It's been 12 weeks since we started the hard core training program with Rudy. Rudy was doing so well that I had finally gotten to a point where I let my guard down. I was beginning to feel like I could trust him again, that I could take him places, and know how he was going to react, and be confident that I could handle whatever situation we came upon. Rudy had done well at his last dog social, participating in both large dog groups, which meant he had spent almost 2 hours with over 40 different dogs without a single incident.
Our off leash walks were going well, and Rudy had come in to the office on several occasions. People in the office were amazed at well he was doing. I would bring his portable bed, set it up in my office, and he would stay in his "place" all afternoon. I could go to the copier, eat my lunch, go to the bathroom, and he wouldn't move. People could come into my office, and he wouldn't run and jump on them to greet them. He wouldn't even get up out of his place until I told him "ok." Everyone marveled at his progress, and I was so proud of him!
That's when it happened. Being all eager beaver and thinking we were doing so well, I made the mistake of not being my dog's advocate, and pushed Rudy past his limits. And bam - he bit a dog. Yup, that's right. Went right after the other dog, and left a small puncture wound on the dog's neck. I was devastated! I couldn't believe it had happened. He was doing so well - not having negative reactions at the socials, not barking or lunging at dogs that walked by us, sitting politely on Church Street in Burlington while people and other dogs walked right by us without incident.
I began to rethink everything I was doing. Maybe I could never trust Rudy. Maybe I should never let him off leash. Maybe all this training we were doing wasn't working. Maybe, just maybe, all those pit bull haters out there were right - Rudy could never ever be trusted with other dogs because of his breed. All the doubt and angst began to flood my brain again, and I truly began to wonder if maybe Rudy was just too much dog for me to handle. Although I was trying so hard to be a responsible dog owner, maybe the best interest was finding Rudy a home with someone who was a good enough leader to get him through his issues, because clearly I wasn't doing a good enough job.
Heartbroken, and resigned to the fact that I may have to give Rudy up, I called Rhonda, the trainer, to tell her what Rudy had done. Within a few minutes of talking to her, I realized that it wasn't about what Rudy had done - it was about what I had done to Rudy, and what had caused his reaction. I had set Rudy up to fail. I increased Rudy's stress levels by layering on amounts of stress until he reached a level he just couldn't handle - and that's why he bit.
See, what happened was this. It was a Saturday. I had to go into work both days that weekend to finish up an urgent document production for a client that was due on Monday. Rudy had gone to both social groups in the morning, and he had done fantastic! He was off leash at both groups, and didn't have a single negative interaction with any of the dogs. He was so tired I figured I would bring him and his bed to my office and he could sleep there all afternoon while I worked since no one was going to be home all day.
We packed up and headed into work. When I arrived at the office, I noticed a lawyer friend of mine was working also. We stopped by her office on the way to mine, but she was out. I noticed a water bowl on the floor. She had brought her dog into the office too - a big cuddly MALE old english sheep dog. Now Rudy has two female play companions, a golden retriever and a chocolate lab, and he adores and plays well with both of them. But, the few scuffles he had gotten into over the last year were all bigger male dogs. But her dog was so docile and calm and quiet. She buzzed me and asked if Rudy could meet her dog. I hesitated and thought about it for a moment, but I gave in after a minute and said sure.
Rather than taking the dogs outside, I let her bring her dog down to the second floor lobby. I hooked Rudy to his leash, even though her dog was not on leash. When I heard the elevator open, Rudy and I walked out of my office, came around the corner, and there, in the lobby she stood with her big ole dog. I should have noticed immeidately that Rudy got tense, but instead I started talking to her while Rudy walked right up to her dog. Rather than circle around though, Rudy started him straight in the eyes, and before I knew what happened, Rudy was on top of him. I screamed and yanked his leash, and like that, Rudy backed right off, and sat down next me. It happened so quick, I just grabbed Rudy and put him in the office and closed the door. I then went out to see if her dog was ok. She said he was fine, and we talked for a minute. Her dog hadn't even yelped. But then, I glanced down and ran my hand across the scruff of his furry neck, and there it was - blood! I couldn't even believe my eyes. Rudy had put a puncture hole in the dog's neck the size of the tip of my pinky. It wasn't bleeding much, and my friend insisted he was fine, but I pled with her to take him to the vet at my expense. She refused my offer to pay, but did agree to take him to the vet to get antibiotics, which is a must for a dog on dog bite that involves broken skin at all, regardless of the size!
I was tearful and devastated and so upset with Rudy that I could barely look at him. How could my sweet amazing cuddly dog do something so mean to another sweet amazing cuddly dog that hadn't appeared to show him any aggression or hostility? Frantically, I called Rhonda. And suddenly, Rhonda began pointing out what I had done. Although she didn't come out and say it directly, it was clear that what I had done was set Rudy up to fail from the very instant I agreed to let her dog meet my dog. As I analyzed the situation in my head and reviewed what Rhonda had told me about the interaction, here is what I learned.
1. Rudy is a nervous and anxious dog to begin with. Rudy's level of anxiety starts a bit higher than many other dogs. He is fearful of loud noises, unfamiliar circumstances, and generally lives his life at a higher level of stress most of the time than many dogs.
2. Rudy was too tired and was destressing from his 2 hours of interaction earlier in the morning. He had just passed out in my office and I should have left him sleeping. Rudy is such a nervous boy, and those two hours of keeping himself calm and not having a negative reaction with those other dogs - all that latent learning, he was completely and utterly exhausted after all that hard work. Plus, he had endured two hours of higher than normal stress levels.
3. All of Rudy's positive interactions with other dogs that we have been working on have taken place OUTSIDE!! Rudy has been slowing learning to walk by other dogs outside on the street, to participate in socials, and to pay attention to me when off leash even if he sees another dog. In this instance, I had put Rudy in an enclosed space (our very small lobby), with no way out and marched him right up to that other dog. Rudy clearly knew there was nowhere to go, and he didn't have a way out of that room. His space was clearly restricted, and so yet again, I had just added another layer to his stress level.
4. Rudy was leashed and the other dog wasn't. Any time you put a leash on a dog, you add a layer of stress to the dog that otherwise wouldn't be there. So, now I had piled on another layer of stress to Rudy. Not only was he in an enclosed space with an unfamiliar dog, but he was restrained and the other dog wasn't.
5. Finally, I had walked him right up to the other dog and just let him stare him right in the face. I don't let Rudy stare at anything. I have for weeks been trying to keep his attention on me. When we see another dog oustide, I distract him with a "look at me" and we keep moving. When he starts to focus and looks like he might give my cat Tigger a chase - I interrupt him with a "look at me" and re-focus him on something else. If a stranger comes into the house and Rudy is nervous and I catch him staring at the person, I say "look at me" and then we move his attention to something else. But yet here I just let Rudy walk right up to that other dog, stare him in the face, while I greeted my friend.
I hadn't just let my guard down - I had failed Rudy completely. From the moment I agreed to let her dog meet my dog, I had set Rudy up for failure by putting him in a situation that he wasn't ready for. And if I am really honest with myself, it was because I wanted him to be ready. It was purely selfish because I want Rudy to get along with other dogs, I want him to be able to play with them, I want to be able to think that he can running with his doggie friends, and all will be well. Some day it might. But not yet. I was expecting more from Rudy that he was really ready for, and put him in a situation that we hand't even yet attempted to practice. I forgot everything I was doing because I didn't want to look like that woman that has the dog that everyone is afraid of. I am so worried about Rudy being labeled or called out, mostly due to his breed, that instead of being an advocate for my dog and JUST SAYING NO, I failed him. Luckily for Rudy, I learned my lesson and this won't happen again. Because it can't. You can't make this mistake with a dog like Rudy because someone is always going to be watching. They are waiting for him to screw up so they can say "I told you so". Well, it isn't going to happen because we are going to keep working, and I am going to never again put Rudy in a situation that he is not ready for. I will be his advocate at all times. It is what I signed on to do when I adopted.
For those of you wondering, yes, I am still taking him on off leash walks. I made sure that night after this incident to go home and take him out off leash for a short walk. I knew if I didn't, my nerves and my fear would get the best of me, and I may never let him off leash again. It's been nearly a month since this incident, and it took me that long to come out to everyone and explain that I had screwed up. Partly because I didn't want Rudy to be judged. But I ultimately wanted to share this experience so that someone may learn from it. I am hopeful that by sharing my failure with everyone, you will not hesitate to be your dog's advocate and always put their interests and their learning in front of our own needs to have our dog be accepted by everyone!
Rudy and I continue our training, and I am happy to report that we have not had an incident since. The other day a little pug ran by us while we were outside the condo and Rudy was off leash, and I simply looked at him and said "come on" and he did! We've gone on walks on Church Street and Rudy isn't lunging or barking at other dogs. All is back to the way it was before, and my anxiety is slowing starting to lessen again. And we will continue our training and our confidence building, knowing that it might just be me that has more lessons to learn.