a new direction

Three weeks ago my wife Natasha and I adopted a young lab/bluetick hound mix named Oso from a shelter in Maine. His history is a mystery. At the shelter we were told he was 4 months old and that he had been surrendered by his owner because the child they bought him for didn’t want to spend time with him. We quickly learned from the vet that neutered him that he had all his adult teeth, so he was at least 6-7 months old. He was also flea-ridden with patches of bare fur from so much scratching, and he had a bad case of worms. We spent a few hours with him over the course of two days at the shelter before bringing him home. We were drawn to him because he was very affectionate and gentle with us, good on leash, and his breeds seemed a perfect fit for our active, outdoor lifestyle.

First meeting

I’m no dog expert, but it’s my belief that Oso was greatly under-socialized before he came into our lives. He displays some very challenging behaviors, mainly over-excitement or aggression toward other dogs (and sometimes young children or other people if he doesn’t meet them in a calm setting). He also shows signs of separation anxiety; he hates being left alone and would prefer to follow us all around the house wherever we go. Both of these aspects of his personality are difficult, and the aggression issue is very concerning for us, especially since our friends and families have dogs and young children and we plan to have a family of our own as well. We also really want Oso to be a balanced, happy dog, so started looking for help for him right away.

Our first effort was to have a dog trainer come to the house for an initial assessment. He spent an hour and a half working with us and Oso on leash training, mainly learning to heel. His training philosophy relied heavily on leash corrections with a choke collar and physically placing the dog where you want him to be. Ultimately we chose not to continue with that trainer, and we met with another trainer who an out-of-state friend (also a dog trainer) helped us locate through APDT- the Association of Pet Dog Trainers. We met with her for 45 minutes, she allowed Oso to meet her dog, a retired service dog. He was able to calm down enough to sit in the same room with and even approach that other dog slowly, but he became aggressive once he was in close quarters with her. The trainer encouraged us to enroll in a Juvenile Obedience Course she teaches that was starting in just a few days, so we did.

That first class was eye opening. It started rough, having to walk through a crowded pet store then wait while a puppy class let out of the space we were heading into. Oso barked his head off, lunged at other dogs, basically couldn’t control himself at all. Once we made it into the training area we separated him in an attached office. Throughout the course of the class we were able to move further into the room, while keeping him focused on the lessons at hand (most of the time!). He did have some distracted moments where he had to be brought back into the office to control himself before moving out toward the group again. All in all it was a semi-successful class and we’re eager for more of the same. I thought it was great that he was able to spend time in a room with three other dogs! Of course as soon as class was out he was back to barking his head off at dogs outside the store. Step by step…

We have a long way to go with Oso and we are just scratching the surface of the long-term adjustment he has ahead of him. Over the past few weeks we have been working hard on obedience, crate training, and getting him to be more self-reliant around the house. We’re reading training guides and we’ve watched the entire first season of “The Dog Whisperer” which has mostly been helpful in making us realize that Oso’s success depends on what we show him. We have to learn how to rehabilitate an improperly socialized dog before he can make real progress for himself. We take him on lots of walks, lots. Yesterday we walked with friends who have a similarly sized, stable dog, and although the introduction was rough, Oso is able to walk beside another dog as long as we keep moving and keep correcting him. He is still not ready to relax around other dogs, but we have somewhere to start.

This is an entirely new personal challenge and enjoyment for me. I’ve never been responsible for a dog before, and I am committed to giving him the best guidance he can get while he “learns to be a real dog,” as one young girl who met him said. I’ll be writing here about our experiences together, and I encourage feedback and support from other dog owners along the way. I feel myself changing already through this process as I work at putting my frustration and apprehension aside and giving my best to this dog. Natasha has shown herself to be amazing in her work with him, no surprise since she is an incredible preschool teacher and I think a lot of the same lessons apply to dogs! This is a big focus of our life right now and I am thankful for the opportunity/necessity to slow down, learn together, and build trust as a family of two humans, two cats, one dog (and one turtle).

Stay tuned.