As I sat on the floor with the dogs last night, watching them play, I realized that Smokey is an incredibly patient dog. He puts up with a lot. He lets Shelby bite his ears (including the mangled one), tail and boy parts without putting up a fight. He lays there and watches us watching him while she curls up in a ball and gnaws happily on the end of his tail or his toes. He puts up with a lot for a dog who, at one point, wouldn’t put up with being sniffed by another dog.

So I figured this was as good a time as any to discuss Smokey’s dog aggression and how we stopped it.

I know I have mentioned in passing about Smokey’s issues, but I think I have only covered “he had an issue, now he doesn’t.” Let’s get a little more in-depth here.

When we first adopted Smokey, we knew nothing about his history, except the SPCA told us he wasn’t dog or people aggressive, and he didn’t seem to react around cats. 

About five minutes after we brought him home, our neighbors’ labs charged over to meet the new addition. He had no problem with them, but he refused to play. A couple of weeks later, my dad and stepmom brought their puggle to play. Again, no problem. Smokey even let Kahlua chew on his bone.

We assumed that he had no problems with other dogs. Unfortunately, we were wrong. The thing with rescue dogs is that they are like boxes of chocolate. You never know what you are going to get. And usually, it takes a little while for their real problems and quirks to come out. They aren’t like puppies who get accustomed to a new home in about 24 hours. For them, it takes days, weeks, months, sometimes years. For Smokey, he didn’t really start to open up and be who he was for about three or four months. When he felt comfortable enough with us, he started to play, eat treats, pull on the leash like an idiot, and he also started to show that he was, in fact, dog aggressive.

It started with Joe’s sister’s Siberian Husky, Sadie. Because we never knew Smokey had a problem, we just let her in the house. Then it happened. Smokey’s fur on his neck stood up, his jaws slammed shut so we could hear the snap, and he started growling and snarling. He pawed her face and tried to take her down. Quick as a flash, Joe was on top of Smokey, grabbing his collar and dragging him away.

Fortunately, Emily, Joe’s sister, was a good sport and allowed us to use her puppy as a guinea pig. We took Smokey outside, on leash, and Sadie followed. Every time Smokey got within sniffing distance, he snarled and tried to paw at her face. Every dog he met from that moment on, no matter size or age, he reacted the same way with. It was not just the Germans hating the Russians, as Joe liked to jest. We realized we had a serious problem when he lashed out at a ten week old pit bull puppy rescue. Smokey never hurt another dog, but we were not convinced he wouldn’t if we didn’t have control of him.

We went the traditional route at first, we tried a choke chain, we tried physical correction, we tried dragging him away from the source, we tried yelling, we tried rolling him on his belly, we tried pulling on his scruff and eventually, we chose isolation. He wasn’t people aggressive which was good. All right, we said, so he can’t be around other dogs. He won’t be able to play in dog parks or ever be off leash, he won’t be able to go to Petsmart or stay at a boarding place. He will be muzzled at the vet and the groomer. All right. I hated it, but I figured I could live with it. Then, we hit a brick wall, because Joe and I both desperately wanted a puppy. We missed the puppy phase with Smokey, and we got the fever. We realized that we could live with everything else, but we couldn’t live with just one dog, and we couldn’t live with ourselves if we got rid of Smokey, so we needed help – professional help.

I talked to about a dozen trainers before I chose one. And then when I chose one, I talked to a half-dozen more, just to make sure I was making the right decision. I decided to try something totally new, mainly because the two trainers I had it narrowed down to were vastly different in both price and method. When I came to Joe with my research, I told him there were two trainers I thought would work for us. The first was a trainer who used a Cesar Milanish, more traditional type approach, the other was personally trained by Victoria Stilwell and didn’t use physical correction at all. Joe snubbed his nose at the second and asked how much the first would cost. When the words $650 came out of my mouth, he dropped the towel he was holding and turned to look at me. He stared at me like I had grown a beak and a tail and flown straight up from hell, “Are you out of your Goddamn mind? Look, I love Smokey, and I would love to have a puppy, but there is no way in hell we are going to pay $650 for someone to come and work with Smokey. There is absolutely no way we could afford it. And what if it doesn’t work? Then we’ll have spent half the mortgage on something that didn’t get us anything.”

I nodded, “I know, I know, but I think she would do a good job.”

“No. Absolutely not. I can’t believe you even came in here with that. Who else did you find?”

So we went with the other trainer, who was much less expensive, though still not cheap. And we were introduced to the wonderful world of marker training.

Like everything in life, we took what she had to say with a grain of salt. We took what we thought we could reasonably use and what we thought would work with our dog. Not everything she said we bought into, but quite a bit of it we did. So we let her throw away our choke chain and buy us our first pack of training treats, and we began.

We started out small, just practicing in our backyard with getting Smokey’s attention, “watch”, mark, treat, “watch”, mark, treat. Then we moved to walks, “watch”, mark, treat. We would take him on five-mile walks around Valley Forge National Park. Whenever we got near another dog, “watch”, mark, treat, cross the street. Not too much, too soon. Slowly, we decreased the distance. We stepped up our game to the parking lot at Petsmart, where we would wait behind a car for Smokey to see another dog, “watch”, mark, treat. Then we would hide behind the car. As soon as he stopped seeing the dog, the treats stopped. He started to get excited when he saw another dog. Slowly, but surely, we found our way closer and closer to the actual building.

Then one day, after enough “watch”, mark, treats, we brought him in. We let him sniff another dog, just for a second, then “watch”, mark, whole pocket full of treats. Then we left. No more treats. Before too long, he was dragging us into the store. In a couple of months, he was playing happily with every dog he met. This year, he stood in line patiently and groomed a lab and a golden retriever he’d just met while we waited to get the dogs’ Santa picture. Last year around this time, we couldn’t even take him to the park to get pictures in the snow.

Now, I have heard that there are trainers out there who can “cure” your dog of their dog aggression in one session, in less than an hour, in ten minutes even. Maybe if we had paid $650 we could have seen that happen. Maybe. But we didn’t, and watching Smokey and Shelby play on the floor and seeing the patience he has learned and knowing the patience I have learned, I’m honestly glad we went the way that we did. We accomplished so much more than teaching Smokey to live with another dog – we completely changed our lives.