If I’d had any idea what I was in for, I would have started this blog about six months ago, when Ziva first joined our family. But I didn’t, and so now I have to catch you up on how we got to where we are today. When we adopted Ziva, we knew she was young, energetic, part German Shepherd, and very friendly but a little dog reactive. She had been pulled from a shelter in North Carolina 24 hours before she was scheduled to be euthanized, and had been living with a terrific foster family for a couple of weeks. Sounded like a bit of a handful, but we were experienced dog owners, so no big deal. Right?
Eh, wrong! She turned out to be kind of a big deal. We collected Ziva from her foster mom at the vet’s after she had been spayed, so she was a little subdued. She pretty much slept the entire ride of about an hour home. She entered the house wearing the cone of shame, and our two cats came right up to her, thinking perhaps she was dear, sweet, 13-year old Fritz, our dog who had passed away a few months earlier. She didn’t react to the cats at all, and we spent a pretty calm night.
Then I went off to work the next morning and things got real. My wife spent the day trying to calm Ziva, who paced and whined and barked and climbed onto the radiator. She tried to give her some exercise, but with fresh stitches from her spay, Ziva was on “light duty for a week.” Light duty. hahahahahahaha.
Instead of getting better, each day got more stressful for us all in those early days. I took a few days off from work, because Ziva couldn’t be left alone at all, and even when you were there with her it was impossible to get anything done. She was velcro-ed to your side. She went willingly into her crate, but if left alone she barked and clawed at the crate door, and even bit the door so hard she bent the wires. Even after her stitches were out, we could never wear her out. She loved to chase a ball, and we spent hours in the backyard trying to make her tired. She might stop for a few minutes, panting and tongue hanging out — only to race around the yard at lightning speed again. But she never wanted to be alone. She got so upset that she seemed panicked, frantic. We put up baby gates so that she could have more space but stay out of trouble, hoping that would help her relax more than being confined in the crate. But if we both left the house, she barked and barked and barked. And when we returned, she raced around the room, barked, and flung herself against the baby gate. It was kind of a zoo. (The cats hid.)
We had always planned to sign up for obedience classes, but clearly we needed some help asap. Thus we began with our first trainer. We needed someone good, and we needed them fast. I did a little research and found a very highly rated trainer who lived right in our neighborhood. Her methods were completely positive training, and seeing that Ziva definitely had some underlying fears or issues that were causing her to be so wound up, we thought that would be perfect for her. And indeed it was a very good start. Several private lessons with this trainer helped us work on some basic things like “leave it” and “stay,” with the idea that we would gradually be able to walk further away and even out the front door and she would remain calm. It was very slow, but steady progress addressing Ziva’s separation anxiety.
Then we went for a walk.
The other thing I forgot to mention, is that although Ziva clearly had a loving home in her first year, where she was house-trained and taught some basic commands like “sit,” walking on a leash did not seem to have been something she had ever learned. Because the moment we put a leash on her, she bolted ahead, yanking my arm practically out of its socket. Combine that with seeing another dog across the street, and she was uncontrollable. We were using a “no pull” harness in those days, but she missed the message on that “no pull” part. Even getting the harness on Ziva was an ordeal — it was like putting a saddle on a mustang. A wriggling, mouthy mustang.
All of this time, we were using purely positive training: never saying “no” or giving any corrections, just lots of redirecting and lots of treats to reinforce the good behavior. Throughout all of these challenges, Ziva’s potential shone through. But she seemed to only have 2 speeds: 0 or 11, on a scale of 1 to ten. She just could not seem to ever be “calm.” And when she saw other dogs, her reactiveness seemed to be getting worse. The trainer tried walking with her on our street and only got about 50 feet from the front door before Ziva saw another dog and went out of her mind. It was all the trainer could do to hold her back. (In case you haven’t met Ziva, she is 48 pounds of pure muscle.) She said Ziva would not be able to be in her group obedience class until she was able to be around other dogs, and advised we just keep trying to desensitize her by having her get used to being around dogs and getting lots of high value treats.
There were no treats high value enough for what we were going through.
But Ziva had shown us that she could get along with other dogs: although she initially barked frantically through the pickets at sweet Aussie next door, she soon began wagging her tail whenever she saw her, and clearly enjoyed her company. But encountering new dogs when walking her sent her out of her mind. Chicken, cheese, bison jerky, hot dog — she showed no interest but instead barked and pulled and jumped. I started to dread walking her, and instead took her places where I knew we would not see other dogs. All the time thinking, “Is this just how she’s going to be for the rest of her life????”
But at night when she had finally exhausted herself and put her head in my lap, or when she hopped on the sofa next to me and gave me sloppy kisses, I just knew we had to figure out what was going on with her. I couldn’t imagine returning her to the rescue group, but she was exhausting us all, and something needed to change. It was time to find help from someone who knew German Shepherds, who knew reactive dogs … and who knew Ziva. So I contacted the rescue group where we got her, All Shepherd Rescue, and explained the situation. I cannot say enough good things about the folks at ASR — they were wonderful in responding quickly to find out more about what exactly was going on, and the give us some recommendations for trainers who specialize in these types of issues.
I’ll give you a break from reading now (and me a break from writing!), and tell you more about what happened in the next post. Thanks for sticking with us — I hope you’ll find this interesting once I get into the behavior modification techniques and methods that have really been life-changing for us. I know there are many different opinions on training methods, and I welcome your thoughts. What we are doing is working: it’s 10 am and Ziva is sleeping soundly on the couch while I write.
We’ve come a very long way.