Like millions of Texans, lifelong Athens residents Brooke and Paul Ingram are dog lovers. When they lost Paul’s dog Bo a few years ago, they soon fell in love with and adopted Louis (pronounced like Louis Armstrong), an American Bulldog.
Louis has had his share of struggles as a fearful and reactive dog, something Brooke and Paul had never seen before. After some searching and stumbles, the Ingrams have helped Louis to a much happier place. They attribute their success to Dr. Amanda Florsheim and Cathy Painter, LVT, of Veterinary Behavior Solutions and The Training Studio.
When Louis was about 1 1/2 years old, after having been around other dogs with no problems, Louis picked a fight with a friend’s dog. Thinking Louis being unneutered was part of the problem, Brooke and Paul scheduled the surgery. Louis wasn’t used to being in a kennel, however, and was scared and stressed. The vet had to give him extra sedatives to calm him.
“After that, he was never OK with strangers,” Brooke says. “Not long after, on a walk, we were approached by one of our friends. He walked up to pet Louis, and Louis lunged and snapped at him.”
The Ingrams thought hiring a trainer would help, but they now realize it might’ve made a bad situation worse.
“He kept saying, ‘He doesn’t know his place; you have to be more dominant,’ ” Brooke remembers. “He used only punishment and leash corrections, no positive reinforcement, and was not even addressing the dog issue.”
Looking for a different style of training, Brooke came across Dr. Florsheim’s website and realized they had already met. A chef, Paul had participated in a cooking class in Dallas the year before. One evening, when the students cooked for guests, Brooke found herself drawn to a fellow guest, a veterinarian with a unique specialty.
“My practice is exclusively behavior medicine,” explains Dr. Florsheim, who is a certified behavior consultant-canine (CBCC-KA). “During vet school at Texas A&M, I adopted a Labrador Retriever with behavior issues. Several trainers told me I wasn’t tough enough with him. They kept saying he was trying to be dominant when in reality, he was afraid. It took a lot of searching to find the right kind of science-based help. When I did, it made a huge difference. My interest was piqued.”
With her practice and training studio located in Carrollton, Dr. Florsheim is the only vet in the north Texas region whose practice is limited to behavior. “We offer fear-free solutions for anxious, destructive and aggressive pets,” she says.
Louis fit two of the three. “I sent her an about 20,000-word email,” Brooke laughs. “She said, ‘We can help Louis.’ ”
Despite their initial relief, Brooke and Paul were nervous to put their fearful dog, whose only response to new people seemed to be aggression, in the same room with a stranger.
Dr. Florsheim, however, had a very specific approach to try to keep Louis relaxed. “She had treats on the floor for him,” Brooke recalls. “She walked in, paid him no attention and assessed him. He never growled or barked, and by the time we left, he was giving her kisses. That showed me he can do it on his own time and does not have to be hidden from society.”
“There are important initial steps we should use when meeting any animal, not just a fearful animal, for the first time,” Dr. Florsheim explains. “You should not make direct eye contact, approach the animal, or lean over its head. Stay calm and use quiet movements. Let the animal approach you in its own time.
“We’ve been conditioned by Lassie, Rin Tin Tin, the Target dog: dogs are man’s best friend,” she continues. “The reality is that their personalities are as diverse as people’s, which means there are plenty of animals that don’t want to socialize or are afraid. When animals are afraid, they will often use aggression to manage situations that make them nervous. ‘If I scare you off, you will move further away and then I’ll feel better.’ ”
Dr. Florsheim says popular TV shows have reinforced punishment techniques to deal with unwanted animal behavior. “There is extensive, scientific research showing positive reinforcement produces long-lasting behavior changes and poses a lower risk to the dog and the owner,” she counters. “Our techniques help pets find other coping skills and help them feel better.”
After Dr. Florsheim’s assessment, she and Painter, the training director, developed a program for Louis.
“We saw the biggest leap in his behavior after we learned about BAT (Behavior Adjustment Training) through Cathy's Dog School Drop Out class,” Brooke says. “It taught us to allow him the ability to move away from triggers, and we could see him make good choices when he stayed under threshold.”
Painter, a licensed veterinary technician and certified behavior consultant (CBCC-KA) who also brings years of working with zoo animals, further explains BAT. “The BAT technique allows Louis to observe his ‘triggers’, or the things to which he reacts, at a comfortable distance,” she says. “He chooses whether to approach or retreat on his own time. There is no tension on the leash, no commands to do this or that, and he is rewarded for naturally exploring his environment. Brooke and Paul are ready with praise and treats to encourage him to move away if he starts looking tense. This way, he learns he can coexist with the scary thing, and learns it’s not so scary after all.”
“A year ago, I wasn’t comfortable walking him by myself; now I do all the time,” Brooke reports. “He would see other people, freeze and stare, and if they directed their attention to us or talked to us, he would go nuts. Now I give him a bubble of about 15 feet, and we keep moving.
“We are constantly surprised when Louis sees something once scary to him and just looks to us for a treat,” she continues. “Scary things are always paired with something yummy, so now it’s not frightening anymore.”
Louis’ ongoing training has been so successful that Brooke and Paul decided to adopt a stray dog. With the couple carefully monitoring the dogs together, it seems Park has found a home with big brother Louis.
Even if you’re teaching your pet something as simple as “stay”, rewarding choices instead of using punishment will help him learn to trust you, and nothing scary comes from you, Brooke adds. “For example, most dogs hate having their nails clipped. We taught Louis how to trim his nails by scratching a board covered in sandpaper. We pair treats with every scratch he makes, so now it’s a game for him. What used to make him run and hide now makes him excited to participate.
“I would tell someone who has a pet with behavioral issues to please call Veterinary Behavior Solutions,” Brooke says, adding that the one- and-a-half hour drive to Carrollton is a non-factor when it comes to creating a safe, healthy environment for Louis. “Most people aren’t aware of subtle signals dogs show when they’re stressed, such as yawning, scratching, or wide ‘side eye’ that can escalate into reactivity. The good news is you can change their minds, and Dr. F has the tools to help you.
“The more information available for people with pets with behavior issues, the better,” she adds.