That time Rainer almost got lost

Last night, while brushing my teeth, I asked Guion, “Hey, would you let the dogs in?”

They had been out in our backyard for about three minutes, for their last potty break of the night.

Coming for youAbout a minute later, I hear a frantic knock on the door. It’s Guion, breathless and panicky. And he utters the three most dreaded words: “Rainer got out!”

Guion grabbed a flashlight and a leash and ran out the front. I dropped everything, pulled on some rain boots, and ran out to the back, calling frantically for Rainer. It’s dark and I can’t see anything. Pyrrha, however, has let herself into the sunroom and is looking at me with a fascinated expression.

Because here’s the impressive thing: Pyrrha didn’t leave the yard, even when Rainer did. A gate had been left open when Guion was showing a friend our garden, apparently. And so Rainer just sauntered out.

Rainer's bed

I put Pyrrha inside, grab another leash, and am about to dash out the front door, with all of these horrible thoughts in my mind — we are the worst fosters ever! We are never going to find him! He probably wouldn’t come to us! It’s so dark; what if he gets hit by a car? — but… then…

The front door opens, and it’s Guion and Rainer, who is slowly wagging his tail.

Guion said that Rainer had wandered a few houses over, and the neighbors had seen him. Guion could see Rainer, but he didn’t want to run up to him, wisely reasoning that Rainer would probably run in the other direction if he thought he was being “charged.” Instead, when he saw Guion, Rainer willingly trotted down the driveway and ran right up to our front door. Guion didn’t even leash him, but when he got close enough to Rainer, he slunk down and was very nervous. I think he was bewildered and disoriented, but wow, how surprised and grateful I am that he came back!

Lessons learned:

  1. ALWAYS LOCK THE DAMN GATE (cough, cough, husband).
  2. Pyrrha is a good girl! I am frankly astonished that she didn’t run out, too. I am so proud of her for staying in the yard. I still kind of can’t believe it, especially given her history of wandering off.
  3. Sometimes shy dogs will surprise you and just come on home. Good boy, Rainer!

Glad that we still have you. Shoo. Not a fun way to spend your Wednesday evening.

But the other bright news is that a potential adopter is coming to meet Rainer on Saturday! Will keep you posted!

New: Resource guide for shy, fearful dogs

Brokering a tentative peace
Our shy dogs, interacting. Check out those calming signals!

So. I’m realizing that volunteering for a German shepherd rescue means that shy dogs just come with the territory. This is probably true for most dog rescues, but GSDs are fairly well known for their sensitivity and predisposition to shyness (particularly if they’ve come from rough backgrounds).

That said, I’m also realizing how many of our potential adopters don’t really know what to do with shy dogs. I was this way myself when we adopted Pyrrha! I had no idea what we were getting ourselves into.

Obviously, I’ve done lots of reading and research since, but Pyrrha is still a work in progress, just as I am. We both have lots to learn. To help myself and to help others with shy dogs or those adopting shy dogs, I’ve created a new resource page:

Living with Shy Dogs

This will be an active page, which I will add to from time to time, particularly as I hear from all of you about your favorite resources for fearful dogs. Feel free to share in the comments below!


He is happy to be back inside and home life has returned to a nice equilibrium, as much as we can maintain. As many of you have noted, Pyrrha is generally uncomfortable with Rainer being here (see her body language above), but they have brokered a tentative peace.

Rainer still has some mysteries about his health, which we are actively trying to solve with the help of SGSR and our vet. (Essentially, he’s just kind of weak in the back end and has poor balance. X-rays have since ruled out hip dysplasia, so we are looking into other diagnoses.)

The good news is that he has another potential adopter interested in him, who may meet him this weekend, weather permitting. The former family fell through, but this person sounds like a great fit for Rainer and his needs. Will keep you posted!

Let me know what you think of Living with Shy Dogs and what you’d add, if anything!

Georgia visits and Rainer gets exiled

My husband graduated from his graduate program this weekend, which was very exciting, and my in-laws came to visit, bringing along their sweet pup Georgia (whom you may recall from our earlier visits).

Georgia baby!
Georgia baby is growing up!

She has gotten bigger, but not as big as I thought she’d be! Georgia is about six months old now, and I’d say she’s still only about 30 lbs. For those with goldens or golden mixes, how big would you think she’s going to get? I imagine she may never be much more than 40–50 lbs. Sweet little thing! She is still so spunky, and has such a fun, cuddly personality, and we love her…

… but Rainer? Not so much.

Rainer’s introductions to Georgia did NOT go well. Their first meeting was outside, on leashes, and Rainer ran full throttle into Georgia and got her by the throat. Really bad sign. No calming signals, no politeness, nothing: just straight into attack mode.

I was shaken by this, obviously, as was everyone else; thankfully, Georgia was OK. After things had calmed down, we let Rainer into the kitchen with the baby gate up and kept Georgia on the other side of the gate in the living room. But things did not improve. She tried to sniff him, and he lunged at her, ready to bite. We waited for a while, hoping he could calm down, but he seemed incapable of it; he was just fixated on her and doing whatever he could to knock down that gate and get to her.

This was not behavior that we could manage all weekend in our tiny house, so Rainer got to live in the sunroom for two nights.

Rainer in exile
Rainer in exile in the sunroom.

Rainer still got time outside with Pyrrha in the backyard, and I took him on two walks by himself, so he wasn’t completely isolated, but I know he was sad to not be inside with us. We just couldn’t have him snacking on Georgia, so this was the best solution for the weekend. Sigh.

Kitchen table chats

That aside, however, the rest of the weekend with Pyrrha and Georgia went well. They still get on very nicely, even though they had a few sibling squabbles over toys (nothing too serious and nothing that a time-out for both of them couldn’t fix).

At least these two still love each other.

Pyrrha will be spending a week with Georgia in June while we’re at the beach, so I am of course always glad to see how much they enjoy each other’s company.

Caged beasts
Caged beasts!

Moral of the weekend: Thankful to have taught these dogs that crates are happy places! Rainer, Pyrrha, and Georgia all got treats and kisses when they went into their crates, and they go into them willingly, without a fight. This made the whole dog-separation shenanigans all weekend SO much easier. And easier on my conscience, because I knew that they didn’t feel like they were being punished when they were crated.

The other lesson learned, however, is that Rainer probably isn’t great with small dogs.

Based on my short descriptions of his behavior, what do you think about Rainer’s aggressive behavior with Georgia? It didn’t really look like fear aggression to me. Do you think it could have been territorial aggression? Or just straight-up prey drive? Ever seen such a thing in a dog before? (No signals, no typical dog-greeting behaviors, just straight into attack mode.)

What do you think? And how can we help Rainer with this? I am now frightened for him to meet any small dogs going forward.

The dog’s agenda


The dog’s agenda is simple, fathomable, overt: I want. “I want to go out, come in, eat something, lie here, play with that, kiss you.” There are no ulterior motives with a dog, no mind games, no second-guessing, no complicated negotiations or bargains, and no guilt trips or grudges if a request is denied.

— Caroline Knapp

. . . . . . . . . .

True, isn’t it? And yet it’s somehow comforting to know that our dogs’ needs are made so apparent to us (if only we’re paying attention).

Rainer has recovered well from his neuter yesterday, although he’s still a bit groggy today. Pyrrha continues with her annoying behavior toward him (essentially just harassing him, particularly when they get let out of the crates), and we’re trying to keep her away from him. Poor dude doesn’t need this crazy bitch abusing him all of the time!

I’ll be gone for a few days next week, so Guion will be holding down the fort with Rainer and Pyr! Should be a fun time…

Happy weekend, everyone, and happy early mother’s day to all of you moms out there!

Rainer: Car training update

No photo of this, but I just had to share our exciting progress after my “car training” session with Rainer last night!

This was our first time working with our small hatchback (not the car he had the big, traumatic freakout with). I started treating him for looking at the car, moving toward it on his own volition, and he seemed pretty unconcerned. So I opened the side door.

Um. Guess who just got into the car ON HIS OWN?? Yeah. This dude:

Rainer, post bath

I was astonished. I started throwing treats in his direction, gave him the whole “jackpot” of treats, then I stood back and just let him sniff everything. I didn’t shriek or make any big fuss (even though I wanted to); I quietly praised him and held back. I let him sniff around for as long as he wanted, and then he climbed out after perhaps a minute.

We ended that day’s car session there, because I didn’t want to push him, but I was floored.

All this calm, voluntary behavior from a dog who was in such a state of panic over getting into a car that he was ready to bite anyone who came near him.

Obviously, the difference in the car was probably huge for him. For one, this is a car that he could essentially walk into, instead of climbing up into. And this wasn’t the car that made him get muzzled and picked up and deposited in. He has fought me before on getting into this same car (he did a home visit with me two weekends ago), but there was none of the same fear.

So, we’ll still be doing daily car training, but wow. I was shocked. This little guy has a lot of potential. Like all shy dogs, he’ll still always have more reservations than “normal” dogs, but he shows tremendous potential for progress and confidence-building. Go, Rainer!

Good dog, bad dog

Over the past few days, Rainer has been the GOOD dog, and Pyrrha has been DRIVING ME CRAZY.

Still getting used to each other
Good dog, bad dog.

I don’t know what’s gotten into her lately. I’m guessing that she’s still kind of stressed out that Rainer is still around. She harasses him in the yard (to which he is marvelously and beautifully patient, and never lashes out at her, even though she deserves it); she barks at him when he gets out of his crate; she whines all the time. It’s very frustrating. Poor Rainer takes it all like a champ, too.

I’m not really sure how to manage her behavior, honestly. I let them out in the yard now at separate times, particularly in the morning, when she seems most antsy. I try to remove her from situations that make her nervous, still utilizing the baby gate and preventing her from getting accidentally cornered. (She doesn’t know how to extricate herself from situations with him. He’s not threatening at all, but his mere presence will make her get irritated. See the nose licking calming signal in the photo above.)

Pyrrha didn’t ever act this way with Brando or Laszlo (our former fosters), so I’m not sure why she’s exhibiting this behavior now. Every dog is different. Rainer, for some inexplicable reason, makes her uneasy. (Even though he strikes us as the most chill, laidback guy.) We’ve been doing our best to mitigate her anxiety, but I’m just pointedly frustrated by it. Saying she’s the “bad dog” isn’t exactly fair; she is just KILLING ME with how annoying she’s been!

Meanwhile, we have been doing “car training” with Rainer every day. I’ve been following our trainer’s method of treating him for just looking at the car, coming close to the car, any interaction whatsoever. Then I’ll toss a treat away, in the opposite direction, to keep him from feeling trapped. Tonight I hope to work up to getting him to actually sniff and put his head in the car on his own. Thanks for all of your advice and tips! You’re right about needing to make car trips FUN; all the places we’ve taken him (and will need to keep taking him!) are stressful (e.g., the vet). We need to go get him some drive-thru fried chicken…

But the really exciting news, though, is that Rainer has a family interested in him! Hoping to learn more over the coming days. Will be sure to keep you posted on this sweet dude (and Pyrrha’s never-ending neuroses).

Fearful dogs class, plus training goals for Rainer

Last night, Rainer and I went to a one-time, one-hour class at Canine Campus, called “Rescue Remedies: Fearful Dogs.”

Rainer in training class
Trying to take photos in class never works out so well. This is the best one I got! Those are his ears.

Canine Campus is where Pyrrha went for her obedience class, and I’m a big fan of the trainer, Deven. Deven has had numerous shy dogs herself, and she seems to really understand them.

While Rainer was mostly unable to calm down for the majority of the class (lots of pacing and circling), I was really thankful that we went. Deven reinforced so many concepts that are easy to forget with shy dogs. The class was also really motivating to me to stop being such a passive trainer. Now that Rainer has acclimated to our lifestyle, it’s time to start actively teaching him things. I can’t just wait around and hope that he’ll learn something.

Rainer lounging at home
Safe at home.

This lesson was really reinforced coming and going to the class. The worst part of last night was getting to and leaving class. This is the issue: Rainer has a severe fear of getting in cars. Severe to the point of nearing the biting threshold.

My husband was gone last night, and I was stuck with the Jeep, so getting Rainer into it was quite the ordeal. It took me about 15 minutes. I was plying him with tons of treats, but as soon as he’d get within a foot of the car, he would freak out: jerk back, trying to pull out of the collar, biting the leash, etc. I was finally able to get him in when I put some treats on the car seat, and he got brave enough to put his paws on the seat, and I lifted his back end into the car. Once in the car, he rides OK; he’s so scared of it that he doesn’t move much at all.

The traumatic part of last night was leaving Canine Campus. After class concluded, I asked Deven and her co-trainer Mary to come out to the car with me and help me strategize. Mary started by treating him for nearing the car, and then throwing treats away from the car, giving him the freedom to back up when he wanted. This went on for 10 minutes, however, with Rainer showing little inclination to get any closer to the vehicle.

Instead of diminishing, his fear was only growing, and when we approached him, his entire body tensed up, and I could tell this was a dog who was ready to bite if we tried anything else. Deven clearly recognized this too and came back out with a sheet and a muzzle. I felt so dejected. I hated to traumatize him further, but we were never going to get him in that car.

We put a meatball in the muzzle, and I could snap it on him; this freaked him out. While he was trying to get the muzzle off, we put a sheet beneath his abdomen, and Deven lifted his back end, while I picked up his front end and put him in the car. He was fighting the whole way. The poor guy. My adrenaline was racing, and I felt so upset. And embarrassed. He was so upset.

Upon leaving, Deven reminded me that this is something we would need to work on every day. Rainer’s fear of getting into cars will not go away on its own. Seeing him in such a state of panic last night really brought that home. This is a dog who really doesn’t know anything about the world; everything is frightening and new to him. It’s our job right now to help him take those baby steps toward confidence.

Rainer lounging at home

So, that said, here are some really basic things I want to teach Rainer in the time that we have him:

  1. Car desensitization. Every day, practice working near and in the car. Treat him for approaching; treat him for just looking a it in the early stages. Move up to getting him to enter the car on his own.
  2. Name recognition. Treat him and praise him for giving us any attention when we call his name.
  3. Sitting for food. I know that this dog can sit, but we cannot get him to do it! I keep waiting for him to offer the behavior at meal time (luring him back with the bowl), but he won’t do it. I also wonder if this has something to do with his bad hips. Sitting could be painful for him, so we may need to find an alternate behavior.
  4. Grooming desensitization. Treat and praise for whenever he submits to brushing, touching paws, opening his mouth. Move up to this gradually; brushing is the easiest place to start.
  5. Leash manners. Learning how to walk politely on a leash; getting him not to freak out when we see other dogs (freaking out, for him, means frantic circling; no barking or anything like that, thankfully). Practice safe zone training (LOTS of distance between the stimulant) early on; only take short walks where I can control the environment without pushing him past threshold.

As you can see, we have a lot of work to do. But I believe in him and in his potential to overcome a lot of these fears, with our patient help.

Getting to know Rainer better

This soulful-eyed boy survived his first grooming experience on Tuesday. It didn’t go so well, but we didn’t have to suffer with him.

Rainer, post bath

We took him to a local groomer (who also has self-serve grooming stations), a local saint, really. He apparently fought her with everything: brushing, shampooing, rinsing, nail clipping, etc. After an hour, she was worn out and he was only about half-bathed. She said she didn’t think this dog had ever been brushed or bathed in his entire life. I believe it!

But he looked SO much better afterward! See:

Rainer, post bath

He smells like a rose blossom now.

Rainer, post bath

Relations with Pyrrha are improving, although they can still be a bit dicey. I’m realizing Pyrrha is also at fault here: She is a HUGE diva!

Calming signals

Yesterday, I turned my back on them for a second in the sunroom, and Pyrrha started screaming. I jumped out of my skin! But I turn and look, and Rainer is not even touching her. Who knows what happened? Maybe he shot her a dirty look, and she freaked out? Ugh. What a queenie.

How do you teach a dog not to overreact to other dogs? Or, more accurately, how do you teach a dog not to be such a drama queen??

Rainer on guard

It’s really heartwarming to note how much his acclimating to us and to our lifestyle. The first few days, he wouldn’t come inside at all; we’d have to go out, catch him, and lasso him indoors. Now? I open the back door and call for him, and guess who comes running?

Stepping pretty

This guy!

Fostering shy dogs is an extra challenge, but I also think it’s more palpably rewarding than fostering “normal,” well-adapted dogs. Shy dogs make so much progress! Yes, it is often small, subtle progress, but it is still so cheering to observe it, to see formerly terrified dogs become able to let their tongue hang out with glee, to approach people for affection, to come running when called. Nothing quite like that feeling.

We are enjoying our time with this gentle boy. Tomorrow night, I’m taking him to a training class called “Fearful Dogs: Rescue Remedies,” a short, one-time session just for shy rescues. We’ll see how he does!

If you are interested in adopting Rainer, fill out an application at Southeast German Shepherd Rescue!

Resources on resource guarding in dogs

After Sunday’s scuffle* between Rainer and Pyrrha over a toy, I’ve been refreshing my memory on resource guarding and associated training tips.

BEHAVIOR UPDATE: As of today, Rainer/Pyrrha relations are going quite smoothly. An interesting observation is that they continue to get along perfectly outside in the yard; they play like they’re best friends (chase, lots of play bows, happy and goofy faces). Indoors, they are still a little nervous with each other, but I think this has to do with the tight quarters.

Gimme dat toy
Georgia and Pyrrha with some of Georgia’s toys.

For those who may find themselves in a similar position with their dog(s), here are some great web resources on this common canine behavior:

There are, of course, many other blog posts and articles written about this behavioral issue, as it is a pretty normal, natural canine quality. But it obviously gets dogs into trouble when they start lashing out at people, children, and their fellow dogs.

I think both Rainer and Pyrrha are at fault here. Rainer takes possession of too many things, but Pyrrha also doesn’t know how or when to back down. Instead of taking a hard stare from Rainer as a cue to get lost, Pyrrha sees it as a challenge. From Pat Miller’s article, this is exactly what’s been happening in our house:

Now We’re in Trouble, Part II: Dog B [Pyrrha] is socially inept – Dog A [Rainer] is chewing on (insert valuable resource). Dog B approaches. Dog A gives “the look.” Dog B is oblivious, and keeps blundering forward, until Dog A feels compelled to escalate the intensity of his message, to aggression if necessary, to get his point across.

This clearly makes for a messy domestic atmosphere! We are taking all of these tips to heart and working on this behavior every day in our house.

Have you had to deal with resource guarding among your dogs? What tips or techniques helped you?

(*Thanks to Carolyn for properly identifying the altercation as a “scuffle” instead of what I initially termed it, a dog fight.)