As you remember from a couple posts back, we have a new dog, a 4-year old Lab named Milo. He came to us for free about a month ago because the couple across the street split up and neither one could take him. I have wanted a Lab for years, and now I have one. He even came with a crate, his own dish, and a nearly-full bag of dog food. What a deal!
He’d also never worn a collar, been outside his house and yard, gone to the vet, or had any training. He was only neutered because he ran away as a puppy, and after Animal Control picked him up, they performed the procedure as a condition of returning him to his owner. They also microchipped him at the same time.
The day we decided to keep Milo, I made an emergency run to Petsmart. Since he didn’t understand instructions, he definitely needed a collar. (It’s not easy to persuade a large dog to move when the only thing you have to hold onto is the scruff of his neck.) I also picked up a head collar for going on walks, an i.d. tag, and a couple other small items. Total: $52.
Then we were off to the vet. She checked him over and declared him healthy. The exam, vaccinations, nail trim, bottle of ear cleaner, and fecal check (to make sure he didn’t have worms) came to $127.
The microchip monitoring company was happy to record Milo’s new name and ownership — for a $19 fee.
Now that Milo had a current rabies vaccine, he also needed a license. That cost $16.
Meanwhile, the walks were going…well, “badly” would be a gross understatement. The War on Poverty is going badly. This was worse. The head collar had seemed like a solution initially, but the more comfortable he got with us, the less effective it was. Before Milo, walking the other two dogs was relaxing and a good way for all of us to get some exercise. But because Milo had been living behind a fence for four years, the sound of a barking dog was a huge trigger for him. Responding in kind was probably his main source of entertainment.
So although we tried to alter our routes to avoid other dogs (ha!), whenever Milo heard barking from inside a house or behind a fence, this otherwise calm dog turned into a complete lunatic. As the frenzy built, he’d be up on his hind legs, barking, whining, pawing at the head collar, and spinning around like a tornado. The strength of a determined adult Labrador is quite impressive, and it is also scary. It would only be a matter of time before he got away from me or took me down. We tried positive reinforcement with treats, but he ignored them. We tried running him past the barking dogs to distract him, but he’d spin around and tangle himself in our legs. No reward or distraction was as exciting as the adrenalin rush he got from struggling to get to the other dogs.
I’d like to report that I dealt with the situation calmly, but that would be a lie. With each episode (and there would be several on each walk) I’d get afraid, the fear would piss me off, and then both of us were worked up. This was not a pretty sight and more importantly, it was counterproductive. While we waited for the first available appointment with a trainer, I let Mike handle Milo on walks while I took the other two dogs. The crazy behavior continued every time Milo heard barking, but Mike is blessed with an overabundance of patience.
The trainer came this past Monday. After hearing our concerns and our failed solutions, she agreed that this behavior needed to stop. “It’s dangerous for you, and it’s not good for Milo’s character,” she said. Not good for his character. I loved that. Spinning around like a top and creating a scene every time he hears barking might seem like fun to him, like a weekend of binge drinking feels to college freshman, but it’s not good for him. He just didn’t know how to stop on his own.
To that end we dumped the head collar, which he clearly hated anyway, and chose another type of training device: a prong collar. If you’re having a negative reaction to that idea, so did I. They look terrible, and I’ve always associated those collars with a certain posturing by dog owners, like, “Look how tough my dog and I are.” However, we were dealing with a large dog who was endangering his own safety and ours every time we took him for a walk. Since positive reinforcement didn’t work, we had to get his attention another way.
Within ten minutes of walking with the new collar, Milo was a new dog. No kidding. He decided that the pinching sensation on his neck was not worth the thrill of flailing around, and he stopped. It’s been five days now, and walking the dogs is back to being a delight. Milo seems more relaxed, and his tail wags the entire time we’re walking. He’s gotten the dreaded head collar off his face, and he walks on a loose leash like the other two dogs do. He doesn’t feel the prongs unless he tries to take off in his own direction, which rarely happens. He still whines when we pass a particularly barky dog, but that’s okay. The rule is No pulling, not No whining. And we’ve decided it’s better for all of us if we modify our routes to avoid the worst temptations, like those two hounds who howl simultaneously as we pass. Milo is still learning, after all.
For an hour and a half of the trainer’s time, plus the collar, we paid $219, which is certainly cheaper than a trip to the ER.
This morning I noticed that we’re almost out of the food Milo came with, so it’s time to transition him over to the good stuff that the other dogs eat. A bag of kibble runs $51, and we’re going to need to buy it 50% more often now that a third dog will be eating it too. Milo cost $533 in his first month, which was not exactly in the April budget. But you know, I am so completely in love with him, it doesn’t even matter. Once again and purely by luck, we have ended up with an excellent — if not entirely free — new dog.