Lucrezia Borgia, poisoner -- my role model?

A friend asked me the other day, “So, how’s the dog training going.” That gave me pause. Not because I have any doubts about our trainer, Crystal Saling, who is talented, smart and an advocate (as I am) of positive methods. But at the beginning of the first session we had after my trip to San Diego and Santa Barbara, during which I let all training lapse, I found myself asking Crystal if we could do something that didn’t stress Frankie.

What I didn’t say was: “Or me.”

Hmmm. Early on, I was worried about my clicking abilities, but I seem to have mastered that skill. So what am I concerned about now?

To recap.

Dog M.O.

Frankie can be described as a fearful dog, but that’s a pretty broad term. His fearfulness doesn’t manifest in aggression towards other dogs or humans. Mostly it means he avoids other dogs (and people) when we’re outdoors, only growling and snarling if they literally get in his face.

He does bark and growl at people and dogs who invade our personal space: House, backyard, hotel room… But that only happens when I’m around —  people whom I’ve asked to check in on him while I’m away report that he totally ignores them — and he settles down pretty quickly.

He doesn’t like car rides and he doesn’t like the street noise outside my house.

General goals

To make Frankie’s life — and our life together — better.

Purely projective, no doubt paranoid assessment

So far I have made Frankie’s meal times and treat times unpleasant and caused him to fear the backyard.

I guess the good news is that I know for a fact he is miserable because I have become much better at reading his body language.

Reality check

I should explain: The key challenge to training Frankie is that he is diabetic, which means that I can’t reward him with food at any old time of the day. In order to keep his blood sugar regulated, he is supposed to eat two meals, twelve hours apart, no snacking. With the permission of the vet, I also give him a bit of food in mid-morning when a blood glucose curves determined his sugar is lowest. This is not to prevent hypoglycemia (dangerously low blood sugar) but to make me feel better about depriving him of food all day long.

I have therefore been opening the door and getting Frankie accustomed to the street noise while he eats. Because it’s essential for him to eat in order for him to take the insulin, those mealtimes, especially those in the mornings when he’s not always hungry, have always a bit stressful for me. Now I guess we’re in the same boat.

And for our morning walks, to which I drive Frankie, I have been parking the car in the back, where it is quieter, so Frankie won’t associate car rides with the noise out front. Instead of making Frankie happier about getting into the car, however, it has made him unhappier about going into the backyard.

Crystal has suggested various antidotes for what she has termed my “poisoning” of this formerly pleasurable space and I plan to use them, but in the meantime I feel terrible that I have become the Lucrezia Borgia of dog owners.

Practical question

Can I really blame Frankie for being afraid of the car now when I’ve just hauled him off to undisclosed locations — though I kept assuring him that San Diego and Santa Barbara were lovely — for what must have seemed like endless hours? I don’t know his past. Frankie might have spent his first five years with a long distance truck driver who sold crack cocaine and used him as a front.

Philosophical question

This relates to my Friday Focus question about whether dogs require a social life with other dogs.  Frankie is nearly 12 years old. I give him plenty of exercise, good food, medical attention, and love. It would be wonderful if he enjoyed the car and if he enjoyed other dogs. He provides me with great joy and I’d like to reciprocate.

But just how happy is happy enough?

21 thoughts on “Training Tuesdays: Hitting a Wall”

  1. I would be very happy if I could spend just 2 hours a week driving a Porsche 959. Maybe someday I’ll be able to do that, but for now my shortest path to real happiness is being able to drive to work without spiking my blood pressure – in other words learning to be happy and comfortable with what I have and what I have to deal with every day.

    1. Exactly my point. The before-training status quo was ok with me and, I think, with Frankie. So at what point do I, uh, let sleeping dogs lie?

  2. Until I actually became a dog owner, I just thought all dogs were happy-go-lucky, let’s-all-get-along, more-the-merrier, fun loving animals. Then Ty and Buster … HAH!

    Relating to your situation. I guess my question back to you would be, “Does Frankie’s behavior cause a problem for you – limiting where you go, or what you might do?” If it does, than maybe you need to keep pushing forward with the training … if not, I would be in favor of letting the sleeping dog lie. I believe our Ty would be perfectly happy if: there was no Buster, we didn’t travel, and he could just be with us.

    This is a guilt free zone, right? I guess my opinion is that dogs don’t need other dogs to be happy. They may be MORE happier – but that could just be me imagining. Still seems to come down to doing the best you have with what you got. And you have to be happy, too!

    1. Thanks for this, Rod. Here’s the thing: I felt that Frankie “limited” my life in major ways when I first got him and discovered, as you did with Ty, that he wasn’t social and that he didn’t like to travel. Kind of tough at first on a travel writer, but he expanded my horizons so much in other ways, including making me a dog writer when he got diabetes and thus further limited my travel, that it’s come to seem like a fair trade off. So it’s just a question of degree: How much would I like to do those other things that Frankie dislikes? How many of them can I afford, given the cost of dog care for a diabetic? What, as you put it, makes me more happy?

  3. I think it’s wonderful that you work to understand sweet Frankie’s needs. I have an only dog and this question bothers me, too. When I walk her she is often aggressive toward other dogs. So I assumed she doesn’t like other dogs and try to keep her away. But recently we met a male Golden Retriever and she actually played this joyous roughhousing and I felt awful, because I saw how much she seemed to enjoy this. Now every time we walk by this house she whines and pulls at the leash to visit her hopeful-friend. (Unfortunately I don’t know the owner, plus he doesn’t seem the type to want to arrange play dates.) So now I feel guilty. Not sure how I’m supposed to know what dogs she does and doesn’t like… and who would want their dog to be the potential guinea pig for Kelly’s aggressions?
    At 12 years old, and given his fears, sounds like your Frankie probably just wants you for his best friend.

    1. Thanks, Peggy. It sounds like Kelly, who is doubtless afraid of, and therefore aggressive towards, some dogs, is open to some other dogs, and that she would be a perfect candidate for training with someone who could control the situation and safely introduce her to other dogs. Have you been to classes or to an individual trainer evaluation?

      Or, I should qualify, a positive dog trainer. When I first got Frankie I went to a small dog class with him and he wanted nothing to do with the other dogs. But the trainer used aversive methods — including having Frankie wear a little choke chain — and so I was put off by the whole experience.

      And remember: Guilt free zone. I felt terrible about the choke chain but I was doing the best I could and I’m sure you are with Kelly.

      1. Kelly once attended group training classes where she growled at the other dogs, so she was not extremely popular there. We haven’t tried an individual trainer, which unfortunately is not in our budget right now. Another part of the walking outside problem, we have loose, aggressive dogs in our neighborhood and I’m sure I’m transferring some fear down the leash.

        1. I hear you, Peggy, both about the trainer expense and about the neighborhood dogs. For now avoidance sounds like a good strategy.

  4. You mentioned one thing I find interesting: “But that only happens when I’m around…” Did you talk to Crystal about that? To me, if a dog is fearful of certain things, he’s fearful of them at all times. This strikes me as something doesn’t add up.

    If people invading his space trigger a fearful reaction, why this doesn’t happen when you’re not around or why the reaction is different?

    1) is the fear the same but the reaction different because his ‘rock’ isn’t around, meaning he chooses avoidance to deal with his fear when you’re not there …?
    2) is it that there is something you subconsciously do that actually is one of his cues for fear reaction? (such as you blocking the door when feeding with the door open as you mentioned earlier)
    3) is it that he’s not really protective of his space but YOU? Meaning he feels responsible for you, feeling he needs to play the role of the leader of the pack while being ill-equipped for the job? As many new theories at there are that dogs do not play rank with people, there is still enough evidence to the contrary. And I read about a number of cases where the dog felt he needs to do the job of the leader (with nobody else doing it) which lead to high stress and anxiety which resolved quickly when the dog was relieved of the job?

    Somehow I feel that finding an answer to why he reacts differently with and without you around holds the clues to how to deal with it. The theory is that somebody has to be the leader and if the dog feels that the humans are not doing the job, he feel he has to take over whether he’s up to that or not.

    I would certainly discuss this with Crystal.

    re: not wanting to eat in the morning
    We had a similar (and many more) issue with Jasmine. Her appetite was terrible, she never wanted her breakfasts and I was running after her trying to get her to eat something, anything. Since we switched to her custom home-cooked diet and included the TCVM (Traditional Chinese Veterinary Medicine), particularly herbals and acupuncture, her appetite is amazing. She wants her food now and enjoys he breakfasts and all other meals.

    Before this, when we had to get her to eat in the morning the only time she’d eat was after a walk. To get her to eat something for breakfast I had to take her for a walk first.

    I do think that a consultation with a holistic or TCVM vet could give you additional assistance with his health, appetite AND anxiety. In TCVM emotional disorders are connected with physiological imbalances.

    I think that finding an answer to the above question and consulting a holistic or TCVM vet could be a good platform to making some new progress.

    re: dog social life
    I think that it might be like it is with people. Most people require social contact in order to be happy, some are perfectly content or prefer to be without. Might be the same with dogs.

    If however anxiety is the reason why he cannot enjoy company of other dogs (while he would like that otherwise), maybe a finding a dog that is really good with shy/fearful dogs for him to hang out with could result in a good friendship and maybe even changing his outlook at other dogs.

    Jasmine is great with fearful and shy dogs, they open right up with her. Patricia McConnel also has/had a shy dogs therapy dog. The way such dogs act just calms the shy one right down, gets him to relax, open up and gain some confidence.

    Such dog would have to be carefully selected. Perhaps Crystal might know one like that.

    1. Re: Frankie’s space invasion behavior: Yes, it’s definitely a form of resource guarding, with me as the resource, but it only happens indoors, where he feels comfortable enough to “protect” me. For example, a friend came over with another dog, the infamous Charles of my Charles (Not) in Charge post, and Frankie was fine with Charles as long as his owner, Rebecca, was there. It was only when Rebecca left him with us that he made it clear that the house — and I — were *his.*

      Crystal and I have discussed bringing Frankie together with one of her (small) dogs, because she figured it would be a standoff between them, but we think it would have to be on neutral territory and we haven’t found it.

      Oh, the search for a holistic nutritionist has already been done — with little success. Frankie didn’t particularly like the food that she recommended and at this point I’m more concerned that his insulin (Vetsulin) has been recalled by the FDA than trying to find a better diet. He’s been doing well on what I give him. Some dogs, like some people, are just not all that hungry in the morning…

  5. Eric has such a way with words!! Cracked me up, and it’s true – finding what is comfortable, what is enough for you and Frankie is a personal decision. Listen to your gut – the amalgamation of all that you know about Frankie and his level of comfort, with friends opinions and trainers thoughtful guidelines tossed in – and the answer should be plain to see. What you know is what all others can’t know: Frankie.

  6. OK … two things. A) I didn’t realize Frankie was close to 12. B) I do think there are times when you just let a dog’s peccadilloes go. We’re there with Ginko, who just turned 10.

    Are there things I’d like to train away in his life? Yep. Is it worth is now? Not for him or me in this instance.

    We’ve taken L-O-N-G breaks from training for Lilly’s various fear issues when we felt stuck. There isn’t anything wrong with that either. Sometimes, everyone needs a break.

  7. I think it’s really a personal judgement call and that you will make the best decision for the both of you once you weigh the pluses and minuses.

    With Frankie at 12 years old, if you can look at the training you’ve both done and still haven’t seen any noticeable positive progress and the 2 of you are being stressed, perhaps it’s time to say that you’ve given it an honest “do it for the Gipper” college try and let Frankie pick whichever path that makes him feel most comfortable.

    Like you said, you don’t know Frankie’s history so it’s hard to say how deeply ingrained his fears may be. I know popular therapy these days says to ‘face your fears”, but I think it depends on the particular case. And maybe Frankie doesn’t feel like facing his fears right this minute, thank you very much. (tongue planted firmly in cheek)

    My cat Mieux Mieux was diagnosed with feline diabetes at age 8 and working together, we were able to enjoy 5 wonderful memory filled years until she passed at age 13. I know how critical food intake and reduced stress levels are in helping to control diabetes so I can understand how you felt stress wise whenever you had to feed Frankie. It sounds silly, but in the beginning when she was first diagnosed, I stayed and watched her eat every last bit of food and made sure her urine and bowel movements (sorry if anyone is having dinner whilst reading this), were normal.

    I know that you will make the right decision that is best for you and Frankie.

  8. Edie – Having a fearful dog myself, I can relate to the whole “how happy is happy enough?”. I’ve often agonized over whether I am wanting to train Daisy to please myself, or is she happy with how things are right now? I’ve decided that as long as she gets her walks, has Jasper as company, and loves her belly rubs and cuddle time with me, then she is happy enough. I think anything you can do to alleviate Frankie’s fear is good, but if he is happy and not shaking in fear a good majority of the time, then it may be good enough.

    I will just say that Daisy was terrified of the car too when I first got her. She dealt with car rides by laying full out on the backseat and shutting down. Literally. She didn’t move until the car stopped. Not one muscle. But, I started taking her on my rounds when it was cooler out and she really learned to like riding in the car. I celebrated the first time she sat up and looked out the window! As you can imagine, that was a HUGE victory. It made my whole day.

    Perhaps Frankie will be come less fearful if you just ride around for a few minutes every day, but at 12, maybe it doesn’t matter. Maybe he’s just happier being home. And, that’s okay too.

    1. Thanks for the support, Mel. And good for you for getting Daisy more comfortable with the car.

      I actually take Frankie by car for a 10 minute ride every day to a trail where we walk (and which he likes) and you’d think he’d get used to the car ride — but no….

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