There is a crucial question that I ask of anyone who brings me his troubled dog for a consultation: “Did you meet the parents of this dog?” If the answer is yes, my next questions are: “How did the parents behave toward you?” “How did they behave toward non-family dogs?” I ask because genes matter. If one or both of the parents display aggression, fear, or other unwanted canine behavior, such as separation anxiety, there is a decent chance that your cute, wiggly little puppy will also soon enough be displaying those unwanted behaviors.
The Genetics of Behavior
The well-being of the mother dog is enormously important. We know from human studies that if a human mother is highly stressed while her baby is in utero, the child often comes into the world in a state of stress that can impact the child for the rest of his life. If you neglected to interview the breeder at length about the health and temperaments of your puppy’s parents and grandparents, let this chapter be a tremendous wake-up call for you. I want to share the sad story of my young German Shepherd as a serious, life-altering (for me) example of why the intersection of genes and the environment is so critical.
Dr. Jessica Hekman, DVM, MS, a PhD candidate at the University of Illinois who is training in a genomics lab, says that 20 to 40 percent of any particular personality trait in dogs is under the influence of genes, and the rest is shaped by the environment. “Personality is influenced by both genetics and environment. The two influences work together in very subtle and nuanced ways,” she said in a recent interview with me. “The environment is a subtle thing. It can be in utero influences. It can be things that happen when the puppy is tiny; it can be interactions with other puppies in the litter.”
A young, happy boarding client relaxing while in a home boarding environment at Phenix Dogs.
She and other scientists are on the hunt, looking for the genetic underpinnings of personality. She says that although we may not ever find it, the long search is worth it for the enormous potential it offers to the treatment of undesired behaviors if we can locate specific genes. “Understanding the specific genes [that]influence a dog’s aggressive responses could help us understand what exactly is going wrong in the brain on the level of cells and molecules,” Dr. Hekman says. “This could help us (a) decide which behavioral medication to use in a particular individual instead of just trying one at random, waiting two months to see if it works, and then having to switch and start over; (b) develop new behavior medications that work better; (c) have a better idea of how to prevent behavior problems in the first place (for example, are they mostly set up in utero? or during the socialization period?); or even (d) better develop behavior-modification treatments.”
Although genes are vitally important, Dr. Hekman points out that a dog’s environment is the key to whether the genetic programming shows up. “Genes and the environment intersect, and the environment is critical. We know that children who have bad childhoods cannot handle stress as well as those who had cheerful childhoods. Early-life stress makes animals less resilient,” Dr. Hekman points out.
Golden Retriever Solda as a puppy. She attended Annie’s weekly training class for a year, and it certainly paid off in an obedient dog with a stable temperament.
It is an exciting time for dog owners, with so much human brainpower and scientific curiosity centered on dogs. It was a long time coming. As one famous trainer noted years ago: “We know more about the mating habits of the red-winged blackbird than we do about dogs.” Our understanding of the inner workings of the four-legged animal we share our lives with is changing at last and for the better. I can’t help but mourn the dogs that we couldn’t help, even with recent advancements in our base of knowledge.
As far back as 1875, Charles Darwin told us that the brains of wild rabbits were larger than those of domestic rabbits. He postulated that the amount of brainpower differed because domestic rabbits did not use their intellects, senses, or instincts as much as did wild rabbits. For years, studies in rats have proved that when their environments are rich, brain weight, size, and even neurons increase. Of course, those things do not generally increase if an animal is not given enrichment, particularly when young. Studies on rats repeatedly demonstrate that enrichment creates rats that show more complex behaviors than do rats deprived of environmental stimulation. The lucky rats in the enriched environment also show improved concentration, memory, and attention; superior learning ability; improved performance; and reduced emotionality.
Resiliency in humans and dogs makes for a much more enjoyable life, not only for the animal but also for those sharing their lives with him. Do you want a dog that can bounce back after a stressful event? Or do you want a dog that reacts with teeth bared or tailed tucked, trying to bolt at every new thing introduced into his environment? Nobody who is looking for a family pet wants a reactive housemate that causes everyone to walk on eggshells. It can feel very much like living with a mentally unbalanced or even abusive person. At least with humans, we can bring in therapists and engage in talk therapy, among other healing options. On occasion, we can even use our “executive” minds and help ourselves. How nice it would be if only we could ask a troubled dog to please stretch out on a dog therapist’s couch and talk about the pain of his early childhood!
If only more breeders honored the vital role that the dam (the mother) plays in the outcome of the puppies’ well-being and made sure that she was healthy, happy, well-rested, and well-adjusted before they gave a second’s thought to breeding her. Perhaps, in years to come, we will see a feminist-like push that requires mother dogs to be healthy and well-balanced before being bred. The proper care and respect for all mothers, human and animal, is one of the most important feminist issues of our time.
Happy Solda as an adolescent. Annie often recruits Solda to help with dog-to-dog introductions.
Many dogs are, of course, adopted from shelters and rescues, and we often have no way of knowing even what breed(s) the parent dogs were, much less what their health or temperaments were like. In these dogs, proper and positive socialization becomes critical to setting up a dog for a lifetime of success and low-stress living with humans. Most of the dogs I have shared my life with came from a rescue or shelter, and I never knew their lineages. Most were resilient dogs, and that made me happy and feel quite fortunate.
As soon as a dog expresses problematic behavior, such as aggression or reactivity, that’s the time to find a veterinary behaviorist or a qualified force-free trainer to help you help your dog. Get help for the dog sooner rather than later. It is vital that owners do not take a troubled dog to anyone who suggests aggressive or painful training because this will only make the dog’s life worse; it will also make living with the dog harder on the human because the dog’s unwanted behavior will escalate.
The troubled dog with whom I shared my life for two years taught me my own limitations and proved to me that we cannot help or save every dog, as much as we want to. Zemi helped me reach down deep and lace up those same well-worn shoes that my Midnight Dog Walkers’ Club clients lace up. I already had empathy for anyone who owned a reactive or aggressive dog, but my time with Zemi caused a catastrophic crack in my heart. So I am heartbroken but realistic, all because of one of my own dogs.
Even though I advise my clients to meet and spend time with the parent dogs when possible, I made a fateful decision in accepting a “free” purebred German Shepherd puppy without personally meeting the parents. I did so based on my trust of a friend who knew the breeder. Here’s how it happened.
My amazing rescued Shiloh Shepherd, Flash, had passed away at age thirteen just two years earlier, and I sorely missed not having a shepherd-type dog in my life. I’ve shared my heart and my home with countless German Shepherds over the years, and it always feels like something critical is missing without one in my life. However, with a booming training career, I didn’t have the time to devote to a high-energy dog of my own. My life was centered on being a guide to those owners who shared their lives with very troubled dogs. I never wanted to have that kind of dog in my well-adjusted, happy-dog home, and it took most of my considerable energy to be present for those owners who needed my help.
A friend called to tell me about a good breeder she knew (and I had met once) who was moving into breeding German Shepherds. I remember that small, wise voice in my head, telling me to pass on the opportunity because of my own time restraints and because the breeder lived in another state, but then the breeder started sending me videos of the adorably plush puppies.
Rico was adopted as a puppy from a shelter. His owner faithfully brought him to Annie’s classes for a year, and he’s now working on his nosework titles.
I moved closer to saying yes after I quizzed the breeder on the temperaments and health of the sire and dam. Both had “exceptional” temperaments, and the sire was a dog of West German descent that loved people and other dogs. The breeder sent me photos and videos of him, and he did look regal and relaxed. He had good structure and had received good scores on his health tests (such as Orthopedic Foundation for Animals [OFA] evaluations), and the breeder was working on getting titles on both the sire and the dam.
A few weeks later, the breeder confessed that the puppies were—in her words—an “oops” litter. I hated hearing that because anyone over the age of ten these days knows about the birds and the bees and how puppies are made. I asked how it happened and what she considered the “oops” to be. She told me that the dam was “too young,” at only sixteen months, to have been bred. She had no titles, and she had not yet gotten her hips x-rayed (a common procedure to evaluate hip soundess or potential for hip dysplasia) because she wasn’t finished growing yet. Otherwise, I was assured, the dam was a terrific dog from top working German Shepherd lines direct from Germany. Red flags waved before my eyes, but my heart kept getting pulled in by the videos and by what I knew of this breeder’s quality dogs from when she had been involved in another breed. She had good dogs in the past that I had met and liked.
The Runt of the Litter
I kept my eye on one particular male puppy that was the only puppy noticing the people filming them; he often came over, wagging his tail, to say hello to the humans behind the camera. He showed a calm, curious temperament. I asked if I could purchase that puppy, and the answer for a while was yes until it became a no. The breeder had decided to keep him, and she offered me the runt of the litter for free. I have nothing against runts, and Zemi was indeed both beautiful and adorable with her altogether short legs. She looked like a miniature German Shepherd. A runt, however, can be the result of getting less nutrition in the womb and struggling for sustenance even before being born, which can wreak havoc on internal systems. Plus, being the biggest or the smallest in a litter can certainly have an effect on personality. In Zemi’s case, we are right back at square one, and that is the concept of resiliency. Zemi would prove to have none.
I had begun working with one of the local search-and-rescue (SAR) team’s dogs that had become reactive to other dogs after being attacked twice while off leash on an official search. My interest in the local SAR team had been piqued after spending time with such fine individuals, and the fact that Zemi’s dam came from Schutzhund lines appealed to me, even though it bothered me a great deal that the breeder said that Zemi’s mother had been born on a plane en route from Germany. That was an awful situation for both the mother dog and the new puppies—imagine the stress of giving birth in a loud transport plane! That’s a surefire way to nearly guarantee a lack of resiliency in all of those puppies.
As an adult, Solda taught puppy Brave J how to enjoy playing with a safe older dog.
I mentioned to the breeder that I was looking for a working-dog prospect, and she told me that if she were younger, she’d sure love to keep that runt because the pup was “drivey” and “feisty” and would “surely make a good working dog.” This is a huge, waving, unmistakable red flag for me now just as it was then. I overlooked it, though, because I felt that even if the breeder mistook hyperactivity for good working drive—as so many breeders, owners, and even some trainers do—I had the tools to work with that less-than-desirable trait.
Trainer Leslie McDevitt, MLA, CDBC, CPDT, has the best explanation of the difference between arousal and drive that I have read: “‘Drive’ is not an official or technical term. It is a description that dog people have of a dog that wants to work and that enjoys his work. People see intent behaviors that are arousal behaviors that are hyperactive behaviors and say ‘that dog must be high drive.’ They are mistaking the intensity of those behaviors for ‘drive.’ Arousal behavior is a physiological response to excitement. The dog might be running in circles, jumping, or barking, and that has nothing to do with drive.”
The breeder wanted to fly the now eight-week-old Zemi to me. I asked her to keep Zemi for an additional week so she could get all the benefits she could from her mother and the remaining siblings. Putting a young, vulnerable, and impressionable puppy on an airplane is a bad idea—I repeat, a bad idea. This may very well be the young dog’s first experience away from everything that she has known thus far in her life, and to be stuck in a crate and put in the cargo hold of an ear-piercingly loud airplane can damage the pup’s temperament.
Instead, I drove 1,600 miles over two days to pick up my puppy. I brought my bossy female Border Collie and a crate so I could keep the active pup in her space and away from my older dog but close enough for them to get to know one another. However, my wise dog Echo wanted nothing to do with the puppy from the moment she laid eyes on her, and that was unusual behavior for Echo. Echo had been helping me socialize puppies for years, and she proved to be a master at it and seemed to enjoy it. I’ve lost count of the red flags popping up, but this was another big one.
I immediately enrolled Zemi in several puppy and socialization classes so she could be around many new, safe dogs and their humans. I made good headway on a checklist created by the Pet Professional Guild that has eighty-eight things you should do to socialize your puppy, including handling the puppy and making positive introductions to different visual and auditory stimuli, people of all ages, different tactile surfaces, other animals, and the like.
Stiffness in a dog is a warning signal. Annie worked with this puppy to reduce her stiffness when meeting new dogs.
Zemi’s initial reaction to life was wide-eyed, and she attempted to back away from anything new. So she was a little shy—or perhaps she was going through one of the fear periods that are normal for puppies. However, it is not normal for a puppy to remain fearful of everything new if she is properly introduced to human life—unless there is a genetic or physical reason for it.
I worked diligently to positively build Zemi’s confidence, and on some days she did seem more confident. I began to try to get her interested in toys, hoping to use that desire to work for toys in training her as a prospective SAR dog, but she never really displayed play behavior. In the puppy classes, everything overwhelmed her. I took many time-outs to allow her moments to calm down. I could feel her rapidly beating heart as I held her in my lap. She refused all food in training anywhere but at home. Her eyes remained dilated for every class. I soon stopped taking her to classes because the experience was overwhelming and not helping her learn about the world.
I continued her socialization at a much slower pace. Although I “met the dog where she was,” her behavior was screaming that she was terrified of life itself. I felt as though I were trying to do the impossible and that was to create (neuronal) plasticity and resiliency in a dog that had been born with none. It was the beginning of my heart breaking for her.
A client’s shy dog. Annie spent the first few sessions getting to know the dog, which made training much easier.
One pleasant summer day, I brought Zemi down to the barn with me because I had several hours of weed-patrol work to accomplish. We live on a 40-acre, semi-secluded farm where she could safely run and explore while I worked. Play she did, at least that’s how I interpreted it at the time. She wasn’t doing anything of the sort, however. It was only that evening, talking over the day with my husband, that I realized that Zemi had never stopped moving for the entire four hours and that she had been doing something very specific: chasing butterflies and other flying insects, whether they existed or not.
It was summertime, and there were bugs in the air. That would not be the case come winter in Colorado, but her hunting went on, season after season. That day at the barn was her first display of obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD) behavior that we would not be able to stop, even with medications. If Zemi was outside, her first choice was to start her immediate and unstoppable hunt for imaginary bugs. It was not only painful to observe, but her risky and repetitive behavior caused three severe insect bites to her mouth, one of which severely restricted her breathing. I was getting to know the emergency veterinarians quite well. We eventually stopped taking her on walks after she started exhibiting spooking behavior in which she would “see” something that wasn’t present and try to bolt, or she would go after the nonexistent bugs and often would begin drooling and become nearly catatonic.
On the Attack
The next behavior she offered forced me to immediately contact the breeder. At fifteen weeks old, Zemi tried to attack my feeble senior Sheltie mix, Lacy. I had let Zemi out in the backyard in the middle of the night so she could go to the bathroom (her bug-searching was less severe when it was dark outside). I didn’t realize that my husband had let our older dog Lacy out before he came to bed, and she had indicated that she wanted to stay outside because it was a nice night. Both dogs came to me as I put my hand on the back door to allow Lacy to go into the main part of the house, and Zemi was coming back into the bedroom with me. I kept Zemi away from my older dogs unless I had direct supervision because she tended to bother them with her frantic puppy energy (or perhaps they recognized her as off-balance before I did).
As Lacy slowly walked through the open door on her creaky, arthritic legs, Zemi attacked her, or attempted to. All of my years of shelter work and training had given me quick motor responses, and, without wasting a second, I grabbed the puppy by her collar and held her in midair. From that vantage point, she continued to snarl, growl, and air-snap. It occurred to me that my own dog may just be the very first dog to inflict a bite on me as she tried to redirect on me.
It was only then that I belatedly pulled out Zemi’s registration papers and began researching her lineage. What I found crushed me. Her mother came from what appeared to be a German Shepherd puppy mill that had hateful reviews from anguished dog owners all over the Internet. Complaints about dog aggression and health problems were rampant, even as the kennel website bragged that “every single one of our dogs has achieved a Schutzhund III title.”
Lacy is one of the many German Shepherd-type dogs with whom Annie has shared her life.
Her father’s lineage didn’t tell me much except that he came from show lines. The breeder surmised in an email that perhaps my puppy “didn’t get enough of her father’s genes” and was acting more like her mother—a very expensive dog that the breeder later gave away, only to have her shortly returned as being “unmanageable.” A year later, that “calm” sire attacked his own son (the dog I originally wanted) in the breeder’s home while she was at work. She posted photos of blood throughout her dining room, all over the walls. The young male dog needed surgery to repair serious damage caused by his father. My young Zemi had a loaded gun in terms of genetic input not just from her mother but from both parents.
More than one study has demonstrated the importance of genes specifically as they relate to fearful dogs. The research shows that if even just one parent shows a predilection for fearful behavior, the puppy will be the recipient of fearful genes. Furthermore, the puppies in this study remained fearful even if the other parent presented as a “normal” dog and even when fearful pups born to fearful mothers were then fostered and raised by a stable mother dog. Neither medication nor training resolved the fear in these puppies.
Annie often takes clients’ dogs to the local airport for socialization.
Searching for Solutions
After finally processing all the red flags, I asked the breeder to take Zemi back. To her credit, she said she would, and she wanted the dog flown back to her. Then I remembered that Zemi’s mother was still in the home, and she had attacked a female dog she lived with. And the fact that the breeder used shock collars on her dogs made that a no-go option for me. All of my hands-on experience and the vast amounts of current scientific studies prove beyond any point of discussion that using a shock collar on a fearful, troubled dog will make the unwanted behavior in the dog worse. It would make Zemi even more unstable and fearful.
To those who want to insist that the shock collar would have helped this dog, please do your research. Science is overwhelmingly against that misguided myth. It would be like shocking an autistic child. We’ve moved well past that in most professional dog circles.
After I spoke about Zemi with other trusted trainers from around the country, seeking their input for any solutions I might have overlooked, after I enrolled her in my reactive-dog class that she bombed, after spending several hours a day exercising her mind instead of taking her for walks, after I took her to three veterinarians and then a veterinary behavior expert, after we tried a wide variety of antianxiety medications, after we ruled out any other known medical issues (such as hypothyroidism), and after I spent months using counterconditioning and desensitizing techniques, I decided to teach her nosework as a way to perhaps give her a job that she could handle and some much needed focus. She proved to be an incredible nosework dog. She even managed to pass an odor-recognition test. I then foolishly allowed myself to have some small hope for her.
I had her tested by three local SAR teams as a candidate because she was so gifted at finding odors or hidden people, but she failed to make the team each time. She always found what I asked her to find (in spite of real or imaginary bugs beckoning to her), but it’s impossible to have a SAR dog that tries to bite the person she successfully finds. She was not a police-dog candidate, either, because she had no impulse control and violently lunged and snarled at anyone new she met. She was unpredictable and unstable, so she couldn’t be a working dog of any kind. All of the stimuli of life overwhelmed her.
Zemi’s options for what Dr. Karen Overall termed a “negotiated settlement” were quickly narrowing. Even though I thought it would be impossible to rehome such an aggressive and troubled animal, I tried anyway, hoping I might find that needle-in-a-haystack home for her, considering I had other dogs that she wanted to maul. Because she had not bitten (yet), I did briefly consider the option of rehoming her with the stipulation of ongoing free training with me. I found a hardworking, single, fifty-year-old man who wanted a companion dog to come home to after a long day at work. He had good dog experience. He wasn’t interested in taking her to public places, he had no other dogs, and he rarely had visitors.
Zemi accepted him at his first visit (she was still quite young and somewhat receptive to new people), so we began a three-month trial period. The man would take Zemi for weekend visits and, like my husband and me, he grew attached to our troubled girl. I shared Zemi’s long list of issues with him, and he still wanted to try. He took her on walks before 5 a.m. so she would not run into another person or dog. He loved her. He would, however, call us when she stayed with him and share his concern that she would not come in from the backyard, ignoring him to chase—for hours—imaginary bugs.
Then he introduced Zemi (with my guidance) to his 80-year-old, dog-loving mother who did want to visit her son now and again at his home. Zemi went into assault mode, circling the elderly woman who sat passively on the couch. It was the end to any negotiated settlement in that home.
I let my imagination drift to faraway corners in my desire to be able to keep Zemi alive and safe. I briefly considered moving to a mountaintop away from civilization, where she and I would live together, alone, for the next decade. That was a poorly negotiated settlement all the way around because I would miss my husband, who would have to stay behind in the real world to live with our other dogs and animals. I would miss my stable of dogs who worked alongside me every day, helping other reactive dogs. I would miss my clients. I also knew that nothing had been able to stop Zemi’s OCD imaginary bug chasing. It occurred to me that the thought of giving up my life, my loves, and my income to move to a mountaintop with a dog I could never stop from being frantic and unsettled was leaning hard in the direction of crazy human behavior.
I recognized that I had entered the bargaining stage of grief. I began to let sink in deep the words of the veterinary behavior specialist who had said to me, with frankness, “You might get to the point of understanding that this is not a failure of training; it is an acceptance of reality.”
After taking Annie’s nosework classes, Toby became a nondestructive, content dog.
I took Zemi to the third veterinarian in my hometown, hoping that she might have some answer I had overlooked. She is the only local veterinarian who had studied behavior after graduating from vet school. She read the lengthy report from the veterinary behavior specialist, as well as my novel of an email that outlined everything I had done to help her. She had one final thing to try, and that was to put Zemi on probiotics to see if any digestive issues contributed to her OCD behavior. Zemi did have on-again, off-again diarrhea or soft stools, so I agreed to bring her in for the preliminary exam.
Veterinary behaviorist Dr. Karen Overall conceived the idea of a “negotiated settlement” between humans and their canine or feline pets. She describes this concept in Clinical Behavioral Medicine for Cats and Dogs:
“The goal of treatment for canine (and feline) behavioral concerns is a negotiated settlement. Everyone may not get what they want, but everyone can get what they need. This is true whether the behaviors of concern are normal behaviors that the clients dislike or will not tolerate or true behavior pathologies that put the patient and others at risk. This negotiated settlement is obtained by identifying factors that can be changed through intervention, factors that can be avoided, and factors that require risk mitigation.
The concept of the outcome of a negotiated settlement helps clients understand that although the cat or the dog may never behave perfectly, improvement, happiness, safety, and less stress for everyone are all attainable outcomes.”
I muzzled Zemi for everyone’s safety. I asked the vet to please never turn her body directly toward my dog and not to look her in the eye. Even though that makes it a bit difficult to perform an exam, the vet did as I asked. It didn’t matter. I held onto the leash and collar while the doctor tried to put her hands on my dog from behind her to feel her stomach. Zemi stiffened, leaned her head straight up and back into the vet behind her, and let out a low, long, warning growl that left the hair on my neck standing on end. I saw that death-threat stare in Zemi’s eyes that I never want to see from any dog. She then attempted to bite the vet on the face through the muzzle.
I pulled her away and took her across the room. Zemi lay down, nonplussed, with her back to the vet. Her behavior was the final last straw, even considering all of the other countless last straws. The veterinarian agreed that she was a dangerous dog and that I had done everything that any of us knew with all of our combined years of experience and knowledge for this dog. She also said that she never puts down dogs for behavior concerns—my dog would be the first. We also put her on probiotics anyhow to see if that made any difference for her; it didn’t.
Dogs don’t have language like we do, so they use their bodies to communicate. This dog is saying, “Back off! You are making me uncomfortable.”
My husband was out of town, so the final appointment had to wait two weeks because he had asked to be present. After all, he had walked this tortuous walk with me and this dog, and I honored his request. This meant that I knew when my dog’s final day of life would be. It meant two weeks of sitting with her, weeping endless tears, watching her run in frantic circles and try to catch bugs that never existed. I would catch her and put her leash on her—the leash was to thwart her OCD behavior—and try to sit with her in the backyard. I begged her for a connection. I wanted her to be able to stop whatever was happening inside of her muddled mind and be able to be present with me. It was impossible for her. She’d whimper and pace at the end of the leash. I surmised that so much was happening inside of her stunted body and mind that she needed that tunnel vision, totally focused on her bug chasing, to shut out all of the other stimuli, like some children with autism who start rocking themselves. I took her inside, and she’d collapse in a heap, as though just going outside in her own backyard proved too much for her, even on high doses of antianxiety medication.
The Emotion of Play
Neuroscientist Jaak Panksepp discovered seven emotional systems that all mammals have inside their brains: seeking, fear, rage, lust, care, panic/grief, and play. Observing Zemi’s bizarre behavior, it felt on many days as though her brain was stuck on seeking (unstoppable invisible-bug chasing), fear (dilated pupils, rapid heartbeat, hair raised at new stimuli), panic (bolting from new stimuli, sometimes bolting at nothing that I could detect in the environment), and rage (aggressive barking, growling, and lunging at other dogs, including those she grew up with, and at any people outside of her immediate human family). Those emotions seemed to take up so much brain space that she didn’t exhibit the normal emotions of play or care.
Zemi was never a dog that liked to play. When I had her out on the property, trying to encourage her to run and play with my other dogs, she would become stiff, give the other dogs hard stares, and chase them down one by one, usually running by their side instead of confronting them directly when she was a little puppy. Eventually, she would begin to drool and shake. I stopped taking her on our group runs because they overwhelmed her, just like everything else in life did. There is productive exercise, and there is unproductive exercise, and, based on her reactions, life itself was an unproductive exercise and a trial for her. I find it telling what Dr. Panksepp said to Discover Magazine about the importance of play:
Levi is a happy graduate of Annie’s Growly Dog class.
Q: Is play embedded deeply in the brain, the way attachment is?
A: Many experiments over the years suggested [that]it was, but to be sure, I removed the upper brain of the [rats]at three days of age. Amazingly, the rats still played in a fundamentally normal way. That meant play was a primitive process. We saw, too, that play helped the animals become socially sophisticated in the cortex. That’s why it’s so important to give our kids opportunities for play.
Both dogs are in full play mode. Play is essential in a dog’s development.
And yet it seems that childhood play has become much more controlled than it was when I was young.
I have gone to ADHD meetings to consider this childhood problem. But the doctors do not want to hear the possibility that these kids are hyper-playful because they’re starved for real play—because they are giving them anti-play medicines. Teachers are promoting the pipeline of prescription controls as much as any other group, because their lives are hard. They are supposed to be teaching kids at the cortical level of reading, writing, and arithmetic, but if they’ve got kids who are still hungry for play, it’s going to be classroom chaos. And you can sympathize with them, because they should be getting kids that are sufficiently well regulated to sit and use their upper brains. But the kids’ lower brains are still demanding attention.
Q: What happens to animals if they are deprived of play over the long term?
A: They look normal and they eat normally; they’re just not as socially sophisticated. Animals deprived of play are more liable to get into a serious fight. Play teaches them what they can do to other animals and still remain within the zone of positive relationships.
I hugged my other dogs and cried with them, too, because their lives had been upended for nearly two years in my quest to heal an unhealable dog. I nearly backed out. I nearly packed for that imaginary cabin on the top of a mountain. I wrote to the veterinary behavior expert just to ask for the one hundredth time if there was one final thing we could do to try to help her. There wasn’t. It was time. There would be no win-win negotiated settlement for this dog.
We gave Zemi a tranquilizer on the day of our vet appointment that—in the words of the vet—was strong enough to kill a human. We parked behind the office and waited for the vet to come out to our car—it would be even more stress on Zemi to go inside and face strangers. I was inconsolable. I wanted to snatch her up and head to that mountain cabin forever. Anything would be better than having to be the one who decided her fate. I lived my life to save dogs, and I owed them so very much, and here I was, sobbing tears into Zemi’s coat, making the choice to end her life.
The vet came out to give her another sedative shot because the horse-sized tranquilizer pill we had given her earlier hadn’t had any effect on her. Zemi tried to attack the vet. I had to muzzle her, and it took both my husband and me to hold her down. Even so, I told myself that I could still call off what felt like an execution. As I was in my final, final, final pleading deliberations with myself, a stranger walked by and asked if I was OK. I was hysterical in my grief at that point. Zemi roused herself and tried to attack him. Luckily, her muzzle was still on.
I asked my husband to go get the vet. I had to end this dog’s miserable mental anguish.
Because this dog seems to be very still, it’s likely that he isn’t welcoming this particular human interaction.
And that’s what we did.
The veterinarian showed great emotional fortitude that day as she stepped past me, weeping and wailing, to inject a dog that was trying to attack her. She hugged me afterward. It was the hug of compassion and understanding. It was an embrace from a human who, like myself, had dedicated her life to saving animals. She sat in witness to my misery as I had done for so many owners with troubled dogs. Her compassion made that horrible day endurable. She didn’t have any Kleenex on hand for me, but that wouldn’t have mattered because there are not enough tissues in the world to dry that kind of soul-piercing pain.
I’ve never completely gotten over it. I have not gotten another dog since her death. I spend my days with my three remaining dogs. The dogs, my husband, and I learned to relax again. I carry on with a hole in my heart that can only be somewhat kept at bay by furiously working to stop other dogs and their owners from going through this misery. I started a German Shepherd puppy class in Zemi’s honor. I want to reach puppies at risk—the great majority of which we can help through behavior modification. I have been ever more fully present for my few and far between clients who make the same agonizing decision for their beloved but deeply troubled dogs that I made. I hold their hands and I cry with them, passing around those ever-present boxes of Kleenex.
I wrote this chapter with tears streaming down my face. I wrote it as an appeal to anyone who breeds dogs. I beg of you to breed for good health and solid temperament first, and good looks second.
Bad breeding destroys lives, both human and canine.
What happens to your puppy in utero matters.
The temperament, treatment, well-being, and health of the mother dog and the father dog matter.
How and where the puppy is socialized before twelve weeks of age matters.
Sometimes an owner can do everything right by their puppy and still end up with a distressed and dangerous dog.