Arthur is a German Shepherd and a social clod. He’s big and clumsy and he wets on the floor when he gets too excited or scared. He will jump on people. He is boisterous and exuberant.
Arthur is a year old. But mentally he is about 5 months of age. Arthur is a special needs case who has had to return to kindergarten and learn how to be a puppy.
My blog has covered a lot of Arthur’s early training and how he behaved when I first got him. He was terrified of virtually everything. When approached by a stranger he would back up barking and sometimes even literally fall down in fear. He was reminiscent of a child with autism in the way he reacted to noise, including engine noise from automobiles and other common sounds.
Although it is the usual go-to explanation in the case of a dog who reacts fearfully, Arthur was never beaten or abused. Indeed the family who purchased him from the breeder was at a loss over what to do with him and his inexplicable depressed behavior. They had tried classes — where in the instructor had them place a prong collar on his neck and then drag him along the floor when he collapsed — a terrible experience for any puppy. (NO puppy should have to wear a prong!) Arthur’s owners didn’t like the way this was headed, and to their credit they kept trying multiple trainers before a friend called me in. They wanted Arthur to come to my puppy boot camp so I could fix this terrified, vomiting puppy, and I was given two weeks to do it.
After having Arthur for 2 weeks I realized that he should not go back to the home because he had a genetically programmed, deep seated fear response that could manifest in aggression. He required a lot of special handling. He couldn’t walk down the street or through the store without barking at everyone we met.
My goal with Arthur over the following months was to build his confidence. This was the most important thing that could be instilled in this dog, because fear is what was driving most of his behavior. I logged much of his progress on my blog.
He became my full-time job. My goal was to not only save his life, but offer him some quality of life. His owners gladly relinquished him to me when they were presented with a list of daily activities that his condition demanded. Their hearts were in the right place but it was just too much for a normal family to handle.
Arthur was taken under the wing, albeit reluctantly, of my border collie, Til and my other dog, an older mixed lab named Jasper. He lived with three smaller dogs as well, in a big eclectic canine family.
In the following months Arthur visited stores and shops and many other public places. His contact with people was carefully monitored to orchestrate a positive experience on each occasion. I spent the summer teaching him to swim. He was afraid of the feeling of his feet leaving the lake bottom. He didn’t understand how to chase a ball, but thanks to the example of my other dogs he learned how to play.
He enjoyed a lot of freedom during those months. We went for daily runs in the field. We walked in and out through doors that scared him. We went on stairs and elevators. We faced countless boogeyman, every day, for months. He worked hard. He learned to come when he was called, every time. He learned to stay when he was told and wait patiently. He learned a couple of fun tricks.
His training was geared toward confidence. Not precision obedience. He never had to plod around a boring ring and have his neck jerked. He knew all the basics — sit, down, and to not pull on the leash when walking. But he was allowed to remain happy and buoyant and even on the verge of euphoria most of the time.
It has taken me eight months to get Arthur to the point of where he is confident enough to go up to anyone. Now he’s at about the five month age level, mentally. He will always be a special needs dog.
I received some criticism because Arthur is skinny and he doesn’t look or act like his littermates. All the littermates have their ears up, are enjoying a comfortable lifestyle and tipping the scales at a robust 80 + pounds.
Arthur is not like his littermates. He just got over a bout with a tapeworm — probably from eating fly eggs in horse poop. He’s had zero couch time. He is solid muscle from running and swimming and maintaining active days over 8 months. While he’s received a fair measure of discipline, (no chasing horses or cats, no barking and running up to people who come to the house, etc) he doesn’t know how to behave inside, because he’s had to stay in a crate due to the urinating.
A couple of weeks ago, Arthur rolled Jasper, puncturing his neck in a completely unprovoked act that was vicious and deadly. I put Arthur in the van to take him to the vet to be euthanized. But looking at that goofy face, well… I decided to instead return him to the source, his breeder, in hopes that her experience with the bloodline and handling in a controlled environment will give him a future with some quality of life. It’s possible that he’s acting out as a bully during his delayed growth phase. But the congenital undercurrent is always there.
It was a heartbreaking decision and not one I have taken lightly.
I’m not going to bash formal obedience training or working with dogs in a classroom setting. On the contrary! Any quality time spent with your dog is always a good thing! However…
A classroom obedience regimen does not always translate to the real world. If you have a dog that does a perfect recall and a beautiful sit and a lovely stand for examination inside a building, that’s wonderful. But would you be able to pull that dog away from a running deer or rabbit with just the sound of your voice? The biggest question is what happens with the dog if he gets off the leash.
If your dog is going to mature around a hundred pounds and has a congenital fear aggression problem, then he is a liability and you damn well better be sure that you can call him back.
A dog who will listen to you under the most extreme of circumstances is a dog that can go into the classroom and easily learn all the formal stuff. The reverse is not always true.
Arthur hasn’t spent much time walking in circles in a classroom. He might jump up in greeting or be a little too exuberant in his manner. He’s had no formal training. But he will come back from a running rabbit for me. He’s come a long, long way up from a darkness that was no fault of his own.
And he’s still alive.