Case Study: The Importance of a Team

(Thank you to Nicole W. for sharing Shanoa’s story in today’s blog.)

Shanoa’s story starts the day I brought her home from the breeder. She was 17 weeks old and I was thrilled to have an older puppy who would already be on her way to becoming potty trained and well-socialized. I thought I had done my research and picked a good breeder, but I had a lot to learn.

I should have realized something was wrong on the car ride home, when she curled up into a tight ball on the backseat and didn’t move or make a peep. However, she was my first dog and I didn’t know. I figured out pretty quickly, though, that I didn’t have a normal puppy. She was terrified of everything. She’d sit down and shiver with fear when we tried to take her on walks. She had diarrhea all the time because she was so nervous.

We knew we needed help, so we asked our friends with dogs for trainer recommendations. We got her into obedience class, level one, and also enrolled her in a local “boot camp.” She went to boot camp during the work day five days a week for a month. We asked the trainer not to worry about obedience commands, but just to help us catch her up on socialization. We even made some pretty good progress.

As Shanoa got closer to maturity, she started to exhibit some behaviors that concerned us. She was fearful of people. She had been going to the dog park pretty regularly, but started to have some issues with other dogs. At this point, she’d earned her CGC and “passed” obedience classes all the way through advanced. But she wasn’t normal.

The trainers that we’d been working with used a combination of luring and correction. When we started having escalating problems, we called in the trainer for a home consult. After watching Shanoa be “corrected” with an electronic collar turned to the highest level while simultaneously receiving a correction with her pinch collar, I knew we couldn’t do this anymore. It wasn’t working, and I couldn’t watch my dog be corrected like that any more.

I consider myself extremely fortunate because I stumbled upon Leslie McDevitt’s book, “Control Unleashed.” Even better, I found a trainer locally who was using that program. We had an evaluation with Robin and enrolled in her “Reactive Dog” class immediately.

We worked with Robin for about six months before we even considered medication, but we just weren’t making the kind of progress I wanted. I finally consulted with my regular vet, and Shanoa was put on Prozac. We saw some improvement, and continued in classes on that medication for about a year. Then we sort of hit a wall with training.

Shanoa had improved, but she still was very far from normal. She was hard to live with. She was exhausting. At this point, our trainer, Robin, had moved out of state and we enrolled in Sara’s “Growl” class, which also followed the Control Unleashed program. We worked with Sara and Crystal for several weeks, and both of them really encouraged me to work with Dr. Duxbury, a board certified veterinary behaviorist at the University of Minnesota. My own vet encouraged me to do the same. I was reluctant. The initial cost was pretty high, and I was worried that things were as good as they’d ever get. I was skeptical that seeing Dr. Duxbury would make much of a difference.

I couldn’t have been more wrong. I wish that I had started working with Dr. Duxbury years ago. Under her guidance we tried several medications and found a combination that works well. In the last couple of months, Shanoa’s become a pretty pleasant dog to live with. She’s spending more time relaxed in the house, without having to “patrol” and without constant barking episodes. Even when she does bark at something (and she is a Doberman after all!), she stops fairly quickly and goes back to relaxing, instead of whining and pacing for up to ten minutes.

We’re seeing progress on walks, too. We’re able to pass people and other dogs on the street without a complete freak-out. Most of all, she’s happy. She’s the most relaxed and happy I’ve ever seen her.

Is there still a long way to go? Of course. Medication hasn’t been a magical fix. But finding the right medication, or combination of meds, was a delicate and complicated task. Medication has been the key that unlocked Shanoa’s ability to learn and improve, rather than continue her patterns of reactivity. My regular vet, as much as I adore her, didn’t have the level of expertise to figure out the correct combination.

Seeing Dr. Duxbury and working with her has been amazing. Not only is she a great vet, but she’s been part of a great support system that’s been so critical to our success. Being able to email her or call her with concerns, talking through different training ideas, and sharing successes is really important.

Working with great trainers is another critical component. Without Sara and Crystal, and Robin before them, I would not have been able to work with Shanoa. I needed a class environment to practice, and I needed another pair of eyes, or two, seeing what was going on with Shanoa. I needed people who were willing to help me evaluate different training methods, and to be creative when something isn’t working.

For the first time in a very long time, I’m optimistic about my dog’s future. My husband and I recently were able to take Shanoa and our other dog on a walk together for the first time in many months. My husband has not wanted to walk with Shanoa because of her extreme reactivity, but he was willing to give it a try since we’ve been seeing such nice progress.

It was a beautiful, quiet evening, late at night, and we didn’t expect to see anyone while we walked. We started down one of the trails near our house that runs behind several homes. There’s very little room beside the trail to move away, and I would not have taken it if it hadn’t been so late at night. But I didn’t expect trouble, so we went. A little ways in, a dog burst out of the house, barking and snarling at both of my dogs. He raced back and forth down the fence line barking at us. We were less than three feet from him and there was no way to get any additional distance. To my surprise, Shanoa simply looked at him, barking and frothing only a few feet away, glanced at me to ask “is it okay?”, and continued walking calmly down the path while he raced next to us, barking the whole time. I was incredibly proud. The rest of the walk was equally uneventful, and I couldn’t have asked for a nicer time with my dogs.

For us, the three-pronged approach has been the key to our success. We needed the right medication and vet care, from an expert in the field of behavior (Dr. Duxbury). We needed the right trainers, with the right methods who really, really know their stuff (Sara and Crystal at Paws Abilities, using Control Unleashed and BAT). And we needed a support system to keep me from giving up on the bad days, and to rejoice with me on the good days (all of the above, plus a great network online on the CU Yahoo Group and elsewhere). We wouldn’t be where we are today without any of these. Shanoa and I are incredibly grateful, and lucky. Getting the right help, the right team, is how success happens.

One response to “Case Study: The Importance of a Team

  1. I am so proud of you and Shanoa! It was a pleasure to work with you.

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