A difficult case

I’ve decided to give an account of a very difficult case I was involved with last year. I’ve changed the names and breed involved in the case in fairness to the owner and his family.

Jim is in his late 50s and lives in an area which is not the greatest place to live. He has also had serious life threatening health issues which are exacerbated by stress, and a very stressful family life. His daughter contacted me last year. Jim had bought three puppies, two girls and a boy from the same litter from a cowboy breeder who would appear to have bred his dog in order to make some quick cash. The breed was a large breed, similar in size to a Dobermann. Jim took the boy, called Buster, and gave the two girls to his daughters as gifts. Buster’s two sisters didn’t develop any behaviour problems.

Buster had been kept by the breeder until he was 16 weeks old and had been kept in a run outside with little or no interaction with the outside world. After Jim brought him home, he became seriously ill and had to be kept inside for another 4 weeks. By this time, 20 weeks old, he had missed out on the sensitive period for socialisation, which is up to 16 weeks, and was now terrified of everything in the environment so much so that he would react intensely to anything he saw, people, dogs, buggies, cars etc. He did receive plenty of physical exercise, with long off leash outings to local parks and common ground either very early in the morning or very late at night when no one else was around. This went on for about a year until he was a year and a half old when Jim’s daughter, Emma, phoned me for help.

I spent some time on the phone with both Emma and Jim and agreed to come out and work with them. Buster now weighed about 45-50 kg, was incredibly well muscled and was a huge bundle of uncontrollable, nervous, terrified energy. I explained to Jim and his adult family that it was likely to be a long road ahead, and they would all need to get on board with his programme of desensitisation (DS) and counter-conditioning (CC). All were in agreement. When visitors cam into the house, Buster would lunge, bark and snap at them and, as you could guess, visitors to the house were becoming fewer and fewer and when they did visit, Buster was locked in another room where he would bark constantly. When Jim brought Buster out, he was wearing a muzzle, and lunged and barked at me. Jim’s response was to try to physically control Buster, pin him down and shout at him. I explained these things were adding to his anxiety.

The first session went well. We were able to use a local church hall and over the next hour, I managed to get Buster eating pieces of hotdog which was about 2 feet away from me without reacting. This was a reduction in distance of about 30 feet from the beginning of the session, so a good result. The homework I gave to Jim and his family, was to start to hand feed Buster a huge proportion of his daily food allowance while using the words “Good Boy” in a calm voice. This would serve to associate the words with the feel good feelings of the food through classical conditioning, which would allow them to give Buster feedback when he was doing the right things and increase Buster’s confidence.I also said they should feed Buster the remainder of his daily food from a Kong. This would help reduce his anxiety levels by increasing his serotonin and give him something constructive to do. I told them to continue to walk him late at night and early mornings as usual until we could work on what to do with him on walks.

I came back a week later. Jim was very agitated as there had been no change in Buster’s behaviour. I explained again that it would take time but he didn’t seem to understand or accept that Buster would react badly to everything as before, including me but no matter how I explained, nothing seemed to get through. He also said he wasn’t able to do any of the hand feeding I had asked for and hadn’t attempted the feeding from the Kong. I told him if he wasn’t going to implement the programme I had come up with, Buster would not change his behaviour.

We then went outside and tried to do some basic work of DS and CC, working Buster at a safe distance using high value treats. We made a little progress, trying to teach Jim how to handle Buster in and easy way to reduce anxiety for both of them. The session was satisfactory but not great. I told Jim he needed to walk Buster a couple of times a day for the next week until I came back out to see him, doing the same protocol we had been working on, always working Buster at a safe distance and concentrate on keeping as calm as he could himself.

Session 3. One week later. I arrived as usual and asked Jim how he was getting on. Jim reported no progress and very little work. I could see from the last session he was already giving up. Jim had also paid the first three sessions in advance as per our agreement. I again told Jim that Buster wasn’t going to improve on his own. Again it seemed to fall on deaf ears. By this time, I was able to handle Buster a little but he was still very flighty around me and we didn’t have a great session despite my best efforts. I left Jim at the end of the session with the same homework.

Initially Jim had asked for six session but after I attended for my fourth time, which was a couple of weeks later. Again I found Jim had not done the work and poor Buster had not improved. I think the task at hand was more than Jim could do. Jim had not prepared any high value treats, despite my repeated instructions and went through the motions during the session. At the end of the session, I told Jim I wasn’t able to work with him any more as it wouldn’t have been ethical for me to continue to take his money if he wasn’t going to do the work.

The whole case was difficult to deal with for a number of reasons. Jim and Buster have been the only case I’ve had, before or since, where the owner wasn’t at least partly on board. I’ve dealt with clients who have been contrary, argumentative, emotional and stubborn, but the common theme was that they absolutely recognised that their dogs needed help and they weren’t in the position to help them without professional assistance. Dealing with Jim and Buster was difficult because Jim was totally unwilling and/or unable to do the work i was asking him to do no matter how much I stripped the exercises back to the bare bones. I think Jim knew at some level the task at hand was more than he could manage and he somehow needed to rationalise to himself that he had done everything he could to help Buster.

Cases like this one can cause trainers/behaviourists to become burnt out because most of us have the interests of both the dogs and owners at heart. The can also cause damage to our reputations because if Jim is asked about me, my feeling is that he would give a less than positive review despite my best efforts.

Since this case, I’m more forthright to potential clients about their expectations and make it clear to them that the work is their’s to do and the responsibility of putting the training hours in lies with them.

Comments are always welcome.

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