Reub's journey

06 May 2011

Ed or Reub: not for the faint of heart

We waited 4 weeks for this consultation with a respected expert, John and I, and our dog Reuben.
Our adopted pound dog that adores us, who would lay down his life for either of us, who accompanies us on walks and runs twice every day, who throws himself at us on the couch, and who hangs on our words, has shown dangerous and unacceptable behavior towards neighbors and a friend, and towards some dogs.

We are careful, firm,  and attentive handlers, but in the past nine months he has bitten three times.  I define a "bite" as any time a dog clamps his mouth on a person's limb, even if it doesn't draw blood, and even if it is brief; Reub has drawn no blood, he doesn't engage for long, but it is aggression and it is not okay. The options are to try and do something about it, or (remember, I am from a pragmatic farming family) to simply put him down.

We were interviewed by the consultant. When was he last examined by a vet, when was blood work done on his thyroid, were we aware that there is medication to lower anxiety, what is his history with the individuals who have been bitten? What is his history with other dogs? Of course we don't know all of Reub's complex history, just when things have gone wrong around here. The guy in the bike helmet who kicked him. The husky and boxer who attacked him. A neighbor who surprisingly jumped over the fence. The contractor who arrived daily in the noisy truck, and who had a child with a mean streak. These are things that one dog takes in stride, but the other cannot.

Eddy apparently comes out of it thinking "Well that was weird, but I guess I learned to mind my own business and avoid those things next time," while Reub thinks, according to our consultant,  "Kerry and John didn't prevent this from happening, so I will act on my own next time."

This brings to mind a troubling and deeply moral question: be honest...which dog would you be...Ed...or... Reub? The one who accepts, or the one who pushes back, hard?  It isn't easy and it nags me.

She asked us to bring him in, and John went out to the car and came back with Reub,  who, tail down, nervously sniffed and slouched and flicked his tongue. He greeted the trainer with a sit, and then threw himself into a down-stay at my feet, hoping for a treat (chicken from last night's stir fry). He was anxious to please, happy to be with us.

Oh, we got so much good counseling. Lots of training tips and things that we must do. She asked if we have MP3 players, and she is sending us an MP3 of a 15-day training program to initiate with Reub, exercises to reduce his tension level. We will practice these first in the house, then in the yard while our neighbors are outside.

John has an iPod but I don't. Now I have an awesome reason to go out and get one. Yes. I'm going to call the day a success. Reub, we'll help you.  Thanks for the iPod.

But, I must say that including a dog in one's family is not for the faint of heart.


  1. In general, Bonnie has calmed down some now that she's going on 14, but, oddly enough, she's actually more likely to bite my wife (Peggy) than she's ever been. The problem comes up when Peggy tries to help her find her way (Bonnie is blind and often runs into things). Bonnie is a strong dog, and can be vicious, so Peggy doesn't dare try to help her anymore.

    Bonnie has also bitten dogs, and has often snapped at other people. I always swore that I would never have such a dog, yet we've put up with her for an awfully long time simply because--as with your dog--she has so many redeeming characteristics.

    I have no suggestions. I'll just mention that Bonnie almost never tries to bite me, because I come down on her so hard that you would think--if you didn't know better--that I was about to kill her. Ironically, Bonnie is bonded to me much moreso than to Peggy, who is ever gentle with Bonnie, and is more likely to cry when Bonnie snaps at her than she is to show anger.

    I'll also mention that Bonnie isn't afraid of me EXCEPT when I'm angry, and I rarely get angry at her because my anger devastates her. In fact, three minutes after acting like I'm going to kill her, I go over and love on her. I've often wondered how Bonnie would treat Peggy if Peggy acted the way I do. I think it's probably real important with such a dominant dog that a person not be afraid, but, of course, if you're afraid, then you're afraid. Maybe the main thing I have going for me is that I don't get afraid; I just get mad, and eager to show Bonnie who's in charge. Dog trainers might not like my approach (I don't know), but it has worked for me for an awfully long time now.

    I keep thinking that I'm about through writing, and then something else pops into my head. If Bonnie were like a pitbull--or some other vicious breed--I might very well be afraid (and have to have her euthanized) because that is a kind of dog that doesn't simply bite; it kills. By contrast, Bonnie is a blue heeler, and she will bite one time, and then she's content, and that's one heck of a big difference.

  2. good luck. i don't envy you with the situation but applaud your loyalty to your sweet friend.

  3. (i grew up in Wis too - central part - but made my way to Texas 27 yrs ago... guess you went west!)

  4. I hope it helps. Rescued dogs (Pound dogs for you) can be unpredictable because of their history. They can be far more nervous than 'normal' dogs.

    Mine are always rescue dogs, so far I have had no problems, fingers crossed. In fact, mine are so grateful that I have taken them on that they follow my slightest command. Like Snowbrush, I take no nonsense, but I never threaten either.

    I don't need to, a determined tone of voice will do.

  5. Raising dogs is complicated...more complicated than those who do not have dogs can understand. YOu are wise in that is must be addressed before something ugly happens to a small child or elderly person who does not get away. I have watched the controversial show Dog Whisperer on and off for years and while some disagree with his methods I think 90% of what is seen is his confidence and love and the dogs smell that. Good luck on your journey. I am amazed at this new techology. I do not have a smart phone, ipad, ipod or MP3 out of it.

  6. I still can't get over the day our dog we found starving on the streets, the one who is so good-natured and loving, who played with other dogs so happily when we'd walk, who is so calm to be almost comatose at times, one day killed a tiny little dog. The tiny little dog ran to him growling and our dog just picked him up with his teeth and gave a little shake - wasn't even growling or showing aggression - just that little shake.

    I never cried so hard. Since that time, trust has been breeched. I have worked with him - giving treats when we pass tiny dogs and he doesn't look "so interested"

    Vet said he saw the dog as prey, like a squirrel.

    Doesn't matter - I'll never forget holding that tiny dog ... just don't want to even think about it again.

    Good luck to you ... this isn't easy.

  7. This is such a beautiful post. And the pictures, looking through your dog's eyes into his soul, searching for answers. Wow!

    Jake was a very anxious dog who lunged and growled and threw himself against the front door anytime the mailman was in the viscinity.

    My heart is with you as you work with Reub. He's a lucky dog to have you. May the force be with all of you!

  8. Oh, Kerry, I'm sorry you are having a hard time. Here are my two cents, which is probably about what they're worth.

    1st cent: With today's cushy life, we tend to forget that dogs are dogs. (Not so much for you, because of that pragmatic farming upbringing. I get that, but still.) We call them our babies and blah blah blah.

    Really? They're dogs. Since they've been domesticated for thousands of years, we've bred them for specific purposes. Some of them were bred to protect their herds, family, property. So they were bred to be fiercely loyal. And they were bred to bite.

    Since Reub has drawn no blood, he is really showing a great deal of restraint. (I know that's a ton of comfort to you!!!) He is doing what he is hard-wired to do. (Every so often there is a whippet "mommy" who is devastated because her cuddle-angel "furbaby" KILLED a squirrel/ cat/ bunny. Hard-wired.)

    2nd cent: You have done the absolute right thing in hiring the consultant. Sounds like they are educated and competent. Yay. I'll go one step further, and when she says that "Kerry and John didn't prevent this from happening, so I will act on my own next time," I'll say the Reub thinks it's his JOB to act on his own. His duty.

    I think the consultant will help bunches. I think you'll always have to be aware of Reub's surroundings.

    (My personal opinions of Cesar is that he is a great PR guy who is dangerous in his lack of education in the Animal Behavioral Sciences and has done a terrible disservice to dogs and dog owners. Sounds like you have found a qualified, educated consultant and that's a good thing.)

    It is all stressful and I am sorry that you are having to go through it. I hope that things improve fairly quickly for you, though knowing that these things do take time. Of course the best thing is not to allow Reub to be in a situation where he thinks his world needs protecting. Easier said than done.


  9. The question you ask is for me also a question of what kind of parent you are - one who accepts or one who pushes back... Ugh. Sometimes I wish to be one kind, while knowing that I'm really the other.

  10. It's really good to hear what everybody has to say. Thank you. I hadn't planned on writing about this, but it came out anyway.

    Snow, I think that you have a point about the differences in breeds; your herding dog probably even has some natural tendencies to nip, but that's different than a dog bred to fight. We don't really know what breeds are mixed in Reub.
    Neither of us is afraid of Reub, just surprised when he reacts as he occasionally has. I do, however, now get nervous when strangers approach, pulling my dog in close- which simultaneously sends him a signal that looks like fear. Not what he needs.

    texwis: This is an extremely sweet-natured animal 99% of the time. It's the 1% that has to change, and yeah it's not a good feeling.

    Friko: I have come to the conclusion that a large percentage of rescue animals have baggage. They have been abandoned and maybe mistreated; that's why I really like to hear about success stories such as Benny's. Good for you.

    Tabor: It is complicated. I have mixed feelings about the Dog Whisperer, but watching him in action is quite engaging. I was very interested to read Patience's comment regarding Cesar.

    Kathryn: Oh gosh I know that must have been horrendous for you, so awful to see your dog do that in the blink of an eye. But they are hard-wired to go after prey, and your dog really couldn't help himself. Your vet was right, but my heart just sinks when I think about it.

    Reya: Thank you. May the force be with us, yeah!

    Patience: Thank you for your two cents. You are so experienced with dogs, having bred, handled, and shown them for a long time; that makes your words of support so meaningful and welcome. I think you would like the trainer we're working with; much of what you say here is similar to what she says. We hope that Reub progresses quickly, but I think this will take some time and we will always have to be vigilant, that's for sure.

  11. Dan: Parenting! It is related to these issues for sure. Structure, and freedom, when to to take charge, when to lay back...I wish that I knew the magic recipe for every situation and at all times, but of course nobody can know that.

  12. We had several farm dogs over the years, but only one ever bit anyone. Of course, I always said that if I'd have been a dog, I'd have bitten that guy too!

  13. I am a believer in adopting rescue dogs, but like you said you do not know their past. I hope things work out for you and your Reub. He is lucky to have owners willing to work with him.

  14. Go Rueb, go! We believe in you!

  15. Thanks so much for the posts re Prozac. Our 18 month old collie lab mix dog has bitten about 7 people (he was with my son at college) and yes he does draw blood. He is the sweetest dog around the family and people he has known since a pup. We got him aged 12 weeks so he cant play the poor rescue dog card.
    I am working with a trainer who is great and very knowledgeable. We have just started Prozac so its too early to tell. He is a very reactive dog and the next session we are going to try a shock collar. I have been working with him on loose lease walking and he is doing very well but I wonder where this is all going. He is the perfect hermits dog! Of course he is never allowed off leash and wears a muzzle around strangers. It is not a relaxing lifestyle.
    We have been advised to euthanize him or give him to someone as a junk yard dog. The latter will not happen for sure.
    I dream about this dog and our conversation revolves around him. I hope the Prozac helps and am keen to continue the work with the trainer.

    1. The G: Herding breeds (already genetically programmed to nip) who are also reactive are a real challenge to train. Prozac combined with shock collar treatment supervised by a professional is about the height of what you can do. I wish you all the best.

      As an aside: I will never completely trust our reactive dog, but I can say that things have improved. We definitely do not think about putting him down these days.


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