The Chaos Chronicles: A Winter Puppy's Adolescence

It’s been a couple of months since I’ve provided an update on my puppy Chaos.  He coasted through January and February without offering much to write about.  Now that he has reached 6 months of age, however, adolescence has reared its ugly head just in time for me to realize that I overlooked some of the challenges of raising a winter puppy.   We had a long snowy winter here in Ohio.  I never thought of it as a disadvantage for raising Chaos because I did so much with him.  He went to classes, visited vet clinics, played with boarding dogs, and went to lots of people’s homes.  I failed to do enough of 2 very important things:  leash work and building Chaos’ frustration tolerance.

Chaos spent most of his puppyhood off leash.  We walked in our neighborhood and in parks a bit, but seldom saw many people.  We also made trips to Petsmart.  Chaos pulled a lot in Petsmart – wanting to greet everyone.  I worked on his leash skills in quiet aisles, but tended to let him go right up and meet anyone who showed an interest, even if he pulled.  I know better.  Dogs should only greet people when they are calm and under control, but I was so anxious to have Chaos meet as many people as possible that I slacked on the manners.    

I headed into spring with a puppy who hadn’t done much outdoor leash work.  He had seldom - if ever - seen bicycles, roller blades, motorcycles, or even many joggers.  Worst of all (at least as it relates to teaching impulse control) he lived in a world where almost everyone he met showered his adorable self with attention.  He had every reason to believe that people and other dogs existed solely to adore and/or play with him.  Combine that with the extreme persistence and prey drive for which catahoulas are bred, and it all led to a very embarrassing experience for this dog trainer.

On one of our first really warm days, I took Chaos to walk a path around a lake.  We had walked there a couple of times before.  The first five minutes were always a challenge, but then he would settle down and walk fairly nicely.  Those, however, were cold winter days and we had the park almost to ourselves.  On this beautiful spring day, there were joggers, bikes, other people walking dogs and rowdy ducks. 

It was sensory overload for Chaos.  From the beginning, he pulled badly.  He really wanted to see everyone.  I managed to get about a quarter of a mile before his behavior began to seriously deteriorate.  He stared quivering with his desire to jump into the lake after ducks making dramatic landings.  He started lunging towards other dogs and joggers.  It started as an effort to greet them, but as his arousal increased his hackles came up and he began to bark intensely in frustration.  He was out of control.  He didn’t care about me or about treats.  His excitement and frustration overrode all of his training. 

No dog – let alone a high drive working dog like Chaos – should be allowed to practice this kind of behavior.  That kind of frustration – especially on leash – can morph into aggression in a hurry.  I’d never seen anything like it in Chaos and I was totally unprepared.  I took him off the path to work on calm and obedience from about 30 yards for a few minutes.  It didn’t help much.  I would have liked to stay until he calmed down, but I had to be somewhere.  Chaos stopped lunging and barking, but remained highly aroused.   The barking started again when we approached the path.  There was no way back to the car that didn’t involve following the path, so – frustrated and humiliated – I ran the half mile back to the car.  By allowing Chaos to run instead of restraining him with the leash, I was able to keep him focused on me.

The next day, I fit Chaos with a Gentle Leader head halter and returned to the park.  Instead of attempting to walk the path, we hung around near the club house and boat dock where I had complete control over our distance from passersby.  I started popping treats into Chaos’ mouth whenever a jogger or bicyclist went by.  Soon he was looking at me whenever this happened.  After 15 minutes, he was looking at me and sitting for a treat.  He remained highly aroused, however, and – for the first time ever – barked in a fearful/aggressive manner at 2 strangers.  I asked both men if he could say hi.  They were both dog lovers and agreed.  Chaos melted as soon as he got to them and made two new friends.  We left after about 20 minutes.     

The following day, we returned to the park and walked the path with Chaos on the Gentle Leader.  He started off highly aroused, but calmed down to a manageable level in 5 or 10 minutes.  I did a lot of changing directions to keep Chaos focused and stopping to let others pass.  It took us 40 minutes to make the 1 mile circuit, but Chaos was walking beautifully by the end.  We did our next 2 sessions without the Gentle Leader, but still avoided clusters of people or dogs.  We’ve done 4 more sessions since then.  Chaos is learning to ignore passersby and needs fewer and fewer reminders to keep the leash loose.  A really excited dog is still tough for him to ignore, and a dog that barks aggressively still gets his hackles up.  I start popping treats in his mouth for the latter distraction and he’s slowly learning to ignore it.  We’ve still got work to do, but we’re getting there. 

I’m disappointed in myself that I didn’t see this coming, but I’ve learned a valuable lesson.  We’ll be doing a lot more leash work and extra impulse control exercises in my winter puppy classes from now on, and I’ll be encouraging all of my students to go out of their way to find places to walk their winter puppies around crowds.