1. Who is your dog? (include name, age, breed(s), sex)
Lois, 2.5 years old, female, American Staffordshire Terrier / Labrador Retriever mix
2. Where did she come from? (place and backstory if possible)
Much Love Animal Rescue found Lois on the streets in South Central at 2-3 months old. We got her at roughly one year of age and have had her for about 18 months.
3. What was your previous dog owning experience?
Both of us grew up with family dogs and have lived with many dogs but were never the primary caretakers. Lois is our first time as “pawrents”.
4. What was she like in the beginning (tell ALL, especially any fears you may have had)
When we met Lois she was goofy and joyful, we were smitten with her unbridled spirit. Both the rescue and foster assured us that Lois needed leash training but was good to go in terms of socialization and behavior. We were apprehensive over adopting a Staffordshire Terrier mix because of their renowned stubbornness and how much negativity surrounds the breed in contemporary culture. The one thing that Kaitlyn really didn’t want in a dog was aggression. The rescue certainly did not intend to mislead us, but her leash training issues were magnified to intense reactivity when she moved from the quiet streets of Culver City to not so quiet East Hollywood.
In the first few weeks Lois pulled so incessantly and strongly that we developed callouses and hot spots on our hands. She was in ultra alert mode from the second we left the house, and it was virtually impossible to redirect her attention. Although she doesn’t bark much, lunging, pulling, and impressive vertical acrobatics became the norm. Even though she never exhibited human aggression, people would cross the street to avoid us if we didn’t cross first. Our walks soon morphed into jogs as we tried to tire her out in the least amount of time possible because the walks were so anxiety-inducing. She had reactivity to dogs, some bikes, and all skateboards as well as a short-lived aversion to garbage trucks. Walks were miserable and we went out of our way to walk before daybreak to limit our encounters with any type of stimulus.
Lois also developed separation anxiety. She would bark and howl when left alone in her crate. We would come home to bent crate doors because she tried to get out when left alone. Her howling, barking, and crate-door bending made us feel hugely guilty when we had to leave the house. We felt trapped.
As we realized her reactivity was not just a leash training issue, we looked for places we could safely socialize her. Dog parks would not work, so we took her to a popular doggy day care. Assured by her foster that she had played in situations like this before, we tried it out. Unsurprisingly, she failed the socialization test. At this point we had to come to terms with having an aggressive dog—the only thing we didn’t want. We were growing to adore her, but Lois was a hot mess. We felt trapped, frustrated, and frightened.
We contacted our first trainer, who used treat-based positivity training. We did not notice many improvements. In early April on a routine evening walk, Lois got in a fight with another older dog whose owner let go of the leash. Lois’s harness came unbuckled, and Kaitlyn physically separated the dogs. sustained several serious bites, and after emergency room visits for both Kaitlyn and Lois, we were unsure about continuing. As a result of the fight, our trainer consigned Lois to a future of aggression and us to our fears about our dog. We seriously considered whether or not we could handle her.
This was our point of no return. After the emergency room visits, we spent 24 hours questioning our decision to keep Lois. Could we really commit the energy, emotion, time, and finances to helping Lois? Was this really the dog we signed up for? As we debated, Lois sat with us in the living room, and the thought of giving her back to the rescue group (who would take her back) became worse than what we now knew we faced going forward. After a restless night of sleep, we had a quiet early morning walk and decided that we would invest in who is now endearingly called, “Project Lois.”
7. What did/do you do to help her?
Our first trainer was not the right one for Lois’s needs. A second trainer helped us see that Lois could thrive with boundaries and rules. Many of our indoor issues with Lois began to subside. She was still reactive to dogs and other stimulus, but using a Halti, we gained enough control to give us hope that Lois could progress.
At the end of May we needed to travel, and a boarding option fell through. We found THE ZEN DOG after considerable time searching for a place that would recognize her issues but also was willing to work with her. Lois went to board with THE ZEN DOG for a few days, and she began going once a week to dayplay where the staff at THE ZEN DOG slowly and methodically dealt with what had blossomed into severe dog aggression. They assured us that they just needed to find her one friend. Their understanding, encouragement, and unfailing belief in Lois was incredible. It took more than a month at THE ZEN DOG before Lois made her first friends, Odin and Lord Rexford. Getting the first video of them playing together was a huge ray of hope.
We are now firm believers in boundaries for Lois. The fewer decisions she has to make in the day, the happier she is. She is not allowed on any furniture and has dedicated spots in each room where she knows that she can always relax. We are fortunate because one of us can usually work from home and spend a lot of time with Lois. She gets two walks a day, every day, sleeps in her crate every night, and is in her crate whenever she’s left alone in the house.
We completed a walking/socialization class with THE ZEN DOG. Through this class we have developed an incredibly supportive network of owners who “get it,” and are all as committed to their “special needs” dogs as we are to Lois. We meet to walk and/or play once or twice a week. When our dogs first met in the walking/socialization class, none of the them could share space together. In each meeting, Lois would have toddler-like meltdowns and tantrums. But after a few months of dedicated work and lots of support from each dedicated owner, the dogs can now play off leash together and support each other through even the most difficult walks. For Lois, this group has meant learning how to be polite, respond to other dog’s needs, and handle challenging situations. For Kaitlyn, this group helped her confront built up fear stemming from Lois’ initial fight. Being with Lois while she interacts with dogs and owners we trust has helped Kaitlyn be more relaxed in all canine social situations. For Ben, this group has helped him see that Lois can transfer the skills she’s honed at THE ZEN DOG to other situations. We all feel empowered and grateful for the relationships we’ve gained from this class.
Lois also goes to dayplay at THE ZEN DOG once a week for the continued work with socialization, she still has a lot of work to do.
THE ZEN DOG’s philosophy resonated with us. It’s helped us immensely to have a staff who cares deeply about Lois’s success; we feel part of a community now.
We set goals for want we want Lois to be able to do with us, we make a plan, and we work toward them.
We try to introduce Lois to new situations but make sure that she’s set up for success. For example, we visit coffee shops in the early morning where we will sit in a quiet corner and are ready to leave if she can’t handle it. When we go for hikes, it’s always in an on-leash area, and we explicitly ask other people to leash their dogs so that we can safely pass on a trail. We try our best to be intentional about setting up scenarios where Lois has the chance to be successful. She is the dog she is, and we want her to be the best version of herself.
8. How has she changed for the better?
The pure joy and goofiness that we loved at first is now the version of her that we spend the most time with. We’re grateful for that change. She’s calmer, less reactive, and exponentially more attentive to us rather than the zaniness in her world. Outside she loves to walk with us; inside she loves to lay at our feet. She trusts that we will take care of her.
9. How have you changed for the better?
Our mindset changed the most. For a long time we wanted Lois to be a different dog. But now we want her to be the best version of herself, a dog who can do different things. We’ve learned to make space in our lives for Lois. Sometimes it’s hard to not let her on the bed to cuddle, or on the couch to watch tv. But that’s not what’s best for her. So in that space we’ve created, Lois has blossomed in a way that we neither could have predicted nor have expected. In that relationship we’ve found a lot of joy. We are more patient, resilient, and open to Lois being who she is.
10. What do you most want Lois to know?
We want Lois to know the she has a sweet soul, she exhibits pure joy in a way that is otherworldly, oftentimes beyond comprehension. We believe in that core of her.
11. What would you like to say to encourage other owners?
People who have reactive dogs don’t talk about it and often can’t take their dogs places, so it can feel really alienating. We’ve been particularly grateful to find this community through THE ZEN DOG where handlers want to help their dogs be their best self. Every dog is different. It took us more than 18 months (and will likely continue throughout our life with her) to learn how to adapt and support her. There are still setbacks and frustrations. However, the rewards of the relationship we now have with Lois are worth the months of work we’ve put in so far. We will probably always have a “Project Lois,” but tools, time, and information have made it feel infinitely more manageable. For us, the work is worth it.