Part 1: Training the “Untrainable” Dog

black dog laying on green turf

​Transformational Journey to a Happier and Healthier Dog

I use quotes around the word “untrainable” because I don’t believe that any dog is actually untrainable. There are many people that do think or wonder if that might be true of some dogs; usually older dogs, highly anxious dogs, or small dogs that are burdened by this label. As soon as a person develops the notion that a dog is beyond hope, or beyond help, that dog truly is at a distinct disadvantage because helping dogs with behavioral issues depends largely on whether or not a guardian or caregiver believes that change is possible. The “untrainable” dog featured in this story is named Frodo, and meets all criteria for what society might deem “beyond help.” And yet, Frodo continues to make progress in his behavioral journey on a daily basis. This became possible because someone believed that he was more than the sum of his problems. My mom took him into her care when he needed her the most, she saw the good in him, even when others couldn’t.

Frodo is an 11 year old, 12 lb terrier mix who came into our home 2.5 years ago. Name a behavioral issue, chances are, he has it: sensitivity to sounds, separation anxiety, territorial behavior with people, reactive behavior with dogs. Integrating a dog like Frodo into a house with kids and two other dogs was – to say the least – a challenge. You might be wondering why we would choose to bring a senior dog, with this type of behavioral profile, into our lives.  To better understand how and why Frodo ended up with us, you first need to know a little about where he came from.

Raising a Puppy in the Big City

Frodo was originally named Wayne. He was raised in New York City. His original owner was a woman that suffered from schizophrenia and substance abuse. By the time Wayne was three years old his owner’s mental and physical condition was such that she needed to be admitted to a residential care facility. At the time that she was admitted, Wayne went to live with the woman’s brother. Unfortunately, the adoption was short lived. Wayne was territorial of his new apartment. The woman’s brother did not know how to manage or work with this type of behavior, so less than one week after losing his first home, Wayne was thrown out of his second. He was relinquished to a Queen’s shelter. My mom had been following Wayne’s story through a friend of a friend. My mom was ready to adopt this little terrier the moment she learned that he had ended up in the shelter, despite the fact that she had never met him. When no one returned her calls she became concerned that he could be euthanized before she had the chance to adopt, so on December 17th she got in her car, drove to the shelter, and adopted a matted, anxious, little terrier. It was her birthday. Saving this little dog from near certain euthanasia was her birthday present to herself. She re-named him Frodo.

Behavioral Issues Galore

My mom always had a knack for choosing dogs from the shelter that were very easy going, and fit into her life without much drama. Frodo was the exception. Frodo alert barked with any and all activity occurring outside the house, he had accidents throughout the house no matter how often he was let outside, he would dash out doorways and he did not take kindly to visitors. Despite all of these challenges, she still loved him, and was always quick to point out all of his virtues. This was always a quality I admired about my mom when it came to loving the animals in her care.

Building a Plane In-Flight (or Training without a Base)

From left to right: My mom holding Frodo, my grandfather, me and my sister holding Benji (my mom’s shih tzu)

“Building a plane in-flight” is what I call it when people try to address behavioral issues without a foundation. My mom was a busy lady. She was an auditor for a German bank in Manhattan, she ran her own business in Long Island, she took care of my aging grandparents, and she had health issues all her own to contend with. Training was not a top priority for her. Like many people, she wanted training solutions without having to set aside actual time to train. This never works out. I knew that without a foundation any training recommendations were unlikely to help, but she had limited time, so I did my best to give her some one off tips.

“If you are trying to build your plane in flight, you should expect that you might not reach your destination.”

If you are trying to build your plane in flight, you should expect that you might not reach your destination. Such was the case with my mom’s attempts to address Frodo’s behavioral issues. She rotated through different strategies but it was hard to find strategies that effectively managed his separation anxiety, his territorial tendencies with unfamiliar people and his potty accidents without the necessary bedrock in place first. It was a bumpy road. She did her best and took these frustrations in stride. She never once questioned her decision to take him in and care for him to the best of her abilities.

“Life and Death are one Thread, Viewed from Different Sides”

My mom’s health continued to deteriorate. In June of 2016 I was 9 months pregnant. My mom had planned to fly from New York to California so that she could be present for the birth of my son. Unfortunately, she was too sick to fly. In fact, she was admitted to a hospital on the evening of June 11th. That night we would both be lying in hospital beds on either side of the country. I went into labor around 1130pm and at 7:58am on June 12th my son, Peyton, was born. My mom saw Peyton through photos and on video calls. By the magic of technology she was able to be present as we drove to his first doctor’s check up, but she never did meet him in person. On July 7th she was put into an induced coma, and on July 23rd she passed away.

I flew back to New York with my 5 week old son. My husband, Brian, and my 7 year old step son, Ami, would be meeting me in New York in a few days to attend my mom’s funeral. As I waited to board the plane my mind went back to conversations my mom and I had years before. She had always told me that she wanted me to take care of her animals in the event that something happened to her. My husband and I were just adjusting to life with a newborn, and now we might be inviting at least one more new family member to the house when we returned to California in August. To learn more about Frodo’s journey, stay tuned for Part 2.

Have you ever cared for a dog that was riddled with anxiety? Tell me more about your experiences in the comment section below.

2 thoughts on “Part 1: Training the “Untrainable” Dog”

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    1. Thank you, Rusty. I’m glad you found this blog helpful. Please let me know if there are any other topics that interest you and maybe I’ll write a blog post on the topic. Make it a great day!!

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