There is one rule you MUST follow when naming your puppy. Don’t name your puppy Rascal. I would also suggest you not name a puppy Rowdy, Tuffy, Messy, Taz, Barky, Destructo, or any other self-fulfilling-prophecy name like that. Please. For goodness sake name that puppy Angel, or Sweetie, or Einstein.
Rascal. He is the dog I love to hate, but really love. He initially came into my world in the arms of a friend who found him wandering between my dog care business, Pooches, and the neighboring veterinary hospital. He was about three months old at that time; just a little bundle of coal black, shepherd mix cuteness in her arms. Who knew what was to come? Who knew? Certainly not me.
No one at my business recognized the puppy so we took him to the veterinary hospital to see if they might know him. They did not, but agreed to keep him to see if someone from the adjacent neighborhood might be looking for him. If no one claimed him, they would ask a local rescue group to take him into their program for placement. Perfect. Problem solved, right?
Wrong. So very, very wrong.
This is a case where good intentions went incredibly awry. The good folks at the vet hospital did take the puppy. They settled him in their kennel and took care of him. Unfortunately, after a holding period to see if someone might be looking for him, everyone kind of forgot about him.
Now, that sounds terrible. He did not ever lack for basic care. He was fed, housed, and allowed to exercise in a fenced yard. But no one ever thought to ask the rescue group to help find him a home. None of the kennel employees ever questioned the little black puppy that was growing up in their midst.
Three months after finding him, someone from the vet hospital called to tell me that they still had the stray pup. I was shocked. I hadn’t even thought to go back to check on him, shame on me. I just assumed he was in good hands. The pet adoption group could have easily found a home for a cute, little puppy. And they would have. If only they had known.
So the little lost puppy was found once again, but now at about six months of age, he was not so little. The rescue group did agree to try to find him a home and dubbed him Rascal. A name he would live up to; a name I would sincerely regret.
As anyone familiar with puppy development—and anyone with common sense—will tell you, it is not mentally healthy for a young puppy to spend three months of his life living in a kennel environment with limited socialization. As a dog trainer, I constantly preach the importance of socialization for puppies. The experiences a puppy has in the weeks and months following weaning combine with inherited traits to determine the personality of the adult dog to come.
While people known to Rascal had no trouble handling him, anyone strange to him was…well…strange. Rascal had no idea how to meet and trust new people. That made it very entertaining to try to find him a home. As you can well imagine, people just line right up to adopt an adolescent dog that bares his teeth and sounds off like Cujo when newcomers dare look at him, let alone try to say hello.
By nature, Rascal was an active, intelligent, protective dog. Lack of crucial life experience, however, turned him into 60 pounds of reactive dog. So what is a reactive dog? Well, simply put, reactivity in dogs is a common behavioral problem in which a dog displays an overreaction to external stimuli. The stimuli could be people, other dogs, other types of animals, noises, motion, or any combination thereof. Reactive behavior can manifest as excessive barking, whining, lunging, acting out aggressively, panting, hyperactivity, and other less-than-endearing behaviors. It is an overly emotional display.
In Rascal’s case, his triggers and subsequent behavior pretty much included everything listed above and then some.
Feeling partially responsible for Rascal’s journey, or lack thereof, my business partner and I decided we would house Rascal at Pooches where we could train with him daily and work to socialize him properly—hoping to make up for lost ground. Unfortunately for Rascal, living in a place with a number of dogs coming and going on a daily basis, and with a number of different people handling him—albeit understanding, sympathetic people—did not provide him the stable environment he needed to modify his reactive behavior.
So what to do with Rascal? Well, he could have continued to live at Pooches. His basic care needs would be met there, but with too much stimulation on an ongoing basis, he was not likely to make progress and could become even more difficult to handle. It would not be a fair or good life for him.
We could have chosen to euthanize Rascal. While that sounds harsh, and it is, the sad reality is that scores of lovely homeless dogs are euthanized in my hometown, as well as throughout the nation, on a daily basis. I have come to the hard realization that not every dog can be saved. Sometimes tough choices must be made. Would I devote my time, energy, and physical space to continue to try to work with a hyperactive, highly reactive dog, or should I devote my resources to other homeless dogs that had higher potential to find loving new homes?
The biggest question in my mind centered on Rascal’s own welfare. Was there a place in this world where Rascal could be kept safely and where he could be happy? Where he could have a good quality of life? While many people had come to know and love Rascal during his stay at Pooches, they were not exactly begging to call him their own.
And here is the tricky part—Rascal really was an intelligent dog that was very capable of learning. So I’m just going to admit right now that the rescuer in me could not turn her back on the puppy that got left behind. Meanwhile, the dog trainer in me could not resist the challenge and learning opportunity that the now-adult dog presented. Rascal came home to live with me, Jim, our own dogs, and our rotating group of foster dogs.
Fast forward seven years. Rascal is still alive and kicking. Rascal is still a very reactive dog. Even in our country home setting, if a leaf falls off of one of the trees in the back forty acres of our property, Rascal will likely leap up from a dead sleep, barking and growling hysterically, racing like a madman through the house. He is a joy. Really. A shiny black ray of freaking sunshine. Oh how I still love/hate this dog.
So why is he here? Well, because there really is a lot to love about this crazy dog. He is as affectionate as he is reactive. There is no in between with Rascal. If he doesn’t like you, he makes it abundantly clear. If he loves you, he loves you with everything he has. He is an extremely emotional dog.
Rascal is also very devoted to me. I think he would walk through a firestorm in a field of broken glass to get to me. This is a good thing, and also a bad thing. I have come to realize that I am one of Rascal’s major triggers. Yay me!
It’s true. If I walk into a room…or out of a room…or if I just stand up…or God forbid I cough, Rascal is likely to react with a loud, annoying display that disrupts every being in the house and within a 10 acre radius. When I come home from work, he goes nuts. When it’s time to feed the dogs, he gets agitated. If I step outside, he will bolt through the dog door, racing across the yard in a frantic, aggressive manner.
No amount of yelling or correction will calm the beast that lives inside Rascal. Trying to “punish” a reactive dog is like adding a layer of gunpowder on top of a bundle of dynamite. You’re just adding fuel to the fire.
Ok, so time to put on my dog trainer hat and figure this dog out, right? Every dog is different; every dog is a puzzle for a trainer to solve. Most importantly, every dog is a learning opportunity. Rascal is certainly no exception. He has been my teacher for more than seven years now.
So what is Rascal teaching me? He is teaching me that things go much better when I stay really calm when dealing with him. This is an ongoing challenge because BOY sometimes you just want to yell at this dog to please SHUT THE @#%* UP. But yelling just fuels him, and the other dogs too. One thing I have discovered is that if I use calming signals with him, he will settle down almost immediately.
Calming signals can be defined as body language and physical cues dogs display to avoid conflict, invite play, and communicate a wide range of information to other dogs…and people if we are willing to learn their language. Norwegian dog trainer and behaviorist, Turid Rugaas sums calming signals up as a dog’s attempt to defuse situations that might otherwise result in fights or aggression. If you are interested in dog behavior, I highly recommend you read her book, On Talking Terms With Dogs: Calming Signals. It is, in my opinion, pure gold for trainers, or anyone interested in learning more about their own dogs.
So what are calming signals in the dog world? Well, there are a number of physical cues dogs use and understand instinctively. Licking the nose or flicking the tongue out, turning the head away, sitting down, sniffing the ground, walking slowly, offering a play bow, freezing in place, yawning, and grinning, just to name a few.
I try to use calming signals when Rascal has a reaction that centers on me. I will walk slowly. I will turn away from him. I will sit down. These actions have shown amazing results in helping him return to a calm state, thereby allowing me to give him verbal direction and eventual praise. He is learning that by calming down, he will receive my attention.
Another tool that is valuable in working with a reactive dog, and vital to Rascal’s existence, is providing a place where the dog can go for “time out.” This is not punishment. This is literally a place where the dog can go to feel secure and calm. For Rascal, it is his crate. He is very comfortable in his crate and he will go to it on cue from just about anywhere in our house. If I see Rascal’s behavior escalating, I just tell him “kennel,” and he bolts away to hop into his crate. Sometimes he even sends himself to his crate. It is his safe space and he is very relaxed there. This is an invaluable tool for us.
I have also taught Rascal to play the “touch” game. This exercise centers on target training—a popular exercise used by clicker trainers. Very basically, you teach a dog to touch a specific target with his nose. This is a fun, easy lesson for dogs and handlers, and one that can prove to be quite useful when working with the Rascals of the world.
In Rascal’s case I use the palm of my hand as the target. I move my hand from place to place asking Rascal to “touch.” Each time he touches my palm, I mark his success with the word “YES” and reward him with praise and affection (food rewards are often used to teach the game, but Rascal responds well without food). You can also use a clicker, but in Rascal’s fast-paced world, I don’t always have a clicker handy, so I have taught him using “YES” as his marker for correct behavior.
Now I have put this game to use when Rascal has potential to become agitated or reactive. If I know one of Rascal’s many triggers is about to happen or is happening, I will ask Rascal to come “touch.” I have started seeing great success in heading off a full-blown outburst from him using this simple exercise. It also allows me to remain very calm and soft-spoken, which helps calm Rascal too. It’s our little doggy Zen moment that cues Rascal to come to me instead of whirling around like the Tasmanian devil on crack.
And for all of the times when I can’t be right there to monitor Rascal’s potential outbursts? Well, I now have an entertaining little training assistant in the form of my Australian cattle dog, Edie. Edie is 38 pounds of lean, agile, intelligent, muscle just begging for a job. She and I found each other at a small animal shelter and it was mutual love at first sniff. The only problem for Edie living in my world? No cattle.
Well, no problem. Edie has decided that Rascal is her cow. If he is not in his crate, Edie is on the job. She monitors his every breath. The only time she takes a break is when Rascal is in his crate with the door secured.
If Rascal starts to have one of his outbursts, Edie is there, nipping at his side, jumping in front of him to head him off. I initially worried that Rascal might hurt Edie out of frustration, but she’s just too fast on her feet and even if he does try to lunge after her, she can spin out of the way in half of an instant. I have literally seen this little bundle of energy run full speed BACKWARDS to keep an eye on Rascal. Yes, completely backwards.
The effect? Well, Edie adds a bit of hysteria at times, but more often than not I do see Rascal backing down…giving up…throwing in the towel. Edie is relentless in pursuing her “cow.” While their relationship seemed quite adversarial initially, now there seems to be an odd kinship between the two. Most recently I have seen them playing together, displaying beautiful soft, curved body language and truly enjoying wrestling around with each other. Something I have never seen Rascal do with another dog—an interesting turn of events that I absolutely love.
So what’s next for Rascal? Well, he has just celebrated his eighth birthday. I never thought I would say this about one of my dogs, but I honestly hope like hell that he starts to act old sooner than later. We’ve seen no signs that he’s slowing down at all, but I cling to that hope. A mellow, slow, sweet Rascal would be an amazing thing.
At this stage, however, he is in peak condition and still raring to teach me a thing or two. And I am still his willing, fascinated, and often frustrated student. I still utter threats to him on a daily basis—hey, if it’s said in a nice voice, and you don’t actual follow through on the threats, you can pretty much say anything you want to a dog and they’ll just wag away. He has no idea that my singsong voice is threatening grave bodily harm.
In reality, I do love this dog. Really I do. Well, when I’m not busy hating him, I really do love him. I am Grasshopper, he is my sensei.