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Kennel Woes (Take two)

It's taken me a bit to write this, mainly as I dedicated a lot of time to my dogs and also find this hard to talk about.

Having dogs, caring for them, raises feelings of guilt when anything goes wrong. Akin to if I had a brother who hurt himself while I was on vacation, I would feel guilty because maybe if I'd been around I could have prevented that.

Well, with my dogs, it was a traumatizing experience and it took a lot patience and self control to get back to where we are now.

If you've read my blog before, you know I have a deep love of all furry creatures, but dogs have a special place in my heart. I cannot understand humans that hurt them and never will. I eventually hope to get my own kennel and help rescue as many dogs as I can.

But I digress.

What happened was: we went on a trip. Left our dogs with a company who advertised proper dog care... but within 48hrs our dogs had to be taken to the vet, one by one. This blog is not to bash the company but rather to share what worked for us in bringing our dogs back to normal.

I should probably start at the beginning, to give you some context. Our lab, Zeus, was first in the household. Achilles followed when Zeus was 4 yrs old. Both my dogs are not neutered - they came that way, and I don't believe the benefits outweigh the consequences. I am sure neutering works for a lot of people, but we left that as a last resort.

Our dogs grew up in harmony. We trained them well, they go on walks together, share toys, enjoy meals together, even bones. When we have company over, they have their initial 5min of excitement, then get back to normal. When we are at work, they happily use our back yard and keep themselves entertained. Never have they viciously fought since Achilles became the dominant dog.

In summary? Healthy, happy dogs.

We boarded them before without issues. I shouldn't say that. One of the times we boarded them, Achilles came back very traumatized - I wrote a blog on that too. We switched kennels and the other 2 small experiences that followed were fine.

This time around, the dogs were put in a joined room. The staff on site was unable to pinpoint if the time before they had stayed together or not. We gave them strict instructions, meant to avoid what happened, in case the new environment had them antsy: feed them separately. Achilles is the dominant one, make sure he is acknowledged first, etc. Needless to say, they were not taken into account or even written down.

To make a long story short, the dogs were spooked by something and fought as a result - Achilles started it and despite this place promising 24/7 surveillance, no one noticed. Zeus got injured, and was taken to the vet. Thankfully, he only had some small scratches. While he was at the vet, they left Achilles unsupervised and he got injured. No one could tell me how, only guesses.

The vet whom I called - from Ireland because by this point I was ready to hop on a plane back and we had barely landed - told me something definitely sparked this in the environment because both dogs were much too agitated. Needless to say, I gave the company shit and filed a complaint immediately, though it did no good from so far away.

As the vet could not accommodate my dogs at their place for the remaining days, and no family of ours was in town, we agreed to put the dogs on anti anxiety meds for the remainder of their stay. We shortened our stay as much as possible, hoping to get back home at the earliest possible time.

I will spare you the replay of my conversation with the staff there and their manager... It would the understatement of the year to call it backwards. But I did make sure to follow through and file a full complaint with everyone and everything I could think of, including social media, and get them to act on it - but this was much later. When we landed, after driving 8hrs from NYC back home to Canada, all I cared about was getting my dogs home.

After we got our dogs back, they could not be in the same room. They could not cohabitate. We had the same evidence of it when we got them in the car. Before, they could both sit in the backseat. I had the foresight to separate them - one at the front, other at the back. Even that didn't help, as they almost immediately went after each other.

Needless to say, I was afraid I'd never be able to get the situation resolved and have my dogs back to normal. For hours, I scoured the internet and phoned my vet, had a full check up, but nothing I found helped much. The vet suggested time, patience and avoiding fights.

This one article offered some insight that was new and helpful, but for the most part I kept landing on forums and articles for dogs from different households being aggressive. They have great information on aggressivity in dogs, but not necessarily for the same household:

So, we had to get creative.

After two days of keeping the dogs separate and tending to them individually, me and my husband formed a plan of attack, so to speak, and it contained the below elements:

-doubled the walks

-doubled the training sessions

-started from scratch and kept them separate

-patience patience patience

-avoid any fights.

Walks were done early morning and late at night, with both dogs. We started off with Achilles ahead, Zeus behind and slowly (over the course of weeks) brought them side by side again.

Training sessions were done individually for 5min each and jointly for 10min. They involved basic obedience and tricks, with food rewards. We re-iterated a training technique we had used in the past, called "Nothing in life is free".. It basically makes your dog work for everything - getting petted, getting fed, going for a walk, etc. There is a guide at this link that explains it very well, and we found it very effective.

What quickly became apparent in these sessions was that Achilles especially was traumatized. Zeus got back in the swing of things easily, perhaps because he's older (9) whereas Achilles is 5. Either way, our husky developed a fear of the dark and would no longer go in the backyard by himself. He flinched when we went to pet him by bringing the hand down from the top - as though afraid we'd hit him. We have never, ever laid a hand on either of our dogs, and this new development broke my heart. Zeus, though a bit better, was antsy around his brother and was prone to bouts of agitation - not sitting down, restless behavior.

We kept them separate when not at home - different rooms, but away from the master bedroom. They usually sleep with us, and that is a privilege we give them. If one of them had been allowed to stay there for the day while the other was not, it would have created tension. As such, we put them in neutral rooms of the house, and it worked. When we got home after work and the dogs were reunited, they were on their best behavior. At night when they slept together, again on their best behavior.

We don't have crates and though I considered getting them, the dogs were not used to them and I feared they would bring back too many memories of the kennel and instead of a solution, we'd have another problem on our hands.

All the above required a lot of patience, and I don't mean that in the sense that the dogs were a burden. On the contrary, on some level this allowed for a deeper connection between all of us. I do wish the tragic circumstances could have been avoided, but they happened. Nonetheless, what the pet parents needs to remember is that dogs don't think like us. Something that takes us a nanosecond to grasp, will take them longer especially if there is fear associated to the action/event.

Avoiding fights was the most nerve-wrecking part of the process, and this started from the moment we stepped into the door at home. First, from the car we didn't bring them straight in. We took them for a walk, and only after they were tired did we go home. Over the next 72hrs we constantly kept an eye on them. A shift of the ear, a sudden movement, them passing each other in a tight space - anything could have triggered a fight. We wanted to avoid it because the #1 thing you want to avoid is your dogs thinking it's ok to fight. And the more it happens, the harder it will be to diffuse it.

Now, everyone says it's a bad idea to get between two dogs who fight. Very true and I am not saying otherwise. But it's extremely important in such a situation to watch your dogs. Constantly. The minute I saw something that had the potential for escalation, I stepped in with a quick "no" and followed up with a calming command.

It's very important to note what starts the fights. We saw what made them tick and made a list of things - anything from being too close, being too excited, fighting over food, treats, attention. Once we knew what the triggers were, we were able to address them one by one in the training session and manage them.

It sounds like a lot, and it was. But what we did slowly brought results. All the above actions put the dogs in a routine. Little by little, they realized they were back at home and their "humans" were back in charge. There was no need to be anxious or afraid. The pecking order was ok, and they, in turn, were ok.

The day I saw them play fighting I nearly had a heart attack, my heart was pounding so fast. But they were playing - running around and chasing each other. This was 3 weeks after the fact. And today, they're back to normal.