance, was she a resource guarder? I went through my checklist, and
she checked off on everything. I’ve since learned dogs can act very different in the shelter.
She’s an amazing dog. She doesn’t counter-surf; she behaves; she’s really good with the
family. And she was really good with different people being in house for the
first three months.
All of a sudden at the three-month mark, she started barking at guests when they came in the house. There are a couple of people who were OK; for instance, my son’s best friend, who spends a lot of time at the house – she looks at him as family; she’s doesn’t have a
problem with him. However, most people that come in, these were strangers, people she was not exposed to a lot. When this was initially happening, I was extremely alarmed; I wondered, do we have a dog that’s going to bite someone? I immediately started looking for help. For a while I wondered if we were going to have to surrender her.
What we’ve learned is that she’s definitely fearful, and if you push her too much, she’s going to give you a long period of warning before she bites, if she bites at all. One advantage we’ve learned is that she will do anything for food and can be distracted immediately with it.
Savvy is fine with other dogs. That’s a weird thing: We can go to the dog park; and as long as she’s off leash, and in a big area, she can be around strangers. She is fine on walks, too. Her anxious behavior occurs when she’s in our house
with strangers and at the vet.
She did well with training, but it still seemed like when we were at home, we weren’t getting through. I describe it as almost like ADHD. You can tell her mind is going a mile a minute. My husband kept saying, “I feel like we’re missing something.”
I started researching medication online. When I talked to our vet about it, he said he could definitely refer us to a behaviorist. The whole family met with Dr. Florsheim initially so she could assess Savvy. We all participate in her care and her training, so it was important for everyone to understand what we learned about her behavior.
Dr. Florsheim said she was definitely reactive and she thought she would benefit from medication, especially since we had given behavioral training without medication a shot first.
So we started meds and started seeing Cathy at The Training Studio. She saw her in the studio and we started doing home visits. Dr. Florsheim and Cathy agree that the reason the barking started after three months is because it was about the time she realized, “OK, I’m staying here. Now I get to have a say about what’s going on.”
Savvy is starting to accept Cathy, and we’ve seen progress with her with other people. If the kids are running around, I’ll put her upstairs in our bedroom with a light noise machine and give her a Kong and she’ll just relax. We tried crate training her, but she didn’t take to it. Dr. Florsheim said she has barrier frustration and we’ve learned the crate is not good for her.
She’s gotten to the point if people are sitting, she can relax. We’ll take her out of the situation to get people in the house. If they’re sitting, we’ll bring her back in and she’ll be fine. If someone gets up and goes to the bathroom, they’ll treat her on the way, or we’ll put her in someone’s room for a minute. My mother-in-law will go in the kitchen and Savvy will go with her in the kitchen, and my mother-in-law will treat her all the way. She’s slowly learning to tolerate people. I don’t think she will ever be 100 percent accepting, but will learn better ways to cope with strangers.
One of the key signs from Savvy that she’s getting near her threshold is “huffing”, or breathing deeply as if she’s getting ready to bark. I watch her, and when she starts to huff, I will say, “Come on, let’s go upstairs.” She follows me everywhere. I can take her in the office, then gate her. We’ve learned ways to keep her separated from chaos if needed. Interestingly, she hates to be outside even though we have a big backyard. She’ll make a U-turn and come right back in.
Cathy and Dr. Florsheim have taught us a lot about body language and what to do. Us learning about her behavior and learning how to help her is such a huge part of helping her feel comfortable and not get anxious.
Now when we have new people in the house, we have to explain to people that she’s fearful. I tell them, “Don’t look at her; don’t talk to her, or lean over her or try to pet her. Let her check you out.” Most people do and make it easy for us and her, but it’s always surprising how hard it is for people to follow that direction. Part of the problem is her appearance; she’s very cute, she’s really fluffy and looks adorable. You’re looking at this sweet little thing and she doesn’t bark right away.
We’ve started preparing for a vet visit. In the vet environment, the minute they start poking and prodding her, she starts growling, and she never does that anywhere else. To me, growling is a bigger sign than barking that a bite may be coming. She’s communicating, “back away”. The type of muzzle they use at the vet causes her a lot of anxiety. Every vet visit has been a bit worse.
One tech at our vet seems to be very in-tune with dog behavior and how to handle fearful dogs. The last time we were there, Savvy needed her Bordetella shot, and they give it in the mouth. The tech came out to the car so we didn’t have to take Savvy in to the little exam room. She knows to stand sideways and not look at her. She was feeding her chicken so we could get the syringe in her mouth.
If I were a vet, I would want to know how to diffuse these behaviors. Our vet has recently sent many of its techs to a behavioral clinic, which I think is great and will be helpful. In order to prepare for the next vet visit, we’re going to The Training Studio to do vet desensitization. We’re doing muzzle training.
Before Cathy, Savvy would bark at everything; every dog or person that walked by, everyone who came in the house. It was frustrating; I thought we were going to have to live in isolation and never have people over. It was very alarming. When my husband’s parents were coming over, I was very anxious, thinking, “How is this going to work?”
We’ve seen such a huge improvement of people coming in the house. She’ll come in and out of the girls’ room when they have friends over, as if she’s checking on what they’re doing, and she doesn’t bark at their friends. We always have guests give her treats first to let her know they are OK. It’s kind of like we’re starting over with a puppy, exposing her to as many people as possible. And we’ve come such a long way with my in-laws. The first time was really, really hard. We had to cover the baby gate and railing across our loft with blankets.
If she heard them talking, she would start barking. Now she’s
OK with them. If she gets a little huffy, we always have a bag
of treats; if we find she needs a break, we’ll take her out of
Cathy also taught us mat training, and Savvy graduated from
sitting on the mat to sitting on the area rug with us. She’s
better, and we have systems in place to help her. It’s a new
I really feel like Cathy and Dr. Florsheim gave us the tools,
but you still have to do the training and the daily work. Even before we adopted her, we set the tone with the kids and made sure the whole family understood we were not just bringing in a dog: It’s a responsibility.
I talk to people all the time and tell them how much better it’s gotten for us, and that we will continue as clients. I definitely recommend Veterinary Behavior Solutions and The Training Studio.