But She’s Drowning


picture from Pinterest  – will be credited when source is learned.


The situation started a long time ago: extreme fear, violent outbursts, damaging bites, self-mutilation. The owner kept thinking friends or the local big box store trainer or her groomer could help diagnose her dog. The dog was not a client of mine but belonged to a person I know who is close to me.

It took years for several of us to convince the owner she needed to seek medical and serious veterinary behavioral help (think canine version of a psychiatrist).  I just wish the owner had listened years sooner when concerns were being raised.  Instead, over these years, she talked to professionals in animals who were not specialists in what she needed.  Think of hiring a mechanic to set your kid’s broken arm.   Think of hiring an orthopedist to advise on repairing the engine of a Boeing 747.

She did not seek other help, even when those other professionals told her she really needed proper intervention before things worsened.  The owner waited until it was close to too late.  A serious incident happened.  Law enforcement was involved.  Luckily she was given a chance to fix the situation.  The owner finally sought a higher level of professional help

While intense work was happening, several things were discovered: a  canine family history indicated a strong possibility of a genetic predisposition to the issues (it was discovered various relatives to this critter had the same issues), serious inconsistencies in raising and training from puppyhood and previously undiagnosed medical issues that would worsen the observable behaviors.

The family now had an intense amount of support and guidance from various medical and behavioral professionals. However there were serious behavioral regressions. The dog was repeatedly defaulting to her old behaviors. The owner asked me what was going on.  I knew the protocols the family was to follow and asked how they were being done.  I asked questions: Were the safety and management requirements the behaviorist outlined being employed?  Was she making sure medication was being followed (she preferred herbals but in this case they would not work)? Did she keep the logs and was she consulting with the behaviorist between sessions?  Was she following protocol? Well…  She really wanted a normal dog.  She really wanted to show the dog how good life was.  She would keep notes and call the behaviorist before the next session.  Well at least that is what I was told.

After many relapses and problems, I learned the owner was rushing things. For example: The dog did OK with one on one interaction with the behaviorist’s dog. The next day the owner took the dog to a dog park.  The dog was beginning to accept strangers (unknown assistants at the behaviorist’s).  The following weekend the dog was taken to a huge festival. The dog was no longer lunging at children while on quiet walks.  The owner started taking the dog to little league games.  The dog was getting a better recall.  The owner was allowing off-leash runs at a local park.  The dog did OK with visitors from behind a gate one weekend so the gate was removed and people allowed to greet her – even if the dog indicated stress. The owner loved herbs and essential oils.  She began replacing the dog’s medications with them.

When we are dealing with behavioral concerns in any species (even humans), we need to remember: the longer something has persisted, the longer it can take to resolve.  This situation had gone on for years.  The owner had barely had a handful of sessions with the veterinary behaviorist and the medications were still being adjusted. It had not been a month of work!

Next, it is vital that all protocols are followed.  Owners must not play with medication doses and/or adjust behavior modification protocols without first clearing it with the veterinarian, behaviorist or trainer. They have to manage the environment to keep the dog feeling safe and relaxed.  Rushing work or altering medications without approval can lead to bad things.

The owner was so determined to have a normal dog that as soon as any minor improvement was seen, the owner put the poor critter in situations for which the dog was not ready.  The new behaviors were not part of the dog’s repertoire of behaviors in any meaningful way. The dog was not relaxed at all.  The poor thing was confused and upset again. The dog just could not do what was being demanded of her.  The owner truly loved the critter but just had this image of what normal was.  She really wanted a dog who would go to her kid’s games, love to go to outdoor cafes and socialize with the community dogs.  The owner was not understanding why the dog could not do this – she was making progress.  The problem was as soon as anything small baby step was made, the dog was rushed into things she was far from ready to even dream of managing.  Well… I made the following analogy.


You can barely tread water.  Even being near the ocean or a pool or any body of water increases your anxiety.  To help you out, your spouse enrolls you in private, one on one swimming lessons.  The first lesson is in a very quiet and shallow pool.  After a couple lessons you are able to go up to your waist.  Again, in a quiet pool. You are still nervous, you are stressed, you are gradually managing it.  Finally you tread water!  The water is not quite to your shoulders.  There is no one but you and the instructor in the pool.  You are near the wall and your instructor has a pool noodle you can grab if needed.  You tread for a few seconds before stressing.  Your instructor allows you to stop and go back to the emotional safety of shallower water.

Seeing this small improvement, your spouse takes you to a long pier and tosses you into the rough surf after a storm.  Every time you struggle to the surface, you are hauled out and thrown back into the surf.  Hey you could tread water, you should be fine.  Right?  How long do you think you would last? Would you start to fight and act up while trying to preserve yourself?  Would you try to get those throwing you back in to stop?


This dog was drowning.  Every time she made a small step, she was tossed into the rough surf.  As soon as she started feeling better and medications were having positive effects, she was pulled off and given an herb.  The dog was biting again, self-mutilating and struggling.  None of what the owner did was discussed with the behaviorist prior to trying – it was done first and discussed later after the damage was done.

There is a reason we as trainers and behaviorists write out protocols and insist things go slow when dealing with many behavioral concerns.  Rushing can do more harm than good.  We do not want our clients to drown.

Karen Peak is the owner of West Wind Dog Training in Virginia and the developer of The Safe Kids/Safe Dogs Project – started in 2000.

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