Our vet behaviorist visit

It’s been more than a week since we saw Behaviorist, an intense, three-plus hour visit that left us swimming in a body of words and phrases and images so big and unfamiliar that we couldn’t fully grasp their magnitude, sort of like trying to dog-paddle across the ocean.  Then the waves calmed, at least enough to allow some reflection. We began to put  the overwhelming thing we’d undertaken into context, and piece together events that beached us where we were, in the first place.

We started Linus with Behaviorist and not Trainer, because Trainer said she couldn’t “in good conscience”  work with Linus until I visited a veterinarian behaviorist.  Physical pain, (or emotional pain) can cause fear and aggression, she said, and in fairness to Linus, to us, and to our wallets, we needed to address any existing problems first.

Initially this left me hopeless and really p’od. In hindsight I cannot thank Trainer enough. Her name is Linda Nichols and she runs Howell-based Fido Fundamentals.  She recommended Dr. Theresa L. DePorter, of Bloomfield Hills-based Oakland Veterinary Referral Services.

Chris took time off work, and waited in the lobby as I arrived with Linus. Unlike my regular vet, where every more than 90-pound alpha dog in  Metro Detroit  enters the lobby  just as  Linus and I get there,  the expansive OVRS  reception seemed  largely free of dogs,  of dog urine, of those Gawd awful tortured dog sounds of backroom nail cuttings or blood drawings – those sounds that make everyone squint suspiciously at the technicians,  trying to  pinpoint  the sadist.

They led us to a large carpeted room at least twice as big as any office of any therapist  I’ve ever had, and none of those offices had a couch, either. This one did, and Chris and I sat down.  Linus jumped up between us, coiled tight as a snail, nose to tail,  a sort of learned helplessness I-can’t-see –you-so-you-can’t-see-me-so-please-don’t-notice-me-and-hurt-me posture.

Linus waits in the OVRS lobby. Notice the classic whale eye, the ears plastered down. Linus is terrified.

Linus spent most of the visit curled there, or pacing and panting, whale-eyed with anxiety and fear. He swung his head away from toys and treats as if he’d  never seen such things; hid behind the end table and tried to melt or claw into the corners. I explained lamely that Linus usually wasn’t allowed on the furniture.

We soon learned that furniture sitting was the least of our worries.

OVRS is extremely thorough. Behaviorist, and Melissa Spooner, the behavior technician with whom Behaviorist worked for the entire visit, had read the novella I’d penned on Linus’ behavior and our family life and referred to it often during the meeting. OVRS also asked for photos of the house, yard or living area, and any video, especially of Linus exhibiting incorrect behavior.

It is not easy to film a dog when it is biting your other hand and thankfully, that moment didn’t present itself. However, we did submit footage of what we once deemed possessive behavior.  In most of the video you see only the top of a large coffee table. Linus lies at my feet beneath the table, growling at Chris, who stands in the shadows down the hall.  Unfortunately, you can’t see or hear Linus in the video, all you see is this big table top. I narrate the growling.

They gave us a “ladder of aggression” chart, which describes dog body language leading up to a dog bite. They congratulated us on already knowing many of the behaviors, and avoiding situations that fueled them in Linus.  Still, this knowledge came to us only after two bites, exhaustive research,  and we’re still learning.  For instance,  Behaviorist  noted that when off the couch and pacing, Linus lifted his front paw often, when approached. Apparently, in a fear-aggressive dog like Linus, this can be dogspeak for “stay away please. I’m uncomfortable.”  She also asked me if Linus yawned a lot. I said no. I was wrong. Linus yawns all the time.  That’s  also a warning behavior. However, even though I knew from my research to look for that behavior, I never noticed it on my own. It was that subtle.

Linus waits for a potty break. Looonnnggg appointment.

Behaviorist told us that most dog owners who bring in their  pets for evaluation don’t equate any of the lesser behaviors in the ladder of aggression with biting – just like Chris and I did not when we adopted Linus.  These body signals include licking chops, whale eye, yawning, even certain tail wags and face licks. I now believe that every person who adopts or buys a dog from a breeder should by law be  informed of these physical cues before leaving with the dog. It’s just that important.

About halfway through our visit,  we took a potty break.  I led Linus outside. A grey, misty day, as dreary and depressing as all the reasons we had for being there. Then, in the parking lot, Linus and I passed a man and an American Bull Terrier, with a head as big as a bushel basket, sitting in a car. Apparently, the dog  wouldn’t  leave the backseat. The man saw us. He rolled up the car window. I looked down at Linus, at the little knots of his spine. Things could be so much worse. I thanked Goddess again that Linus didn’t outweigh me.

We met back in the therapy room. I thought of the man outside. “We have the absolute perfect dog,” I wailed.  “He doesn’t dig. He doesn’t mess in the house. He doesn’t chew things.  He doesn’t beg or bark. He makes  up for all that perfection by biting!”

Behaviorist  explained that Linus wasn’t perfect. Rather, he was frozen. She noted all the things Linus  hadn’t done during our visit that day: no rooting in her trash, no stealing of toys or treats.  Instead, Linus sat and tried to stay unnoticed. Or, he paced and panted on a ceaseless quest to escape.

Already so submissive he couldn’t even function normally as a dog, Linus cared about one thing:  how to survive that moment, then the next moment,  and then the next moment without getting screamed at, crammed in a crate, shocked,  kicked, hit, prong collared,  choke chained,  or any of the gajillion other sickening  things that we do to our dogs and call it training.

Chris and I couldn’t help feeling vindicated. We understood that the best thing we could have done, we did: we ignored the advice of nearly everyone, including vets and trainers and rescue people and other Jack Russell owners, who insisted we “dominate” Linus; that we force him into submission so he’d know his place in the “pack,” thus stopping the growling and biting.  Nobody bites the alpha, right?

Wrong. Behaviorist explained that Linus’, actions, at this stage,  had nothing to do with alpha status or dominance, and every single thing to do with his diagnosis: generalized anxiety and fear aggression. Genetics, brutality, lack of socialization or mishandled socialization likely fueled his frantic need to protect himself and whatever tiny bit of space he managed to claw around him, a moat between him and the rest of the world.  Pack status was not on his doggy mind.

Then, Behaviorist gave us permission to baby our dog. Chris and I smiled. Yes! We could let Linus back on the bed, let him enter and exit doors in front of us, let him sit next to us on the furniture, let him pull on the leash. Heeling,  schmeeling.  Let him zig-zag. Yes, I could hand feed Linus if I felt like it until he damn well licked off my fingerprints.

Chris and I sighed so long and hard that our relief billowed out the walls of that room.  We could stop “making” Linus do things, which up until then meant constant correction for poor Linus, and only revved his anxiety, making growling situations more volatile. Punishment , even a raised voice or stern tone,  could cause Linus to regress. He needed positive experiences only. Positive  reinforcement training, at last. A phrase I’d learned to love while at the same time wondering if it even existed, at least here in Michigan.  Sadly it’s very rare, but more on that later.

Speaking of training, at that point Behaviorist recommended that we wait on formal training with Trainer.  Linus couldn’t  truly learn until he could truly learn to relax. Made  sense to us.  What brain, what species, can process and retain information when stressed?

So, then what do we do, I asked, if Linus has a growling fit? We don’t train. We don’t use negative reinforcement punishment (and never will, that’s not a positive reinforcement concept.) So then,  ummm, what’s left?

Diffuse the situation. Simple as that. The meat of Stage I of our rehabilitation plan, right there.


That’s what I thought, too. But it works. It really, truly works — amazingly well. If Linus lies beneath the coffee table and growls, we now understand it’s not one or the other of us he’s protecting.  Rather, he’s guarding what he perceives as his own little safe haven. So, we get him a treat and he stops growling and comes out from beneath the table for his treat.  If he’s on the bed, say, on my pillow and must move, we don’t pull him off, snarling, by his leash.  We get a treat. And  then Linus doesn’t growl. He doesn’t stiffen. He doesn’t batten down the hatches. He wags his tail. He jumps off the bed and eats his small, heavenly bit of ham or turkey.

Behaviorist explained that right now, it’s extremely important that Linus experience all positive encounters, because the hope is he’ll carry those positives with him into adulthood, and it will help him cope.  These behaviors emerge at under a year old, and are exacerbated at social maturity, or about two years of age. Right now, our job is to show him a safe world. We avoid any exposure to other dogs and people that could leave a negative impression  and we plan safe encounters with exit strategies if he’s anxious.  He isn’t ready for exposure or desensitization exercises. For the time being, at least, Camp Bow Wow is out, music therapy and puzzle toys are in.

Because he fears the crate, we removed it from the house.  However, Behaviorist pointed out that every creature can benefit from a safe spot, and without the crate this posed a problem. She  asked if Linus had a place to which he retreated and suggested we enhance it. Chris and I looked at each other, and described the small space between the treadmill and the wall, a place we called Linus’ “sad spot.” Behaviorist  suggested we make that space as comfortable as possible for Linus, so we moved his bed there, and some toys.

On the ride home from OVRS, Linus checks out the dog in the next car. And then he crashed. (below) Exhausting day.

She prescribed the ADAPTIL pheromone collar, and told us to acclimate him to it with treats and petting until we can get it on him. We bought the prescribed ADAPTIL  plug-in, which, like the collar,  also releases calming mommy dog pheromones into the air. Linus also takes doggy Prozac and a doggy form of Wellbutrin twice daily. I hesitated for oh, 1.5 milliseconds when Behaviorist mentioned pharmaceuticals, but seeing our dog coiled stiff as a spring decided for me. Linus’ prescriptions cost roughly $12 a month at Costco, not bad for a  guy without insurance.  The interventions work together and hopefully we’ll notice a change in four to six weeks.

Additionally, Behaviorist suggested pheromone diffusers for our cats as well, to help them adapt to Linus.

I suppose some readers will think we spoil our dog, that we’re pushovers.   To them, I say this: our house is a different place. It no longer thrums with the relentless stress and tension of a fearful dog who ceaselessly sniffs and patrols the perimeter of the room, as agitated and aimless as a hamster in a shoebox.  He sometimes seems relaxed. He plays outside, and acts more engaged. If he has a growling fit, we get a treat and bam! situation resolved. Dissolved. Diffused.

Chris and I also feel more relaxed. There’s no pressure to whip Linus into shape, despite not having any tools and never knowing what “into shape” really was and whether Linus was even capable of getting there. We have more fun with Linus, and I think he has more fun with us. I can’t  wait for six weeks to come and go.

Where will this take us?

Every night when we settle in, Linus lies on his pillow and blanket on the floor next to my side of  the bed.  I always peek down at him, hoping I’ll catch him asleep.  But I see the same thing every night, no matter how late.  I see Linus lying on his side as if frozen, his coltish legs sticking straight out from his body, his chocolate eyes wide and staring at the wall, unblinking.  I hope one night  I’ll look down and he’s curled in a little ball; not coiled, but loose and floppy as a clump of yarn. His eyes are closed and twitching, perhaps dreaming of chasing something.  I hope that just once, I’ll look down to see that he’s fallen asleep first.

For OVRS, see http://www.ovrs.com

For Fido Fundamentals, see: http://www.fidofundamentals.com/



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17 thoughts on “Our vet behaviorist visit

  1. Wow – so great to read about these latest developments in your journey. You guys are doing a great job. Laura I’m loving the blog posts. And the photos – Linus is SOOOO cute!!

    • Anne,
      Thank you so much for reading. The visit was amazing, and really, it feels like Linus is the one doing the heavy lifting, if that makes sense. We just needed to learn to read him so that he could flourish. Chris takes most of the photos, he is a great photographer. Someone asked me recently if we bought Linus at a toy store because he’s so cute. Your support means a lot Anne…thank you.

  2. I learned so much from reading this post! So glad you and Linus are getting the right advice at last. Six weeks from now, Linus will be a different dog.

    • Hi Sally,
      We couldn’t believe how informative and wonderful the consult was, and I would recommend OVRS to anyone with an emotionally or physically abused animal. I’m so happy that you learned something from reading. I’d be interested to hear from you what, if anything you read, surprised you. We were very surprised to learn that Linus’ behavior wasn’t influenced (at least at this stage) by the entering/exit rule or the off the furniture stuff. None of that matters right now. Thank you so much for reading Sally.

  3. What a rare and Beautiful example of the cultivation of Peace in an often hostile world.
    More proof that Love is a Healer.

    I love you all, including the cats.

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