Case Study: Interview with Our Heroes, Carolyn and Gus!

This week we're excited to bring you an interview with Carolyn Mauk. Carolyn shares her life with Gus, a wonderful Bull Terrier, and together they've overcome many challenges. As Carolyn says "I do know he is a well-loved and spoiled dog who trusts me to the moon and back. I know that he will learn anything I ask him to learn because I am asking him to do it. I think that is a big key with a fraidy dog. You won't accomplish anything unless they trust you."

Q: Could you share your personal story about Gus with our community?

A: My family got Gus and his sister Missie from a breeder in Reading, PA. The two pups were so lethargic. We could not leave one behind, so we bartered and took both. They were sick from worms and it took three months to get them healthy. As they started to feel better two things happened. First, Missie became a spinner and could catch and suck on her tail. Second, we thought her behavior was a trigger for Gus and the two would get into horrible fights. At nine months we decided to separate them. Being naive we thought that would solve Gus’ problems of being reactive.

Q: What led you to begin exploring ways to help Gus?

A: Gus’ behavior did not change after Missie left  He would react towards any dog he saw. He also would react towards any new male he encountered especially if they showed any nervousness around him.    

Q: What other types of training had you tried before beginning work with our team?

A: The family that adopted Missie went to a dog training school on the Main Line in Philadelphia, What a Good Dog. The woman who owned What a Good Dog owned, bred, and showed Bull Terriers. She took one look at Gus and said he is not aggressive, he is a frightened baby who lacks any confidence. We attended one of their classes, which was outside, and Gus did very well. Then we moved down here to Mount Pleasant. We googled trainers who used positive reinforcement. We found Purely Positive Dog Training and signed up for the CGC class. It was an indoor class in a very loud gym. Gus did not perform well. Susan kindly offered to do some one on one training and then suggested the Growl Class.  

Q: Did you discuss your needs with your veterinarian and find support there?

A: We did get some support from our local vet down here. She put Gus on Prozac. He was on it for 18 months. We did the first Growl Class while he was starting Prozac. He did the second Growl Class as we weaned him off Prozac  We weaned him off because he was too subdued. He no longer played soccer (Gus does not fetch, but he kicks his jolly balls around the house and passes them to any human willing to play.) or ran in the yard.   

Q: When did you first explore natural options to help with anxiety? Tell us about that path and what you discovered? What was eventually the outcome?

A: As I stated before we went to the vet who recommended Prozac. We did not like it for long term use, but we were able to teach him some acceptable ways to behave. When we decided to wean him off, C.C. suggested some alternative options. We use lavender oil, the Thundershirt, melatonin, and a daily supplement by VetriScience called Composure. Melatonin is great if we know Gus will be encountering a trigger, i.e.a guest coming over. Lavender is great when my son’s dog comes over and stays. They both seem to benefit. Any time we put Gus’ thundershirt on, or any clothes, he becomes very subdued, but he will start rubbing against walls and furniture if he has them on longer than 1-2 hours. We also have him do tricks, and play games especially when contractors come and are working on or around the house.

Q: Why do you feel the work you do with Gus is the most effective you’ve found so far?

A: I feel any activity which makes him think of something other than his trigger is a good thing. I feel he will always be reactive so it is up to us to keep his triggers at bay. I think Gus has gained a lot of confidence learning his “tricks" which has helped him to be able to go for a walk down the beach or at the park. Learning “tricks” builds confidence, confidence helps him become more successful.

Q: Where else have you turned for guidance which you have found helpful i.e. books, articles online, etc.?

A: Through the Growl Class different books and videos were suggested. I take a little from here and a little from there to see what works best for Gus. Dogs like humans come in many varieties. What works for Gus may not work for another dog. When folks come over to our house Gus immediately plays soccer. It calms him. My son’s dog would not benefit from playing soccer.  

I like watching videos to actually see how to train the dog.  For me sometimes seeing is better than reading.

Q: Do you think other owners with reactive dogs readily find the support they need?

A: No, but I don't feel all [owners] go looking for help. 

Q: What are some of the biggest myths and misconceptions you have come across with those you speak to about reactivity in dogs?

A: The dog is an alpha dog. The dog is very aggressive or mean. You coddle your dog... just let him go play and another dog will show him how.    

Q: What have you learned about Gus’ individual stress signs as far as body language, triggers to those stress signs, and any other points you would like to share?

A: Gus always become stiff as soon as he sees a trigger. As soon as I see his ears perk, I get him to look at me. I never leave the house without a treat. Gus can zone in on a dog during a walk and again "look at me" comes in handy -- then a quick U turn. When we cannot do a U turn then I try to block his vision. The best trick he has learned when we come across a loose dog is “call your dog.” When I say “call your dog,” Gus will immediately start running with me. He knows when we stop he will hit the jackpot and get a boatload of treats. Hopefully the loose dog’s owner is within earshot and sees the situation and calls their dog to them.  

Q: Remembering back to when his behavior started, what did you think caused the behavior? What did you see as your choices to modify it at that time?

A: I think Gus was the product of poor breeding. I think if we had not taken Gus and Missie both of their lives would have ended poorly. We thought training, but we did not know what training. We fell into Purely Positive and then the Growl Class.

Q: Let’s talk about management, and how this has helped in Gus’ behavior modification, and what management you use today.

A: We reward Gus for coming to us in the house and in the yard. We do not reward barking at the door, but if he is barking and I call him to the kitchen and he comes he will get a reward and depending on the trigger sometimes a game. He likes playing touch, find it, or just running through a bunch of tricks. I guess you could say we distract him from his triggers.  

Q: What are the top three pieces of advice you would impart to owners of reactive dogs?

A: These are the three most important things:

1. Consistency- do the same thing over and over to weed out any surprises in his world. If you are consistent with your behavior, your dog will trust you. When your dog trusts you they tend to follow your lead more often than not.

2. Always have a coveted treat available whether you are in your house or out for a walk. Use the treat to distract, and use them as rewards. I also treat other dogs I see on walks. Gus will now walk up to dogs behind invisible fences so I can throw them a treat. I did this to stop the 'stranger' dogs from barking. Now when those dogs see me they act like I am the ice cream man. They send off different body language and Gus does not perceive them as a threat.  

3. If you feel something in your gut is off with your dog, follow it. At times when we have gotten Gus all ready for a walk, I will notice he looks sad or out of sorts [and then] I cancel the walk. If he is not feeling it we don't go or we may leave his harness on and do a few chores around the house and try again. We do not start a walk on the wrong foot.

Q: Which training exercises have you found most helpful to help Gus focus on you instead of other dogs when out on walks?

A: Always a great treat, Gus loves string cheese my kids call it "emergencheese," with a "look at me" and treat, "look at me" and treat. Also speaking to Gus with a happy tone of voice.

Q: Which training exercises have you found most helpful to change Gus’ opinion about other dogs?

A: Slow introduction. When my son’s fiance brings her dog Blue over, the first 12 hours we play the dog house shuffle. Gus smells her, but he does see her. Then we will put him in his kennel which is centrally located with a good chew toy or frozen treat. He sees her, but he feels safe in his kennel. We take them both for a walk, but we only parallel walk. Finally if he shows no signs of reactivity they meet outside. Luckily, Blue is a very laid back dog. 

When seeing other dogs out on a walk the best thing we do is use space. With enough space, Gus may look at another dog, but not bark or lunge. Whenever he successfully ignores another dog, we treat him.

Q: How did you get Gus his needed physical and mental exercise in the beginning when it was more difficult to take him on walks?

A: We played in the yard with him. We live on a tidal creek so we always have good smells in the back yard. We play "find it". We give him his food in an interactive ball or puzzle.

Q: Were you embarrassed or frustrated by Gus’ behavior when this started? Any words of support to those working with a reactive dog?

A: Yes, I had owned 5 dogs prior to Gus and none had ever shown this behavior. Words of support… there is a light at the end of the tunnel and as long as you are your dog advocate, and you are consistent, you will see it. As my husband says training a dog is like being a little league coach you need to set them up to succeed. We take Gus for walks, but at times when others may not be out. When we go to the beach we go after the off-leash hours.

Q: What was your biggest challenge when you started behavior modification with him?

A: Me. Sometimes I think this will never work. I learned I must have confidence in Gus and in myself and in the two of us as a team.

QWhat is your favorite training equipment?

A: Food. His harness. When we switched from his collar to his Easy Walk Harness, he seemed to walk better.

Q: Describe your next goals for Gus.

A: At age 4 1/2, Gus will probably always be reactive, we as his owners must work around that and keep his triggers at bay. We want to take him with us more, but we know he will never be a "Second Sunday" type dog or a restaurant dog. We want him to be a content dog who is not afraid of everything. We will tackle each fear as it comes and deal with them the same way we have in the past -- slowly and methodically.  

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