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  • Nikki Rockwell

The Chicken Coop cont.

So Chicken was going downhill for months. We were frustrated. In December, we finally scheduled an appointment with Penn Vet Behavioral Health. The intake form was SCARY. It asks you how many times the dog has bitten - but the top option is 5+, and she had definitely bitten more than 5 times. It also asks if you’ve ever considered rehoming or euthanizing your dog. And it considers practically everything aggression, including barking! So the questions about ‘does your dog show aggression towards ….?’ all had to be answered YES. Wow. What if they couldn’t help her? Was she really so much worse than we thought?

There’s a lot of shame in having a dog that bites. Some of this is justified. You shouldn’t let your dog bite people! But when we’d tell people that Chicken bit....the reaction was really embarrassing. We were dog people! How could we have a dog like this?

Nikki: As someone who is actually a professional dog person/lover, I wasn’t nearly as worried at first about Chicken being a bitey little poop-head. I, for the most part, was the object of her mastication, thankfully. Chicken was like, “Feeling cute...Might bite mommy later, I don’t know.”

And it was like she knew one of us could handle it better than the other so I gladly sacrificed my fingers for her emotional outlet. (I have been bitten in the past and because Chicken’s bites weren’t hurting nearly as much, I was taking these chews as a grain of salt) It was only when I realized I could no longer successfully leash her up, that I began to worry. I am, after all, a master of the leash-up, and I felt like I couldn’t hold my head up around other leash masters during our monthly meetings.

Carolyn: So in early January, we took Chicken for a 3 hour evaluation. It was exhausting. She barked THE ENTIRE TIME. And the suggestions for what we might do...they seemed so small! I couldn’t imagine any of this would work. Plus, it was just one meeting. How could one very expensive meeting change anything?

Well, it did change everything. Here are the three things I think helped the most:

  1. New medication. GAME CHANGER. We switched Chicken from Prozac (Fluoxetine) to Clomicalm (Clomipramine). Now, getting her off Prozac proved that it was doing *something* for her - because she went crazy. But once we got her on Clomicalm, within a week, maybe two, we started to see a change. We could get her collar on and off without even a grumble. Her reactions to her other pet peeves (dogs, handling, people going by without permission) were still there, but it was like the volume was turned down. And over time, this only increased. If you have a dog on a med you think isn’t working, it’s just like with people - try a different one!

  2. Consent. There’s a new school of thought in pet care that we should allow dogs to consent to treatment, just like people. It’s called Cooperative Care. You can even train a dog to tell you when they can handle a shot or blood draw! We haven’t gotten that far yet, but just knowing that we should let Chicken make decisions was a huge mindset shift. Now, instead of constantly forcing activities she’s told us she doesn’t like, until she finally reaches her limit and bites, we try to avoid her ‘triggers.’ I really love this idea. Getting to know Chicken has made me realize what an individual she is; a tiny soul in a fuzzy, loud little body. She deserves to say no! Not to things related to her safety, but to things she just doesn’t like, like loud people grabbing her face. (Heck, I don’t like people in my face either!)

  3. Threshold. This is huge. Threshold means a dog can no longer handle what is happening. They are in a puppy version of a human panic attack and they can’t listen, learn, or make good choices. Dogs tell us all the time what they like and don’t like, but often times, we don’t listen until it’s too late. Penn Vet taught us a ton of small cues that let us know that Chicken doesn’t really like what’s happening. These include barking and grumbling, but also smaller cues like ears back, yawning, shivering, and eyes rolling so you can see the whites. Noticing these cues helps us avoid putting her over threshold. And it also helps us stop blaming her. She’s terrified! She thinks she’s gonna die! It’s not about being bossy or manipulative.

Ok, I promised a list of three and three is so much better rhetorically, but I have one more:

  1. Stress builds up. If we push Chicken, ignore her ‘no,’ and put her over her threshold, her brain will hold cortisol, a stress hormone, for up to THREE DAYS. Wow! So letting a dog ‘consent’ and keeping them below ‘threshold’ isn’t just about respecting them, although that’s a huge thing. It’s also a way of keeping her total stress level down, so when some idiot reaches down and pets her without asking, she’s less likely to bite them. And when she meets a new dog that she might conceivably like, it’s more likely that she’ll be able to enjoy meeting them if she hasn’t already met 5 other dogs.

So knowing all of this, we use Desensitization/counterconditioning: DSCC. We break up unwanted tasks into tiny, tiny pieces, small enough that she’s under threshold (ideally showing no anxiety, i.e. consenting to the activity) and we give her a treat for completing the task. For example, for a harness, first you just show them the harness and give a treat if they interact with it. Or for dogs, first you just treat for seeing a dog, any dog, no matter how far away it is. We also give her something to do instead: if she’s barking at a dog/person/bag blowing in the breeze, we ask her to ‘touch’ and give a treat. It distracts her and grounds her.

Nikki: For the barking, we also remind Chicken that no one actually asked her opinion. She does not particularly care if her opinion is wanted, but it sure makes us feel good to remind her that it isn’t.

Carolyn: There are tons of great blogs on this, and I’d actually read some of them before I went to Penn Vet. But I didn’t really understand it until I let go of my need to push her into doing things she didn’t want to do. (There was one especially embarrassing-to-remember day where I decided she needed to learn to be picked up…so I picked her up, over and over, til she bit me.)

Nikki: I, however, told her that Chicken didn’t need to be picked up and lots of dogs didn’t like it. (I wouldn’t like it either!) But being as I am in constant contact with a range of dog behaviors, I had that perspective. Carolyn wanted a Disney movie sidekick. I just wanted a dog that provides nose boopings when required.

Carolyn: I couldn’t give up on the idea of ‘winning,’ and I didn’t understand how not doing something could teach her to do something. But it really can! It keeps her stress level low, so that she can learn and grow. She can meet dogs now (only off leash, which is a whole separate issue, but I digress). She can make friends!

And now life with Chicken is pretty fantastic! Quarantine is kind of the worst, but we love spending time with our baby! We take her to parks and we put her in her K9 Sportsack (highly recommend) and we snuggle and it’s just awesome. (Chicken wants you to know that she does NOT need a ride, mostly. She can do 3-5 miles easily. Sometimes she’s just slow, though, so mommies put her in the bag).

Nikki: She also goes on plenty of walks with just me, after I leash her up all by myself! She is trusting me and our bond is stronger than ever! In fact, she often looks to me for guidance when it comes to training while on walks, even if she looks to Carolyn for snuggles. She is now able to walk next to me with a loose-leash and even finds us chicken bones to trade with. (We are not allowed to take anything out of her mouth so we do a lot of trading for bones. Now she finds one and runs up to us like “Tradesies!” She is too, too smart)!

So if you’ve got a bitey little jerk, don’t give up - but do get help!

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