Mugsy Case Study
Mugsy was rescued in a puppy mill raid September, 2009. He lived the first 5-years of his life at the puppy mill as a breeder. After acquiring him his owners were unable to touch Mugsy without eliciting fearful and aggressive behaviors. Fearful behaviors included running to avoid any contact with any person. He would not allow close handing without attempting to bite. One owner had been bitten. He presented with an eye problem and appeared to have some difficulty seeing.
Behaviors to Change - Initial Condition
An Observation of Behavior
This is Mugsy on day one. Right away you note that his breathing is abnormal. It’s quick and short and his mouth is gaped. He alternates between panting rapidly and closing his mouth, holding his breath momentarily. For a young dog of 5-years old, his movement is stiff and limited. Just because he appears to be staying around me, does not mean he likes me. Note that I stay very still as he walks and do not attempt touching him with my hand as he had delivered at least one hard bite to his owner, with bite attempts toward the vet and groomer. My gestures of kindness are futile as he refuses food. It is clear that he is really uncomfortable. Later I gently touch him with the end of the leash. The initial leash contact with his coat elicits a slight jump followed by a slow head turn toward my hand. If he was thinking about biting me he was too scared to follow through. As he removes his head away from the general location of my hand, I continue to lightly stroke his hind end with the leash. Essentially frozen in fear, he moved about 3-ft in 5-mins.
Behaviors when Picked-up
Mugsy has a chronic eye condition called dry eye requiring daily drops. After being bitten attempting to pick him up, Mugsy’s owners were too fearful to administer the treatment. Without treatment Mugsy would have lost his eye. I quickly found that anything within 5-inches of his face triggered a bite. Once triggered, Mugsy would lunge at the item, bite with full force and release. My task was to teach him to relax when picked up and to sit while having his head held for eye drops. A secondary goal was to teach him to enjoy petting.
In this video you see Mugsy anxiously repeat a series of behaviors. First he looks at me, then his ears go back, he lowers his head and body slightly (any lowering of the body = cowering), finally he looks away. Fearful of what might happen, he looks back only to repeat the sequence again. As I get closer his behaviors become more jerky. He turns so that the side of his body faces me. As I reach down to pick him up he cowers, clearly signaling to me that he is scared, he means no threat, and for me to please go away. As I continue to come forward and reach for him, he desperately tries to keep me in front. When prevented he attempts to jump. His body is rigid as he raises himself up. Using appropriate equipment I stop him from turning and/or biting and pick him up. It is clear that he is very stiff and uncomfortable.
Interim Progress Report
2 Months into Treatment
Look how great he’s doing! Don’t be fooled into thinking he is cured - at this point in training he would only interact with me like this in the back yard. Notice that I get down on his level, call him over, start touching him around the shoulders and gradually move my hand up to his head. Of great significance is that he elevates himself by stepping on MY knee. He is not fearful of me in this video! I pet his head in short bursts as upsetting him while so close to my face would not be a good thing. I let him come and leave on his own terms. Note how relaxed his body is, what a difference from what I started with. Acting more like the 5-year old dog that he is, he runs around greeting everyone with friendly loose body postures. His tail is up and wagging rapidly with excitement. He is a very happy boy!
Mugsy’s Reaction to Being Picked-up
After hundreds of repetitions Mugsy started to predict the sequence of events when I stepped behind him. Notice he’s not completely comfortable with being picked-up. As I bend over to reach for him he does lower his head ever so slightly and licks his lips. Again, head lowering is cowering, and the lip licking is a sign of anxiety or stress. Despite his anxiety, he sits with his back to me and allows me to bend over him. Throughout training every attempt was made to ensure he was secure and comfortable in my arms. Notice how I support him under his chest and hind end. The last thing I wanted to do was scare him by making him feel like he might fall. As you see, my hard work is paying off. Look how relaxed his body is as I lift him off the ground. He is not cured but I estimate that what you see here is a 70% improvement from day one.
After Four Months of Training
Well, not exactly. But he is 99.9% better! Not a tense bone in his little body. I can literally do anything to him, touch his feet, rub his chest and belly. I’m even bold enough to gently (but briefly) place my finger on his adorable Shih tzu lips. Personal aside - I find nothing cuter than a Shih tzu mouth. I don’t know what it is! I just love them!!
…and he’s up and playing. Fully awake and able to handle some solid petting, the kind of petting you’d give a Labrador without hesitation. If I didn’t know any better I’d say he’s normal. It is easy to see that Mugsy is having fun in this video. His body is relaxed as we interact and he is focused on me even though there is another dog off camera.
TC = Too Cute!
This video is just too precious to withhold from the public. I don’t think a dog could get much cuter than Mugsy rolling around on the bed. What is it with Shih tzus and pillows anyway?
Amazing, right! In just 4-months he went from a terrified dog with a bad habit of attempting to bite and hiding, to a seemingly normal 5-year old dog. Believe me when I say that Mugsy was not cured. He was a whole lot better….at my house. There was a good chance of him reverting when in the context of his home where he had practiced these unwanted behaviors daily for 5-months after his adoption. As a precaution Mugsy went home with instructions to maintain and further his progress.
I’m happy to say that 7-months later I received a long email from Mugsy’s owners describing in detail his continued success. They can pick him up, administer his medication, and he no longer hides. The Vet and groomer cannot believe it’s the same dog.
So how’d I do it? That’s an excellent question. It wasn’t just love and kindness (although I certainly couldn’t help giving that to him). His owners had given him plenty of both before they turned him over to me. I won’t tell you exactly how it was done. But I will send you in the right direction. Mugsy didn’t have 500 problems, he had two. To figure out what his problems were, I had to know exactly when, how, and where the behaviors occurred. To understand why, I needed to know what he did before, during, and after an episode. Once I answered these questions I developed an unique treatment plan focused on Mugsy’s specific problems. Did you notice that I didn’t train him to sit, lay down, or come? A lack of obedience had nothing to do with his fearful and aggressive behaviors. Basically I accurately interpreted his behavior and applied science (learning theory) that served as the unique key to unlocking the adorable little dog inside, giving Mugsy a life that he never would have experienced otherwise.
If you have any questions or comments, contact me. I’d love to hear what you think!