Dog trains man

Saturday, March 26, 2011

Viva's long road to rehabilitation: reactive behavior

that is close enough, please!
When we adopted Viva, the local shelter warned us for her aggressive behavior. As we soon were to find out, she would lung and growl at any dog in sight.

How it was possible her first meeting with Kenzo went well remained a mystery for us in a long time. But more about that later in this story.

As you might remember, Behavioral Adjustment Training (BAT) was brought to our attention by dog trainer Irith Bloom and blogger/author Edie Jarolim and we started making some progress. So where do we stand now?

I'm cool when you are cool

Training different BAT setups enhanced Viva's vocabulary of calming signals. She also feels confident enough to use them in a lot of situations. We can pass any other calm dog on a distance of around 5 meters (15 feet) and her normal response would be to look away and ignore the other dog. She has no wish to come up and greet. But that is also not necessary. Just that she chooses to tackle the situation with these calming signals instead of agression, is wonderful.

One of the good things with BAT in Viva's case was that it took the edge off of things. Which allows us to use other techniques like counter conditioning and desensitizing - see Debbie Jacob's explanation of this training jargon. Something that had no effect on Viva at all before BAT.

Some of the calm and well-socialized dogs she has gotten to know in the neighborhood are allowed to come and greet. In Viva's world that means the exchange of a sniff. That will do for Viva. Thereafter it is all turning away and ignoring. Again a good display of Viva using her newly adopted social skills.

Unusual setups

We still have a lot of progress to make trying to approach a more "excited" dog. From a distance Viva will try some lip licking as calming signals, but she still will not feel comfortable to approach closer than a distance of 10 meters (30 feet). Although she will not lung or bark at them anymore if we come closer, she is clearly outside her comfort-zone. I always make sure never to go over her threshold, praise her for the lip licking, and turn around.

To help Viva further we found a great BAT setup with Kenzo's friend the Yorkshire terrier "watchdog". Because he knows me from all the walks me and Kenzo did past his property, he barks excited, and runs up to the fence, ready to meet us and receive his treats. I watch this with Viva on a safe distance and we have made it into our 5 meter barrier where we even were able to do "look at me". I throw some treats at the Yorkie too.

Play bow

Our biggest concern are off-leash dogs. We have become quite savvy in avoiding other dogs, also when they are off-leash. But unevitably some come up and meet. The good thing is that she doesn't lung at them anymore head-on. When the other dog ignores her after the sniff she allows them to leave in the best of health.

Amazingly, the best the other dog could do is to make a play-bow. That calms her down tremendously and she will fully accept the dog. I had to rub my eyes the first couple of times that happened. She will do some tail wags and grins to the other dog. Suddenly we realized, it was also the key Kenzo used in their first meeting together, and explained why she accepted him from day one. Just luck? or another display of Kenzo outsmarting me once again on the social dog front?

Too much

Anything else than ignoring after the sniff or play-bows clearly sends her in distress and she will start focusing on trying to convince the other dog to leave. She will take a more confrontational stand, and will snap them in the neck or back if they keep on coming back. Those meetings send her stress levels sky-rocketing. She is clearly very unhappy the rest of the day, and can start with a heavy panting that goes on for hours, like some kind of constant state of hyperventilation. After such an encounter we usually take it calm for the next couple of days. Make some short walks and ensure there is not even another dog in sight.

Our biggest challenge is of course other reactive or aggressive dogs. I think I am now able to spot them from a great distance and the tactic is simple: get the hell out of Dodge! We are absolutely not ready for a meeting, on any distance, with one of her equals.


"Viva's long road to rehabilitation" is a series of updates how Viva is doing almost one year after her adoption:

Saturday, March 19, 2011

The fearful dog owner

this new policy doesn't seem to work
Despite Kenzo's excellent reputation with small fearful dogs, he does not have that same therapeutic effect on some fearful dog owners.

There is one person and his dog, we call them "Big and Little Kurt", and both are terrified of Kenzo. Big Kurt was already afraid of Kenzo before he got Little Kurt. He send killer looks our way when we met on a walk. Polite greetings were not returned. I never thought that to be a problem, as not all people like dogs and even more people do not like big dogs like Hovawarts. So I just made sure to be polite and didn't give Kenzo the opportunity to greet him.

To my surprise Big Kurt was a dog person after all. I met him on a walk where he just got "Little Kurt". The cutest puppy, a terrier mix. With Kenzo on leash and approaching with a smile to break the ice, Big Kurt was not happy at all to see us. Big Kurt took Little Kurt up in his arms and walked right passed us with the usual killer look. He repeated this a couple of times, I tried to stop for a conversation, but Big Kurt would just mumble something in response and continued on his path, with Little Kurt in his arms.

What if...

I started avoiding them because this couldn't end well. What would Little Kurt think of us? We must be something horrible when my dad doesn't let me meet them? When Little Kurt grew up to adolescence the local dog drums already talked about him as not very well socialized. Especially with larger dogs. This didn't surprise me, but what really did surprise me was that Big Kurt now had decided to always walk Little Kurt off-leash.

Our first meeting with Little Kurt off-leash was a disaster. I don't blame him, he was setup to fail. We were on a narrow path and approaching the next corner when Little Kurt appeared. I made a quick turn with Kenzo. Also Big Kurt appeared around the corner. But he didn't put Little Kurt on a leash. I was stunned he continued walking towards us with Little Kurt ahead of him. After a few more moments Little Kurt decided to close the remaining gap and launched at Kenzo. Barking, hysterical, snapping at his face and legs.

Normally my reaction is to drop the leash, but my instinct didn't let me do that in this case. Kenzo could break Little Kurt in half with one bite. Using the leash to keep Kenzo's head away from Little Kurt I thereby sealed their faith forever as mortal enemies. And in addition it was the start of Kenzo's uncomfortable relationship with the leash. I should have dropped the leash and let Kenzo defuse the situation, but Little Kurt's fierceness made me choose otherwise.

Big Kurt was chasing Little Kurt in a circle around us. And finally stopped the spectacle by kicking Little Kurt so hard the little fellow squealed in pain while he was launched in the air and fell down a couple of feet away. Now I have had it with Big Kurt and to put it short we finally had our first conversation. Just not the intelligent kind.

Locked in battle

We still regularly meet, I always make a turn and recall Kenzo when he is off-leash. Big Kurt never makes any attempt trying to avoid us and keeps on coming head-on with Little Kurt off-leash. I don't know what he is thinking, but he is not helping. Kenzo is bracing himself for an incoming attack, he has no calming signals for Little Kurt as he would have for other small fearful dogs. Neither does Big Kurt seem to pick that up.

I am so worried. This will end wrong. We are heading towards the next confrontation. Even worse, I also had Viva with me on some of the walks where we meet, and she will show no mercy. Little Kurt doesn't stand a chance and I don't want him to get hurt. Neither do I want Kenzo and Viva to end in dog fight with all the consequences for their behavior towards other dogs. When something would happen to Little Kurt all fingers will point at us, fed by prejudice around larger dogs and Hovawarts in particular. With the current razzia-like situation in Denmark against dog bites and trigger happy authorities I worry for Kenzo and Viva's safety too.

What can I do? Nobody seems to know where the Kurt's live. As it turns out, nobody actually talks with them that could pass the word. I started to make small walks by myself trying to find both Kurt's and have a talk. At least we should be able to establish some common rules, like stop coming towards us and always put Little Kurt on leash as soon as they see us coming. So far I have not met them yet. It is such a shame all of this happened, Kenzo would have been an excellent therapist for both Kurt's.

I hope some owners of smaller dogs read this that are afraid of larger dogs. I understand how you must feel meeting larger dogs that can possibly harm your dog. Please leave a comment if you read this and tell me what we, as larger dog owners, can do to help Big and Little Kurt.

Saturday, March 5, 2011

Viva has Cushing's

Helping Viva to get better and improve health is a lot like peeling the layers of an onion. Just when we think all bases are covered and all issues addressed, we find out we are looking at yet another layer.

Warning signs

ear-nibble please?
The warning signs have been around all the time. High liver numbers returned from her very first blood-work. Not too high to worry about, treat or investigate further. But we kept on monitoring her regularly just in case. The first external signs came about one month ago. Viva was slowing down on our daily work-out. We gave her some rest, an additional acupuncture session - maybe she was in pain ? - but to no avail. She rapidly became more lethargic, and stopped playing and ear-nibbling with Kenzo, her favorite past-time!

We did a round at our vets and found out her spondylosis had not gotten worse, but her liver numbers had exploded. High liver numbers could be caused by just about anything and further testing was needed. We were in for a couple of painstaking weeks of further testing, investigating, and discussing theories. Our regular vet started suspecting Viva of having Cushing's disease after some additional testing. Although not all the signs have been adding up. She turned out to be spot on.

Cushing's disease

Cushing's is caused by a tumor in the pituitary or the adrenal gland, causing an over production of ACTH hormones which in turn triggers an overproduction of cortisol. A life threatening condition affecting inner organs like kidneys and liver. Some of the most common signs are hair-loss, a pot-belly, lethargic behavior, incontinence, and being overly interested in food and water. Apart from being lethargic, Viva had none of those signs. Yet she always had been overly interested in food and water as a former obese dog. Testing Viva for Cushing's sounded like a wild-goose chase, but I am happy to have followed our vet's gut feeling on this one.

To diagnose Cushing's we started with a urine test to measure cortisol levels. They were sky high. Next was an ACTH stimulation test, which was conclusive. Now it was final, Viva has Cushing's. The diagnosis was actually a huge relief, a month had already passed and I was so worried for Viva being in discomfort for so long and not being able to help her.


We started treating Viva with Vetoryl (Trilostane). Already after 5 days Viva was feeling better. Kenzo got his first ear-nibble in a month, which we celebrated with the whole family that day. It was awesome to witness.

Vetoryl is a very aggressive medicine, that messes with the hormone level. Administering the correct doses is extremely important, as Viva can die when we administer either too much or too little. Viva will need Vetoryl for the rest of her life. The doses can vary over time, and Viva has to be tested quarterly to ensure the doses is correct. Those quarterly tests include an ACTH stimulation test and 3 different blood-work tests.

The onion

It was a hard month with no blogging but we are back! Just wondering how the onion is doing. We are three layers down: allergies, spondylosis and Cushing's. Maybe we are done, maybe we are not. Yet another lesson Kenzo and Viva taught me. Health is not a shopping list with items you can check off and wrap up.

A big thank you to all my anipals for all your kind words and your support on Twitter and Facebook during the last month. It meant a lot and was a huge help getting through all of this. You guys rock!
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