Stir Crazy (about Kathy’s dog Nick)

nick_throughfenceOriginally published in The Clicker Journal in 2003

I love words. Puns, etymologies and obscure definitions fascinate me. A virginal NY Times Sunday crossword is nirvana – one of my own personal jackpots. So I was surprised that I had never before considered the original meaning of the term “stir crazy.” But now I have.*

About 6 months ago, I got a call from Susie McGehee. She’s the training director of the Prison Pet Partnership Program (PPPP), which has been pairing female inmates with mixed-breed dogs for the past 22 years. With the guidance of staff and the aid of volunteers, inmates train these rescues to be service dogs.

Susie was alarmed that two dogs in the PPPP service-dog training program had displayed some aggressive behaviors toward their trainers and other people. She feared that euthanasia was the only recourse. Unsure how I might help, I suggested that I come out to the prison to evaluate these dogs in order to give her a second opinion.

After Susie helped me navigate my way through the guards and the locked gates, she introduced me to the first dog, a huge Pyrenees mix. The inmates and staff loved this dog’s looks and his usually sweet temperament. But when I approached his kennel, walking briskly and looking directly at him, he lunged at me with a ferocity and speed I’d never seen. He’d certainly intended to rip my face off. My blood ran cold and I could no longer feel my feet. I turned to look at Susie — she was ashen. The Pyr had never before displayed behavior this scary. Sadly, I concurred with Susie’s decision to euthanize this big fluffy dog. Then I said silent prayers of thanksgiving for sturdy chain-link fences.

Next, I happened to pass another long-time staff member who asked what I was doing at the prison that day. When I told her I was just about to evaluate “Ducky,” a young, medium-sized herding dog, she suggested I not waste my time. “That’s the most psycho dog I ever saw,” she replied. No one liked Ducky anymore. He’d become unmanageable and had even bitten the sleeve of one of the male prison officers. Ducky also wasn’t getting daily walks anymore, and when I saw him in his kennel, I knew why. He was spinning like the Tasmanian devil, literally bouncing off the walls. Susie had a tough time even getting a leash on him.

I continued the evaluation in the large training room nearby. I couldn’t touch Ducky; he would snap whenever I reached toward him. If I turned my back to him, he lunged in an attempt to bite my ankles. He was much more comfortable with Susie, though, and even managed to settle down a bit after 15 minutes out of his kennel.

His behavior, though aggressive, was quite different from that of the Pyr. Ducky was scared. It’s likely that the noise and bustle of the prison environment had made this sensitive herding dog panicky, unfocused and defensive. Before Ducky came to the prison, he had wandered stray, then lived at the local shelter until his time ran out, and then spent some time at a loving foster home. And as soon as he arrived at the prison, ready to enter the service dog program, he was isolated for 2 weeks due to kennel cough. So by the time I met him, he’d been through several “homes.” He had become the living definition of “stir crazy.”

To get a better idea of Ducky’s true temperament, I wanted to evaluate him again, in another setting. So Susie kindly agreed to bring Nick to my friend’s 3-acre fenced field later that week, stopping on her way to Ducky’s euthanasia appointment. This was definitely Ducky’s last chance

Once inside the enclosure, Susie released Ducky’s leash and let him explore that beautiful place. He ran around, silly and happy and free. He awkwardly chased a ball and then calmly sniffed and greeted the other dogs we’d brought along. But he was wary of me; I still couldn’t touch him.

Our final diagnosis: environmentally-induced aggression, with a spirited, responsive dog underneath. Our prognosis: good, but only in the home of an experienced trainer with no children. Hmmm, but where would we find one of those?

With enormous reluctance, I told Susie I would foster and rehabilitate this dog for two months. She promised that she could find him a good home after that. But I had one condition: I couldn’t call him Ducky – it was just too ridiculous (apologies to anyone out there with a non-aquatic pet with this name). A few days later, she brought me a waiver to sign, stating that I knew this was a dangerous dog, and promising that he wouldn’t ever be off-leash, etc.

From the first day he stepped over my threshold, I resented Nick (his new name, derived from a tipsy conversation with friends while shucking oysters and, as the shellfish manual emphasized, being careful not to nick the flesh).

You see, less than a month earlier, my perfect angel dog, an old huge-eared terrier named Gnat, died in my arms. He was my joy, the balm to my heart, my raison d’être during a hellish time in my life. His death left a huge black void; the tenderness and friendship we’d shared was gone. My other dog, Effie (a 4-year-old female foxhound), became my sole canine companion.

I wasn’t ready to accept another dog into my family yet, even temporarily. And I certainly wasn’t attracted to Nick. First, I’ve never been partial to herding dogs – possibly because the majority of shepherds and collies I see in my behavioral consultation practice are skittish, high-strung and super-sensitive. And forget cuddling with Nick; I couldn’t even pet him. He peed in my house, chewed sections from books I was reading, cowered and snapped at any man who approached. His coat was dull and shedding in great wads. But worst of all, he began guarding: first his chew toys and food bowl; then me. He wouldn’t allow Effie to come near me, and barked and bit to keep her away.

But to be fair, he did have some good qualities. He was completely crate-trained, and would spend hours calmly and quietly confined. He was a glutton, willing to do just about anything for food. He got along well with all other dogs – important because I board my clients’ dogs in my house. And he had the oddest braying sort of bark. He always sounded like he was recovering from laryngitis.

Here was my initial training plan.

1)     Count the days until my commitment to fostering Nick was over. Mark that date on my calendar with a big red pen. Decide what reinforcement I will give myself on that day.

2)     Treat him like a zoo animal. When I was a zookeeper, training our wild charges to allow humans to touch them was a critical priority. I was frustrated that I couldn’t brush the piles of loose fur from Nick’s rear end. So he earned some of each day’s ration by remaining calm while I desensitized him to my touch, first using my hand, then using a brush. A brief trial of paw-handling – about 5 seconds – preceded each meal; I needed to be able to trim his over-long nails.

3)     I kept him tired. This dog was a bundle of nerves. I know that exercise facilitates my mental health, so I predicted that it would help Nick settle down. He joined me on a morning 4-mile walk, several times each week. This accomplished several training goals at once: loose-leash walking; passive socialization to the sounds, sights and smells of the busy waterfront trail where we walked; active socialization to men (I “opened the bar” every time a man approached us); and essential one-on-one time together that allowed us to create a bond of trust, and maybe eventually affection. Nick also participated in a dog “playday” twice a week, running free (in the aforementioned fenced field) with 6 – 12 other dogs, swimming in the pond, and chasing birds.

4)     I picked a few behaviors to heavily reinforce: a snappy head-turn in response to his new name; a fast and fluent down; a reliable recall; a play retrieve. He received as much food in payment for performing these key behaviors as he did in his daily meals. And because I tend not to use lures in the early stages of training, these behaviors were captured (response to name & recall) or free-shaped (down & retrieve).

5)     I remembered to use management. I’d lived the past 6 years with fully-trained dogs and forgotten about crates, tethers and gates. Yes, I do recommend these to client’s nearly every day, but using them in my own house was somehow different. It took only 3 chewed-up books for me to decide to crate Nick while I was gone.

6)     I decided to largely ignore the guarding behaviors, at least for the first month. As scary as these were, I reasoned that they were fueled by Nick’s insecurity. Maybe his attitude would change passively, without direct counter-conditioning by me, once Nick was receiving enough exercise, reinforcement, gentling, and quiet-time each day. The most active intervention I used was to abruptly leave the room (or the play field), with Effie, each time Nick tried to guard me.

This plan did work – eventually—but we had some setbacks: Nick snapped at a couple of men when I wasn’t vigilant enough; he developed a toilet-paper fetish and twice festooned it around my living room like some drunken teenager; and he somehow managed to climb onto the 11’-high roof of my friend’s house while she was gardening.

These obstacles, though, were overshadowed by two other incidents. After about a month, Effie and Nick became best buddies. Effie, a usually pushy bitch, played with him in a way I’d never seen. The two of them wrestled and chewed each other’s faces, moaning and singing their endearments for hours at a time. She was smitten. And a short time later, so was I. One morning, I woke to Nick lying beside me on the bed. (I’d been too lazy to haul his crate into the bedroom the night before, so I took a chance on letting him roam free.) His head was on the pillow and he was facing me. As soon as I opened my eyes, he ever so gently touched his tongue to the tip of my nose. Just once, and just for a nanosecond. My heart melted, and I knew that this troublesome dog I’d been so eager to get rid of was mine.

Nick is lying on my feet right now, licking my toes as I type this. He and I have learned so much in the past five-and-a-half months. He no longer guards anything (except maybe a bone from a visiting boarding dog). He offers his paws for nail trims and enjoys being brushed. He has the fastest recall of any dog I’ve trained. And best of all, he’s beginning to sidle up to unfamiliar men, wagging his tail in expectation of meat. This amazing progress undoubtedly implies that Nick is a special dog. After all, that’s why the shelter employees had originally thought Nick would make a great service dog – they saw his potential. And now, so do I.

Nick’s training won’t stop here. He’s destined for agility or freestyle competition, but we’ll work on getting him a CGC first. Then maybe we’ll visit the prison again, so everyone can see firsthand what a “psycho vicious” can become.


* “Stir-crazy,” which dates to about 1925, is a variant of an older term, “stir bugs,” used to describe a prisoner who became mentally unbalanced because of prolonged incarceration. “Stir-daffy” and “stir-goofy” were also popular ways to describe the effects of the mind-numbing boredom of prison life.


Tips for acclimating second-hand dogs:

  • Exercise the dog at least an hour a day. Get him panting.
  • Take a long view. Don’t get too focused on the daily nuisances.
  • Pick 3 or 4 specific behaviors to reinforce many times, generously, every day.
  • Breathe.
  • Buy (or make) a sturdy cable-coated tether. Use it.
  • Get over the guilt you feel for opening your heart to a newcomer after you’ve lost a dear, irreplaceable friend.
  • Keep a simple journal. Jot down achievements and setbacks. Reread this when you’re feeling discouraged.
  • Ask a friend to help you by providing temporary respite care for the new dog. Sometimes a one-day break will do you both good.
  • Expect it to take two or three months before the dog completely relaxes in his new home. Up until that point,