He was estimated to be 1-2 years in 2012, when he was found as a stray and taken to the Florence Area Humane Society (a partner shelter of Lucky Dog Animal Rescue). We tend to think he was on the younger end of that spectrum, and guess he’s probably about 2 years old now.
Where did his name come from?
It’s the Lucky Dog name he came with, given to him at the shelter. We had called him by his foster name for so long before adopting him that we couldn’t begin to think what else we would call him.
How did you find out about him?
Balton arrived on a transport in mid-July 2012, and I met him there when I was picking up a different dog to foster. I remember him well because he was this goofy, bouncy, nice dog, lacking manners but very friendly. As I was getting my foster into the car he came rushing up to say hi (they were both Shepherd mixes and looked a lot like each other) and for whatever reason it left an impression. It wasn’t until 6 weeks later that he would come into my home and make an even bigger impression.
Is he a foster failure?
He is our very first foster failure. We had remained strong for about 2 full years of fostering before Balton came along, and for some time I was very proud not to have adopted any of the temporary houseguests I had fallen in love with to date.
We began fostering Balton in September 2012, after he was adopted to a family and, unfortunately, subsequently returned within days for reported aggression to everyone outside the family. We had never seen or heard of any signs of aggression with previous fosters or at adoption events, and will probably never really know how they manifested. Either way, the reports back were very (and surprisingly) different from the dog we had come to know. His first adoption event back after his return he was lunging and snapping at anyone who came too close. Since I had fostered a good number of some of our shy dogs in the past and helped them along with their fears (and my foster at the time had since been adopted), I was asked to foster Balton.
My husband and I went to pick him up with our resident dog from Wagtime, a doggy daycare and boarding facility that helps to foster Lucky Dogs. We all agreed if he showed aggression to us we would not be able to foster, but we also made a point to pick him up as a family unit so he had the opportunity to spend time with us in a neutral space and in the car on the way home. He has been great with us since day one, and settled easily into our home. He loves us is goofy, sweet, and affectionate with the people he trusts. I’ve been his cheerleader since day one, and never stopped believing there was a right home out there for him. I was also steadfast in my belief that we were an appropriate foster home, but not the right forever home for him.
As months went on, it became apparent that Balton’s fear of strangers wasn’t something that time would heal or someone could “fix.” He would require a lifetime of training, management, and confidence building. A trainer assessment in May of this year confirmed this, and indicated he would need to find a family as committed to carrying that out as we had been. From an adoptability standpoint, his window was incredibly small and presented risks should he end up with a family who didn’t provide him what he would need during his lifetime. So, my husband and I talked it over and decided that we would adopt him.
How did you discover his fear of strangers?
We knew going into fostering Balton that he had some issues to reckon with. Putting those issues into context, identifying what triggered his fear responses, and knowing how to help him with them, was what we needed to learn. What we’ve found is that Balton is reactive when he feels cornered by unfamiliar people, and that he can’t get away. Given the choice, his first instinct is to remove himself from that which makes him uncomfortable. He can go to dog parks and does well in doggy daycare environments. We suspect this is because he is off leash and can create his own space. When he feels he doesn’t have that option, he barks, lunges, snaps at the “scary monsters” of his world. So, he is leash reactive and also reactive to unknown human guests coming over. If we don’t create space for him or show him that we can handle keeping strangers at bay, he will become reactive to them. Unfortunately, we most effectively learned this through some mistakes along the way in our early months together, like trying to introduce him to strangers before he was ready or not creating enough space on walks to keep him from practicing reactive behavior.
What have you been doing to gain his trust and ease his fears?
We are currently enrolled in a behavior modification class called “Relaxing Rowdy Rovers” at All About Dogs in Woodbridge, VA and practice a good deal of in home training activities and management. He is very food motivated, and we always have a clicker and treats on hand to reward the practice of calm behavior on walks. When he sees a stranger, and doesn’t bark or lunge, he gets a treat. Creating distance is a functional reward for him, so I make a point to offer him that along with bonus treat rewards at any opportunity I can. He’s learning to offer different behaviors that what he had previously seen as effective, and trusting that we won’t push him farther than he can go. I’ve learned a lot about dog body language in our time together, and Balton is very good about telling me “this makes me uncomfortable” in a non-confrontational way. I make a point to recognize what he is telling me, and more importantly, to listen to him when he tells me that he doesn’t want to go any further in that moment.
We also implement a good deal of management at home to maintain low stress levels and teach impulse control. We have frosted our front windows to keep him from seeing people pass by our home, which had historically set him off. It’s been a huge help. We exercise impulse control by having him “say please” for his favorite things. He politely sits and waits for his dinner, and we practice “sit” and “focus” exercises playing soccer at the dog park, quite possibly his most favorite activity in the world. Positive reinforcement training has been a huge motivator and confidence builder for him.
How’s he progressing?
We have good days and bad days, but I continue to see more good days on a more consistent basis. When we first started Rowdy Rovers class, he had a very tough time integrating into the classroom setting and offering behaviors because he was constantly worried. Today, he still worries, but far less than he did before. He has made great strides and seems more confident each week. Translating our lessons to daily life has been a challenge, but walks are gradually becoming easier and less stressful (for both of us!). This weekend, we also had visitors over for a few days and carefully managed his time out and about with them, but mostly offered him space and distance. It was definitely hard work for him to keep it together for 3 days, but he did it, and did it well! He had this big happy face after they left, like he knew it was a big deal what he’d accomplished, and like he was grateful to us for keeping him safe.
What are some of his favorite things to do?
As I mentioned, he LOVES the soccer ball and is like my little Pele. He fetches it and delights in when we kick the ball across a wide open space for him to chase after. The dog park is one of his favorite places to be. He also enjoys tug and playing with squeaky toys, and chasing (or being chased by) his doggie brother around the living room. At home he is a giant couch potato and snuggle buddy. He loves to sit beside us on the couch and put his head in my lap while I read, or while we watch TV together.
Does he share the house with other pets?
He does – a 16 lb Jack Russell Terrier who he looks up to as his “big brother” and two cats. He doesn’t entirely get that they are not also small dogs, and seems puzzled as to why they are unresponsive to his excited barks and play bows when he tries to initiate play. We continue to treat him for calm behavior around them, and also make sure the cats always have an oasis area from the big annoying dog.
He also graciously shares with an occasional overnight/weekend foster dog. For as wary as he is about human visitors, he loves having live in doggy playmates and acclimates incredibly well to their arrival!
What advice do you have for those who have dogs that are fearful of people?
Learn to listen to what your dog is telling you, and work with a reward-based professional trainer who has experience in working with reactive dogs. Early on in our time together, I received some training advice that recommended the use of a choke chain and some traditional punishment based methods. We followed that guidance against my gut, because I felt desperate to help him and low on options. I also tried to force interactions in an effort to socialize him, rather than giving him the space he was so desperately asking for. I had all the best of intentions, but my efforts clearly broke down some of the trust Balton had already built in me. He became confused and hesitant to offer me basic behaviors he had learned, because he was afraid of if I might hurt him. I ultimately had to recover some ground to move forward.
I share this because it’s important for people to know that training is an unregulated field, and there are a number of people desperate to help their dogs who may be put in a place where inhumane methods are used to address a reactive behavior based in fear. I learned the hard way that these methods can truly devastate a fearful dog, and I’m grateful I shifted gears before I went too far.
Having said that, there are many trainers who have a working knowledge of positive reinforcement and dog-reactive dogs, but struggle in working with dogs who are reactive to humans, so it’s important not to just go with any positive trainer. You really have to feel like they will understand and help your dog as an individual. It was a blessing to find All About Dogs, because there are so many trainers who won’t give dogs like him a chance, or whose Reactive Dog classes simply state they aren’t for human-reactive dogs. All About Dogs answered a million questions and allowed me to observe a class before we went to train with them, and I knew we had found the right professional help to take us where we needed to go.
Do as much research as you need to to find the right learning environment for your dog, and recognize their fears are very real. It is our job as their caretakers to protect them, look out for them, and make sure they know we are keeping them safe. Suzanne Clothier’s two-hour seminar about Arousal, Anxiety, and Fear helped me to understand that and start asking my dog the ever important question, “How is this for you?” What I learned in those two hours served as a turning point for me in understanding and empathizing with Balton, and I recommend it to anyone who is facing similar issues. It can be downloaded at http://suzanneclothier.com/catalog/downloads
Many thanks to Balton and his mom for sharing his story. If you would like to follow his progress you can visit him on Facebook or on the Blog. Photos were used with permission and belong solely to Balton and Miss Lynn.,