Behavior Modification or Time to Rehome?

This past week has been a slice of h*ll.
Between my health, including a very negative physical reaction to a new medicine, topped off by people and dog guests, the routine and peace of our home took a big hit. Normally I wouldn’t mind that. But as they say, crap trickles down. Gracie has become even more protective of me. This week she started guarding me from the other dogs in the house and when she and the Chi man had a disagreement about this, the poor little Chihuahua got bitten in the face.

As if that were not bad enough, Gracie seems to have decided that the Chihuahua should no longer live here. Of course, that isn’t her choice to make. And now I have to step up my game to remind her that I decide who lives here and who doesn’t and the tone and limits of behavior. My extended family is worried that this is too much stress for me, given my ongoing health issues. I’ve waivered.

This morning I had a mini-epiphany.
Before I get to my insight though, I thought it would be a good idea to review the differences between times when a dog is in need of behavior modification/further training and when a dog may need to be rehomed.

First let us also clarify – some behavior isn’t necessarily modifiable to a safe point. When a dog has a strong prey drive for example, that dog may never be totally trustworthy around smaller animals that make a sudden movement. I would argue that there is a difference between the instincts that are wired into a dog and the behaviors that a dog is trained for; some of the hardwired stuff is difficult to train around and some of the hardwired stuff may always come out, no matter the level of training a dog has.

There can also be a conflict between a dog’s natural personality and training. Regardless of their respective levels of training, a nervous dog who lacks confidence is going to be more reactive than is a confident dog, or a mellow dog. If one ends up with a dog whose personality doesn’t fit into their living environment, then even training may not make the fit between dog and human a good one. I’ve seen this with dogs who were too dominant for their handlers, and dogs who were overwhelmed by handlers who were too dominating for a gentler spirited animal.

Now let’s turn to Gracie as an exemplar of where the line might be between training and rehoming.
Gracie has a strong personality, which is actually one of the things I love about her. Early on I recognized that one of my weakness as a dog handler is my low tolerance for dogs that tend to cower. While I can work with them in short bursts, it takes a lot more of my energy to be the low key, quiet person they need. I’m much more comfortable dealing with stubborn dogs than with dogs who flop over on their backs the minute one looks at them. Personality wise then, Gracie and I work.

Next to consider is prey drive, since the ‘issue’ in our home isn’t just how Gracie and I get along but how she does with other animals. Gracie has moderate prey drive. All terriers do. It was bred into them, as all the terrier breeds were designed to hunt something, and some were then bred to be more aggressive in an attempt to get them to fight each other; prey drive varies by breeds generally and individual dogs specifically. Gracie’s prey drive, for example, is much lower than her 1/2 sister’s was. I discovered this when we temporarily fostered her sister, who would have happily killed our pet rabbit, while Gracie was content to gently sniff noses with the rabbit.

If Gracie had a very strong prey drive, my concern would be that she sees the Chihuahua as an item of prey and that she was going to kill him if she had an opportunity. There actually is a difference between a dog fight where the smaller dog gets hurt, and a dog who starts out with the intent to kill. If one is living with a dog who will kill, then one should not attempt to keep what that dog views as prey, as a pet. That isn’t fair to the other pet; not only are you placing them in danger but you’re also placing them under stress. Animals have a pretty good sense of when a predator is eyeing them up and that’s a harsh way to live.

I’ve had two large concerns over the last few days: 1) Gracie was creating too much tension and fear for the senior dogs in the house, 2) Gracie was too worried about me to enjoy her own life and was becoming a tense ball of growing aggression.

Confession – I am seriously considering if Gracie would be calmer and happier as an only dog in another home. I’m also considering: would the senior dogs in our house be safer and calmer if she left?

Even while one considers though, one must live in the moment with the dogs under one’s roof and care. So while I’ve posted an ad to tentatively explore rehoming Gracie, I’ve also adopted new training and handling routines. Gracie is learning to wear a basket muzzle while sitting quietly, not because she will need to wear one often but because she needs to remember that other animals can be around without her reacting to them.

 She is on a leash which I hold when she isn’t in her crate or outdoor run. This reminds Gracie that I’m in charge, that she is to look to me before acting, while also requiring her to move when I move. This disrupts her pattern of deciding when she will nap and when she will charge around the house watching out the windows, or deciding who should be allowed or excluded from the room.

She is no longer allowed upstairs – that is the senior dog zone. This is not a ghetto for seniors; they still come downstairs regularly, but they also have entire rooms to hang out in where Gracie isn’t allowed. Jenny’s favorite room is actually upstairs and now Gracie can’t interupt her long peaceful naps there.
At the same time, when I decide to sit down and work on my laptop, Gracie can either be in her run, or on the couch next to me – no more independent wandering around the house. And just the two of us take walks, as her energy level is different from the other dogs and I want her to keep moving, not casually strolling, or stopping to sniff a lot.

In fact, it was early this morning that my mini-epiphany struck me. The rest of our quiet little village still seemed to be asleep, as we walked down the middle of the side street we live on and Gracie bounced happily along watching the world. Then she began grumbling and snorting as a single other person crossed the street behind us. Gracie looked a bit funny, walking sideways, snorting and moaning but she didn’t bark or growl, and continued on with me. The other walker and I both smiled at how silly she seemed. Right about then, I realized I hadn’t actually been for a walk in the past few days. I hadn’t realized how much I had started to let my physical discomfort and weariness draw the edges of my world in.

The other dogs enjoy strolls but Gracie benefits from a brisk walk. Actually, it’s almost a fast march. The other dogs are fairly easy going, low maintenance. Gracie is not. Or when she is allowed to ‘fly under the radar’ too long, she seems more likely to act out. Chi chi and Jenny both have medical concerns and are aging rapidly. Gracie is healthy and likely at the midpoint of her life. She has years left and they can be good or bad, pleasant or not. Gracie is not a simple dog to live with but we understand each other. That’s when I realized: I need Gracie because Gracie needs me.

  • Gracie needs me to get up and walk her and I won’t get up and walk unless someone needs me to; it’s too uncomfortable so otherwise I will put it off. Her need motivates me, my own does not.
  • Gracie needs me to remember to take my medicine so I can function well; I was drifting towards indifference, tired of the side effects but now I’m reminded how important attention to these details are. 
  • Gracie needs me to be alert so that she doesn’t have to be so vigilant. When I slack she’s eager to help and she can’t be left to her own devices in running our household.
  • In the wrong home Gracie could be a bully or bullied. She needs me to provide the balance that both keeps her in line but also recognizes how sensitive she is. 

Gracie needs me and that is what I need right now, that is really what I’ve always thrived on, a dog that saves me by allowing me to feel that I’m saving them.

Saved by dogs – funny how after all these years I’m yet again reminded why I chose that title for this blog.

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