Friday, March 2, 2012


Bunker as I best remember him

Call Corey.  There has been an incident, but no one was hurt.

Words you don’t want to hear, but words you know will someday come.  I would like to share the story behind this case, in the hope that someone will benefit from hearing it.  For the past eight years, I have had the honour and privilege of working with a very special and very well loved English Bulldog, Bunker.  Today I was with him, when he passed on.

When I first met Bunker, he was anxious and jumped on people, and had some pretty significant oddities, but he was still able to come to classes and participate in activities.  Over time, his behaviour problems became more entrenched and more dangerous.  Luckily, Bunker lived with some very special people, Corey and her family.  Corey recognized that her special friend needed extra protection from the ghosts that haunted his world.

Bunker had a great deal of difficulty with impulse control, and self modulation.  He would fixate on the other dogs in class or on a particular person.  He would bark and lunge at people and dogs he didn't know.  And over time, his world became smaller and smaller and smaller.  Corey worked hard with Bunker, setting up situations where she could work on classical conditioning with him in order to slowly expose him to triggering stimulus.  She and her husband taught him to relax on cue, but his arousal levels were so intense that he would assume a relaxed pose while staying completely tense.  As Bunker’s world became smaller, Corey sought help from a local veterinarian who has a strong background in behaviour.  For awhile, Bunker came to class as the Clomicalm Kid.  Although Clomicalm helped, it didn’t make the difference he needed to live calmly. 

Bunker’s veterinarian arranged for him to be seen by a Certified Applied Animal Behaviourist at a conference, and she had some thoughts, but they weren’t able to tease apart the issues.  Bunker was also seen by several big name well known behaviour specialists of various flavours.  Seizures were ruled out.  His thyroid was normal.  He had a few issues with his liver function, but generally apart from some skin issues, he was pretty healthy.   

As a young bulldog, he had been through a number of surgeries to correct a congenital eye issue, to be neutered and to decreased the amount of wrinkling in his skin.  We speculated that perhaps the number of times that he had been anesthetized might have contributed to his issues, but we really didn’t know what caused Bunker’s issues.  Maybe he just got the short end of the genetic stick.  If anything Bunker was a tutorial in learning that the cause of the behaviour just doesn’t matter.  Sometimes you just can’t and just won’t know why, and in the long run, with a case like this, it just doesn’t matter.  You still have to deal with the dog in front of you.

After several prescription attempts, Bunker was prescribed fluoxitine, and he became known as the Prozac Pup.  As the Prozac Pup, he settled into an existence that if not ideal, met his needs, both behaviourally and physically.  He had dog friends he lived with and a limited number of people friends.  He had a loving family and walks in the neighbourhood.  When guests came over, precautions were taken to ensure that he didn’t get over stimulated and aroused.  At about this time, I started referring to him as a “bowling ball on legs” in reference to the way he would throw himself at me when he saw me.  I think he liked me, but after a moment of greeting he would become so excited he would launch himself at my lower legs.  30 odd kilos of dog launching themselves at you is a bit daunting and certainly not the way most dogs will express their love of people, but that was Bunker’s special way to greeting me.  It was about this time that Bunker stopped coming to class.  He was no longer making progress behaviourally and Corey had built a universe for Bunker that worked for him and their family.

And then Corey got pregnant.  Almost every dog finds the addition of a baby to the home stressful, and we were certainly aware of the needs of the other two dogs in the home, but Bunker really caused us some serious concerns.  We really worried that he would not accept the baby, and that he might get excited and launch himself at either Corey or the baby.  There are a lot of things that we can do to help families to get ready for babies, and we pulled out all the stops on our pre-baby planning.  We got all the baby equipment, and Corey and her husband got a doll that they could carry around to prepare Bunker for the upcoming addition.  To say that Bunker objected to carrying babies would be an understatement.  Bunker really struggled.  We had many very long and very serious and very difficult conversations around the subject of Bunker and babies, and in the end, the solution we chose for Bunker was management.

It is here that Bunker and Corey’s story begins to get much more interesting.  The watchword in behaviour is that eventually, management fails.  Corey’s home became a series of gates and half doors and full doors and containment areas.  Bunker had a safe zone, a comfortable place where he could retreat within, where no one but Corey and her husband went.  The other dogs adjusted to the family addition and Bunker was never ever in the same room as the baby.  Not on a leash, not by accident and not with the baby in someone’s arms.  Being a bulldog, this worked.  Bunker was thankfully a very low energy dog.  And he was happiest when he had very little stimulation.  Bunker liked his adult family members, and after the baby was put to bed would join them in the living room to relax.  Bunker and his family made management work for six years. 

In the eight years that I worked with Bunker, there were several oops moments.  Bunker developed some issues with the other dogs in the house.  More management.  Bunker had an unfortunate incident while boarding at a kennel where someone didn’t follow the agreed upon protocols and he was placed in a run where he was over stimulated.  Never more did he board at that facility.  There was an incident with a vet who was not aware of his issues and who pushed him over his threshold for coping.  In all those years, there was only one bite, to a professional who was handling him without taking care to follow the “Bunker Rules”.   

In eight years, Corey and her husband kept Bunker and the people who lived around him and loved him safe.  Bunker was a Bulldog I deeply loved but only rarely could touch, when he was relaxed and coping well.  I saw Bunker and Corey about once every six months and each time, we discussed euthanasia.  We discussed quality of life.  We discussed the merits of baby socks in preventing paw licking, and the hobbies of bulldogs who mostly liked to be quiet and alone.  We laughed and we shared and we sometimes got frustrated.  We kept the welfare of Bunker in front of us all the time.

This morning management failed.  Bunker has been more agitated than usual lately; and sometimes seemed a bit confused.  Not entirely unknown in a nine year old bulldog.  Maybe cognitive dysfunction was starting to kick in.  Maybe the environment with a six year old child in it was becoming overwhelming.  Maybe he had some metabolic issue that manifested as anxiety.  We cannot ask him.  This morning, when someone arrived at home unexpectedly, Bunker broke through his gate, and when that person escaped behind the next level of security, he threw himself on the door, attempting to get in.

Call me.  There has been an incident.  No one was hurt. 

Corey emailed me this today, and when I called, we agreed, that it was time to let Bunker go.  The three sentences that a behaviour consultant really would rather not hear.  I went to Corey’s and we sat and waited together until the appointment time came.  We drove to the vet and we sat together, and together, with as much love as we can find for a very special needs dog, we helped him to die, before he progressed to a point where he did hurt someone.  Today we shared a lot of tears over the bulldog that Corey has always referred to as “my special friend”.  I will miss him a lot.  He has taught me more about behaviour consulting and what is possible with impossible dogs than I could ever have imagined.  And in the end, Corey’s strongest hope was that we could learn something from his life and his death, which is why I am sharing this story.  There is more possible in families with dogs than I can write in a blog or a book or teach in a seminar, and I have learned so much of it at the feet of a giant dog in a white body, who canoodled around the neighbourhood, in spite of the great odds against him. 

Thank you Bunker.  It has been an honour to be a part of your life.  I am sad that we have come to the end.  Rest in Peace, my special Bulldog Friend.


Riding Kayak has brought me a number of important lessons about being a novice working with a species I am not intimately familiar with.  I am not saying that I am not familiar with horses; I am!  I am just not as familiar with horses as I am with dogs.  Lately I have been thinking about my role as trainer, and my horse’s role as learner, combined with our joint role of being partner’s to one another. 

Some of the time, when I ride it is all about Kayak.  It is all about what she needs and when she needs it, and the skills I am trying to develop in her.  It is about meeting strange things successfully and facing fears and overcoming them.  Our most recent challenge has been puddles.  As far as Kayak is concerned, putting a hoof in a puddle is really, really dangerous and she might be sucked deep into a vortex from which horses never return.  When we walk up to standing water, she snorts and huffs and puffs and if I am too insistent, she may side step and crow hop.  As someone with a strong back ground in behaviour, I know how to get through this using classical conditioning, and approach and retreat and clicking for moves towards that puddle.  It took me about ten minutes yesterday to convince Kayak to put both of her front feet in a puddle, which is a big step towards success and the culmination of several lessons of approaching, clicking and retreating.  So there she is, both front feet in the puddle.  This challenge has been all about Kayak and her needs. 

Sometimes, it is all about me.  I am competent rider, but not a confident rider.  This means that some of the time, I need to work on MY skills and confidence.  I am an intermediate level rider, and progressing well along the journey towards solid horsemanship, but I am not yet there.  This is a journey of a lifetime, and I will never stop learning about riding.  I work on things like posture and position, of clear communication, of good position through both upwards and downwards transitions (going from the walk to the trot and back again for instance).  I work on staying calm in the saddle in the face of things that might be difficult for my horse.  On those rides, it is all about me.

I see this split between the trainer and the learner with my students all the time.  Some of the time, the learner is the dog and some of the time the learner is the person.  Sometimes the dog needs to have their learning needs met, right now, without regard for what the human learner needs.  When the information is not clear to the dog, he cannot be successful, and the more I train, the more convinced I am that repeated success if the single most important part of the training process.  If the dog isn’t clear about the work he is doing, he is not going to be successful and he is not going to be able to make this work.  The more often that your dog is successful, the faster and more effectively he will learn, and some of the time, it is all about what the dog needs when training.

Periodically though, coaching my students to meet the needs of their dogs doesn’t meet the needs of the student.  This happens when the student isn’t clear and cannot convey clear information to the dog.  When this happens, I need to address the needs of the student, and that may mean in the moment, not addressing the needs of the dog at all.  In order to make things clear to the human end of the partnership, I may choose to have them work with their dog on an already trained behaviour, or I may choose to have them work with a different dog who knows more, or I may do a walk through where the human and I take the roles of the trainer and the dog and switch around until the human understands what they need to know about the exercise.

It is important to note though that the goal is not developing the dog or developing the trainer.  It is about developing the team to work as one.  When I ride Kayak, I am strongly reminded of something one of my early mentors said about dogs; “If we had to get up on their backs and depend on their soundness and understanding of the work, we would breed and train differently”.  I wish I could remember the name of this man who seemed to be at every dog show I went to (he was on  crutches all one year, but that is probably too little information!), because he is absolutely right.  If I set things up the wrong way with Kayak, she could kill me.  If I asked her for instance to canter down the hill on my farm towards our farm pond, I don’t doubt I could get her to do it, but it would not be safe.  She would be frightened and I would be frightened and most likely something would go badly wrong, especially at this icy time of year.  At best, I would fall off and she would stand there looking down at me, asking me what sort of a fool I was to ask her to do that sort of a stunt.  At worst, she would break a leg and roll on me and hurt me so badly I could die.  So even on the days when I am working more on me than on her, there is an imperative that I only ask her to do things we are both ready to do.  If I ask her for things we have not prepared for, I could die.

In dog training the imperative is still there, but the consequences aren’t.  Rarely would a dog cause you serious harm in your day to day training.  Yes, there are dogs who would bite me and who might cause me great harm, but for the most part, that won’t happen.  The worst case scenario if the trainer asks the dog for things the dog is not prepared for, is that the dog fails.  The problem here is that the dog’s failure is not something that deeply impacts the trainer in the moment.  Yes, the trainer may be frustrated, but that is nowhere near as important to the trainer as being rolled on by their horse.  The dog’s failure just doesn’t impact the trainer nearly as much as it might impact the dog.  This means that as an instructor, and as a trainer, there is a higher level of responsibility to set training sessions up so that the learner is successful.  The consequences are not there, so awareness must be greater. 

When the trainer sets things up so that the learner is successful, then something incredible happens.  When Kayak and I are on the same page, and I have set up the training session so that she can be successful more often than not, I don’t have to ask her to do things-I think them and we do them together.  It is a special kind of teamwork that just happens.  It isn’t that I don’t move my leg or use my hands on her reins, I do, but those movements are whispers not screams.  When I work with Eco and D’fer, my adult dogs, this happens in every training session because we have a deep and well developed connection; I think it and it happens, smoothly and gently.  I ask quietly with my voice and the way my body moves, and they respond.  They move in specific ways and I respond to their motions.  It is a dance of the animal giving me feedback and me responding and returning and changing as the dance continues.  When that connection develops, we are tied together in a special way, and that special goal is what I would like my students to experience.