The story of George, one of the biggest challenges of my career. A credit to the hard work of his owners and their ability to see the real dog in there underneath. See our list of training options on the Full SafePets Website
George’s Story by his owner:
It began in January 2006. We were looking for a Jack Russell rescue but something else caught my eye and I was smitten. The most beautiful, huge Dalmatian was barking for attention (or so I thought) from his cage at the RSPCA. His credentials looked great, he was just what we wanted, only slightly bigger. The papers said he was good with dogs, cats, children, didn’t like the vets but would go, well house-trained and used to being on his own. He had been handed to the RSPCA as his owners were moving house and couldn’t take him with them.
We took him home and he was fine with my partner (Des) and me. He was certainly on his best behaviour and understandably confused as he had moved “home” again. My partner went off on night shift leaving me to bond with George. The next day I wanted to introduce him to my brother and father who would be looking after him for holidays etc, but when they arrived at the house, George growled and wasn’t happy to let them in. He did but after he had lightly nipped my brother. We put it down to settling in. That evening Des arrived home and George growled a little then, but soon remembered who it was. For the next 2 days, George was in the care of Des and they bonded well while I went out to work during the day.
It soon became apparent that George was unsettled when strangers came to the house. He was better behaved when we took him to other people’s houses, but would become unsettled as people left and re-joined the room he was in. He did bite a friend in their garden because they looked at him and didn’t back off when he barked at them.
Over a few weeks, I would take him to my father’s house and eventually George came to trust my brother, father and sister to the point that he was able to stay there for periods of a time (week) quite happily. However, he would not let strangers in their house either. He will now happily let them my father and brother in my house even when I’m not there.
We also learned that, while he was very happy with rural environments, he was not happy at all with urban areas and during his first few days with us, we noticed that his tummy was not settled and he needed medical attention. George was so stressed that he would not leave the car and go into the surgery. Our vet examined George in the paddock by the surgery. To cut a long story short, it took 6 months of trial and error, plus blood tests to get his tummy “settled”. It would appear that he had a long standing problem that the RSPCA should have known about. Over the coming months, George started to relax in the vets and we could lead him in without too much trouble. Our vet noticed how much he settled in those months.
George had tried his dominance tactics, they didn’t work, but he became increasingly protective of the house and garden as well as aggressive with food. He did not like being touched when he was eating.
One occasion, George had been full of life in the garden and brought some tree bark into the lounge. I tried to take it off him and he promptly sank his teeth into my hand. He looked surprised and worried at what he had done. I wasn’t too impressed either.
Despite best efforts with George, he continued to be obsessed with people knocking on the door and latterly the doorbell (we moved house in July 2007 to Scotland which he took surprisingly well). We hoped that this change might help him to overcome his protectiveness but we were proved wrong. His instinct is to charge at the door, nip and run off before finding out who it is, as I found out to my cost.
If I had known in January 06 what I know now about George I probably would not have taken him believing that I did not have the experience to take on a dog with his problems. I am not a novice dog owner, but have previously had a Bernese Mountain Dog of my own and looked after other dogs as well as having grown up with dogs. Now, it is a different story, I could not bear to part with him and because of his problems do not think it would be fair to give up on him. His problems are not his fault and he deserves a chance to become the dog he should be.
Finding a suitable trainer or behaviourist is not easy. I went to a local trainer, explained the problems but they didn’t seem to want to help out, merely “come down to the obedience class as that will help”. I tried another trainer, very nice young girl, but it was obvious that she did not have the experience to deal with the George. I contacted a trainer/behaviourist in Wales who had little sympathy for my situation and his suggestions were too drastic and I did not believe they would work. Eventually, after being addicted to Dog Borstal, I came across Debbie.
On her first visit to my home, she came across a very manic, angry dog. He barked and barked and was so angry that barking did not make her go away. This day he had a muzzle on and was behind a child gate (he could have hopped over it!) for her safety. Every time Debbie started to speak George would set off barking, if she tried to move in the lounge he would set off barking. We did some work using the rattle bottles which he loathed but eventually he did start to calm down and would settle for periods of a time until Debbie tried to move or speak again. Debbie prescribed some Bach’s remedies, explaining that with some dogs they worked but with others there was no sign of change. I started George on the Bach’s cocktail but unfortunately no sign of improvement was seen. We stopped George from going off lead on walks and used a long training lead so he could exercise. This did help some in making him listen and come back to the whistle which I had taught him. He occasionally still has selective deafness but generally he comes back.
As George follows me constantly through the house, I started to shut doors behind me and leave him in rooms as I moved around, and also put a training lead on him so that if I wanted him to follow I would pick the lead up. This was to take any decisions away from him i.e. he would eat, drink, move etc only when I decided and to instil his lower position in the pack.
George would be obedient for food rewards but resisted the “down” command completely. Keeping an eye on him, when he voluntarily lay down, as soon as I saw the move, I would give him big hand signal and say the word “down”. George does lay to command most of the time, particularly in the house, but still resists it outside. Any treat for good behaviour is also given to him only after he makes eye contact with me when I say “good boy”. This is helping to remove his food obsession.
At Debbie’s first visit, she gave a 50:50 chance of making any improvements with George which was disheartening. However, I prefer a realistic view rather than an overly optimistic one, and it was very apparent that there are some deep routed issues with George and we both felt it was due to poor or non existent early socialisation, probably mixed with some poor breeding from a puppy farm and potentially novice dog owners who didn’t realise the seriousness of his early behaviours. We can only guess, as we had no more information.
On Debbie’s second visit a few months later, George had bonded even further with me and she was pleased to see he had improved. He was still not happy with a stranger in the house but less manic and settled down a little easier. I have some calming techniques to use on George and during the visit it became apparent that he took his direction from me. The worst thing for him was not to have my attention. This is being used more and more on him i.e. when he behaves he gets praise and a fuss, when he is disturbed he is ignored.
Over the coming months we tried using noises from the internet i.e. doorbell chimes etc to try and de-sensitise him. It worked to a point, but he still distinguished the chime on the computer from the house one.
After our move to Scotland, and the change in environment did not have any beneficial improvement to George, I took him down to Wales for a 3 day training session with Debbie. We set up a cage for him in the log cabin which we knew George would instantly turn into his space. We set his bed in there and he was very happy to go into it and settle down. It was not a punishment place and he was very happy with it. We got a doorbell chime too and set up a home environment. We got George accustomed to the doorbell by setting it ringing and not moving to answer it so George would not see it as a stranger coming to the door. This went quite well. The next step was to get George to go to his cage when the door bell chimed, which he started to understand. Unfortunately, as soon as we took it to the next step, i.e. a person at the door chiming the bell, George instantly reverted to barking at the door. With persistence, he is learning that when the doorbell chimes he needs to go to his bed/cage in the hall, the door is closed and he does not come out until he has totally calmed. We do this every time I or Des return home and in deed, even when we both come home together George is told to go to his bed before we enter the house. This he does do. We haven’t cured him of his doorbell/door knock obsession, but we have a way of dealing with him so he is less stressed about the stranger and the stranger can come in the house without fear of attack (or at least less fear!). We do stand at the door with him and ring the bell and knock on the door when there is nobody there to try and de-sensitise him, but George is stubborn and slow to learn. I fear we will never rid him of this, but if we can lessen the stress and reduce his aggression, then that will be a big step forward. He is definitely less stressed when he is in the cage when strangers come to the door, and on a recent occasion when a colleague of mine stayed overnight, she was eventually able to talk soothingly to him through the cage and walk round the house without a huge commotion from George. I can’t tell you what a big step forward that was.
We are also tackling his problem with urban environments. During the 3 days in Wales, we discovered that George was substantially more settled with a Halti collar on and I could control where he looked and he was restricted from looking at escape routes. We managed to take him into a very busy part of Port Talbot and have him sit calmly watching the world go by. By doing this exercise more regularly it is hoped that he will become more and more relaxed with people and again hope that this will have a beneficial impact when people come to the house.
In November we introduced a cat to the household. We’d chosen a rescue cat that had lived with dogs before and appeared to be incredibly chilled. What a blessing we were right. After 5 days of slowly letting the cat (Haga) and George get closer, i.e. George in cage cat out, cat in cage George out, we let them meet without a barrier. I won’t say they were instant buddies as George is horribly loud and social behaviour is not his strong point, but not once has he tried to get the cat in his mouth and savage it. Even when Haga has approached George when he has his food or chew stick, George has chased him off violently but still not ragged him. Now they lie together and George loves to lick and sniff Haga. Haga, little treasure, lets him. I was expecting to see George with some obvious war wounds across his nose, but no. Haga is gentle with him too and plays without striking a fistful of claws. We are hoping, that as Haga is chilled about strangers that George will start to calm down. We are considering a Bernese bitch rescue who is good with people to see if this would have a calming effect on George, but this is a big commitment.
We keep working with George and ensuring that we don’t put him in any situation that is potentially dangerous for him. He wears a muzzle if there is any risk and we do not let anyone try and stroke him from outside his incredibly limited number of “friends”. Outside, off the lead and exercising in a park, along the river or in a wood, George is fine.
His fears really kick in when he is in limited space, on a lead and when somebody is directing full on attention at him.
George is a beautiful dog and many people would love to fuss him. It is so sad that he is missing out on so much and has such confidence issues which then lead into his fear aggression. We may never conquer these problems, but while he is with us, we are doing our best to help him and keep him safe. If he wasn’t with us, I fear he wouldn’t be with anyone.
Debbie has been very supportive and helpful and more than anything honest about George and his issues. She has had to change tack with some of the training as he does not respond to normal methods. There is no miracle cure for him, I wish there was. But slowly, each day, we make a little progress. Some times so small, I don’t notice it, but overtime he has calmed down a lot since we got him. He does respond to love and patience and he has proven that he can bond. I still treat him guardedly and find it difficult to accept sometimes as my Bernese was such a joy and could be trusted with anybody and anything. Sometimes I am reduced to tears of frustration, but then other times George will surprise me when he has learnt something new. Would I give him up now? No way.
Addendum to this story:
I visited George at home in Scotland a few weeks after his residential weekend. He was successfully taught to go happily into his cage when he heard the door. He looks forward to this now, runs once to the door, one bark then runs back to his cage and sits and waits for his treat, wagging his tail. He has lived a very happy life to date.
George is easily one of the most challenging dogs of my career. Nothing usual worked, it was a case of treats, body language, focus, loss of attention and much more carefully put together. He is a lucky boy to have found such a fabulous owner.
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