With some patience, you can teach an old dog new tricks

For those of you who rescue a pet from a shelter, I commend you. Acquiring an animal who has been reared by others, only to be abandoned when they are no longer wanted, takes a strong individual. Even if a young pet is adopted, they have already acquired a personality from their previous lifestyle, instilled within them from their early months of life. Quite often, the adjustment period after rescuing a lonely animal can be a challenging time as both parties learn to live with each other. 

I received an email from a reader this past week expressing frustration as she was trying to understand the peculiarities of a dog she and her husband rescued over a year ago. The two-year-old border collie mix is a “Wonderful companion IN THE HOUSE!” the words glared, relaying her frustration. As I continued to read through the email, the story of a devoted companion who yearned to help her new friend overcome past anxieties was truly inspiring.

Dulce was picked up wandering the streets of Montrose. Her records showed that she had been placed in one home but had been returned to the shelter due to incompatibility. Fortunately, Dulce was rescued by these good Samaritans. Within a short time, however, the couple realized the young dog had some unusual behavioral traits. “She obviously has some ‘baggage’ issues,” the email said, and then went on to explain the precarious situation.

The young dog shows extreme aggression toward large breeds. Typically, border collies can be aggressive, especially when put to work on a herd of bulls, but often they tend to be a fairly docile breed around people and other animals. At only 46 pounds, the ‘mix’ in Dulce possibly was of an aggressive dominant gene. In my experiences, an aggressive dog either is genetically preconceived to demonstrate those tendencies or was traumatized as a young pup.

While the aggression with other dogs is limited to exposure, the email described Dulce’s disposition when riding in a vehicle as the biggest challenge they were trying to overcome. Even though she loves to accompany her new companions on outings, her uncontrollable behavior in the car is completely erratic. Dulce paces back and forth, constantly barking and whining until she often hyperventilates due to the stress. The forlorn owner stated, “Seriously, I wear ear plugs, but they are only a bandage.”

The couple’s efforts in helping Dulce overcome her anxiety included group training and veterinarian consultations. Other suggestions they received from various individuals included shaking coins in a can, administering a commercially purchased relaxant, and growling at her. Eventually, they discovered the young dog would quiet down if they rubbed her belly while she sat in the passenger seat. If the human contact was broken with the nervous dog, Dulce would begin the erratic behavior again.

Pacing back and forth at work today, I reflected on Dulce’s behavior. Undoubtedly, a unfortunate occurrence in the young dog’s past is triggered when she gets in a vehicle. Who knows what happened to her when she was a pup? So the question is, how do you change an animal’s behavior to help them overcome their anxiety? While some might say to let the dog know who is boss, I feel a better approach is to resynthesize actions.

Dulce must learn to overcome the anxiety of riding in the car. My first thought, when asked by the owners if I had any suggestions, was whether the dog was crate trained. I’m guessing not, since the small enclosure of the vehicle was possibly a factor in her anxiety. Most cats and some dogs experience a negative reaction to motion due to an equilibrium imbalance. Keeping an anxious dog in a crate, especially in a moving vehicle, is undoubtedly the safest means of transportation.

However, an untrained animal placed in a crate — in a moving vehicle — can cause even greater turmoil for the caged creature.

You have to take small steps to turn the negative situation into an enjoyable encounter. If Dulce was my rescue, I would begin by going and sitting in the car with the dog several times a day. Don’t go anywhere, don’t even start the engine; just sit quietly. After a few days and hopefully a calmer dog, start the vehicle, but again, don’t go anywhere. As she adjusts to the rumble of the motor, begin by taking short rides in the neighborhood. If she regresses and begins the agitated behavior, pull over and sit quietly until she calms down.

The process will be long and slow, but hopefully, the young dog will eventually learn to relax and enjoy riding in the car. I would also suggest crate training Dulce utilizing the same techniques of adaptation to the enclosure. While some say you can’t teach an old dog new tricks, I believe it is possible if you take the time to help the animal overcome its anxiety.

Charlé Thibodeau has been a passionate pet caregiver for more than 30 years. If you have a pets question you would like Thibodeau to answer in her column, email .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address).


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