Meet Tucker–My Latest “Z-Dog”

I started this blog in the Summer of 2013, inspired by the wild and woolly, six-week puppy-sitting adventure that was Zydeco. In an early post, What’s a Z-Dog?, I shared Zydy’s story, discussed my own dog, Zoë’s, challenges with allowing such a rambunctious puppy into her home, and defined Z-dogs as “the master teachers among us…the ones giving out hard won doctorate degrees in being better human beings.” …Well, I’m happy to say I now have a new dog to add to the faculty roster. His name starts with a “T,” not a “Z,” but that’s okay (since it rhymes) and he certainly belongs in this blog! Everyone, please welcome … Tucker!

Tucker at the Park

I first met Tucker a little over two months ago at the Glendale Humane Society in Los Angeles. An owner surrender under special circumstances, he had been with the rescue for two weeks, and was described to me as a dog “urgently in need of help.” I remember my heart sinking as I listened to Alyce, the shelter’s director, describe how out of control Tucker was. It sunk even more as she filled me in on the details of his life spent with people that clearly did not understand him at all. Reading through the notes written up by his former owners, it was clear that, although they certainly did care for him, the relationship had been a struggle since day one.

As is so often the case with high energy, working breeds indiscriminately sold to ill-prepared pet owners, through no fault of his own, Tucker was simply “too much dog” for them to handle. Sadly, once his natural instinct to move fast, chase, bark, put things in his mouth, and play play PLAY was misinterpreted as “defiance,” it was a slippery slope of escalation from there, from corrections, to choke chain, to prong collar (a tool that is described in the notes as the only thing that finally “got through to him”), to worse…

I’m not going to list the exact particulars of how and why Tucker was removed from his home and brought to the Humane Society. Suffice it to say, as Alyce and I walked down the gauntlet of barking dogs towards his kennel that day, I was honestly bracing myself for the worst. Although she had assured me he was not aggressive, any dog that lived a life of such social impoverishment, stress, confusion, punishment, and endured such dangerous levels of inappropriate exercise must be pretty damaged–right? I pictured a large and unpredictable beast leaping and baying at me like some crazed Hound of the Baskervilles, the worst-case of all the worst-case dogs I have ever worked with. I pictured it taking me a week to even enter his kennel without upset. Most of all, I pictured this quickly becoming a commitment I’d deeply regret making, just another heartbreak story to lose sleep over.

So imagine my surprise when Alyce stopped at the gate of a surprisingly quiet (especially compared to all the other barking dogs we had passed before him), sweet-looking, yellow lab. For a full minute I stood there distracted, so busy thinking through the safety protocols I might need for entering the kennel of a high-risk dog with such a troubled history, my eyes did not even focus on the dog right there in front of me! Then it registered that this big, goofy, golden-eyed boy shimmying all over with excitement at the sight of us, this was in fact the wild and fearsome Tucker! Ha! A perfect example of how pre-conceived notions not only can alter how you might think about someone, but what you actually see when you look at them as well!

Here is a video showing Tucker’s response to me standing outside his kennel at the Humane Society the first week I began working with him. Not our initial meeting, but his reaction is very similar here to the first moment I saw him. Look at his body language carefully. Does this look like a “defiant” dog to you?

Although some of Tucker’s issues are understandably complex, none have anything to do with defiance, dominance, or willfulness. Here is a snapshot of the quickie, first-impressions Observation Checklist from my follow up report to Glendale Humane.

Tucker Observation Checklist

As you can see, most of our boy’s challenges (or “growing edges” as I like to call them), have more to do with a tendency towards intense arousal spikes and impulsivity, particularly in relation to balls and toys, than anything else.

It wasn’t until we took Tucker out to the exercise yard that  I first got a good look at some of his more troubling behavior patterns. While walking through the parking lot, he spotted the broken arm of a plastic Chuck-it toy discarded in the leaves, and before I knew it, I was dragged forward about 15′. In a flash, Tucker grabbed that toy and was instantly transformed from a smiley, energetic, excited dog to a WAY-over-the top-unable-to-get-back-from-Mars-again dog. Luckily, I at least managed to get him into the yard and close the gate before being forced to drop the leash. Gripping the plastic so hard we could see his gums bleeding, Tucker began to race around us in circles, making the strangest screechy/growl/squeak-barks through his teeth I’d ever heard. The textbook example of a conflict-related behavioral response: he looked desperate to drop the toy so we would throw it for him, but just could not bring himself to let go.

It is always fun when this type of thing happens during an evaluation consult, when you don’t know the dog, and the dog does not know you. My first thought was to sit down and wait him out, no pressure, no extra stimulation. But when ignored, Tucker became even more frantic, to the point where I was seriously afraid for his well-being. Next, I tried offering him full handfuls of fresh chicken dropped right under his nose. Nothing. No response. Then I tried gently taking hold of the leash, talking reassuringly to him, while at the same time attempting to limit his movements. Being restrained really backfired, however, as he began to buck, twist, and thrash backwards like a wild mustang on a rope. Finally, Alyce had the great idea to get out a tennis ball and see if he would trade for that. Yes! Immediate, laser focus on the ball now instead. Fortunately, however, unlike the plastic toy which he seemed determined to hold in a death grip until the End of Time, Tucker already had a built-in habit of tossing balls at people’s feet, (then barking non-stop until the ball is thrown). We weathered the barking this time because at least it now we were able to pick up the ball and put it away.

“Toy obsession to the point of self-injury” is what I wrote in my report, fallout from the unfortunate and all too prevalent myth that high energy dogs need lots of repetitive exercise. Tucker’s owners often used fetch to try to “wear him out,” but he was a dog that “just never seemed to get tired!” Once, I was told, they tried throwing the ball nonstop for so long, he nearly collapsed, had to be carried home, and then took three days to walk or eat again! (For more info on why some types of exercise can be too much of a good thing, please see this great article from Paws Abilities Blog).

My first recommendation to Glendale Humane was to stop playing fetch with him altogether, and replace all other high energy activities with mental enrichment, and daily relaxation work a la Nan Arthur’s wonderful Relax on a Mat exercise from her book Chill Out Fido. We also began Tucker on calming supplements such as L-theanine and Melatonin, and Alyce was able to move him into a quieter room each night to help him get the best sleep possible. In just two months of almost constant work, and drastic reduction in his overall stimulation levels, I think the results speak for themselves.

One thing is for sure, instead of breaking my heart, this dog has completely won it. So much so in fact that I am now currently fostering him in the hope of adopting. It all depends, of course, on how well he does with Zoë, and on her quality of life with him in the house. But I’m happy to report that we are nearly two weeks into the experiment, and although it has taken an incredible amount of work, all in all, things have been going surprisingly well between them–much easier in many ways than with puppy Zydeco.

Tucker has so much to teach, and has already stretched me much farther as a trainer and as a person than I was ever expecting. His surprising arrival in my life has sparked the urge to renew this blog and begin sharing his many lessons with all of you too. Stay tuned for more posts ahead!

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