By Dan Antolec
It was an unusually warm day for the first of December (2012) with temperatures in the mid-50s that lingered well after sunset, as I made my way along a country road to Evansville to visit a friend of mine. A light drizzle covered the windshield and combined with road spray and bright headlight glare from oncoming traffic, obscuring my vision of whatever should lie ahead on my journey. I squinted as the wiper blades streaked from left to right and back again in front of me as I peered into the darkness and thought only of Ranger. His journey was long and difficult, and for one month this summer we walked it together. Now I was on my way to visit him at the home of Nicole and Kyle Sperry, the Australian Shepherd Rescue Midwest foster family that first introduced me to Ranger on August 28th. I had been invited to an appointment with the Carlsens, two brothers that had travelled one and one-half hours in the rain to see the dog they just might adopt. It was a long journey on a warm dark night in December and none of us knew what should happen to lie ahead of us.
As I pulled up to the curb and parked, I paused to remember the day I first met Ranger. Nicole visited Hound Huddle in Oregon to inquire about daycare options and possibly training for the little Aussie that had been kept in an apartment for two and a half years, his elderly owner unable to provide the exercise and stimulation he required. Ranger developed a serious case of separation anxiety and was fearful of just about everything in the outside world. Having been deprived of stimulation, when his owner gave him up to the rescue organization he felt overwhelmed and fearful; it was all too stimulating and Ranger had never learned how to cope with the world outside of his apartment. By default, his only coping mechanism was the instinct of fear.
While visiting Hound Huddle, Nicole had the good fortune of speaking with Abby Gruell, a long-time daycare employee and a college graduate working on her animal care career goal. Abby’s compassion for Ranger prompted her to describe his predicament to me, and I called Nicole.
Having taught dog training group classes at Hound Huddle for some time, I formed Happy Buddha Dog Training LLC in July so that I could do personalized in-home training and behavior modification for dogs like Ranger. Sometimes a dog or owner cannot meet the requirements of a group course,but can thrive when given more flexible options to choose from.
Upon my first meeting with Nicole and Ranger I knocked at the front door, was invited to enter, and saw a strikingly handsome but frightened little Aussie at the other side of the room, standing beside Nicole for protection as he barked at me: “Go away! Go away! You scare
me!” I turned sideways, avoided eye contact, kneeled down, looked away, blinked my eyes, licked my lips and offered a limp-wristed human version of a canine paw lift. Doing my best to speak “dog” and offer a slew of canine calming signals, I respected Ranger’s space and remained my position for at least 20 minutes, tossing little bits of chopped hotdog at his feet now and then. At first he was too afraid to take food, but as time passed and I remained as non-threatening as possible, he finally began eating. I then began tossing them just a little bit farther away from Ranger and closer to myself, coaxing him to approach just long enough to stop barking, take his hot dog reward and retreat. Eventually he trusted me enough to let me walk into the living room where I sat for the remainder of the first hour.
Nicole described his behaviors, I took notes, and we discussed a strategy to rehabilitate Ranger and prepare him for eventual adoption. First, I had to earn his tust by teaching him “Look” and “Touch” obedience behaviors. That allowed me to reward Ranger for looking at and approaching me. When he was comfortable next to me, I began handling exercises, rewarding him for allowing me to pet him and handle various parts of his body. Those preliminary exercises gave me tools to use so I could teach him a host of obedience behaviors, help him develop confidence in himself and in his human handlers, develop impulse control and have an enjoyable experience doing so.
To reduce his anxiety at the picture window whenever motor vehicles passed the house (and his equally reactive behavior at the back door leading to a fenced yard) we would teach him to sit quietly for his collar and leash, wait for a person to open the door…step outside…and call
him. Once we were outside, or while sitting at the picture window, the goal would change to
counter-conditioning his emotional reaction to approaching vehicles or animals. Doing so involved the use of “Look”, “Touch” and “Sit” to draw Ranger’s attention to his human handler
prior to the onset of distress, and until the vehicle or other scary stimuli passed by. Ranger began learning how to remain calm, to use the thinking part of his brain, and associate
different emotions with the appearance of things that previously scared him. When he was good at that, I took him on long walks in the community and we practiced the skills he had
learned in a calmer environment. We walked side-by-side and learned more about each other along the way.
The key was in understanding how the mammalian brain functions, and the specific influences of the limbic system and the frontal cortex, which are the emotional and the problem solving systems in the brain. When one system is activated, the other is suppressed. Visualize a teeter-totter where one end represents a fearful and reactive emotional state, and the other represents a calm problem-solving state. Each system prompts the release of either stress or calming hormones, affecting various organs and biological systems and the ability to learn and recall prior learning. Knowing how to manipulate these systems through training exercises
allowed me to help Ranger replace his fearful and reactive behaviors with calm and responsive behaviors.
To resolve his separation anxiety, Nicole and Kyle each wrote a list of departure cues, in order from first to last. Ranger inherited a high level of canine intelligence from his ancestors and so he paid close attention and predicted the departure of his human caregivers, growing ever more anxious until they left him alone, and then he entered a panicked state. First, we changed the order of departure cues, like shuffling a deck of cards. Next, we systematically counter-conditioned the meaning of each individual cue, starting with the first cue on the list and working our way to the last. In operant conditioning this is described as the ABCs. First there is an antecedent, followed by a behavior, and a consequence of that behavior. Identifying the ABCs allowed me to devise ways to teach Ranger that each successive departure cue no longer had meaning, and so it was no longer part of the daisy chain of events that ultimately led to abandonment. In short, Ranger still paid close attention but no longer had to worry about things.
Nicole and I agreed on our joint strategy and later discussed it with Kyle, confirming that I would visit twice a week to work with Ranger and coach the two of them so they could continue working with Ranger on days between my visits. I also gave them a copy of the training DVD that I produced for dog owners to help them throughout training courses and long afterward.
My own two most recently adopted dogs had separation anxiety and it took about two months to resolve their fears, so I knew the Sperry’s had a lot of work ahead of them. They were devoted to Ranger’s success, and so was I.
It appeared that the Carlsens arrived ahead of me and I hoped that Ranger would greet me with confidence, and not a prolonged fearful barking episode. Two months had passed since I saw him last, and I reasoned that Nicole and Kyle would not arrange an adoption meeting unless Ranger was clearly ready, but the journey had been long and difficult and I could not clearly see the road ahead. Ranger had one last chance at adoption and the stakes were high. I decided to ring the doorbell.
“Bark, bark, bark!” The door opened, Nicole invited me inside and I peered across the room
wondering if Ranger was bracing himself against the sudden arrival of a scary intruder, seeking shelter and safety beside Nicole and trying to drive me away to reduce his fear. What I saw was a strikingly handsome little guy, bounding and bouncing his way across the room,
stopping at my feet where he looked up at me with a big toothy smile. I automatically knelt down to begin offering my usual string of calming signals, just to offer Ranger some extra
encouragement. He had no time for that and spun around, offering me his posterior as he curved his body and looked over his shoulder at me, just to offer some extra encouragement.
Some dogs just love a good belly rub, but Ranger just loves a good butt rub, and he was making sure I knew how to fulfill my part of the greeting ritual. I happily obliged him.
I walked to the living room to greet Kyle and introduce myself to Jim and Tom Carlsen.
Sitting on the floor beside a comfortable easy chair, I meant to offer myself to Ranger while I joined the conversation. Ranger hopped up on the chair, rested his head on the arm rest and gave me abundant happy kisses while I declared out loud, “What a confident and happy
little guy you are!” Turning to Nicole I praised the obvious work she and Kyle had done and how well-balanced and emotionally stable Ranger was. Almost as if on cue, he hopped down from his perch, bounced across the floor and hopped up on the sofa where Jim and Tom were seated. There he found a safe and comfy lap and cozied up to Jim, as if to demonstrate his confident and friendly nature. It had been a long and difficult journey, but the way ahead was clearing and I knew Ranger was ready for a home of his own, and a holiday season worth
Jim and Tom proved to be mature and intelligent men, paying close attention, asking smart questions, and they made me feel all the more sure they were a great match for Ranger. We discussed his rehabilitation process, demonstrated his obedience skills, talked about what to expect during the transition period that normally occurs when a dog moves from a foster home to a permanent home, and what to do if there should be any stress-induced regression in his behavior. Reflecting on my own experience adopting four dogs, there would probably
be a few bumps in the road but nothing serious, and nothing to threaten Ranger’s long-term outcome. As Kyle remarked to me, all that was required to make the adoption successful was understanding and patience. Jim asked “Who do I make the adoption check payable to” and Nicole helped him with the simple adoption documents.
Moments later Ranger trotted out the front door and across the lawn to the black SUV waiting for him on the street, where a comfortable crate was safely secured in the cargo space.
His new owners carried out the dog bed, a bag of high-quality food, a collar and leash, and other items generously offered by Nicole and Kyle to help Ranger spend his first night in a new home, with a new loving family.
I stood on the front doorstep with the Sperry’s as tears welled, and the light drizzle changed to a steady, warm rain. It was as if all the dog angels in Heaven were shedding tears of joy, washing away the bittersweet tears of those who knew and loved Ranger in the summer and fall of 2012, finally washing away the fear and anxiety of a sweet little guy who only needed some understanding and patience. As the SUV slowly pulled away from the curb and went out of view fading into the darkness, Ranger barked his farewell and continued his life long journey without us, but with newfound loving companions to share his journey.
Returning to my car with lighter steps and a joyful heart, I offered my own farewell to a
strikingly handsome little Aussie, “Happy New Year, Ranger! Happy New Life!”