Part 2: Training the “Untrainable” Dog

woman with blue overalls sitting on an animal kids rug with black dog in her lap

Adopting Frodo

My mom and I always had a special bond in our mutual love of living and caring for animals. Just like my mom and I had talked about years before, in the event of her passing, she requested that I take care of her animals. At the time of her death she had two dogs and two cats. I knew that taking all four was not realistic since my husband, Brian, and I had our hands full with a 5 week old newborn, Peyton, my 7 year old step-son, Ami, and two dogs, Fritz and Beatrix. After talking it over with my siblings we decided that my older brother, Christopher, would take the two cats, and my younger sister Michelle, would take my mom’s older, easy going shih tzu, Benji. Since I work with dogs that have behavioral challenges for a living, it seemed logical that I would take Frodo.

Booking our return trip to California presented some challenges. I was not able to get on the same plane as Brian and Ami, which meant that we would fly back to California the same day but on separate flights. Flying with Peyton and Frodo was just as challenging as I imagined. Frodo did not like the idea of being confined to a room, so it was no surprise that being confined to a small bag was not his cup of tea either. I spent the 6 hour flight from New York to California leaning forward, one arm used to comfort the 12 lb dog at my feet and the other arm wrapped around my newborn son. Dividing my efforts in this way was helpful to no one. Frodo cried, clawed and chewed at the carrier until his gums were bleeding. I bounced and nursed and sung to my son, but he too, was just as inconsolable. The only reprieve I got was when I was able to unzip the bag and let Frodo bring his head out. Unfortunately, these respites were short lived. The stewardess had zero tolerance for this blatant disregard for airline policies. Smoke billowed from her eyes each time she saw the unzipped bag. I wanted to tell her my story, about my mom and why this poor frantic dog had ended up on this flight with me and my newborn son. I imagined that if she heard this story, her expression would soften, and that she would understand and turn a blind eye. Unfortunately, I have no idea if this would have been true or not, every time I even thought about my mom, and the idea of relating this story, my throat closed and I couldn’t speak. This left me with no other option but to close him back inside his carrier whenever I felt her glaring over me.

Integrating an Anxious Dog into a Home with Kids

When I arrived back to the bright blue skies of San Diego I had about an hour wait before Brian and Ami’s plane landed. I was eager to get back home to the comforts of home, and begin the process of integrating Frodo into our family. If you want to know more about how to set the stage for a successful adoption, check out this link. Trainers frequently refer to the first few weeks that a dog is in a new house as the “honeymoon period.” Less desirable behaviors don’t always present in the first few weeks that a dog is in a new environment. I tried to use this time wisely, to set the stage  for new, desirable habits and to minimize his tendency to fall back on old habits. I created a training plan and wrote out, in sequence, everything that I hoped to accomplish with him in training. My first priority was establishing a “base” in training which would help him become calm and confident in his new surroundings. Base Training Method got its name from the concept that in order to help dogs work through the most challenging behavioral issues, we first need to develop a rock solid base. With a strong base we can establish a healthy form of two way communication, and provide more enrichment opportunities suited to each dog’s individual needs and abilities.

I realized how important it was to be realistic in my expectations. I knew that change was possible, but it wasn’t going to happen overnight. I also realized that it would take some time to truly understand the full scope of his anxieties. The first time we saw any concerning behavior with Frodo was after about three weeks of him being in the house. Frodo began to compulsively follow me when ever I got up and moved around the house and became distressed and cried or paced if he couldn’t be right by my side. The only time this was not an issue was if one of the kids left the door ajar. In this case, he dashed out the doorway, and appeared oblivious to my calls. Anxiety is an interesting paradox in this way. A lot of times an anxious individual has no clear understanding or path to the things they want and no clear escape from the things they don’t want. He started to alert to the smallest sounds outside. Sometimes sounds outside prompted him to turn around and lift his leg to mark furniture. He barked a lot, sometimes he barked at nothing. Other times he barked at us, which happened most commonly at dinner time. If there was one positive, it was that we could rest safely knowing that Frodo would not allow a strange person to enter the house without letting us, and the rest of the neighborhood, know all about it.

The Start of Frodo’s Behavioral Journey

I already loved this dog for who he was, but also for the fact that him being a part of our lives allowed for a continued connection with my mom. Ami would frequently point out the importance of caring for “Mama Bear’s dog.” This was a nickname my mom had garnered over the years within our family as well as with close friends. I also was interested in Frodo’s behavior on a professional level. This dog was shrouded in anxiety. Every sound, every movement, every interaction, every change to his environment triggered some level of stress. The behavior scientist in me wanted to know what the prognosis was for an eight year old dog, that had such deep rooted anxiety.

“Taking a line from the movie The Martian I wanted to ‘science the s*** out of this.’”

Taking a line from the movie The Martian I wanted to “science the s*** out of this.” I implemented every bit of advice that I would give to a client that had a dog with a similar behavioral profile. I expected this to be a long term project. Younger dogs (1-3 years of age) that exhibited serious signs of stress, anxiety and reactive responses usually showed significant progress in 3-6 months of working through a well structured, and consistently implemented, behavioral training plan. Given the intensity of Frodo’s behavioral issues, and that Frodo was a nearly 8 years old dog that had a longer history of rehearsing undesirable behaviors (especially barking excessively at outside noises and territorial behavior with guests), I expected that it would be a solid 1-1.5 years before I started to see the most meaningful change. I was excited to begin the journey, and see where it would take us.

Management, Management and More Management

In the meantime I worked to create management strategies that would help to minimize the amount that Frodo was practicing undesired behavior. It was important that these strategies minimized the frequency with which these behaviors were practiced, and that they also alleviated the corresponding anxiety. I kept Frodo tethered to me if ever there was even the smallest concern that Frodo could react to a person inside the house. This allowed me to intercept reactive behavior and help Frodo de-escalate when those situations came up. We also gated off the kitchen, for those times that tethering was just not a practical solution. Although the gated kitchen was a less than ideal management solution because being behind a gate triggered Frodo’s anxiety – another issue that needed to be addressed in his training plan.

​Making Deposits into the “Trust Account”

Frodo’s “station” next to my nursing chair.

Surprisingly, and thankfully, Frodo did great with Peyton. I set up stations next to my nursing chair, near the couch, and in the nursery – places that I knew I would be spending a lot of time with a newborn baby. A station included either a training mat or dog bed depending on what made the most sense for that space, as well as, a jar of dried treats that I knew Frodo liked. Any time I was sitting with Peyton I made a point of tossing Frodo a few treats for targeting his station, he could be standing, sitting or lying down, just so long as he wasn’t trying to climb into my lap or paw at my legs, which was common if sounds or activity triggered his anxiety. I also made a point to hand feed meals whenever possible, which meant sitting down with him for breakfast and dinner and to deliver small handfuls of food. Hand feeding can be a great way to connect with a dog that experiences chronic stress or that struggles to develop trusting relationships with people. These types of informal sessions helped to accomplish the first and most important phase of his training plan: helping him to feel calm and comfortable with me, with his environment and with his routine. Although it didn’t happen often at the beginning, there were moments between all of the barking, panting and pawing where Frodo actually settled. And as time passed this became more and more common. I think that this type of passive reinforcement of desirable behavior really added up over the months. Looking back I see this time as an important investment into my relationship with Frodo as well as Frodo’s future relationship with Peyton. As Susan Friedman, a renowned behavior analyst would say, I was making deposits into a “trust account.” It was these small, but deliberate efforts that really added up over time.

Two Way Communication, Taking the Next Step

At the beginning more formal training sessions proved to be difficult for a few different reasons. 1. Newborns consume a lot of your time. 2. If I did find time to literally sit down to do “formal training” ALL Frodo wanted to do was anxiously climb into my lap and paw at me incessantly. Initially he had little to no interest in eating food in this type of training set up, this was likely due to the fact that he was chronically stressed and being on his level seemed to generate an even higher level of anxiety. If your dog is not “food motivated” check out this blog for tips and considerations.

Sitting with Frodo generated a nervous response. His social interactions with me were compulsive, he pawed at me or tried to crawl into my lap for comfort. Once he was eating food from me when placed on the ground, it took a few weeks to teach him to take food from my hand, and another few weeks before he was capable of consistently taking food from me with any level of focus, even when we trained in relatively low stress situations. I moved at his pace. We had already established a base layer in training, one that promoted a sense of safety, security and trust. The goal was to create building blocks that would set the stage for a healthy form of two way communication. In my opinion, this is what good behavioral training is really all about. As we moved through September there were some encouraging moments where it felt that Frodo was making real headway. Unfortunately, working through anxiety or other stress related issues is rarely a linear process. In October, we were scheduled for a trip to visit family, which meant that Frodo had to stay with pet sitters, I knew this was bound to come with its fair share of drama. To find out what happened, stay tuned for Part III.

To what lengths have you gone to help your nervous dog feel more comfortable with routine stress? Are there any behavioral struggles that have ever left you feeling lost and frustrated? I would love to hear your stories, share in the comments section below.

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

  1. Hey Cat! Thank you for your reading and writing in, I appreciate it! Thanks for sharing your story about B, it’s like food for the soul. It’s really incredible to see what’s possible when we are able to lay out the necessary groundwork. The trickiest part is having faith in the process. It’s like that Audrey Hepburn quote “To plant a garden is to believe in tomorrow.”

  2. Following closely as this is similar to my situation with my little B. I have been doing a lot of the things you recommended and I’m seeing real progress with B. He can settle in a crate with people in the house, no longer works himself into a frenzy with barking. I don’t even have to crate him upstairs, he can be in the same room. With regular visitors, I don’t have to cover the crate completely any more. If someone shows up unexpectedly, I can ask him to go to his crate and he does. Before, it was a chaotic scene trying to loop leash him to lead him to his crate. I have no doubt that if I had tried to pick him up he would redirect on me. I am almost in tears thinking about where B started and where he is now. To others it may not seem like much, but I know we’ve taken huge steps together and he trusts me now. I won’t be doing anything to put a dent in that trust and feel so hopeful for the future. Thank you, Alyssa! I’m looking forward to the rest of Frodo’s story!!

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