Forced breeding in a tiny pen.
Ignorant, abusive families.
This is how Mr. Happy spent the first two-and-a-half years of his life before we met him that October morning in 2010. Despite being a graduate of the School of Hard Knocks, Mr. Happy always shows so much affection toward people.
Mr. Happy’s problem is other dogs and his dislike of them. This is known as dog-fear aggression. Our vet worked with us to determine that the likely cause of the fear-aggression was the lack of socialization with other dogs when Mr. Happy was a puppy. The Lhasa side of Mr. Happy requires early socialization our vet opined.
So where did we go from here?
Addressing dog-fear aggression should only be at the direction of an experienced dog trainer. You can watch all the videos you want on Animal Planet or You Tube, but you are potentially making the situation worse by doing so.
Finding a trainer is a challenge. A basic obedience course will not do the trick and putting your dog in that type of class can make them more fearful. I called a variety of trainers, including one person who said, without even meeting my dog, that Mr. Happy was a lost cause. That kind of blanket statement just pushed me to work harder.
We ended up enrolling Mr. Happy at St. Hubert’s Animal Welfare Center in Madison, New Jersey. There were a few other programs in our area, but St. Hubert’s offered a more comprehensive and holistic approach in it’s three-level “Feisty Fidos” program.
On a snowy March Day in 2011, Mr. Happy and I waited in my car until we were summoned to the class (you don’t let nutty dogs just walk in all at once). Mr. Happy looked annoyed because he had to wear a muzzle, martingale collar and snoot loop. I rocked old sweats and a big blue fanny pack full of “high value treats” (a bag full of dog favorites — fresh meat). All I was missing was a shirt that said “Crazy Dog Owner”.
Over the course of 8 weeks, I crawled around on the floor of a large training facility trying to get Mr. Happy to realize that the other dogs aren’t so bad. We practiced leash handling, dog massage and distraction techniques. The team of trainers made sure each of us got individual attention. We were among our “peeps” — dogs who had challenges of being with other dogs, and their owners who would stop at nothing to help improve their dog’s behavior.
Slowly, Mr. Happy improved. He became less reactive around other dogs. He learned to listen to me. He realized that this house wasn’t going to give up on him.
I improved too. I learned to walk Mr. Happy with more authority. I gained an understanding of how to read Mr. Happy’s body language for signs of stress. I internalized that Mr. Happy’s past was behind us and I shouldn’t allow my sympathy for what happened to him cloud how I help him to improve.
At the end of the 8 weeks, Mr. Happy graduated. In his red file folder of woe, the one that tells his life story before he moved in with us, proudly sits his dog school diploma.
A few weeks later we went on to Feisty Fidos Level 2, which is outdoors and requires your dog to handle other feisty dogs and stranger dogs walking around the St. Hubert’s complex. Unfortunately, I couldn’t trade in that bright blue fanny pack and this time I had to wear it in public. Mr. Happy did well. Maybe it was the early pregnancy hormones, but it broke my heart when I actually saw him walk side-by-side next to another dog. Yes all dogs deserve a second chance.
Believe it or not, Mr. Happy actually got an invite to Level 3 too. You would have thought my dog landed a role in a major movie the way I bounced around with excitement. Level 3 means that Mr. Happy would go once a week to a special dog park for other feisty dogs. They play off-leash and learn the rules of the dog world. I’ll probably have to dust off my fanny pack so Mr. Happy can attend, but it will be worth it so Mr. Happy can keep on shaking off his previous life. .