You’re only supposed to say it once, but here I go: “Ethan, come!” * smooching, thigh slapping * “Ethan! Here, bud! Come!”
Every day, several times a day, a high-pitched, friendly beckoning call issues forth from my lips. And every day, a big-eared, brown-eyed, wiry-framed, red/tan, 11-month-old, Vizsla/hound-or-something mixed breed dog stands and stares in the direction of my call. The duration of that standing and staring depends on several dog-driven factors: location within the house, outdoor circumstances, time of day, number and type of distractions, degree of hunger, sound of a rustling kibble bag, how long he’s been awake, mood or degree of playfulness or fear, amount of time I’ve been gone, and others.
My dog doesn’t come when I call him, whether indoors or out. Well, that’s not entirely true. He does maybe one-third of the time, but more often outside than in. What can one do but shake one’s head?
Well, I’ll tell you. I’ve read at least half a dozen dog training and behavior books at this point and watched videos and demonstrations. We’ve worked with a personal dog trainer and taken a group obedience class. We’ve consulted a separation anxiety expert and our veterinarian. We train and condition our dog in obedience, agility, and anxiety-reducing socialization every day. We try our best to follow the rules of training, to ensure the behaviors we intend to instill are the ones taking hold. We set boundaries, rules, and limitations, in the spirit of “Dog Whisperer” Cesar Milan.
Although still young, Ethan’s quirks seem to make him a peculiar case, which adds an extra degree of confusion to many things we try to do with him. And we do a lot. He’s our baby, after all, so we keep trying.
I take Ethan for a walk of at least one mile, on a long lead so he can trot and run a bit, almost every day, including 24-degree Fahrenheit, 18-degree wind chill days. The three of us even took a walk on a day in 10 degrees, until Ethan’s frosty paw pads sent us back home. We exercise him indoors when it’s too cold outside. We’re working on getting him comfortable walking on a moving treadmill.
We feed him gradually and dynamically with treat- and kibble-dispensing toys and puzzles to keep his mind sharp and digestion even. I’ve taken him to half a dozen different metro parks, a few pet stores, and people’s houses, including the neighbor’s with their dog who is a vigorous playmate.
I rub under Ethan’s chin for encouragement as often as he’ll let me, praise him generously nearly every moment of correct, compliant behavior, play with him daily, let him sniff my face frequently and sometimes lick my ears, and then further intensify our bond with belly rubs and traces of human food from this plate or that bowl.
I love affectionate dogs, and I hope mine becomes more comfortable with me one day.
Ethan was introduced to us as a “shy” dog, but the label isn’t a perfect fit anymore. He’s afraid of certain things and people in certain circumstances; he’s a bit unpredictable in fear and trust. There are things and movements that make him “shy” away from us, his owners, but sometimes those things only make him stop or sit and look at us funny.
Trust is first, they say, which means that after seven months together, we still can’t take him anywhere off leash, including our unfenced yard, because he can’t be counted on to obey us more than he obeys his fear. Sure, he’s got a collar with tags, an embedded ID chip, and up-to-date shots. But when your dog doesn’t fully trust you and is easily scared by unanticipated stimuli, he’s easily put in danger.
When I take Ethan for a walk and let him wander ahead a bit on the longer leash, sometimes he responds to his name by turning around, at which point I praise him enthusiastically and reach in my pocket for the kibble reward. He trots slowly back to me, sits readily (he sat well from day one) without being asked, and gobbles up the treat. I release him with an “okay” to continue walking, and we’re back in the groove. Sometimes it works; other times it doesn’t.
We spent a lot of time teaching him to bound back to us at the sound of his name, excited for the goodies at the end. But if he’s too busy sniffing, which he often is, or he’s found something on the ground more exciting to nibble on, also not infrequent, or, he’s too wary of us to return, then he will not respond to his name or the “come” command, either by returning or even looking up.
His mind is intelligent and stubborn. However ill-founded, when dogs learn them young, preconceived notions of danger and survival die very, very hard, if at all. Whatever happened to him, he’s having trouble “forgetting” what it taught him. Or, and this is also likely a factor, fear is in his genes.
Even the walk itself is not a foregone conclusion. Before we can get him out the door, we have to corral him. We’ve had Ethan since mid-July 2017, but a few months ago, into his adolescence, when new behaviors sometimes form, he developed a mistrust of the harness, the leash, and us with either tool in our hands. You’d think a dog so eager and apparently happy during the walk would be rushing to go out the door rather than bolting to hide from us in the other room. Not so with this one.
As far as we know, we created no negative association with the harness or the leash. It’s possible he could dislike the feel of the harness or being led as a condition of being allowed to walk, being pulled on, etc. It seems more likely, though, that he just doesn’t like being reached for with a tool he knows will control him in some way, or just being reached for, full stop. He’s up and down on that one, too.
Many hours have passed—days, at this point—hours of coaxing, treat luring, patient waiting, sitting in a chair, standing, sitting on the floor, following slowly, approaching laterally, backpedaling encouragingly, exiting the doorway to the deck, corralling him in the bedroom, switching leashes, collar grab desensitization practice (incomplete, I admit), trapping, cornering, tricking, switching directly from tie-out to leash, and rearranging our order of steps so we get dressed last of all before the walk.
We’ve eliminated sudden movement and surprise grabbing from behind. It’s all slow and steady now. After a few tries of our offering food, letting him have some, using yummier food, and trying to reach for him, he decides he prefers not to eat after all. And this is one extremely food-driven dog; we use his kibble as his most common treat. He knows us, he knows we won’t harm him (I hope), and he’s been on dozens upon dozens of walks with us before. Still, and more than before, Ethan’s intractable mind dislikes something about getting ready for a walk.
His extreme skittishness can be quite maddening. He’ll dodge the leash very skillfully for half an hour, and avoid crossing certain thresholds because he knows I can corner him there. I’ll stop trying and ignore him, and then, not five minutes later, he’ll hit the chimes to go outside. Other times, the leash or harness avoidance episode will last so long, and so mentally tax us both, that he’ll take a nap afterwards. Sometimes I join him. That’s one confused puppy—and owner.
To desensitize him to the fear and counter-condition him with a happier response, it’s our job to pinpoint the exact what, how, where, when, with whom, and why of his fear. We must identify the trigger, every trigger, of his anxiety, eliminate it, and replace it with bliss and passionate joy.
We’ve found sample procedures to follow, broken out step by step into daily and weekly schedules. We just have to choose, commit and see it through. Some anxieties will take weeks to treat; others, we hope, will go more quickly. I’m not looking forward to this work, which we’ve already started doing informally, and which is looking more and more compulsory the more I read about it and study my dog.
That crazy feeling increases with his next moves before an attempted excursion–whether a walk or a car ride. Like a light switch flicking on, once he’s captured, Ethan submits, albeit sheepishly, and waits patiently by the door to be led outside. Even better, once we are outside, he quickly falls into walking as if he’s fallen out of bed—exploring, scent tracking, surveying, and exercising along the sidewalks, yards, devil strips, clearings, and playground of our neighborhood. He enjoys car rides just fine, too, though he can get a little car sick with excess hills or turns.
These days, Ethan’s fears are overpowering his desires. Ethan has taken the same Intro to Agility course twice. He loved it the first time and seemed to love it the second time, though he also seemed a bit more confused about what to do, even though we did practice in between course runs. However, when we were practicing focus forward today for agility, even when I upped the ante with a higher value food reward—chunks of dried beef roll—he still wasn’t sure he could trust me enough to grab his harness without killing and roasting him on a spit.
After a few successful runs, his suspicion began to outweigh his interest in the exercise, so I called it quits. I preferred not to find myself chasing an unleashed, untethered, unfenced-in chicken of a puppy across the neighborhood—no matter how delicious he’d be.
Early on in our relationship, I wondered if he was showing aggression, but he’s more nervous in his warnings. He seldom barks, unless frustrated, bored, or playful. He has never barked at other people or dogs outside, only at us and our dog sitters in the house when he wants something or doesn’t like what we’re doing or not doing. Usually, it’s when I’m gone, and others are left to fend for themselves with him.
After making some headway in our first few months together, between teaching him to trust and teaching him to obey, now we’re not getting far with either. Some results have plateaued while others seem to have eroded from the hill of progress.
I think he knows what many words mean, even if he doesn’t follow basic commands consistently. He understands “no” and “ah-ah-ah” as deterrents, and he shows respect when we’re eating after we tell him to “go lay down,” sometimes with a follow-up gesture, eye contact, or saying his name low and warningly. His powerful nose makes him rude while we cook, too, but with repetition, I can get him to lie down and stay put–for a while.
Ethan reluctantly gets that “all done” means no more food. He knows to go into his crate when I say “in your bed” in the bedroom. He has been exposed to “sit,” “come,” “stay,” “down,” “up,” “look,” “place,” “yes,” “wait,” and “okay,” but his understanding of these is unclear because his reactions are inconsistent. He may realize that “stairs” means we’re going to throw treats up and down them so he can run and eat at the same time. He has learned to nose the chimes on the sliding glass door handle when he wants to go outside—even when he doesn’t have to relieve himself. Sometimes he just does it out of boredom.
He’s clever and sensitive enough to learn what he wants to learn, in his own way.
Although rather mellow when not afraid, Ethan is definitely an athlete. When he does make it out the door, he climbs on boulders and flat rocks around the neighborhood, jumping up onto higher ones and down off them again. Sometimes, while playing the mountain goat, he looks for a treat right away. Other times, he just moves on to the next thing, needing no more reward than the climb itself.
He walks the ledge perimeter of raised flower beds at the playground and allotment entrance. He ascends and descends hills, crosses streets, and trudges through snow happily. He even has the athletic build of a deep-chested, sleek-legged racing hound. He’s pretty fast when he can stretch those legs.
He is more curious than nervous around people and dogs on the walk. He likes to crunch on acorns, despite our protests, and he prefers eating rabbit and deer scat to sniffing it. Thankfully, we can prevent his ingestion of dog poop . . . most of the time.
As good, brave and adventurous as he can be, Ethan has had to learn to tolerate boredom because his indoor fears often prevent us from doing things. He has mastered destroying toys, for one.
Gradually, we got him used to a more flexible schedule than he started with, but maybe he still needs old routine more than we think. He naps for good portions of both day and evening, though, and he doesn’t freak out when we don’t go for a walk first thing. His acceptance of the new patterns actually seems pretty strong.
He has been learning frustration tolerance gradually, learning that he can’t always get what he wants, at least when he’s not too afraid to want. When he is afraid, all he wants is to be left alone, to flee, to hide, to run away, to duck and cover.
I think it’s fair to say he’s teaching us more frustration tolerance than he’ll ever have to know. It’s deeper than being incorrigible. Ultimately, it’s his tolerance of fear that we really have to counter-condition. Only in our dreams can we afford to believe it’s just a phase.
As I’ve said, Ethan does have his moments. He loves to play, he’s learning not to bite during play, and, once guided, he’ll stop playing and settle down. He greets known guests happily now, he falls asleep readily day or night, and stays asleep all night, entering his crate without hesitation or verbal command.
He hasn’t peed or pooped in the house even once since the very few times last summer during his adjustment to his new home. He chews on nothing but his toys, and he chews a lot. He’s not so high energy as to be a constant barker or annoying jumper, humper, or counter surfer. He’s pretty chill, he can be totally hilarious, and he is, of course, the handsomest dog on Earth. These are not small victories. We’re grateful that the rescue organization, who gave him his name, chose us to care for Ethan.
But Ethan’s got a long way to go to be a happy, comfortable dog most of the time. It will probably take years if he ever gets there. Although he’s a sprinter, this will be a marathon for all of us. It’s not what I was hoping for, I’ll admit. I really didn’t want a special “pet” project this time, which we had with Elyse, our chronically ill first dog. For now, Ethan does have good physical health, but we’re already dosing him with anti-anxiety medication to support his behavior reshaping.
I’m beginning to think my dog trainer’s preference always to look for a good breeder is the right idea. Rescuers, God bless you, she says. The thing is, when you’ve done all your homework and still end up with piles of work beyond the already large amount that comes standard with raising a dog, it’s sometimes, well, intolerably frustrating. Then again, it’s life, not just how one acquires a pet dog, that’s like that proverbial chocolates box.
I just hope we get a chance to see the benefits of what will become substantial investments of focus, time, money, energy, and emotion. Ethan has great potential, after all. I hope it’s true that, if anyone can do it, we can. Meanwhile, we continue enjoying the good stuff and eagerly await the spring.