Tango’s Story for me is complex and difficult to put into words. But I’m willing to bet the people who know us personally, and those that helped him along the way, would say I’m making it way more complicated than it has to be. That’s probably because I’ve internalized, analyzed, and dissected every moment, every decision, and every mistake. I take full responsibility for Tango’s myriad of behavioral issues. This is not to assign blame or fault on others who have a ‘Tango’ dog. I certainly don’t judge anyone else in the same position of having a reactive pup. Even if my own dog’s faults are my fault, I’m not wagging my finger at you saying “you did this!”. But being a responsible dog parent means taking actual responsibility for them and their actions. I used to feel horribly guilty. Don’t do that. Don’t feel guilty. Guilt will eat you alive and it won’t help anything. But personal accountability begets corrective action and that’s what they need. Unfortunately I held onto that horribly guilty feeling for too long. I used to carry it around like a backpack full of bricks. It buried itself deep inside my heart and although in my mind I’ve let it go, it still occasionally finds its way into my thoughts.
WHERE IT ALL BEGAN
Nine years and four months ago I brought Tango home. Two weeks later (at 10 weeks old) he had a staph infection on his belly. The vet said this was a normal puppy thing. Nothing to worry about. We got some antibiotics and steroids. It cleared up. Two weeks after it cleared up he had the same thing. Same vet, same diagnosis, same medication. This went on for over 6 months. In the meantime he’s in puppy group classes where he’s excelling but at home he’s a terror. I waved it off with a puppies will be puppies attitude. It’s worth mentioning the vet’s office I went to had been my vet for my older lab for 7 years at this point. I trusted them. It’s also worth mentioning that the vet Tango saw every time we came in with yet another staph infection was not our usual primary vet. Because these visits were usually emergent we saw whoever was available. That “whoever” happened to be the same vet every time. These infections would go from 0 to 100 overnight. He’d appear to be fine before bed and by the next morning he was clawing at his skin and ripping out his fur.
Finally after Tango was nearly a year old we had an appointment with his regular vet. He just happened to have a (yes, yet another) staph infection. It had been dealt with in such a laid back attitude in the past that for me it was merely a footnote for our visit. I watched his vet’s face grow into a look of horror as she turned page after page in his chart. She slapped his chart down on the table and said “Stop feeding him whatever you’re feeding him, not even treats, and don’t give him any more steroids!” This was apparently not a puppy thing. This was far from normal. She suspected food allergies. She felt the situation had gone far beyond general care. She was sorry it was not properly treated in all this time. I’d also like to mention she did not stay with this particular veterinary group long after, and neither did we. Fortunately she was able to get us into a dermatologist vet the following day. Yep. A dermatologist for animals. I had know idea. And I’m so grateful they exist. The same look of horror I had seen from his vet now ran across the dermatologist’s face after reviewing his records. She was astounded. It was because of the steroids. Months and months of steroids. I will never forget this part of our first conversation:
“Why did he keep getting steroids?
“Dr. X kept prescribing them. They worked.”
“He can not have another steroid for the rest of his life unless it is absolutely necessary. Absolutely. Necessary. I need you to make sure of that.”
I was directed to never allow my not even one year old dog to ever have another steroid medication for the remaining years of his entire life. When that sunk in was the moment I truly understood the seriousness of this situation. I was quickly educated on the side effects of long term use of steroidal medications in dogs. These effects, some of which can be permanent, include both physical and behavioral issues. The behavioral problems caused by these medications include nervousness (check), agitation (check), and aggression (check, check!). Not just ‘puppies will be puppies”. The behavior problems we were having at home were serious and now I was tasked with making this right. The first priority was getting Tango physically healthy. It wasn’t just the food I was feeding him. He has more than food allergies, he is also allergic to grass. GRASS! On top of that: certain types of trees, blooming plants, and wool. Grass clearly presented a problem because we couldn’t avoid it. I had to wipe down his feet and any other part of his body that touched grass every time he came inside. He began a strict limited ingredient diet. The proteins he is allowed are rabbit, venison, and kangaroo. Before you ask, Iam’s makes a prescription kangaroo kibble. We had to clear up his current infection without steroids and limited oral medications. It was 4 weeks of antiseptic, antibacterial, and antimicrobial lotions and shampoos, limited outdoor activity, and a new (very smelly) rabbit kibble. There were no treats on the market at that time that met his limited ingredient requirement so I baked my own.
He was not to go to any dog parks or socialize with other animals as his immune system was too compromised. An allergic reaction for Tango causes hives all over his body and that is what had been causing him to scratch his skin until it bled and to pull out fur, leaving him vulnerable to contracting staph infections.
The first year with his dermatologist he only contracted two staph infections. A huge contrast to the previous year of one infection per month. However one of those infections was MRSA (methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus). It was a scary few weeks. The antibiotics required were so strong I had to wear gloves to handle them. I could only administer them for a few days at a time before I had to give him a break because they made him so sick. It was nerve-wrecking but his dermatologist checked in with us every few days and we got through it. The second year with his dermatologist there were rashes and hives but no infections. It all finally became manageable. It took two full years to find the right balance of daily life that wouldn’t trigger an allergic reaction. Today on the rare occasion he starts to feel a little itchy, I give him some Benadryl and we’re good.
MAKING THINGS RIGHT AND COMING UP SHORT
While we were working on Tango’s physical health I had to figure out how we would continue his training and address his increasingly bad behaviors. Since he couldn’t socialize or pretty much be anywhere outside we had to stop going to group training classes. The only option I could think of was in-home private training. We went through three different trainers. If I’ve learned anything it’s that not all trainers and their methods are equal. The first one fired us as clients because Tango was ‘too unruly and unwilling to learn”. The second one ran out of ideas. Literally did not know what else to do. The third became so quickly frustrated with him that she threw her advertised positive reinforcement method right out of the window and resorted to the use of negative reinforcement and physical consequences.
So what exactly were Tango’s bad behaviors and problems?
- Counter surfing
- Tackling (not jumping on) tackling people
- Body slamming. When he wasn’t tackling a person he was body slamming them. That’s a completely different assault so it gets its own bullet
- Barking in uncontrollable rage at any person, animal, or sound
- Food aggression
- Fear aggression
- Separation anxiety
- Leash reactivity
Was he unruly? Yes. Unwilling to learn? Absolutely not. Tango thrives on learning. He also thrives on outsmarting sh*tty ass trainers (that’s a jab at his first trainer who I hope knows how much he sucks). After his third trainer I gave up for about 6 months, during which time we were still working on his allergies. I continued to work on basic commands but I was too frazzled, frustrated, and exhausted to deal with his major issues. I just lived with it all.
A DOG’S BEST FRIEND – LITERALLY
About one year into working on Tango’s allergies my other lab, Darby, was diagnosed with terminal cancer. This was my breaking point. I couldn’t handle Tango’s behavioral issues anymore. My heart was broken and I didn’t have the inner strength, fortitude, or emotional stability to work with him. I hit the internet looking for solutions. He needed more than I and three previous trainers could provide him. Eventually I decided a board training program would be best for him but I was afraid to send him just anywhere. So I called the third failed trainer and asked her for a recommendation. She initially wanted me to get back on a private in-home training schedule with her, assuring me she could help us. I was stern in my response when I told her that was not a viable option and the only solution I could handle was a board and train program. She understood my desperation. She referred us to A Dog’s Best Friend which was just 20 minutes away from me in Fort Lauderdale. I researched their website. I also happened to know one of their employees. I felt confident and comfortable in my decision. Tango was booked for their 21 day program and just like that, that small step took a full ton of weight off of me.
As it so happened, Darby passed away the day before Tango was scheduled to leave. It was an intensely emotional morning. I slowly walked downstairs and surveyed the emptiness of our home without Darby. I laid Tango’s food bowl down for him and then collapsed on the couch in a hysterical crying mess. Confused by the high pitched wails coming from me Tango lifted his head and cocked it to the side with a mouth full of food. The sight of his chipmunk cheeks full of food and kibble pouring out of his mouth turned my sobs into laughter. Tango has spent a good portion of his life pissing me off but he always makes me laugh. He always finds a way to bring me happiness even in my darkest moments. On our drive to A Dog’s Best Friend I began to feel a sense of regret and questioned if I was doing the right thing. Once we arrived there was a second while I was checking Tango in with one of the trainers when I thought I can’t do this. I wanted to scoop Tango up and take him home. Then, right there in the middle of the owner’s house, Tango took a massive sh*t and I thought Yep, there it is, take him! And I can say with 250% certainty that was the best and most right decision I have made for him. In hindsight I know that feeling of uneasiness was my own guilt for failing him up to that point combined with my grief over losing Darby. Fortunately Tango finally found his trainer soulmate. Three weeks later he came back a different dog. He was focused and motivated. Was this a permanent fix? Of course not. Tango’s issues require work and consistency. But we finally found our fit. We found the right people who had the answers and came up with new ideas when old ones didn’t work and who never gave up on us. We found the place where Tango truly thrived.
WHY DID I FEEL GUILTY?
Well for starters I didn’t do my research. I didn’t advocate for him when he needed me to. I didn’t know what all my options were when I was faced with medical decisions and behavioral obstacles until it was too late. I fed him a steady course of antibiotics and steroids because I blindly trusted the professional diagnosing him and prescribing these meds. I was flying by the seat of my pants and although I was learning from my mistakes it was two years of “hindsight is 20/20”. Unfortunately Tango had real life consequences for those mistakes. And on top of that I gave up. I threw my hands up and simply gave up, even if only temporarily. That is why the guilt that was shaped and formed built itself a place deep inside my heart. Even after I found the right medical care and treated his allergies and found the right trainer to treat his behavior problems, I held on to that guilt. And it showed. Once in group class I actually apologized out loud to Tango for something he didn’t execute properly that made us step out of synch. Our trainer said “Why are you apologizing to him? He did that, not you!” That’s what guilt was doing to me. I was sorry to him for everything. That guilt that I couldn’t let go of was literally interfering with his training and his progress. We had a standing monthly private lesson and although we were consistently making strides forward, I was always undoing things just a little. When we weren’t in group class or an in-home training session I let quite a bit of his bad behaviors slide because of the guilt I felt for not doing more for him in the beginning of his life. That makes sense right? I failed him in the beginning so I’m “making up” for that by continuing to fail him. This is why guilt has no place in problem solving. I imagine Tango’s trainer- who I’ll refer to as Tim because that’s his name- was blessed with the patience of a saint when he ended up with the two of us. Watching me undo so much of his work I’m sure was not easy. But he always showed up and got us back on track. He didn’t just train Tango either. He was my teacher too. One session as Tango was body slamming the door I took in an angry deep breath-I’m sure about to lose my wits- and Tim calmly said “Use your words”. It stopped me in my tracks. Imagine standing there with another full grown adult and your dog’s tantrum incites your own almost tantrum and you’re left thinking And now I look like a toddler. Use your words. A dog will not follow the lead of a crazy person angrily yelling at them. Use your words. In the years that Tim worked with us I’m certain I was the more difficult one to train. Do I still sometimes undo some of the work Tim put into Tango? Yep. But he trained me well and gave me the tools to get us back on track and I mostly almost always pretty much do. Ultimately I know Tango and I are both better because of him.
A LIST OF ALL THE AWESOME THINGS TANGO CAN DO
- Put away his toys in his toy box
- Learn the names of objects
- Pick up an object by name and by laser pointer
- Carry objects for me from point A to B
- Find hidden objects
- Problem solve
- Complete an obstacle course
- Steal your heart
- Scare away anyone that rings our doorbell
- Love unconditionally
- And also this:More importantly he loves working and learning and performing. He is happiest when he has structure and purpose.
SO WHAT ABOUT THOSE ALLERGIES
For the most part it seems Tango’s allergies have become less intense the older he gets. There was one time a few years ago that he came inside from my brother’s backyard with his head looking like a basketball. He had been sniffing around in the grass. Three Benadryls later and he was fine. Our own backyard has fake turf specifically catered to him. His food allergies also seem to have calmed down but we still stick to a mostly limited ingredient diet. As far as steroids, there has only been one time since that unforgettable day in his dermatologist’s office that he absolutely had to have a steroid injection. It was determined by the ER vet that he was most likely bitten by a stinging bug. He was broken out in hives, his eye was swollen, and his skin was crawling which caused all sorts of twitching and spasms. It was the most distressed I had ever seen him. I gave him 100 milligrams of Benadryl and monitored him. Nothing changed so I took him into the emergency animal hospital. At the ER I explained to the vet it has to be “absolutely necessary”. Those words were burned in my brain. She understood completely and assured me it was. After an epi shot and steroid injection he finally received relief.
LET THAT SH*T GO!
I have mostly on most days let go of the guilt. I don’t carry it around anymore like I did. I don’t let it weigh me down. I know that it has no place in helping Tango’s progress. And Tango is a happy dog. He has been living his best life. There are still moments when I get frustrated with him. He has days where everything is setting him off, he’s on sensory overload, and he’s just not listening. But that moment of frustration is always abruptly interrupted with a wave of reasoning as I quickly remember this is not his fault, use your words. Then I hug him and we start over.