Training: Never Give Up!

Valerie Masi

Sometimes all a dog needs is someone to believe in them

I have always believed it is our responsibility to help rescues either stay in their original adoptive homes or get a new home they will be able to stay in permanently. In my work with rescue groups, I have run into a lot of dogs needing help. Two of these dogs’ stories stand out to me: One was my first aggressive case, an 8-year-old female German shepherd. The other is the story of when I met a troubled dog who would eventually become one of my own.

Bella’s Story

The German shepherd’s story began with a phone call from the owner. Susan called me with desperation in her voice. She told me her 8-year-old German shepherd Bella was aggressive towards people, young and old, as well as other dogs. She took Bella to her vet, who told her she needed to “put this dog down.” That upset Susan, and she started looking for a trainer. She told me every trainer she hired told her there was no hope for this dog and that she should put Bella down. She said I was her last hope. I agreed to help and headed off to her house.

Here’s how it went: Susan answers the door. She is a petite woman in her 40s, very soft spoken, with a gentle energy. Bella is on the back porch, behind a door with a small window. As I sit on the couch gathering background information on Bella, she is hitting the window, growling, snarling, frothing at the mouth. I ask to have Susan bring Bella in on leash. She was very nervous about being able to handle her, and so was I. Bella was as tall as Susan when she stood on her back feet. Ultimately, I accepted her case, and it took five months to change Bella’s behavior. Susan was the most committed dog owner I had ever met. Her commitment is the primary reason Bella was successful in changing her bad behavior.

Sometime later, I was having a reunion with all my client dogs and their puppies. There were 11 dogs plus Bella; two kids, 8 and 10 years old; and eight adults. Bella interacted and played at the reunion, with both the people and the dogs, and she was a different dog. It suddenly became very apparent to me that Susan had saved her dog’s life.

Mona’s Story

I guess my favorite rescue story is the one about how I came to adopt my dog Mona. It started with a phone call from a client, who told me about a rescue organization that needed my help. I called BFF4pets and spoke with Cathy. Cathy joked that she needed a behaviorist and a gurney. I said, “I get why you need a behaviorist, but why a gurney?” Cathy explained that a foster family was dealing with a large dog who would not walk—they had to carry Mona out to potty, where she would stand up long enough to potty but then fall right back down to the ground. When she was first found, poor Mona was emaciated, and this worked. However, as she put on weight, she became too heavy to carry.

I picked Mona up from her foster home, where I found her lying in a bed, literally moaning. That was why they named her Mona! I spent a little time with her before I asked her to get up and follow me. She shut down—Mona was not motivated by anything. It took about an hour to get her from the house into my vehicle. When I got her to my house, it took about a half hour to get her into my backyard. I brought out my happiest dog, Luca. He ran up to Mona, who was just lying there, and licked her face, then ran out to the yard and stopped and to look back at her, as if to say, “Come on!” Mona stayed put, and Luca came back and did the same thing … still nothing. The fourth time he approached her, Mona got up and followed him out to the yard.

As I gradually introduced her to the rest of my pack, she became more comfortable, eventually mimicking the behavior of the pack. With humans, she was still very shut down. Whenever I wanted to push her out of her comfort zone during training, I paired her with Luca, and she was not as afraid. With Luca along, I could get her to walk on a leash attached to her harness.

About three months into training Mona, I was walking her alone by the ocean, and she seemed particularly peaceful and calm. I thought I would try moving her leash from her harness to her collar. This time, she did not freak out when she felt the pressure from the leash on her neck. It was a momentous achievement.

About three months later, we found a home for her in Coachella and Mona was doing well. But just a couple of months later, I received a call from the woman who adopted Mona. She said a family member who was visiting accidentally let her out and she was lost. I drove to Mona’s new home to help search for her. The first night, we had no luck. I posted Mona’s photo and contact information on Nextdoor and on social media. Thankfully, on the fourth day, someone on Nextdoor saw her around the nearby polo grounds and contacted me.

Mona was several miles away from her new home, but only a couple of miles from mine. My partner Jeanne was out hiking near the polo fields with our bulldog Tozza. I called Jeanne, told her where Mona was spotted, and she drove right over. Jeanne found Mona and pulled the car over to the side of the road, just a bit ahead of Mona. She opened the car door and let Tozza out. Tozza ran straight for Mona, who recognized her and began eagerly running towards her. Jeanne caught up to the two of them, and Mona went crazy.

It occurred to all of us including Mona’s new adoptive mom, that Mona was trying to come to our house when she made her way to the polo fields. Mona must have recalled being with me when I was working a dog with the horses at the polo fields. We all decided to honor the home Mona had chosen, and so she became a permanent member of our family. Mona now works with me helping rehabilitate other fearful dogs, who easily relate to her because they can tell she understands them.

Every Dog’s a Good Dog

Almost any dog can be rehabilitated with patience and training. If you start your new puppy off with training and socializing, you will likely avoid these behavior problems altogether. If you rescue a dog with behavioral problems, remember that solid training can help, so do your research first, then contact an accredited professional trainer.

Valerie Masi, owner of Best Paw Forward, can be reached at (760) 885-9450 or visit bestpawforwarddogtraining.com.

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