We have just completed our 43rd pet sit, caring for Kai a big strong 4 year old male German Shepherd/Pit Bull Cross.
This has been our most challenging pet sit yet and also our most rewarding one.
So much so, that I felt compelled to share our experience with Kai and our other experiences so far with the different rescue dogs we have cared for, in the hope of highlighting some of our key observations we have made and strategies that have worked, that may help fellow sitters with rescue dog assignments and perhaps even owners of rescue dogs who are keen to hear about our experiences and results.
Kai is a rescue dog with more than a few anxiety issues, makes you wonder what the first part of his life was like. Woe betide anyone that strokes him without him seeing your hand move first and takes him unawares, lots of defensive barking. To add to that recently Kai had a traumatic event happen, his owner told us, when a previous pet sitter who got his prong chain collar stuck on him tightly and had to call in Animal Control to snip it off of him. Since then he has been understandably guarded about his collar. A next sitter left after just one day as Kai became aggressive towards her (all because of his anxieties with this collar).
He is a big strong dog and he gets over excited and hard to calm down. But when he does we can tell he has a loving side to him and wants to be good. As Pet Sitters we do all we can for the pets in our care and call on all our experiences and kindness to keep them safe and happy and feeling loved, always being respectful of their characters and anxieties. We’ll never be able to fix all the anxiety problems of a rescue dog that misses his mum and has had a recent trauma with a stranger. What we do is to try to create our own little oasis of calm and love for the pets and we take it everywhere we go.
Kai loved evening time and laid on or very close to us on the sofa, it melts our hearts seeing this softer side of him. He actually sleeps on the bed, so he must want to feel close to us, we didn’t mind. He has a cuddly blanket that he holds and sucks on at night when he’s tired, he’s such a needy boy really, it pulls on our heart strings.
Our week was consumed with providing Kai with so much love, encouragement, praise and attention. We told him ‘good boy’ continuously, unless it was not appropriate.
Kai lives with his lady owner and she mentioned on our arrival that Kai is quite dominant. He pulls on the lead, can be very boisterous when playing and barks at dogs he doesn’t like. He gets ‘spooked’ at loud sudden noises and if he is touched/stroked unexpectedly. She told us that on occasions Kai will guard the door to stop her from leaving him when she goes to work.
So with all of the above, we have set the scene for you about the type of pet with issues we have in our care for the week!
The prong collar Kai wears, his owner told us, is due to his pulling on walks. However, he has big issues with this collar as we explained above.
Now, I hear you shouting, why is the owner still making the dog wear the collar? The answer is that the owner, who has no problem herself putting it on Kai, felt it stops him pulling on the lead. She was very anxious about us using the collar with Kai, but she wanted us to use it as she knew it was a collar strong enough to hold him.
In fact, Kai is a clever dog and we believe could quickly be trained to walk better on the lead without pulling and then eliminating the need for the prong type of collar. We kept him close to us when walking and avoided other dogs when we could. When we had to pass another dog, we would turn and distract Kai away, getting him to sit for treats and then lots of praise when he ignored the other dog. By the end of our week he was walking much better, sitting at pedestrian lights, we were so proud of him!
Before I continue, having read just this back, it must sound as if this dog is far too dangerous to be left with strangers. But, honestly, Kai is anything but dangerous as we grew to learn during our time with him.
We’d love for you to continue reading this post and please do send your comments and experiences at the bottom of this blog post page. We ourselves learn something new about the pets in our care on every single sit and are still learning from others, it would be great to hear your experiences so we can all learn together.
Thanks for staying with us! I have become extremely interested in rescue dogs behaviour and recently taken a course in Canine Behaviour Training, purely to further my understanding of these beautiful animals.
Lets continue by telling you about the experience we had with Kai, what we learned and what we tried to provide him with the best pet sitting experience we possibly could.
Managing Aggressive Play with Kai
On arrival we were greeted with boisterous excitement from Kai and his immediate request for us to play tug the toy with him. The owner said he loved this type of play but can get a little aggressive and when this happens we should turn away and hide our hands and he then knows to stop.
Now we’ve sat for a number of dogs that love a game of tug of war, but Kai’s toy tugging play was true to the owners comment, meaning it quickly turned to aggressive behaviour towards myself including accidental biting, growling, and scratching. He really just didn’t know when and how to stop, the build up of excitement just got to a stage where he lost control.
From the moment we took charge of Kai, we toned down the tug playing game to a very gentle style, which meant that Kai would no longer be really pulling the toy away from us, each time he began to pull we just let go, as a result he just kept coming back to let us grab hold of the toy each time. If we felt he was starting to show any signs of aggression we would immediately let go of the toy.
With lots of praise and encouragement to be gentle and this very calm approach to his favoutie tug play, as soon as the second day we saw signs of a much gentler play from him and very little sign of the aggressive play we’d first experienced. As with all dog training, repetition, routine and rewards are definitely key. We noticed through the week Kai was playing in a much gentler manner.
Thinking about it though, if a dog has aggressive issues, its perhaps not such a good idea to encourage games that encourage signs of aggression. Maybe using a Kong to entertain them and throwing a ball when on walks might be a more suitable way of entertaining them.
Managing Stress Related Aggression
Our dreaded collar issues comes under this section! I have aleady told you about the awful experience Kai had with his collar just a few months before we sat for him, when his prong collar got tangled and had be cut off him. Now I can’t begin to imagine what an awful experience this must have been for Kai and trying to imagine what a stressful experience it was for him helped immensely in how we would go about fastening and removing his collar before and after each walk.
He was understandably very wary of having his collar put on and in particular having it taken off, especially with us being total strangers, so we took a gentle approach which seemed to be working well for the first couple of days. However, on day three, as we were taking off the collar he got spooked by a loud outside noise and became very aggressive to tell us to stop. Now any one that has experienced first hand an aggressive dog will know what a scary experience it can be! A few minutes after the event it was so obvious that Kai was very sorry and that his intention was not to harm us but just to tell us he was frightened.
In order to ensure Kai didn’t have any undue stress we decided to leave the collar on while we came up with a plan that may help him become more trusting of having the collar removed and be more comfortable with what for most dogs is a regular part of daily life.
We are true believers that the best form of dog training is praise and rewards. So using this Reward method, we would sit Kai down, 4 times a day, and show him a treat while we clipped his lead to the prong collar. Each time he let us do this we gave him the treat and plenty of praise. Kai was pretty intelligent and got the idea very quickly that the treat related directly to him letting us clip the lead to the collar.
We felt that we needed to gain Kai’s trust more before we attempted again to take his collar off. So coupled with the treats and praise when attaching and removing the lead, we spent a lot of time cuddling him, stroking him and pretending to accidentally touch the collar while giving him plenty of praise. We continued this for a full 3 days before we made the attempt to try and remove the collar. On day 6, on our return from the morning walk, Kai was already sitting waiting, his eyes fixed on his treat which was showed to him every time we removed the lead, but this time, very gently, we slid the collar off him …… and it worked! He got lots of praise as you can imagine.
The combination of treats, praise, building trust and repetition turned Kai’s bad experience into one that he now associated as being a positive experience (even if he ultimately new he would receive a treat as a reward for being so good!)
Managing Nervous Anxiety with Harry
August 2019 we sat for Harry – a very nervous and anxious but totally sweet rescue Saluki. Harry’s parents were retired and spent all of the day with him, never leaving him for more than a couple of hours. He was an extremely nervous dog, frightened of tall men in particular they said and they had never left him before with pet sitters. Bearing this in mind, when the owners got in touch we went out of our way to go and visit them prior to confirming the sit, so that they could meet us and hopefully be reassured that we would be suitable sitters for Harry but also for us to get a little idea of Harry’s anxieties.
From the moment we arrived at the home and the owners left for their vacation, Harry spent the whole day laying upstairs on the bed clearly wanting to be away from us. Julie went up regularly to check on him and chatted to him as she spent time in the room with him so that he could get to know her voice and presence.
Fully understanding Harry’s anxieties helped Julie coax him around to at least come down for his evening meal. It was clear that his anxiety was with me as the owners had made us aware of his nervousness of tall men. I gave him plenty of space and if close to Harry I made sure I spoke softly and made no sudden movements.
Julie was very quick to bond with Harry, she has a bit of a gift with anxious rescues and not only was she able to coax him to come down for his supper she also got him to sleep in his basket next to her side of the bed that night. The key thing was that we respected his anxiety and accepted that I had to almost ignore Harry until he felt ready to express an interest in me, as difficult as that was for me.
On day 2 Harry began walking passed me without becoming nervous and dashing by me as quick as he could, as he had before. On day 3 Harry ate his breakfast while I was in the kitchen – what dog doesn’t warm to the person that fills his food bowl up! He then let me take him out for his first walk of the day on our own – huge progress and a turning point.
Most dogs love to be groomed and Harry was no exception his owners had told us. So here was another chance to bond with him, at grooming time. Must have felt nice, we caught him smiling!
On day 4 Harry slept on the bed with us and let me stroke him and from then on happily came to me to have his lead put on at walk times. He had at last bonded with me through our taking gentle steps with him and going at Harry’s pace! A really rewarding experience!
Managing Separation Anxiety with Monty
We saw signs of separation anxiety behaviour whilst caring for Monty – a rescue Jack Russell Cross. This is quite a difficult anxiety to know how to manage but we found the best way to go about it was to keep Monty happy and entertained to take his mind off him missing his parents and being fretful. Taking him on his favourite long walks and lots of playtime with treats during the day and most importantly, for the first few days, was not leaving him on his own. This was a little easier as we were a couple so if we needed provisions one of us could go out for them.
This approach worked really well, spending lots of fun time with Monty, and over these first few days we saw a real change in his emotions and growing in confidence and he began to enjoy cuddles from us instead of shying away.
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