Rehabilitating an Anxious and Dog Reactive Border Terrier Named Max

By: David Codr

Published Date: July 15, 2016

Max (Our boy)

Max is a four-year-old Border Terrier who was surrendered to me a year ago due to his anxiety about just about everything and a severe case of dog aggression.  I worked with Max for the first time in February 2014.

This is going to be a little bit different than the stories I normally post here as Max was recently adopted by a new guardian and is very much enjoying his new forever home. So this is part road to success and part a reflection of the journey to get there.

Max’s original family loved him dearly, but with two very active young children, his behavior issues and no fenced in backyard, they eventually came to the conclusion that what would be best for Max would be to find him a new home.

Because he is such an awesome little dog when not anxious or around other dogs, I told his guardians I would take him, work with him and eventually find him a new home.

One of the first videos I shot of Max was something that I found amusing at the time it was going on. Max had gotten up on top of an exercise ball and started to roll it around the room.

I was slightly concerned when filming it, however the footage was rather funny. But after reflecting on it and reviewing the tape, I realized that Max was both overly anxious and frustrated; most likely due to not being able to get his mouth around the ball. That’s when I realized that we needed to eliminate Max’s anxiety by giving him the tools to develop control and help keep himself him from getting so frustrated.

A big part of his regimen was to get plenty of exercise to empty his tanks. But just about everything that Max enjoyed doing would cause him to ramp up his excitement level to the point where he was almost losing control.

Here’s a short video of Max’s reaction when I started to put on rollerblades to take him out and do some dog skiing. Note his avoidance of extended eye contact.

To help him get over this anxiety, I started to pause anytime he started to get himself worked up. This usually occurred long before we got outside. I fond that the sooner we stopped, the easier it was for Max to settle down.

I broke down the process of getting ready to go dog skiing into individual steps and practiced each one with Max separately until he was able to maintain his composure before moving on to the next step. This was obviously very time consuming.

While he was anxious while inside, as soon as we got out and started dog skiing, Max was absolutely in his element.

There are many different ways to exercise your dog but I have to say that I have found none that are as efficient and fun as dog skiing. The dog gets to pull and run as much as it wants which allows them to totally let out all their unused energy.

Another activity that frequently got Max all worked up was feeding time. I feed my dogs in a structured way where they only eat one at a time after I give each dog permission. At first, Max was almost uncontrollable in his anxiety and reaction to this delay. I regret that I didn’t film any of it when he was at his worst. But I did find this clip that shows him having a mild case of anxiety at feeding time. The whining is from little Max, the barking is from the puppy.

The great part about the above video is that Max was communicating to me by lifting up his front paw. This looks almost as if the dog is pointing but it is actually a calming signal.

It took quite a while, but eventually Max learn to remain completely calm throughout the entire feeding process. This is a video I shot for the Golden Retriever’s guardian.

To be honest, at times it felt like we would never get Max rehabilitated because it seemed like there was an insurmountable number of activities that caused him to work himself up.

By sticking with it, and addressing each individual action or behavior one at a time, eventually were able to help Max build up self-control and learn how to stay calm while engaging in a variety of activities that used to get him anxious.

One behavior that was alarming didn’t actually become apparent to me for a couple of months. Max very rarely would give extended eye contact. In fact, anytime I would hold up a treat between my face in his or try to pet him in a way that caused him to look at me, he would start whining anxiously.

In order to help Max learn self-control as well as be comfortable looking up at me, I spent a lot of time teaching him how to stay.

At first Max could only stay for literally one second before he started to move around and get anxious thinking that I was asking for him to do something else. But as we continued to practice in short burst of sessions that lasted no more than three minutes, eventually Max was able to start focusing on me and staying in the moment.

His one second stay eventually worked up to several minutes, although it did oscillate a bit each session.

I also taught Max a reverse sit exercise near the end of his rehabilitation. This is similar to the stay, but done in different situations and with a few additional modifications adapted specifically for his hyper excited personality.

Of course I had a lot of help throughout this endeavor. My Border Collie, Lab, Pointer, Dalmation mix California (Cali) and Max quickly became fast friends.

Max w First Dog Buddy, Cali

It may not seem like that big of a deal for a dog to make friends with another dog, this was Max’s first.

Early one when they were playing, I would have to stop them and give Max a timeout when he started to get too anxious. But it didn’t take long for him to understand what was an appropriate level of play. I have to say Cali helped quite a bit in this regard and it was clear to see that Max had a deep affection for her.

Max and Cali Sleepin

From dog skiing, to playing fetch, running, playing tug of war, chasing squirrels and even some not too subtle requests for attention, Max and Cali were the ultimate two-dog-gang.

Max and Cali being Subptle

Id be remiss to not include Farley too. Now that he is an older dog (11), he had a more laid back relationship with Max inside. But that doesn’t mean they didn’t have a lot of fun outside, especially in the snow.

In fact one of my favorite photos is one of the trio that I captured while watching them in a three-way game of chase during a January snowstorm.

Farley Cali Max Winter Circle

But it was while we were engaging in some off leash activities that winter that another activity that contributed to Max’s frustration was revealed.

Burning excess energy is usually an important part of rehabilitating a dog. But in this case the activity itself was frustrating to Max because he could never quite catch up with Cali.

We spent time practicing a sit while Cali ran after a frisbee or ball. Each time Max sat and did not try to chase Cali, I would treat him as a reward. At first, I kept her at some distance while we worked on this. But as Max developed more control he struggled less while staying in a sit as she ran by. Eventually Cali could run right past us while Max stayed in a sit without any leash or restraint. He was doing it all himself.

A big bonus to these training sessions was the end result; a very tuckered out pack of dogs.

Farley Cali Max Dogpile

Once Max had the basic social skills down with Cali and Farley, it was time to start introducing him to other dogs. One of the first dogs I got him together with was a dog that I actually placed in my parents home named Charlie.

Max and Charlie

Being of similar size and energy level, this was a great match for Max. Although he truly enjoyed playing with Cali, she was larger, stronger and faster than he was which sometimes triggered a minor case of anxiety or frustration.

About a year ago I worked with a really playful puppy with a great energy named Bindi. Because his guardian lives nearby, I started having her drop Bindi off so that Max could have an opportunity to play with him in his home.

You can hear Max verbalizing while they play, but this is more of a normal sound than the anxiety laced sounds Max made when he was frustrated.

Bindi was another great pairing as he and Max had the same size and energy level. But both Charlie and Bindi were confident dogs that were great role model for Max. Dogs can learn from observing other dogs and I know his time with Charlie and Bindi played a role in his rehabilitation.

From time to time I watch client dogs when they go out of town. This provided Max with a number of opportunities for him to play with dogs of all shapes, sizes and ages.

With each new dog that Max met, there was usually an introductory period where he had to be monitored very closely. And in some occasions I did incorporate a basket muzzle to ensure that Max had a positive encounter. Because I introduced the muzzle in a gradual way using a lot of positive reinforcement, Max started to associate the muzzle going on with the recognition that he was going to meet a new buddy and receive lots of treats.

It usually only took a few minutes for the muzzle to come off. All play time was done under careful observation to make sure Max didn’t get too worked up. When rehabilitating a dog, you want to have them practice the new target behavior over and over until it becomes the new normal. So making sure there were no aggressive incidents was of paramount importance.

Puppies were some of the most effective helpers I had with these play sessions. Adult dogs can smell that the difference in a puppy when it’s young and this often results in a different behavior from the adult.

Max and Puppy

By repeatedly exposing Max to a variety of different dogs under a controlled environment that ended with nothing but a positive association and memory, I started to see small changes when Max encountered dogs he didn’t know while on walks or other excursions.

To that end I made sure that we exposed Max to a variety of different places. He became a regular companion for me while out running errands.

Max Car Drive

At first, riding in the car or stopping at a favorite spot would elicit an anxiety attack in Max. This would result in my stopping and waiting patiently for Max to return to a calm and balanced state before continuing. This is why I was frequently late to dinners and other meetings, lol.

The more time went by, the more relaxed and playful Max became. Sometimes even decided to help me with the laundry.

Laundry Max

It was really a combination of many, many small activities and actions. Like I said before, there were times that I wondered if we would be able to completely rehabilitate Max.

Sometimes its hard to see growth and progress because of being too close to the subject and that was the case for Max. Fortunately many of the people I work with or are around noticed the differences in Max. Near the end, Bindi’s guardian was commenting on how far he had come. This positive affirmations are important motivation but also to know that you are indeed making progress.

While we spent a lot of time practicing techniques and exercises that helped to Max build up his self restraint and control, I also made sure we had some playtime together as well. A good rule to follow is; exercise, discipline then reward.

Don’t get me wrong, it required a lot of work. But by practicing the stay and focus exercises a couple of times a day every day along with pausing when he started to get anxious, Max started to be able to tolerate situations that would’ve caused him to grow frustrated before. And as a result of the work we put in, anytime he did start to get anxious, I was able to redirect him easily.

But we would always follow up a training or exposure session with something fun. This way the dog starts to get the idea that it has to work to earn its reward. I.e. I work hard for a few minutes, then i get to play ball.

Max in the Sandbox

One of Max’s final exposure examinations was going to the tailgating and party that accompanies the College World Series in downtown Omaha. This was a setting that had so much activity going on it would’ve given Max a heart attack a year ago.

I was quite proud of how well Max behaved at the CWS. Everyone that met him was astounded when I told him that he used to be very anxious and dog aggressive. It took over a year of a lot of work and patience, but Max was getting close to ready to finding a new home.

We continued to work on his focus and stay exercises at various public events. The idea is to practice the control exercise in an easy environment with no distractions, then gradually increase the difficulty level by adding in more people and activities (including dogs) so that the dog can get better at self control.

One of the most frequent environments we used during the warm part of the year was the farmers market in Aksarben Village on Sundays. It was while we were doing some work at a farmers market a couple of weeks ago that Max ended up meeting his new guardian.

A couple of days after that initial meeting, I brought Max over to his potential new guardians house to see how well he did with their dogs. We brought the dogs out one at a time and I had Max muzzled just to make sure that everything went well.

I have to say I found myself chuckling near the end of the visit because Mac seemed to be the most balanced dog there, LOL. No way I would have thought that would be the case a year ago.

We decided to try out an overnight visit a couple of days later to see how Max would do without me being there.

Based on Max’s to previous encounters with the guardian and the dogs that he lives with, I was cautiously optimistic. But the next day the guardian told me that things had gone so well that they wanted to keep him there full-time!

I was so glad to have made this connection. Not only is Max going into a home where he is truly wanted and will provide him with the structure he needs, it sounds like the guardian is equally enamored with having Max as his buddy.

Instead of paying an adoption or rehoming fee, we arranged to do one of my dog behavior sessions at Max’s new home so that I could offer a few additional tips.

It’s important that we remember that anytime we are petting a dog, we are reinforcing and nurturing whatever state of mind they happen to be in at that time. So taking a pause anytime the dog starts to get overexcited will be important for his new guardians.

I knew that Max was going to get plenty of love and affection in his new home. But to help make sure that Max doesn’t start to get anxious again, I went over a technique that I developed called Petting with a purpose.

Its going to be hard for his new guardian to ask Max to sit or lay down before he started to pet him. But if he gets into a habit of this, it will help Max continue Manding (sitting to ask a human for something). It will also help make sure that Max maintains a good level of respect for the guardian as his leader.

I was really happy with how well Max was behaving in his new home as we wrapped up the session. Max decided to ask for permission to get on the couch and once he got it, he gave probably the biggest indicator of how he felt about his new home.

Max Sleeping on the couch

I just couldn’t be happier with how this ended up. When I first started looking for a new home for him, it seemed like all the candidates weren’t quite right. Some didn’t have a fenced in backyard, others had busy lives where I questioned whether they would be able to provide him with the attention and structure he needed.

I look forward to getting updates on Max’s progress and I’m very confident that he’s going to very closely bonded with his new family. He really is a great dog; very loving, playful and affectionate.

It was a long road and as I mentioned, there were times I didn’t think we would ever reach the end of it. But this is a great reminder that sometimes good things, the things that are worthwhile, take some time. I know that our lives are better and more enriched from the time we shared with Max.

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This post was written by: David Codr

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