Hydro’s Journey: Part IV
Hydro is now developing quite a following, and since writing Parts I-III, he has made tremendous progress!
This next segment will outline the trip back from Tennessee, and his first week home.
Picking up from Part III where we left off, Hydro had bitten four handlers in six months time. Three of the four required an ER visit and sutures, as well as near choke outs to diffuse the situation. The police canine broker was kind enough to agree to house Hydro for nearly a month, as I was unable to get away from my business until such time. Flying via air was not an option, as it would require him to be handled for a veterinary visit and health certificate, as well as transporting him to the airport. Nowadays, one must get the dog out of the crate at the airport so that TSA can inspect the crate, and due to Hydro’s recent issues this wasn’t an option.
So, I commenced to make the two and a half day, 1,700 mile (one way) journey from Sonoita, Arizona to Moss,Tennessee near the Kentucky border.
Those who know me know that I absolutely love the outdoors. Every chance I get I am hiking, riding horses, or training dogs. This trip, while laden with a little bit of apprehension and anxiety, was no different. Why make it a chore when it could be a mini camping getaway? So, I struck out in my SUV with three dogs in tow (I had a GSD that I was also delivering to embark on a police canine career), and headed for my first stop over in Cloudcroft, New Mexico. This area is near the stomping grounds of the notorious “Billy the Kid”. I am a wild west buff, so any chance to visit destinations with historical wild west significance piques my interest.
Now, being a Pacific Northwest native I absolutely adore large, evergreen trees. Prior to moving to southern Arizona last year, I was in the lushness of Nashville, Tennessee for seven years. Large evergreens is something I have missed for many years, and no amount of mesquite trees or lush, green grass can compare to the fresh smell of towering cedars, firs and pines. When I drove up into the little mountain community of Cloudcroft I took a sigh of relief. I had picked a perfect mini camping destination to get my head in the game and find my inner chi! I arrived at the camp ground, pitched my tent, walked the dogs and brewed a nice little mug of chai tea latte before the calming rains blew in. At that point, Snap (my rescue Pitbull and constant companion) and Seamus (my ultra cool Border Collie) settled in to the tent and fell asleep to the rain beating on the tent.
The next morning I tore down camp in under 15 minutes, loaded up and we headed out to cross the remainder of New Mexico. As I drove down the mountain from Cloudcroft, I could not believe how similar in appearance it felt to northern California, or parts of eastern Washington. Open, grassy meadows dotted with flowers, and lined with towering evergreen trees. I was having a zen moment enjoying the drive whilst enjoying my freshly brewed coffee (no reason to go without even while camping).
I drove for several hours, stopping periodically to walk dogs and gas up. Making our way through eastern NM, Texas, and into Oklahoma. After a long twelve hours of driving, I finally pulled into civilization, overnighting in Russellville, Oklahoma. For dog travelers, there is a great La Quinta (always pet friendly) with fantastic grassy walking spots, and close to a Starbucks (my criteria) right off I-40. I overnighted, and hit the road again for the final leg to Tennessee.
I pulled into Moss, TN mid afternoon after delivering the German Shepherd to “Diamond Dave” Taylor of Cedar Valley Canine in beautiful Ashland City, TN. Moss, TN is a tiny, far out town with little cell reception. After a little driving about, I finally located Midway K9 where Hydro was located. Jason and Alicia graciously met me, and the initial reintroductions to Hydro were made.
I pulled around to the backside of the house where the kennels were located, and there was Hydro. He was in good physical shape (actually a little beefy), looking wild eyed as ever. After about 30 minutes of chatting and allowing Hydro to calm down behind the fence, feeding bits of treats and asking for positions with the clicker to harken him back to his puppyhood, it was a now or never moment. They didn’t feel comfortable leashing Hydro up, as he had not been handled (and in fact had stayed in the kennel for safety for the last month) since his last bite about a month earlier. Honestly, I can’t say I blame them. I believe that when rational fear exists between dog and human it is better to avoid the situation and allow the dog to reset their brain than to set them up for another mistake. Hydro was pretty bug eyed, and while I could see glimmers of recognition, it had been 14 months since I last handled Hydro. He alternated behind the fence between rolling on his back for pets in a submissive portion, and getting up stiff legged and trying to mark on me through the fence. Just a wee bit conflicted in his little, emotional mind! So, I loaded up with treats and I opened up the kennel gate. He took treats and he ran around a bit with a tennis ball, showing tons of independent tendencies and soliciting very little interaction. That independence is actually fairly normal for Hydro until he runs around a bit. He has always been a bit hard to focus, so I wasn’t overly concerned. A ball was tossed into the crate in the SUV, Hydro clambered in after it, and that was that. We were driving straight home to Arizona from that point. I want to point out that not many brokers would have kept this dog around. He severely bit four handlers, and whether it was his fault or a combination of handling flaws, reactivity, and over arousal, I would venture to say most would have euthanized the dog. I want to thank, once again, despite the issues that transpired, the broker for patiently waiting until I could pick Hydro up to determine what was going on in his head.
It was getting to be late in the afternoon, so we said goodbye and hit the road. I overnighted at my friend’s facility in Nashville (thank you Charlotte Blake of Fresh Canine!), then left the next morning for the arduous trip back to southern Arizona.
By the time I got to Texas I think Hydro was starting to really remember me. He had been growling on and off at stops (mostly at other people he could hear), and in general seemed pretty cracked out. I was able to offer him water and little bits of food, but safe and prudent handling wasn’t really an option at this point.
I arrived back in Arizona and my boyfriend and training partner at the time, Chris Vaughn, met me at the house. Poor Chris. He had been through the raising and initial training of Hydro, so knew him as well as anyone. He was not thrilled about the prospect of me getting back a dog with aggression issues, and at one point I was talked out of getting him. However, I morally just didn’t feel like I could let Hydro be euthanized without really understanding what was going on. After all, this wasn’t my first rodeo with dogs with aggression issues. Unless you are pushed outside of your comfort zone and really forced to contend with serious issues it is not one’s place to pass judgement. We all train different dogs for different reasons. Risks are a part of the business, and had I not been forced to deal with prior dogs with volatility and reactivity issues in a meaningful way (not just “ware housing” for breeding purposes), I would not be equipped with a strategic game plan for Hydro. So, to Chris’ chagrin (and support, I might add), I brought the little beast home. This was the puppy I had raised and put my heart and soul into training for two years before making the difficult decision to let him spread his wings as a police dog (an incredibly hard choice, I might add).
Before I unloaded Hydro, Chris had to go inside the house and was on “stand by” with a sleeve to redirect in case something happened. I decided it was most beneficial to let Hydro out of his crate off leash (I live on over 80 acres in the middle of no where), with something in his mouth. Because Hydro innately does not care for people other than his “person” or pack, Chris stayed indoors and would nervously remind me through the window when I walked too far off and he lost visual of us. All dogs were brought in or put up to minimize stimulation. I let him out of the crate without incident, and he proceeded to zoom around on obsessively mark on everything. It took some time to coax him back into a crate after a long break, but I managed. Doing things “hands off” takes patience, timing, and above all else treat the dog like a horse….don’t be in a hurry. Those who understand equines get that pushing a horse will result in the task taking twice as long. I simply took on this demeanor with Hydro. We had all night. After all, I drove 3,400 miles to get this dog and I wasn’t about to set myself up for a hairy incident resulting in injury to myself, and certainly a death sentence to the dog.
The next few days were the hardest and most time consuming. All dogs had to be walked first thing in the morning and put up again to minimize stimulation, because I wasn’t sure how long the “Hydro sessions” would last. Again, we were trying to reboot his brain, rebuild a relationship, and avoid conflict. It took forever. Every time he was let let out of the crate I increased criteria for waiting (impulse control) before being let out. This was something he knew very, very well as a young dog but had been lost over the course of the last year plus. He would essentially rudely bust out, which precipitated one of the bites. Through waiting games using treats and clicker training, he quickly remembered this game. I was VERY, VERY sure and absolutely certain a bumper or two along with Kongs were readily available. After all, if he perceived conflict, was aroused, or blocked from a stimulus Hydro had definitively learned to unload on the handler in a violent way. So, better a bumper in his mouth than my arm or wrist, as was his choice on previous occasions. I followed the same pattern, schedule and impulse control techniques to a “T” for the first week. I was able to incorporate collar grabs coupled with food (precisely the same time), then worked up to collar grab, then click reward (delayed click). Again, this was a game he knew from his early work so it progressed incredibly fast. I was able to leash him up, and could immediately feel his energy change and him almost go into an avoidance state of anxiety that looked like frantic drive
We tread milled a bit, but hard to do with a dog that is now leash reactive, so I did a bit of holding his leash at the treadmill with food rewards. He would get frustrated, and I could see his eyes start to glow and he would try to avoid by manically blasting off the treadmill. I made it a game again and made sure I took him off before he was mentally frustrated (which could happen in as little as 1-2 minutes). All of this was done with treats and/or bumper in his mouth and very loose leash pressure and flat collar.
I continued on this path, slowing asking for higher criteria and incorporating games. He ate exclusively out of my hand, and his impulse control was increasing each day. Two weeks later, he was starting to offer behaviors, but still almost panicky about the location of his toy when he switched to food. Again, I am so lucky I worked extensively on minute behaviors. Each series of chained behaviors had to be precise, and I had low criteria. “Hydro, come!”, “down”, “out”, “leave it”, “watch me”, “sit”, reward (first, individual behaviors, then two and three and so on) and repeat. Initially after every command he would frantically try to grab his toy, but over time his original foundation kicked in and I could chain behaviors. I started to incorporate Flexi lead walks to expand his distance from me, hence minimizing conflict, all with a bumper in his mouth. We did lot of grooming for bonding.
I had the San Diego workshop coming up, and was rather worried about traveling with him as I hadn’t been able to work him up the point of working off site with a leash. As it turned out, I was able to locate quiet places to walk him and the entire trip (less a couple of angry moments in the dog trailer when people were around him) and all was well. He only got fed going in the trailer, and this is something I am still continuing now (he must work for his resources to minimize conflict).
He has since been reintroduced to the ecollar (around the end of week one, early week two) as this is something he was very fluent in before I sold him. Low level tapping only in far proximity from the handler to go to a spot and come back to me. It is incredibly helpful in gaining control while allowing him freedom without leash conflict.
Now, a month into the endeavor and he is constantly wagging his tail, super happy to work, and is earning short periods of house privileges.
We are still embarking on the beginnings of this journey, but I feel we are finally at a starting point (in trained behaviors, not emotional stability) near where we left off over a year ago. He seems genuinely happy, and I am working on keeping his emotions stabilized as we slowly increase arousal levels. I predict it will be many months before he can emotionally hold it together and not unload on the closest target to him in drive work, but we are making incredible progress! I have many ask if he is available, and while I believe he could have make a kick ass police dog for high risk, SWAT level applications, he is going to stay with me. He is a one person dog, and I feel his best chance is to stick with a communication style he knows.
The power of foundation and puppy bond. 🙂 Wish us luck! We’ll need it!