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Buddy’s Rehab 3 – The First Few Days of Buddy’s Rehab

Updated: Feb 13, 2023

If you read the previous blog post (Buddy’s Rehab 2), you saw the LONG list of issues Buddy needs to work on in order to live a somewhat normal life. In this blog post, I will discuss what I did in the first few days in order to get him started in the right direction.

With such a long list of issues, where does one start? Considering that Fear is at the heart of Buddy’s issues, I decided to start by working on helping him to feel comfortable and SAFE in his new surroundings.

A few things I should tell you I did; and this is something I would recommend doing with any dog new to a household, whether or not there is a fear or aggression issue involved…

First, I do not feed Buddy his food from a bowl. All food I give to Buddy comes from my hands and each piece of food he eats is part of some sort of training/rehab exercise. This does two things. First, it allows me to do the training/rehab exercises without over-feeding Buddy, so his food, not treats, are used for each training exercise. Second, it allows me a way to start working on correcting Buddy’s impulse control issues by requiring him to earn all his food. Check out this link for more information:

Second, Buddy was tethered to me continuously (with some obvious exceptions, and in those cases, he was in his crate). This allowed me to be able to continuously monitor him, reward him right away for good behavior, and re-direct him right away when needed. It also allowed me always to know what he was doing and it gave him a sense of stability.

Third, I kept completely calm at all times, even when he was attacking me. I never raised my voice, never yelled at him or scolded him, never hit him or used my hands for anything negative (only for petting, and giving food), never used any punishment or negative training methods.

Fourth, Buddy was not allowed on any furniture. No sleeping in the bed with me, no couch, etc. This is a mistake many people make; they allow a dog new to the household unlimited access to everything all at once. It is just too much too soon. It is important for the dog to earn these privileges over time. Some dogs (like Buddy) should never be permitted on the furniture, and a dog like Buddy should never be permitted to sleep in the bed with you, it is just not safe for either of you. For dogs like this, get them a nice dog bed, and if you want them to sleep in your bedroom so you can monitor them during the night, you can place their dog bed somewhere in your bedroom. I have Buddy’s dog bed on the floor next to my bed.

Fifth, I worked with Buddy 24/7. There were no breaks for me as Buddy was terrified of almost everything. Even during the night, I was up often to comfort him as he expressed his fears of being in a new environment. Was any of this fun? – not at all. However, it was necessary if I was going to make any true progress with Buddy without causing him additional behavioral issues. What I will describe in this post and the posts that will follow is a great deal of hard work, all necessary due to Buddy’s previous improper handling.

I am sure you all are familiar with the expression “An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure”. Well in Buddy’s case, An ounce of prevention would have been worth a TON of cure – and that is not an exaggeration. Buddy’s rehab has been, and will continue to be, a very long and expensive road. If only those in his past had the proper education, they could have prevented much of his aggression.

This is why it is crucial for anyone who has or gets a dog, and for anyone in a profession that deals with dogs, to properly educate themselves so that they don’t end up creating dogs with behavioral problems. And yes, I have witnessed people in professions that deal with dogs (including veterinarians, techs, groomers, trainers, shelter workers, etc) mishandle dogs and cause behavioral issues without realizing that was what they were doing. Buddy’s behavioral problems were created by improper handling. Had he been properly handled, I wouldn’t have this enormous mountain to climb with him.

Getting Buddy comfortable with his new environment

Buddy was already crate trained, so I started with introducing him to his kennel. I made sure it was comfortable, with lots of padding for him to sink into, and I tucked it away in a corner next to the couch, so he could feel protected; I placed it so it would simulate a den. Since he had toy guarding issues, I could not give him toys at this point. Buddy seemed to be comfortable in his kennel, but when he stepped out of it, he was clearly afraid. Once outside the kennel, even just a foot or two, he would pace back and forth nervously until he eventually went back into the kennel. I just let him be, I didn’t push him or pressure him to come out, but when he did, I rewarded him with a piece of kibble.

It took Buddy a few weeks before he was comfortable in the whole space of the living room. I accomplished this by just allowing him to take a step or two outside his comfort zone and allowing him to run back into his comfort zone when he wanted to. I just let him do this at his own pace; I never pushed him, and always rewarded him for any progress he made. You may be wondering why it took Buddy so long to get used to just one room of the house. Well, he had spent the first 6 years of his life living in a very small area, so his world was very small. Then when owner #2 bought him, his world suddenly became very large, and this was extremely scary for him. He was not allowed to gradually get accustomed to the world he was being thrust into, and this was overwhelming to Buddy. Buddy needed for his world to be small again so he could feel safe, and he needed to be able to gradually be introduced to the world. This needed to be done at the pace Buddy felt comfortable with, not forced, and not pushed. So for the first several weeks, we worked in the living room. Buddy got comfortable with the living room inch by inch (literally); he would step a few inches outside his comfort zone and then dart back into his comfort zone, and he continued this until he had finally, gradually, ventured into the entire area of the living room and felt safe in the entire space.

I also got him used to the path from the living room to the back door, because, of course, he needed to go outside to relieve himself. Going outside was challenging at times because there was so much out there he was afraid of (the wind, birds singing, neighbors making noise, etc.) that many times it was difficult to keep him out there so he could relieve himself. I did all the outside trips on leash so that he would always at least have the security of having me by his side at all times.

Once he was comfortable with the living room, I started bringing him into the kitchen. Again, we did this inch by inch, with a lot of positive reinforcement (praise and kibble) when he ventured outside his comfort zone.

Desensitizing Buddy to the sounds he feared

Sounds were also something I had to desensitize him to. I had to pick and choose the times I ran the dishwasher, washing machine, dryer, etc. I used positive reinforcement to get him used to these sounds as well by giving him food and praise when he would hear these sounds so he would start to associate the sounds with good things happening. It was a long process, and it took many months before he was not reacting fearfully to the sounds the appliances made. It took yet another few months before he was completely comfortable with the sound of the appliances.

Crate Aggression

During this time, I also worked on Buddy’s crate aggression. He was very fearful of me putting my hands near the crate when he was in it and he would react aggressively, trying to bite me through the crate.

As with everything else, this was a long process. I worked on this 2-3 times a day with him. I started by leading him into and out the crate with a piece of kibble. I would progress through a long series of steps until I was able to have him sit in the crate while I pet him with one hand and gave him a treat with the other hand. Once he was comfortable with that I would close and open the door with him in the crate and progress until I could give him kibble through the closed crate door. Gradually progressing to latching and unlatching the crate door while handing him kibble through it, and then to giving him kibble through the other walls of the crate. After he was comfortable with that, I would have him do obedience commands (sit, down, stand, spin, etc.) while in the crate and give him kibble for each completed command. This is not a complete list of the steps involved, there were many steps in between because I had to very gradually desensitize him to every variable in the process.

It took me 3 solid months to accomplish desensitizing him to being approached while he was in his crate. After that I spent another 3 months continuing to do the exercises so I could keep reinforcing his comfort with me going near and touching his crate while he is in it. Does this mean his crate aggression is permanently solved? No, it does not. Just like anything you teach, refresher exercises will need to be done to continue to reinforce this with Buddy throughout the rest of his life.

Reaction to cars

The last thing I will talk about in this blog post is what I did to work on Buddy’s fear and reaction to cars driving past the house. This is not something I worked on in the first few days, it was more like 2 weeks later, but I still want to discuss it in this post. Seeing cars drive by was very stressful for Buddy and he would react very strongly to this by shivering, charging the door, and barking wildly. My task was to desensitize him to seeing the cars passing by. I did this by playing a game I call “Let's Watch for Cars”.

Fortunately, I have a full view storm door, so I was able to open the front door and sit with Buddy so he could watch the cars pass by. We did not sit right at the door, we sat about 10 or so feet back from the door. I sat there with Buddy on leash and his full allotment of breakfast kibble and I said, “Let’s watch for cars”. When a car would drive by I would say in a happy voice, "yay", “car”, “good” and give Buddy a piece of kibble. The only time I gave Buddy a piece of kibble was when a car would pass by. He did not get any food unless there was a car passing by. If Buddy reacted, I would lead him away to a location where he couldn’t see out the door and let him calm down. When he was calm, I would bring him back, sit down and wait for the next car to go by.

We would sit there for up to 2 hours at a time doing this. Over time, Buddy learned that seeing a car meant he got something to eat. His association with seeing cars changed from that of fear of the unfamiliar, scary object to him looking forward to seeing the car because he now knows the car brings him food. It took a lot of practice (many months), but now when we play “Let’s watch for cars”, when he sees a car go by, he looks to me for the reward. This is exactly what you want when you are desensitizing a dog to a stimulus, you want them to learn to look to you for direction when they encounter the stimuli instead of reacting to the stimuli. In the beginning, you use food and praise as a reward, and then you slowly phase out the food until you have a dog who reliably looks to you when the see the stimuli with only your praise being the reward. This exercise taught Buddy to look to me when he sees a car drive by the house instead of reacting to it. We are still working on desensitizing him to a car that stops in front of the house, but he has mastered seeing a car drive by without reacting.

As I am sure you can tell, this work takes an extremely large amount of time and patience. You have GOT to work at the dogs pace. You have GOT to carefully watch the dogs body language and take your cues from the dog. If you try to move too quickly, you can actually undo progress you have made, you can cause the dog to act aggressively, and make his aggression worse.

In the next blog post (Buddy’s Rehab 4) I will discuss where things stood after 2 months of working with Buddy.

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Note and disclaimer: All information in the blog posts on this site is my opinion based on my own experience rehabilitating an aggressive dog. I am not a professional behaviorist or otherwise involved in the Veterinary profession. If you are dealing with an aggressive dog, I recommend you seek the advice of a Board Certified Veterinary Behaviorist.

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