Wednesday, August 31, 2011

Nature vs Nurture

After Louise displayed her fierce athletic prowess, I discussed options for fixing the fence with Ernesto, my gardener-cum-handyman.

No option would be cheap, so I decided to wait, as I hoped to train Louise not to aggressively react to Italia.

"It doesn’t matter what you do. Nothing will keep your dog from getting through that fence."

Hmmm… what does that mean?

"You can’t change her nature. It’s in her blood."

I disagreed but Ernesto raised an interesting point: certain behaviors are driven by nature. Though I might be able to manage Tommy’s powerful prey drive, I don’t think I could ever stamp it out so that he doesn’t want to chase and pounce on a squirrel. But are Louise's issues in her nature?

Before Ernesto left, I reminded him to check in with me before going into the backyard on his next visit.

"Of course. Your other dog, he’s okay. But the new one, I have to be careful of her." (He hadn’t yet seen Louise, but formed his opinion based on the Tasmanian devil story.)

He parted with these words, "That dog is like me: dangerous."

A few days later, Ernesto looked surprised when I came into the yard with Louise.

"My neighbor has dogs just like her."

I learned his neighbor lived on El Sereno and Woodbury, which sounded familiar. Hadn’t I just read of a drug bust there?

“An FBI SWAT team detonated flash-bang grenades about 5:30 p.m. Thursday as they forced their way into a home at El Sereno Avenue and Woodbury Road, officials said.” (You can read more here.)

Yep, that was the house with the dogs that looked like Louise. Ernesto and his teenaged son had watched the drama unfold from their front lawn.

I’ve driven by many times, but I haven't seen the dogs. And I haven't detected a hint of recognition from Louise, no whining or cowering in fear, no heightened sense of arousal.

Whatever Louise’s past, she clearly has a defensive posture around any threat, perceived or real, from another dog. Can I train that response out of her?

Jenina came by on Saturday and gave me some tools for counter conditioning. I’ll write more in an upcoming post, but here’s a hint: our session was all about Tommy (well, almost - chewed post compliments of Louise).

Sunday, August 21, 2011


Once in a while Tommy surprises me with an impressive zen attitude, like when he lounges on the patio ignoring Italia, the neighbor’s German shepherd, barking through the hole in the fence—a hole, I might add, that she created.

Unfortunately, Italia is a trigger that sets off an aggressive response in Louise.

Hear that whining? That's Louise on a leash by my side.

A few weeks ago, when Italia stuck her snout through that hole and roared, Louise flew over the patio fence and shot straight up into her face in two seconds flat. They fought a quick, fierce battle through that hole, tearing into each other with terrifying sounds. I thought Louise was going to climb through that hole and wreak havoc in my neighbor's yard.

Somehow the fight ended and I got Louise into the house. She was back to her sweet self, but my view of her changed slightly. Holy moly, she's got a bit of the Tasmanian Devil in her. She's not really alpha, but she's extremely reactive to any provocation from another dog.

The dogs stayed at Starcrest in side-by-side kennels while I was out of town. I picked them up yesterday, and Louise cowered when she saw me, trembling outside my car just as she had at the shelter. She warmed up as soon as we got home, but her distrust of people is another issue.

Next Saturday, I have a training session at my house with Jenina Schutter from Smart Paws Dog Training. When I described the problems, she said it sounded like Tommy was an insecure leader, "the worst kind of leader, same as with people." What an astute point.

So, we have a house full of issues. I wonder if I should go back to therapy.

Monday, August 1, 2011

Is Louise My Foster Dog?

Last week Aleksandra, whose wonderful blog, Love and a Six-Foot Leash, chronicles adventures with dog fostering, emailed me and asked why I foster. I responded, “Am I fostering? I’m not sure!”

And my ambivalence continues.

Tommy and Louise have had two fights. She’s not as submissive as I thought. Tommy is a bully and she fights back.

It's been challenging. I keep the dogs in different rooms. My house is like a zoo: the cats in the three bedrooms, Tommy in the living room, and Louise in the kitchen. I walk them separately. When I return from a 45-minute walk with Tommy in the morning, I set out to walk Louise. In the middle of the day when it’s hot, I let them take turns in the yard. The routine is exhausting.

But there’s positive news, too. My friends have generously given their time to walk Louise while I walk Tommy beside them. And the dogs get along great on these walks. 

Louise is as sweet as can be with me. She's like a duck who has been imprinted by my presence. She adores me. I adore her, too.

Still, this way of life is not sustainable. I need to be able to walk the dogs together by myself. I need to get them to the point where they can be in the same room without fighting. I'd hoped they'd be best buddies, but maybe it'll never come to that.

I'm going to hire a trainer who can help me manage them, and I'll just have to wait and see whether she and Tommy can live in the same house without making me insane. If not, I'll find her a great home. She's a fantastic dog, eminently adoptable, so I'm confident a kind person will fall in love with her as I have.

Despite my uncertainty, Louise and I got featured on Love and a Leash's post about dog fostering. Check it out: Dog fostering – it’s infectious!

If you're a local, can you recommend a good trainer?