Gia #2 is a border collie/Labrador Retriever mix. She was about a year old when we adopted her. The rescue told us that she was a stray and rescued from a high-kill shelter in western Virginia by a woman in eastern Tennessee. Gia was on the list to be euthanized. In fact, she was 8 hours from the needle when she was pulled. Like all rescue organizations, they had a veterinarian examine and spay her. Once she was cleared for adoption, they transported her to Delaware to the rescue and they put her profile on doggie Tinder where I found her by swiping right (just the way you do on Tinder for humans!). My contact at the rescue told me that her foster mom said Gia was skittish. We did not know to what extent but we would soon find out.
My contact at the rescue brought Gia up from Delaware one Friday night to do a meet and greet with Clifford. They got along right off the bat and she got to stay. And so, it begins…
On our first walk Gia escaped from her harness and briefly ran away. An idling Mack truck had spooked her. Over the next few days and weeks, we were learning that she was afraid of SO MUCH: thunder and fireworks (no surprise there), motorcycles, loud cars, pneumatic tools (repetitive stapling or nailing), etc. She also would bark ferociously at any dog walking with their owners past our house. I took her to a few trainers, but they used a lot of old school methods such as jerking corrections, alpha dog stuff, etc. I’ve probably spent about $2000 on trainers–some group classes and some private sessions. A few months after we got Gia, my husband and I went on our vacation which had been planned the year before. We took Clifford and Gia to a local kennel. I’d never used this kennel, but I did my homework. It had good reviews. I scoped out the kennel and it appeared alright. I brought our dogs down for a couple of doggie day care sessions and they did well. We signed them up for their “vacation”.
When we returned from our trip, Gia was a mess. The owner of the kennel had to keep Gia and Clifford apart from the other dogs because she got into skirmishes with them. Prior to our vacation, I had visited the kennel on weekends. What I hadn’t been aware of was that it was also next to an area where garbage/recycling trucks parked. The beeping sound of those trucks was enough to drive Gia over the edge. The owner suggested that I muzzle Gia because of her aggressive behavior. I felt so bad. Gia had reverted to her old ways and I blamed myself.
I read up on positive dog training (add the cost of MANY books to the growing Gia dog training tab). I believe that with Gia’s issues positive is the way to go. She is already nervous so jerking her leash, pulling, etc. will not make her a happy dog when outside. Inside, she is the boss and you would never know that she suffers from agoraphobia. We live on a semi-busy county road so there are always trucks, a bus or two, and souped-up muscle cars. We cannot afford to move yet to find Gia a country place.
I reached out to my vet who gave her Lorazepam (generic version of Ativan). It dulled her senses and increased her appetite and she gained weight. He recommended I take her to an animal behaviorist—at $300.00/hour! I took her to meet with the doctor (a quick thirty-minute session). The exam room was not your typical vet examining room. It was a giant doggie playroom. A big box in the corner loaded with balls and squeaky toys. It had a bowl of water for the patient, aromatherapy and light classical music playing. The doctor asked me a bunch of questions and evaluated Gia. She also suggested I try another canine expert who was versed in Victoria Stilwell’s training methods.
Having determined that Gia is noise sensitive she suggested I purchase earmuffs for Gia, the kind that dogs that fly on planes and helicopters use to protect their ears. I bought them. They were $85. Add that to the costs of helping my baby girl. I felt so stupid walking her with earmuffs on. They would not stay on her, so I bought her a snood to keep them in place. That lasted for one walk. The doctor gave Gia a prescription for Fluoxetine (generic version of Prozac). We weaned her from the Lorazepam and started her on the new drug. This one made her more anxious and aggressive. Not what I was looking to do. We weaned her off Fluoxetine too. Just say no to drugs! When we weaned her of the Fluoxetine, Gia did seem much better. That, too, turned out to be short-lived.
I contacted the recommended trainer and made an appointment. She came to the house and evaluated Gia. Clifford, the lover of all things human, kept barking at this woman. I had never seen him behave like that. He would get all whale-eyed and bark at her while looking at her from the corner of his eye. Gia would go over to him and try to calm him down (one of her most adorable traits with him) and tell him that the lady was there to help her. Clifford went over to his bed and just watched. The trainer sat there on the sofa taking notes on her laptop. She hardly interacted with Gia at all. I thought it was odd, but she was the professional. The trainer suggested I take Gia to agility classes as this would help with her confidence and, being part border collie, she would excel. She also suggested I change her food. The commercially produced food I was giving her, although the highest quality I could find was not healthy. I did switch. Turns out the agility center also sells it (the proprietor is Tito Jackson, no relation to the late Michael’s brother). I now buy the food direct from the farm in upstate New York. It is an organic raw food diet and the dogs have done well. Believe it or not, it is also much less expensive, and dogs absorb more of the vitamins and minerals (read between the lines here–less waste!).
But I digress. The trainer mentioned that we were going to work in stages to help develop Gia’s confidence. We signed a contract ($700) for six sessions. The first session was after the evaluation. I felt buyer’s remorse but in my heart of hearts I still wanted to help Gia, so I gave the trainer a check and we scheduled our next appointment. During the second session, Clifford did his whole “Danger, Danger Will Robinson” routine. Gia calmed him down and we decided to go for a walk. I had Clifford and the trainer took Gia. A half a block later, the trainer said, “Let’s switch dogs, I can’t control Gia”. I was surprised because that was her job. I agreed and we went back to the house. The trainer cut the session short, I am guessing out of a little embarrassment. I fired her the next day, requesting the balance of my money back. She was surprised and I said that I did not feel that she was bonding with Gia and, therefore, she would not be effective. The good news? She returned the balance. The bad news? I still had an unbalanced dog. Back to the drawing board…(to be continued)
Walter Stoffel is a substance abuse counselor and GED teacher in correctional facilities. When not behind bars, he likes to read, travel, work out and watch bad movies. Major accomplishment : He entered a 26.2-mile marathon following hip replacement surgery and finished—dead last. The author currently lives with his wife Clara, their dog Buddy (another rescue), and cat Winky (yet another rescue).