Case Study: Luna — Reactivity to Other Dogs Part 2
Summary: A case of dog-dog reactivity in an energetic older dog, is made more complicated by the client’s specific situation and set of needs, and then turns into human-directed aggression as their living situation becomes more stressful. Working within Luna’s adoptive caregiver’s capacities requires patience and creative thinking. Recommending the client make some difficult decisions in the short-term for the sake of their health proves challenging but necessary.
- Subject: Luna
- Age: Estimated to be 8 years old
- Breed: Luna is thought to be a vizsla mix based on her appearance
- Sex and Reproductive Status: Luna is a spayed female
Follow-up Sessions 3-6
For my next sessions with Luna and Tanner, I traveled back to their home (Tanner was not driving yet). I would be taking over the main mechanical components of Luna’s training on a weekly basis due to Tanner’s recovering shoulder, with Tanner observing and assisting. Tanner was grateful for the extra support he received from his daughter, the dog walking company, and his vet.
I continued Luna’s “Engage/Disengage” training for reactivity by walking her in Tanner’s neighborhood. Luna unsurprisingly showed some regression based on recent events. She showed stress signs upon hearing dogs in her neighborhood (which had not been a trigger before) or seeing them at a much greater distance, sometimes up to 100 feet away. This meant I spent much more time on the “Engage” level, marking and treating Luna for simply noticing other dogs. This served as classical counterconditioning to help rebuild a more positive conditioned emotional response to other dogs.
I continued Luna’s muzzle conditioning at each of our weekly sessions, with Tanner watching, recording video, and becoming increasingly involved in the training as his shoulder allowed. Due to Luna’s two bite incidents with people reaching over her head or back, I instructed Tanner to have Luna completely separated from guests, staff, and children for the time being when they came to visit. Once Luna could comfortably wear her muzzle, then she could be in the same space as others if she had her muzzle on to prevent any injurious bites. However, I emphasized that visitors still needed to give Luna space if she requested it with her body language. My hope was that with time we would resolve Luna’s medical issues, make progress on her counterconditioning to reaching and touching, and educate staff and family members about how to interact with Luna respectfully, which might eventually negate the need for a muzzle. But in the short term, the muzzle would be an important safety tool.
Especially with Tanner’s shoulder injured, it had become apparent to me that the dual-attach harness option still did not provide the level of control desirable for Tanner. Tanner and I began conditioning Luna to wear a head halter. Head halters are not my first go-to tool because some dogs find them aversive and nearly every dog requires conditioning to comfortably wear one; I always prefer to use a less intrusive tool such as a harness first. However, the harness did not provide enough control for Tanner with his arthritis, and now he had a shoulder injury to recover from on top of that, so Tanner and I began helping Luna get acclimated to the head halter at her pace. Our process for conditioning Luna to the head halter was very similar to our process for conditioning her to wear her muzzle, shaping interaction with the head halter in gradual steps.
Luna continued to be very happy to see me at each session, jumping several feet into the air whenever I’d enter. Tanner would watch, record video, and write notes. I asked Tanner to do his best to continue the work with the muzzle and head halter between my weekly visits. Tanner struggled with holding the muzzle and head halter in a manner that Luna could put her face in easily, and this sometimes frustrated Luna. We practiced quite a bit together to help refine his technique so Luna could do the desired behavior and get rewarded, and Luna continued to make gradual progress.
Luna’s barking at squirrels was definitely a lower priority for us at this point, but when she did occasionally see a critter during our session, it was easy to redirect her and keep her engaged with me using her positive interrupter, “Here.”
Tanner informed me that the walker was working out extremely well and left daily notes for Tanner about dogs that she and Luna saw and what Luna’s response was. The notes indicated that the walker was doing a good job avoiding other dogs and keeping Luna under threshold. There was no growly behavior noted between Luna and the walker, and Luna was always very happy to see her.
Luna’s veterinarian had replied to my email that they felt Luna’s ear shaking, tattered ear margins, and the occasional presence of blood were due to stress. They prescribed Composure caps, Benadryl, and superglue for her ear lesions. The vet noted that they felt Luna’s ear issues were common issues found in many dogs and should not cause an undue amount of pain. In other words, they did not feel that Luna’s ear condition could be related to her recent behavioral changes.
I was concerned that Luna’s ears appeared to be in the same bloody and tattered condition over the course of our ongoing weekly sessions with no visible improvement. I politely encouraged Tanner to consider a second opinion with a veterinary specialist. He made an appointment but noted that it would be several weeks before Luna could be seen.
Follow-up Session 7
At this session, Tanner and I did our usual work with Luna with her muzzle and head halter, continuing our gradual progress. Tanner had also requested that I spend some time with Flora, his housekeeper, and her young son, because he was concerned about Flora’s son being around Luna.
I brought some handouts about dog body language to share with Flora and her son, and we discussed leaving Luna alone and not touching her unless she requested contact. I pointed out the stress signs in the handout and encouraged them to give Luna plenty of space if they saw any of the stress signs. We also discussed never reaching over her head or back. With Tanner present, I emphasized that the safest option was simply for Luna to not interact with Flora’s son unless she was wearing her muzzle. Luna should be kept in a different space if Flora and her son were over. Tanner agreed that Luna could stay in her crate if Flora was cleaning the house, and the door to that mudroom would be shut so that Flora’s son could not interact with Luna while she was in her crate.
To wrap up this session, I brought Luna to the park we previously trained in to work on her reactivity in a context outside of the neighborhood where she was attacked. Tanner’s shoulder still prohibited him from walking Luna and he needed to care for Jeannie, so he did not join us for this session. Luna did well walking past many dogs at the park using the “Engage/Disengage Game” and showed improvement from our last session in terms of the distance at which she could comfortably disengage from other dogs. I estimated her threshold around other dogs to be approximately 50 feet.
Follow-up Sessions 8-10
Tanner’s shoulder had mostly healed at this point, so Tanner, Jeannie, and Luna met me at the same park we used previously for our sessions. Luna continued to make progress over the course of these sessions until her threshold was similar to where it was before the off-leash dog incident, with her capable of disengaging with dogs passing by approximately 30 feet away at the park. Tanner’s timing had greatly improved and he was feeling more confident about handling Luna on leash. He acknowledged that he was planning to continue using the walker for Luna’s main source of exercise because the walker gave him more time to spend with Jeannie and “took something off his plate,” so to speak. We continued doing a bit of work with Luna’s head halter and muzzle during these sessions, and she continued to make progress. Tanner admitted that he hadn’t had much time to work on training with Luna regularly.
Tanner asked me to do a session with Luna’s walker to show her how to maintain Luna’s progress with her reactivity training. I worked with Luna’s walker and showed her the “Engage/Disengage Game,” then gave her feedback while she practiced. The walker’s awareness of other dogs’ proximity was excellent and her timing and criteria-setting were very good. I was confident that Luna was in good hands on her walks. Tanner and Luna seemed like they were in a very good place.
Tanner contacted me again months later for help with an entirely different issue, which was working with Luna on cooperative care so it would be easier to trim her nails. Fortunately, I was able to ask for updates on how Luna was doing on her original training goals.
Tanner had made the modifications I had suggested to Luna’s 8-foot by 10-foot outdoor area. The fence had been altered with coyote rollers and added height so there was no way she could jump it, and she was enjoying frequent trips outdoors in the fenced area to sniff around in addition to her neighborhood walks with her walker.
Tanner was able to see a canine dermatologist with Luna shortly after our 10th session took place. The dermatologist ran a series of tests and a comprehensive blood workup for Luna. He ended up doing a more extensive ear cleaning and treatment for Luna and gave her an Elizabethan collar to recover in. He put her on a slightly different medication formulation for her vasculitis. He also made recommendations for a change in her vaccination protocols.
Luna was doing much better physically when I came to see her to work with her on scratch board training for her nails. The change in her demeanor and physical appearance was remarkable. Her ears were in great condition with no lesions, no tattered edges, and she displayed zero head shakes while I was there. During our session, she was much more comfortable with body handling or reaching around her head than she had been previously. I am certain that Luna’s medical condition was what had lowered her bite threshold and contributed to the bite incidents that occurred. I was thrilled to see her feeling better and that her behavior seemed safe and stable. Luna has had no further bite incidents to date.
Tanner continued to employ a walker for Luna simply so that he had more time with Jeannie. While the walker was seeing occasional reactivity if a dog surprised them up close, Luna was doing much better overall and was able to walk past most dogs in the neighborhood without any lunging or barking.
Tanner had noted that his normal veterinarian was having an increasingly difficult time trimming Luna’s nails. At my suggestion, Tanner switched Luna over to a Fear Free Vet (5) and I was able to collaborate with a member of their staff to train Luna to use a scratch board for her front nails and opt in for trimming of her back nails. Tanner, the Fear Free veterinary staff, and I agreed that if Tanner could maintain Luna’s front nails at home with regular scratch board use, then veterinary staff could see Luna about once monthly to trim her back nails. Luna formed such a wonderful positive conditioned emotional response to her training that she is always excited to use her scratch board, she is delighted to see the vet tech that trims her back nails, and she enthusiastically opts in to her nail trimming sessions at the veterinarian. I continue to get occasional happy updates from Luna and Tanner about both their cooperative care and Luna’s continued success in general.
In conclusion, finding creative modifications and accommodations related to human and animal health needs was critical for success in this case. Tanner’s arthritis played a key role in selecting the humane equipment we used for walking Luna. Later on, helping Tanner locate and train a qualified professional walker was a key intervention because his arthritis, injured shoulder, and his need to care for Jeannie ultimately made it very difficult for him to walk Luna consistently himself. While I initially felt uncomfortable with Luna being exercised by a walker (and would have preferred for her to be walked and trained only by Tanner for consistency and liability reasons), that was not a possibility in this case. Finding and training a suitable walker ultimately made a huge positive difference in Luna’s welfare and in Tanner’s life, and was an intervention that kept Luna safely and happily in Tanner and Jeannie’s home.
In addition, my working directly with Luna at times to get her desired behaviors established and then providing Tanner with practice opportunities with intensive feedback was an important modification. Tanner was not able to do as much training on his own as a typical client might, and he needed instructions broken down into smaller steps to master the timing and mechanics. Normally, I prefer to primarily serve as a coach while owners work with their dogs; with Tanner and Luna, I did more training myself and then acted as a coach for Tanner to set them up for success.
For Luna, her discomfort from vasculitis likely played a role in her bite incidents and potentially also in her reactivity. For her case, simply asking her owner to consult with a veterinarian proved to be an insufficient intervention. Respectfully pushing her owner to consult with a specialist proved to be the intervention required to make a huge difference in Luna’s health and behavior.
In addition, I think that my strong advocacy for management prevented further bites from occurring while Luna was feeling unwell. Intervening to have Luna separated from Noelle’s son and moved out of Noelle’s home as quickly as possible may have prevented additional bites to her child, and educating Tanner and his housekeeping staff on keeping Luna separate from children in the home ensured no additional bites occurred. While I imagine that Luna’s bite threshold is likely much higher now that she is feeling better, these management practices and education about giving dogs space when needed will continue to serve Tanner and Luna well.
Luna’s case lasted substantially longer than a typical case would before it reached resolution due to the various health factors involved for Luna, Tanner, and Jeannie, but it has been an extremely rewarding case.
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