I first met Remy when he was approximately 9 months old. He was going through that “ugly adolescent” period. All of a sudden dogs on leash needed to be barked at, a lot. Sometimes certain people needed to be barked at too. So Remy joined our FOCUS class, learning skills for both him and his owner to help relieve Remy’s stress. During all of this Remy continued to go to the very large dog park nearby. He did well with dogs off leash and his owner wanted to maintain that skill, especially for a high energy, young Australian Shepherd. Remy and his owner took another class or two with us and seemed comfortable with their training progress. Things were “under control”, so everyone thought.
One day at the dog park someone was using a Chuck-It with their own dog. They did not appreciate Remy’s loud, noisy, style of play and felt he was being too rough. (I was not there so I cannot say for sure if he was or wasn’t) This other dog park attendee took it upon himself to “discipline” Remy for his play style, by hitting him with the Chuck-It stick. This immediately scared Remy, who changed his tone of barking from play to fear and aggression. His owner got him out of the situation, but the damage was done. He instantly generalized that people holding things in their hands (especially long stick type things) where dangerous and scary. Even if it was people he knew and loved (both his owners) walked around their own house with broom, now panic would set in.
We spent the next months desensitizing Remy to a variety of object that people carry, especially stick like objects. He did great! He loved playing these training games, of look at the stick, bat, Chuck-It and get rewarded. We had people he knew with objects, people he didn’t know, people held them still, people swung them, no matter what happened, he had gotten comfortable. It was an awesome testament to proper desensitizing and counter-conditioning and lots of time put into training from his owners.
His owner decided it was time to try the dog park again. They both missed their time and their friends at the park. It so happened there was a man using a walking stick while in the park with his dog. At some point Remy ended up too close to this gentleman and got himself scared. He started barking, aggressively, but staying a good arm’s length away. Understandably, the person with the walking stick was scared and decided to swing at Remy. He felt he was being threatened, and needed to protect himself. Remy saw this (understandably) as a threat, and decided to escalated his warning to a small bite to the man’s calf. Paramedics were called, it was minor enough that they only put a bandage on it, no stitches, or further treatment needed.
Then the notice came a couple months later, Remy’s owners were being sued over the dog bite. This started a cascade of events. First, their home owner’s insurance company dropped their coverage, even though they had been clients for 30 years, and never had a claim. Then, in order to get insurance they were going to need a special policy to cover Remy, in case anything were to ever happen again. (At this point Remy is about 18 months old and lots of life ahead of him.) In order for the owners to even get this special policy they were going to need to agree to keep Remy on a 4’ or shorter leash and muzzled in public at all times, for the rest of his life. His owner felt (and I agreed) this was not a good life for Remy.
Thankfully, throughout this whole ordeal, Remy’s owners were in contact with Remy’s breeder. His breeder was in Wisconsin on a small farm. In addition to Aussies, she had a variety of livestock. She trained her dogs to properly work the stock animals. She stepped up, and took Remy back. Not to be put down, but to live out his life in a non-suburban setting. He started training on herding skills and seemed to enjoy the work. (He, like most dogs, especially herding dogs, loved to work!). He worked comfortably back into her group of Aussies. The breeder, with her years of experience with Aussies, understood his personality. She knew how to keep him and others safe.
It was the best decision for Remy. It was not the best decision for his owner. He was heartbroken. He was defeated. This was his retirement project and fun, something he had looked forward to for years. In the long run, even though it hurt, he put his dog’s life first and made the best choice for his dog. He gets updates from the breeder regularly, which helps ease the pain. It reaffirms that he made the right choice.
We talk often about how dogs do not generalize behaviors and situations well. When we say this, we are talking about behaviors that are not important to the dog. In this case, in Remy’s mind, this was a life or death, threatening, dangerous situation and he generalized instantly. In his mind people with sticks can hurt him and are threatening. So, he took matters into his own “paws” and did his best let them know not to bother him. Remy acted completely appropriate for a dog. Sadly, that was not appropriate for suburban life.
In the months after I think of Remy often. I think about how one bad situation effected the rest of his owners, the person he bit, his breeder’s and his own life (and even me). It makes me sad, how one person who thought they should/could discipline someone else’s dog, changed everything. Dogs and humans have different sets of life rules. Take a moment, always, to think how can my behavior can effect my dog and their life rules, good or bad. Let’s always work towards the good life rules and become the best of friends. Then, it will be easier to live together as friends.
The photo above is the last day Remy spent in Illinois. It was great day, and a fond farewell.