The Near Death of a Golden-The Power of Positive Reinforcement

This is a true story of a very lucky Golden Retriever puppy whose future was hanging by a thread.

Thai was a 9 month old Golden puppy living with his family since he was 7and ½ weeks old. The problems started at 8 weeks of age when his visit to the vet sent up red flags.

He was growling at the vet, probably because he was scared, but this is where it all began…..

Thai became food aggressive so the owners were told to hand feed him by dropping food into his bowl a few at a time, unfortunately it wasn’t working. The owners gave up and stayed clear of him while he ate so the problem got worse.

They took him to a local pet store for training and he excelled and took to the clicker very well, but his problems at home got worse.

Thai became toy aggressive, food, bone, space and hand aggressive and took up the sport of terrorizing the 13 year old child.

His body would stiffen up, mouth would close, tail would slowly start to rise and stop wagging. He would stare into the eyes of the scared owners and growl a deep and ominous rumble while quivering his lip up to show his teeth.

They said he would do this behavior for no reason sometimes. At times it was predictable and other times it was not. He would come up from behind them while in a chair or over to the couch while the owners were watching TV and start his bizarre behavior. It has been working so well for him that the frequency was increasing.

Wow! This dog sounded like a psychopath and it was a Golden??? I met them at the vet so I could meet this troubled boy. He came in all happy and wagging his tail as relaxed as can be. He had not been neutered but he looked healthy and pretty cute.

The owner went to pat him and his whole demeanor changed. He went from happy boy to wacko boy in 3 seconds flat.

I wanted to get this on video so I asked her if she could pat him again safely so I could film him and the same thing happened. Ok, now I am perplexed. What is going on here?

I asked her to film me while I was patting him and the same thing happened. I thought I would try to continue patting him and not pull my hand away and see if he would stop. He was growling deep, low and steadily with a closed mouth, and dilated eyes. His tail raised to the level of his topline and stiffly wagged left and right. Maybe if he realized that his growling wasn’t going to scare me, he would give up. It failed, so I did stop patting him because I didn’t want to push him to the point of reacting with a bite. The owners had voluntarily told me he had never been hit anywhere but has been verbally disciplined.

Now what? Our wonderful veterinarian gave him a full exam to see if there was any pain and blood work to check for any abnormalities, everything checked out normal. When they went to restrain him though, he let go of his bladder! He was terrified!

I was up to the challenge but needed him to be neutered first.

I reviewed the video and sent it to a well-known reputable Veterinarian who is also an Animal Behaviorist. She picked up on his flat ears and avoidance of the hand and thought that this dog was fearful of his head area. He had probably been hit in the head if we could rule out any physical pain or disorders.

I saw the ears flat back but missed it at the same time. I was so focused on the other behaviors that I overlooked it. Thank goodness for her valuable observations, it was so appreciated.

I brought Thai home and told the Rescue that I would try my best to train and rehabilitate him.

I started up with the clicker training immediately and using the universal calming signals from Turrid Rugass’s book, In Speaking Terms With Dogs. This book is fantastic and every dog owner in the world should have a copy. I see a lot of competition trainers say, “ya, my dog is showing some stress in the exercise but he/she has to do it anyway”. Please read the book and you will have some new tools to incorporate into your training and you can bring them into the ring too.

I had him bring his head towards my hand to be patted instead of me reaching for him. It worked beautifully! I used the clicker for putting on his Elizabethian collar, cleaning his ears, go to your place and down, drop the bone, toy, etc. I was adding treats to his food when I approached with a click and treat.

I was truly impressed but not so gullible that I didn’t expect some problems to arise after he got comfortable in his surroundings.

Then, on the third day I added some canned chicken food to his dinner and he really loved it. He stopped eating, looked into my eyes and started to grumble and then went back to eating. When he went back to eating I clicked and dropped a piece of chicken in his food. I think he was pleasantly surprised. I continued to do this throughout the meal with my body turned sideways while I was yawning and stretching while working on look aways and lip licking(its all in the book). It worked like magic there were no more incidents for the duration of the meal.

I have to admit many years ago I would have used some serious physical force to “teach the dog not to be food aggressive”. I would have made the dog fearful and distrusting of me and made the situation much, much worse. I now know better, but I did have the frying pan within reach just incase I needed to shield myself if he lunged with the intentions of biting.

After lots of rehab and training of his new owners, Thai is now living a peaceful and happy life.

Thank you to the Golden Retriever Rescue for allowing me to help this mixed up boy because it could have been a different ending.

Robin Billings

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