I’ve been a dog lover my whole life. However, being a dog lover has taught me that loving dogs hard is not the best thing for them; in fact, it might be the worst.
To explain, we adopted our first dog, Zuzu, in March of 2018. She was social, loved the dog park and pretty much every dog she ever met. Her joy around other dogs made us decide to finally bring another fur friend into our home.
I found Mia on PetFinder. She was in a shelter that operated through fostering, which typically lends itself to more insights about the dog in a real home setting. This CAN make the transition easier, but nothing is guaranteed. Remember, you’re taking an animal out of their known environment with rules and structure and introducing them to a new one. This poses challenges to begin with.
While adoption is not for everyone, it’s something I’m personally passionate about. However, it’s not without its challenges. You never know exactly what you’re going to get. Truthfully, you never know what you’re going to get even if you get a new puppy, either. Whether buying or adopting, the responsibility that comes with being a pet owner is huge – far bigger, in fact, than many of us give it credit for. And I found this out the hard way with Mia.
We wanted a dog similar in size and personality to Zuzu, our American Pitbull Terrier. Mia was guessed to be a Staffordshire Terrier lab mix. When I met her, she was calm at the door. She was curious, but she was not barking, excited, or lunging. She was so calm. A stark contrast to Zuzu, who is so excited when guests come over that her whole body wiggles. I figured she would be a good counterbalance to Zuzu’s energy. I went home, thought about it, and decided to invite them for a home visit to meet Zuzu.
Bringing Mia Home
At first brush, and of course looking back, there was some concern. Immediately when they met, they had a brawl. We separated them, gave it a minute for the dogs to calm down, chalked it up to overexcited nerves, and let them loose to play. They ran around the yard, Mia chasing Zu, tackling each other and having a grand time. We discussed the tiff with the foster, but she didn’t seem overly concerned.
We failed that introduction in many ways now that I know more about how dogs should be introduced to each other. We should have taken them on a walk to get to know each other in neutral territory. We should have limited Mia’s range in the house and slowly let her have access to more space over time as she adjusted to living in our home. We instead gave her free reign.
However, the girls quickly settled into life together, cuddling on the couch or the papsan chair, Zuzu would clean Mia’s ears, they would share toys, they played in the yard, and when we boarded them at a facility that we trusted, they always said the girls were inseparable. 6 months in, it felt like everything was going well.
And then we took a longer vacation and opted to have my dogs stay at my parents’ house.
Again, looking back, there were many problems with this. Mia had never been there before, not even with us. Zuzu had. Mia hadn’t spent time around my mom in any capacity. Zuzu had. Mia is a dog who needs a strong leader. We did not realize just how important that was until then.
On the first day of our trip, after being at my parents’ for a few days, a terrible fight broke out. My mom was able to separate them, but Zuzu had to be rushed to the emergency vet. She had a serious puncture wound on her thigh, gashes in her ear and neck, and rightfully, she was terrified. Mia was largely unscathed. We feared further altercations, so my dad drove Mia the 4 hours to our home and my mom stayed at their house with Zuzu. We would pick Zuzu up when we got home and could deal with them together.
When we got Zuzu back, it was obvious that she was nervous and scared. We brought her home, leashed both dogs and took them to opposite sides of the room to gauge their reaction, and boy, it was NOT good. Mia immediately wanted to lunge and fight. Zuzu cowered.
We decided to keep them separate by adding baby gates between major areas of the house and started to split our time between them. Everything we read talked about the importance of walks for bonding, so we walked them without issue. To be safe, however, I purchased a muzzle for Mia. We introduced them to each other with her muzzle on and let them go at their own pace, and after a few days, both were relaxed and calm enough around each other that we felt okay to take the muzzle off.
About a month passed and it felt like we were in a good place. We chalked the fight up to stress in a new environment in our absence and foolishly thought the hard times were behind us. They were cuddling again and everything seemed fine. And then a fight broke out right next to me while I was sitting on the couch. Though the girls walked away unscathed, Nick and I were injured during our efforts to separate them.
And that’s when we decided to call a trainer. If I thought life was hard before, I had no idea what I was in for.
Beginning Dog Training
Over the course of the next several months, I would experience an exhausting range of emotions. I was elated and overjoyed at the smallest victories – getting the dogs to sit with their backs to each other while looking at us, or getting them to stay in place while we left a room. And I was devastated and heartbroken at the times they showed us they still weren’t comfortable being close to each other. I spent many days and nights questioning every decision I had made in the past year, from choosing to adopt Mia in the first place to choosing not to rehome her and begin training instead. I wondered which of all the things I was doing was the “right” thing – was keeping her the best thing? Was it the selfish thing? Were we her best home? Was this good for Zuzu? I struggled to know what I should be doing.
My fiancé was steadfast through it all. We had decided to make a commitment – to adopt this dog. And we were going to exhaust all of our options until we literally had no other choice. I wish I could say I was as certain, but I was not. I’m a naturally self-doubting person – I’m always second-guessing my decisions. He held steady and remained reassuring on the days where I found myself sitting in the basement crying after each training session. (I elaborate more on this in the Finding the Right Trainer section below).
Training revealed a lot more about myself than I expected. And a lot of it, I really didn’t like. They say growth is uncomfortable – they’re understating it. Growth is ugly and clumsy and it feels absolutely wretched. I tend to be unkind to myself, so I feel biased to say that growth feels like self-hatred, but man, the disappointment I felt in myself regularly was hard to live with. And yet, I wouldn’t trade it for the world now. But it always works like that. You have to go through the unsexiest, uninstagrammable points of your life to get to greatness.
We heard many jokes about how dog training was setting us up to be excellent parents later on. When we get to that point, I’m curious to see if it’s true. We learned about boundaries, about reinforcement, about all the little minor itty bitty things you don’t think matter but that all factor into fucking up your dog. And boy did I learn that I was fucking up my dogs.
Loving your dog is NOT enough. And the best way to love your dog is to give them rules and boundaries that are CONSISTENT. They literally need those things to know what to expect from you and they can’t be a “good dog” unless you give them the tools to do so. This means a lot of boring rinse-and-repeat training.
We’ve been working at this actively for more than a year now. When we got Mia, she couldn’t:
- Walk on a leash without pulling the entire time
- See a squirrel on our walk without charging after it and trying to drag me with her
- See or hear another dog on our walks without whining and lunging or generally acting out of control
- Couldn’t let me out of her sight
- Wasn’t overly interested in guests who came to visit
- Could not respect personal space – she had to be all up in yours
- Couldn’t relax – she was always on high alert
- Wouldn’t sniff or mark at all during walks because she was so busy scanning for threats
Now, Mia walks well on the leash. We’ve gotten compliments on how she behaves on the leash. People whose homes we frequently walk past have commented on how far she’s come with her reactivity. She cries when guests come over now if she’s behind the baby gate and can’t greet them immediately. She is better about respecting space. She’s learned how to “switch off.” And she sniffs and marks on walks, which, though a small thing, gives me tremendous joy because it tells me she’s finally able to relax enough to be able to do regular dog things.
Finding the Right Trainer
A bit earlier, I mentioned how after most training sessions, I would sequester myself somewhere in the house to have a cry. Some of that was just a release of pent up emotion – fear, anxiety, frustration. But another piece of it was, unfortunately, our trainer.
Here’s the thing we didn’t know then that I wish we knew: You have to find the right trainer for your needs. We were so afraid and desperate for help to keep our dogs from hurting each other that we found someone who could squeeze us in and we dove in without much thought. It wasn’t a complete lost cause – we learned a lot of things about dog behavior and communication and consistency. But we also learned that the style of training our first trainer employed was not right for us. Like many other points in this post, looking back, it feels upsettingly obvious that positive reinforcement based training would yield better, faster results. Our first trainer was with Bark Busters, and they focus on “non-aversive corrective methods” that were more annoying than truly aversive. While their methods worked for some basic behavior reform, they didn’t work for what truly mattered – their reactivity to each other.
Thank God for Instagram?
After not seeing true progress in rebuilding their relationship (and a pandemic that interrupted home visits for training), we took a break from training sessions and I started doing research of my own. A good friend shared an Instagrammer who was going through an eerily similar situation to ours, and she was very forthcoming about their experiences. I found comfort and solace in her posts, and shared her heartache and second guessing as they worked to reintegrate their two female pitties. It was the first time I felt like we weren’t alone in our struggles. When your dogs don’t get along and you have multiple friends in multi-dog households who don’t have issues, it feels defeating and isolating. The constant questioning of “what are we doing wrong that they aren’t” is an exhausting mental loop.
As I watched this woman’s journey with her dogs, I found myself learning things that seemed to make more sense. I followed her trainer on social media and started learning about the positive reinforcement community. Eventually, I started testing some positive reinforcement tactics on Mia during our walks to hopefully improve her reactive behavior. And I saw results almost immediately. After testing my theory for a month, I decided to reach out to a recommended trainer who utilizes positive reinforcement. And the difference has been night and day from our first. Mia continues to improve every single month. Zuzu is building her confidence and trust in Mia. Best of all, this trainer has a more positive outlook on our ability to reintegrate them successfully. It will take months of work, but it finally feels like we’re heading in the right direction.
The right trainer not only makes a difference for your dogs, but for you too. I don’t leave training sessions feeling terrible about myself anymore. I feel hopeful, empowered, even happy. Your trainer shouldn’t make you feel like shit. They should be truthful with you, but you shouldn’t feel like you’re an absolute failure to your pets.
All this to say, if you’re thinking about adopting or buying, do more due diligence than we did. Research and learn about dog behavior. Prepare to hire a trainer because things will almost certainly come up that you’ll need help figuring out. I thought I was a good dog owner before adopting Mia. And now I know I still had so much more to learn. She’s taught me more about myself than I ever expected to get when rescuing the sweet little cookies & cream spotted dog from PetFinder.