The world Panzer came from is bleak. Though we’re not 100% sure where he came from, and probably never will be, the days of living with him convinced us that he was a bait dog in his past life.
When he was rescued, he had no nails. It took months for them to grow out, and even now they aren’t quite right. He weighed a meager 47 pounds. His face was scarred, and the vet believed that his mouth had been duct taped shut. He has an intense fear of anyone touching his back end, even us, though we are slowly working through that. The first time his foster family tried to touch his back, he defecated and urinated all over himself. He walks funny, bowed, almost, like he lived in a cage too small and his bones tried to grow around it, like a goldfish growing to fit its bowl. He is clumsy and most likely suffers a neuropathy in his back feet. You can bend his back foot over, and it will take him nearly ten seconds to move it because he has hardly any feeling.
More than anything physical, however, he suffers from alarming fear, a hairpin trigger point, and he despises any dog that remotely resembles a pit bull, including maintaining an intense loathing for the goofy, amicable bull mastiff that lives down the street. Right now, however, our biggest challenge is working through his unpredictable explosions with people.
Three weeks ago, he started going to aggression lessons hosted by Raspberry Ridge and taught by an APDT trainer, Fran. The classes are labeled as “obedience” but are tailored to fit the dog. I’m fortunate to have known Carolyn before we rescued Panzer, because no other dog training facility I’ve been to would allow Panzer to walk through their doors.
His first lesson didn’t go so well. It took us about 10 minutes just to get him to walk up the steps to Carolyn’s agility room. When we finally got him up the mountainous 7 steps, we walked in, and Fran quickly ushered us into a nearby hay fort (Panzer gets the one closest to the door so he isn’t exposed to any other dogs or people in his two foot jaunt to the hay fortress). The hay fort is made up of about 12 bales of hay stacked four high which makes a little cubby against the wall. There is leash tethered to the wall, which he is hooked up to so he doesn’t pull and we can work with him within the confines of the fort.
When we got him all hooked up, the enraged barking began. Fran instructed us to turn our backs to him, which only made his barking increase. When his barking didn’t cease, Fran instructed us to walk behind a nearby screen and wait the barking out. She wanted to make sure we weren’t reinforcing his reactivity.
Long minutes passed. We bit our nails and winced and made sympathetic gestures to the other handler and dog in the class. She smiled back and waved it off. Eventually, Panzer’s barks became more frantic, more high pitched and then, extinguished. When he was silent for 10 seconds, we walked back to him and praised him. We were only able to work for a few minutes before he jumped up on a hay bale, spotted Fran’s son and exploded into a fit of rage.
Out we went, leaving him there until silence ensued. End of lesson.
The second lesson went much the same, although his bursts of rage were less frequent and shorter. We played stuff a dog, where you just throw lots of cookies on the ground in a position where he isn’t pulling at the leash, and he essentially grazes. The grazing relaxes his jaw and activates the parasympathetic system associated with eating and calm.
Lesson three started off terribly, with Panzer reacting almost immediately to a stuffed pit bull in a cage near his hay fort. But when he calmed down, we realized we were making a lot of headway. We played some stuff a dog and worked on sits and downs (after we got our hand signals figured out, apparently Joe has been training with different hand signals while I am not at home, and as it’s “his” dog, I learned his signals, and Panzer seemed a lot less frustrated for it).
Panzer even worked for Fran, though he was hesitant to make eye contact with her, and he appreciated it when she stayed on the outside of the hay fort, which she was willing to do.
After we got him working, Fran invited another handler with her border collie to step into the center of the room where Panzer could see her. We threw treats at him as fast as we could (because he can’t feel his back end, our aim is getting better with a smaller target). This was more familiar and along the line of what we did with Smokey. Treat treat treat, dogs coming out mean good things. When the dog disappeared behind her own hay fort, the treats stopped. No reaction.
I was proud, but not elated. Panzer gets along with other dogs that look something like him. He just doesn’t like the bully breeds. I keep trying to tell him not to stereotype, but he’s not listening very well.
“Now, we’re going to bring Panzer out, just a few feet from the hay fort. I want you to reward every time he turns back to you.”
I stepped away from the hay fort and out into the center of the agility room next to Fran. Panzer took a few steps, “Yes!” Joe marked. He sniffed a cone then turned back, “Yes!” He sniffed a nearby screen and turned back, nothing. “Yes!” I cried, and Joe shoveled the cookie in. Panzer was clearly not comfortable. His muscles were taught, he leaned forward to examine things rather than walk toward them, but he was not reacting. He looked at Fran’s son nearby and then turned away.
“Yes! Yes! Mark that!” I called, and Joe looked at me, confused.
“But he didn’t look at me.”
“But he looked away from something he was focused on in a bad way,” Fran instructed, and Joe nodded. I realized how much cleaner a clicker was, timing wise. But as Joe has said, this is not my dog to handle, I have my own monster to deal with, and I wanted to avoid correcting Joe when he was not correcting the dog.
After a few minutes, Fran told Joe to go back into the hay fort to play some more stuff a dog.
A little while later, the other dog left, and Fran asked if we wanted to try Panzer out again. We took him out of the hay fort, but after a few seconds I told Joe to take him back in. I saw that Panzer was tense, he was fixating on things, and his eyes were going hard. His tail was dead stiff and there was a tenseness that surrounded him that made me feel like I could see his muscles rippling. He was like a bomb about to go off. Joe said he was doing fine, and I tried to curve the edge on my voice as I said, “He’s going to freak.”
“Set him up for success Joe, take him back.” Fran waltzed past Panzer as Joe walked him back into the hay fort, and I couldn’t help but wonder if this woman had a death wish. I felt like reminding her that he was aggressive but refrained.
We ended the lesson and ushered Panzer out quickly into the snow where we let him sniff to his heart’s content before hopping into the Jeep to go home. Before I left, I confessed to Fran that Panzer’s unpredictability was the thing that worried me most. She reminded me that he had been through hell and that the best way to help him was to keep his sessions short and always, always allow him to have “down time” when we were finished a session. She said if it meant leaving him alone in his crate with six bully sticks to keep him company, then that was what it meant, but above all things keeping him calm after he was starting to escalate was the most important thing.
As we drove home, I couldn’t help but feel proud of my boys and the headway they were making. I held Joe’s hand and told him that I couldn’t believe the progress he’d made. He was busy beating himself up about the missed marks and asked me what I was talking about. I told him, “A few years ago, when we were failing at rehabilitating Smokey, your solution was to choke him harder. Now, here we are a few years later rehabilitating Panzer, and the trainer is scolding you for feeding him too much. I would say that’s a hell of an achievement.”
He smiled and nodded, “Yeah, I guess you’re right.”
And as for Panzer, well, he got to come out of the hay fort, and for him, that’s quite a mountain to climb.