You may have seen my abundance of social media shares and posts about my dog, Penny. She’s a one-year-old Miniature Australian Shepherd with icy blue eyes you can’t overlook. While her looks are stunning, her behavior has shaped into something stressful, confusing, and frustrating. Let me give you a little background…
Penny the Puppy
I bought Penny from a breeder on a farm in the middle of Illinois. I picked her up when she was about seven weeks old. She was fluffy, smelled like a mixture of fresh puppy and something not so fresh, and was weirdly panting the whole way home. She had her typical puppy trials and tribulations: potty training, obedience training, crate training, and socializing. I was obsessed with socializing her, especially with other dogs. My family dog, Riley, wasn’t a dog’s dog. So, I was determined to show Penny how fun puppy playmates could be. Luckily, I worked somewhere where you could take your dog to the office once in a while (so fun, I know), so she met multitudes of other dogs and people through that and her obedience classes. She was always a little skittish, but I thought it was typical puppy fear.
Bad Signs and Breaking Points
A couple months after getting Penny I moved from my parent’s house to my first apartment (woot!) with my best friend. We couldn’t wait for all the freedom and fun that came with living on our own, and doing it all with trustee Penny at our sides. Penny, of course, had other ideas. A month into apartment living, she didn’t want to let in new people. I thought it was a phase and made sure new visitors brought plenty of treats. It seemed to work for a little while, but we didn’t have that many visitors come by, so nothing was super consistent.
I also discovered dog parks and watched six-month-old Penny thrive at them for a while. I took her to one closer to my apartment on a brisk November day, and gleefully let her off-leash. She played with dogs here and there; but then people, children, and a new, bossier dog all surrounded her and her beloved toy. She snapped. She got into it with the other dog, and I ended up pulling her out of the fight. I even got nicked in the process. It was very clear that Penny had instigated the whole fight by being uncomfortable with the children and new dogs surrounding “her” humans and “her” toy.
I broke down. How could my dream of having the perfect dog to be my sidekick everywhere not fall into place? I socialized, socialized, socialized. I taught her most of the tricks. I loved her unconditionally. I played with and walked her so much. I fed her fancy, grain-free food. What went wrong? Why was she showing aggressive behavior to both new people and now some dogs?
The Prong Collar
I went to the breeder for help. Long story short, I was advised to use prong collar and some stern rules to help Penny learn that “she’s not the alpha,” and to listen to me. While I always wanted to stick with positive reinforcement training, I felt desperate. It seemed to work for a couple months too.
Fast forward to a few months. Penny’s behavior is now worse. The prong collar has little to no effect on her barking, lunging, and growling at strangers. She goes into a rage. She even bit a couple of people. Thankfully, she didn’t break skin, and the people did not get too upset. I, again, was broken and desperate because of the dog I loved so much.
A New Direction
I threw out the prong collar, and decided I was going to go the positive training route. Penny’s aggression, now dubbed reactivity, was all based in fear and anxiety. It made her suppress her fear for some time but ultimately made the situation way worse. I wish I would’ve listened to my gut and not taken the seemingly easier and quick route.
I wish I could now unveil that Penny is warming up to strangers and being a little more bearable in unfamiliar situations, but we are in the infant stages of this journey. I started her on doggy Prozac, Fluoxetine, for her extreme anxiety and hired a positively positive trainer, Rachel Fein. It could take six months to a year for Penny to start to tolerate and not react to everything she fears (which is a lot of things). I hope to regularly write updates on Penny’s progress to help people understand and give others struggling with a reactive dog some hope.
My gut says this new, longer path is the right one for Penny. I should also mention she is the most loving dog towards those she knows and trusts. I treasure the moments of her snuggling and playing with me and my close friends and family.
Penny has already taught me that love is unconditional, pets are like children, and patience with a side of humor is needed in darker times.