For the first month after he was adopted, Sunny spent his time in the corner of one room, in which he ate, slept, eliminated and watched the world go by. Murphy whimpered, barked, and chewed the carpet and the door whenever she was left alone. Tucker growled and lunged at every man he encountered. Maggie was inconsolable during thunderstorms— pacing, whining, circling, jumping in and out of the bathtub. Zoe was so shut down that she was unwilling even to face the door of her crate.
By the time people have come to me for help with a dog’s aggression problems, the situation is often pretty serious and it’s not unusual for people to be at the end of their rapidly fraying ropes. Though not every situation has a fairy-tale ending, I approach each new case with optimism, partly because that’s my basic nature, but also because it reflects my experience that once in a while, a dog improves more than I imagined possible.
On engagement and relationship building:
Over the past 30 years or so, there has been a steady shift from force-based methods to much kinder and gentler methods of training. Most of these kinder methods have emphasized using food rather than force to get behaviors, and I’m a huge advocate of this change.
A few years ago, dog trainers and behaviorists renewed their love affair with tail-wagging, constantly checking to see whether dogs were wagging their tails higher to the right or to the left. Our awkward attempts at positioning ourselves to observe this behavior were surely entertaining to others. Why were we so eager for the information conveyed by these asymmetrical tail wags? Because they indicate dogs’ differential use of the left and right hemispheres of their brains and are, therefore, a window into their emotions.
My favorite wooden salad servers are decorated with Bugsy’s teeth marks. Excluding unprovoked attacks on innocent squeaky toys and the occasional disemboweling of one of his stuffed animals, he wasn’t a destructive chewer by nature, and never damaged anything else. When I came home from work and saw him enjoying these Costa Rican souvenirs, I could hardly blame him, and felt no irritation whatsoever. I understood: it was hunting season.