Furry Family

Shelter Dogs and A Behavior Breakthru

For every shelter dog, and the people who adopt them, only to find “issues.” Never, ever, give up.

It is my hope that writing this will help someone else as  they struggle to sort out their newly adopted shelter dog’s behavioral issues.

Kodi is a love-bug, overjoyed at being with a loving family. He has been with us for ten days now, and most of the time, things have gone pretty well.

But there were some disturbing problems from the beginning.

Two or three times a day, usually when Kodi was doing normal puppy behaviors like “mouthing” his new humans, I would reach for him, for his collar, to tell him he was chewing a little too hard, and then he would rapidly “wind up” into borderline aggressive behavior. Wild-eyed, he would bite the hand on his collar even harder, and the more assertive I got in trying to calm him down, grabbing his scruff, or the sides of his neck, to establish myself as the alpha, or leader, of our pack, the more aggressive he would get.

Not even an “alpha roll” would calm him down – and I’ve had nearly purebred wolves who responded to an alpha roll. I’d push him down, hand on neck. He’d submit for a few seconds, but then would frantically start biting at my arms & hands, sometimes biting pretty damn hard, leaving bruises behind. His feet would kick at my legs as I postured over him in the dominant position, leaving a trail of bruises & scrapes behind on my arms & legs.

Soon I realized that the only thing that would calm him down, usually instantly, was scratching his shoulder & chest.

Slowly it became crystal clear to me.

A hand reaching for his collar was being perceived as a threat. His frantic struggling & snapping was often when his mind had been tripped into “fight or flight” mode.  Though he could have caused massive damage with his sharp teeth, he didn’t.

Sometimes, it almost seemed like a game to him, snapping at the fingers or hand coming towards his face. It may well have been the only “game” he was ever taught.

Once I got him disengaged from this behavior, he’d go back to being the sweet, lovable, boy we brought home. Sometimes he’d try to “make up” for his behavior by slathering me with kisses. We’d be fine for hours. Until the next time I tried to correct him by grabbing his collar, and it would start all over again.

Here’s what I think lies in Kodi’s past – and the past of a lot of shelter dogs:

Like most shelter dogs, Kodi was picked up as a stray, and even though his owners were told through friends that he was in the shelter, they didn’t want him back. They told the shelter they couldn’t afford him.

I don’t think that was the real reason.

It’s very tempting, when you get that new little puppy, to “play rough” with them, wrestling hard. Their normal mouthing soon becomes biting, and most people teach their puppy that hard biting is not acceptable.

But some people don’t.

Some people think it’s really fun to tease & torment their puppy, pushing them to the point of fear-biting. Teasing them with your fingers as they struggle to protect themselves.

But then that puppy gets older, and bigger, and stronger, and often the owner loses interest as their little puppy grows up into a big dog. That wrestling and teasing that was so fun when he was small is no longer as much fun, as the dog fights to protect himself, and his fear-driven responses grow more frantic, his claws & teeth scraping and bruising.

So off to the shelter he goes, or lives out his life tied out on a chain, food thrown in his general direction, when he is lucky.

I don’t know why it took me so long to put the pieces of this puzzle together.

Kodi was an outside-only dog, I think, based on his not understanding what a mirror was, not knowing how to use stairs, not even knowing what a TV is. I suspect he was tied out, likely by a heavy chain – his neck muscles are proportionally larger than the rest of him.

He was not brushed and was still carrying around his winter coat – in July (although he loves to be brushed now).

He wasn’t fed a lot, or was fed crap food – once shed out it became clear how very thin he was, although he’d been well fed in the shelter for 2 or 3 weeks before we got him.

He didn’t know what a toy was. Doesn’t know how to catch a ball (though he’s slowly learning – he mostly likes soccer). Didn’t know what a real bone was, or a rawhide bone, though he’s very quickly learned. He didn’t even know how to hold a bone in his paws to stabilize it while he chews on it – though he’s learning that, too.

There were also some very real physical clues: he wasn’t born without a tail – his tail was docked (there’s a scar); his front dewclaws were removed; he had a fair sized mostly healed wound on his head that looks like it came from a dog fight; and he wasn’t neutered, though he was a year old.

He’s not a purebred dog. Why would someone dock the tail of a mixed breed? Why remove the dewclaws on a mixed breed? Maybe they thought they had purebred rotties; I suppose a backyard breeder could have thought that, not knowing a German Shepherd (we’re guessing) had gotten to the female first, though you would think they would know right from birth – Kodi is not colored like a rottie.

Fighting dogs often have their tails docked and dewclaws removed. If he was intended to be a fighting dog, that would make his previous owner’s treatment of him be intentional – to raise a dog to be aggressive. That fits with some of his behavior, like how afraid he is of a hand on his collar, how it triggers the fight or flight instinct in him.

It could be that the only time someone grabbed his collar was to punish him, harshly.

We will never know the answers to some of my questions. But I’m glad Kodi got away, got picked up by animal control, and that we adopted him.

“There is no dog that is too much for me to handle.
I rehabilitate dogs. I train people.”
– the words of Cesar Milan in the opening to his show, The Dog Whisperer.

I may not have my own dog psychology center, or my own TV show. But I have been devoted to canines all my life. I have many years of experience with dog, wolf-dog, and wolf, many of whom were rescues.

I can handle this: avoid the triggers for the problem behavior (a hand on his collar, or fingers in front of his mouth), until he forgets that he was ever treated badly, learns to fully trust us, and gets settled in. Give him lots of exercise. I will slowly get him accustomed to having a hand on his collar by massaging his shoulders or ears, which he truly loves, while touching his collar. He is also learning that what’s mine is mine, and not to be messed with; his toys are his to do with as he wishes.

This is all new to him. He has a lot to learn. No one ever took the time and effort to teach him. You could say Kodi is in “rehab” now.

He’s a good dog. Like almost every dog, he is willing to go forward in his life offering unconditional love to his new family, and we’re willing to work with him to help him get over the past that’s haunting him, and offering him unconditional love in return. I am very patient.

As I write this, Kodi is laying on the bed with me, playing joyfully with his new “Booda”  knotted rope tug.

It’s about time this boy learned to play!

If you adopt a shelter dog, and have problems that are beyond your level of experience to sort out, I urge you to contact the shelter or rescue groups to find a reputable and knowledgeable trainer to assist you. Your dog’s life is in your hands.


7 thoughts on “Shelter Dogs and A Behavior Breakthru”

  1. I completely agree, Kodi is very lucky! I know too that you guys know how lucky you are to have him. 🙂 Isn’t it great how much they need us and how much they give at the same time.

    This is a very well written blog post. I know a person who could benefit from reading it. He just got a dog and I guess, thought it would all be so easy. I think the time we give them for “rehab” is well worth our efforts.

    Kodi’s story, which sounds right to me, reminds me a little of our boy, although, not trained to fight nor intentionally made aggressive, he had a history with violence being put on him by a bad person. He had lived on the streets for a while and it was hard on him.

    When he first came to live with me, and my son came with him, returning home you might say, the boy started growling at my son and I, before I knew about the seizures. He was trying to figure out who was his master and also, he was having headaches. Now, I know that for a few days before a seizure, he doesn’t feel well. He likes to be near us, but left alone otherwise. No petting. Just lying near us.

    He gives a low growl if I rub his head, and this is how I know for sure he may have a seizure soon.

    At first, I thought we should teach him who is the boss, and did what you did, putting him in that submissive position, but that did not go well! He became aggressive like Kodi, –Just trying to protect himself out of fear. Thank goodness we didn’t get hurt. I had a vet from Italy at the time. I asked him what to do when he growled. He said, say no, then don’t look at him for at least eight hours.

    Now, I speak quietly to him. He needs to know he is safe.

    Just a few minutes ago I got the broom out and my girl, after five and a half years, flinched. I felt sad that she still remembers the life she had before the shelter and before we met.

    They have good memories and like us, after having to survive and/or protect ourselves from harm, we need loving safe environments.

    Thank you for saving Kodi’s life.

    Wishing you many, many future dogkisses!


  2. Thank you both for your support & encouragement!

    Yesterday it was like a lightbulb went off in my head, as the pieces of his puzzling behavior came together in my mind – along with a plan of action to work on them.

    I think issues like these are likely very common with shelter dogs. Most people are not experienced enough to know how to deal with them. The majority of folks would return a dog like this, reporting it as aggressive, and the dog would be euthanized.

    Rhiannon said yesterday that we haven’t laughed this much in years, and she’s quite correct! He has given us so much amusement as he’s learned about life in the house with people who care about him. He clearly needs & adores us – he never lets us out of his sight, flopping down in doorways where he can be ever watchful.

    It’s really quite remarkable how quickly he’s learning, when you think of what he’s experienced up until now, including being neutered this week. Kodi clearly craves affection – he curls up sweetly next to me, will lean into me asking for hugs, and loves being brushed & having his ears rubbed. He has a ways to go in adjusting to his new life, but he has a good heart & just needs to be nurtured, as he should have been all along.

    Kodi is teaching me about dog behavior as I teach him about human behavior. We are a blessing to each other, and I’m very thankful for this opportunity.

    Hugs to you both!


  3. I love how you worked this out; I worked as a vet asst. and then a vet tech for about 10 years (through HS and beyond), and I would be willing to say that you are spot on with your diagnosis (of course, you’ve had way more experience than I have-my family adores that you raised wolves)-but I would see that so often-especially in certain demographics-where rough-housing with the puppy was considered “good fun,” but you’d see them bring the dog in later, with complaints about it biting, or, more commonly, the office would call to remind them for annual shots or a follow-up and would be told something along the lines of “Oh, we got rid of him; he turned out to be a mean dog.” And you’d think, “Yeah, because you tormented him!” I tried to spend time educating people about that, with mixed results, and the whole neuter thing-many a macho man would say “I ain’t gonna do that to him!” It is sad to think that Kodi may have been mistreated and mistreated again because maybe he wasn’t “enough” of a fighter, so to speak. But it is so great to see him not only in a loving home, but one where his issues were recognized and are being taken care of with knowledge and kindness.
    I’ve seen people do the same thing with cats-I guess really almost any pet you could, unfortunately condition to be “mean,” Sad to say…


  4. QUOTE: Not even an “alpha roll” would calm him down – and I’ve had nearly purebred wolves who responded to an alpha roll. I’d push him down, hand on neck. He’d submit for a few seconds, but then would frantically start biting at my arms & hands, sometimes biting pretty damn hard, leaving bruises behind. His feet would kick at my legs as I postured over him in the dominant position, leaving a trail of bruises & scrapes behind on my arms & legs. END QUOTE

    Strong willed dogs will not very often “submit” … in fact most will become aggressive because they feel threatened. Holding the dog down will only serve to raise the level of fear. This is why you see the dog getting “frantic” after a few seconds.

    Insteed, try letting out a high pitched squeel like another dog would do when it gets hurt. Then turn away for a few seconds. The dog should come back to you in a much more calm state of mind.

    Ive been working with dogs for almost 40 years, and I have never had to physcally control a dog other than using a leash to keep the dog next to me in public.


    1. Iowa Dog Trust, I think you missed the point of the blog post. I have never, ever, hurt Kodi by putting him in an alpha roll, and I learned that with this particular dog, that was not a good idea.

      I’m not a dog rescuer – I’m a 118# chronically ill woman, who adopted Kodi without enough time to evaluate his energy level. At 18 months old, he’s at least 90#, and is a dominant aggressive, very large puppy, half Tibetan Mastiff (they don’t mature until they are 3) and half Rottweiler. He’s very strong, and has no inhibition about biting humans on a seconds notice.

      He is really too much dog for me and my (also) chronically ill teenage daughter, but we adopted him from our shelter after only an hour with him, because the shelter was full and is a kill-when-necessary shelter. We love him, and have learned to work with him in ways that won’t trigger his aggressive biting.

      When he play bites too hard, the “yip like a hurt puppy” technique, which I quickly learned when I did wolf dog rescue many years ago, does help, However, when he dominant aggressively bites, it only serves to excite him into more and harder biting. He came to us with unnaturally sharp teeth, as he was left alone on a porch for the first year of his life, with no toys, no bones, no sticks – nothing to wear his teeth down even a little. I have yet to go a day without getting a new bruise on my forearm from a bite, whether it’s a play bite or a serious one (because, for instance, I brushed our other dog).

      He did spend about two weeks mostly on leash in our house, as I’m aware of that technique of dog training from the Monks of New Skete books and tapes. However, it’s hard to do that when I am in and out of bed a lot.

      The point of the blog was not to ever give up, to work with your dog until you find what works best to teach him to behave the way you want him to. At the moment, what works best is a spray bottle with water and a few drops of lavender oil in it! He’s a terrible thief, but that will stop him in his tracks so we can get what he’s stolen back. He also respects the bottle, so when he gets to play biting too hard, all I have to do is pick it up, and he stops.

      If we were to take Kodi back to the shelter, and really tell them his behavior, they’d put him down. But he’s a good dog, loving and gentle at times, wants to learn, and loves us. We’re committed to working with him using whatever techniques are necessary – except ones that hurt him – while he learns to be an indoor dog, and a good pet and companion.

      For more on Kodi, including his background, detailing the abuse he lived through, things we thought we’d never find out, please see this blog post:

      Thank you for visiting my blog and adding your suggestions. I’m pretty sure you had written something somewhat harsher previously, and edited your post, but not sure. Whatever, thank you for your comments.


  5. Ash, now that I read your response I think I DID misunderstand. My comments were not meant to be harsh or offensive. If they were, I apoligize!

    Your comment about the “Alpha Roll” prompted most of my comment. And NO, I didn’t edit, I said what I said. I had read several post that morning and I had them confused.

    My point was only meant to give your other readership my thoughts. I’ve seen 8 year old kids controlling a 90# Rottie with no problem. The key was that they bonded with the dog and became trusted and respected friends to the dog. As you said, Dogs tend to “strike out” at things and people when they don’t trust, or when they fear they are in danger.

    I know that you wanted to “see it through” … and I respect that. The results are paying off. Like you, I also think that when people get in over there heads they need some professional help. Not to train, but maybe just to observe and offer a “eyes on” perspective from the outside.

    My first thought is always a question: Are they sure its aggression and not just flustration? Then: What kind of outlet do they give as a way to burn off the dog’s energy. Most large dog’s (like Kodi) need 1-2 hours of walk and play to burn “pent up” energy. My 45# Pointer needs 2 hrs per day or you don’t even want to be around her! 😉


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