Heddy's story is really heartbreaking. She was born into and remained in a totally asocial environment, one of many dogs of multiple breeds used strictly
for breeding (what we would consider a small time puppy mill). When she failed to "produce" she was sold to a pet home, and at four years of age she
was expected to be a pet for the first time in her life. Within a year she flunked out of two homes.
Her inexperienced owners were unwilling or unable to deal with her dog aggression. In her second home she began to lunge at and attempt to bite certain
guests, including their young adult son and several physically challenged people who had difficulty walking (with a limp or flailing arms).
When Heddy's owners came to us threatening to put her down; the "prevailing wisdom" was that a dog that would bite, for any reason, should be put down. Yet this poor dog had never been given a fair chance. At the very least, we all agreed, she deserved to be professionally evaluated by someone whose opinion we trusted.
Several of us had worked with a gifted animal behaviorist and understood the basics of behavior modification and had witnessed some remarkable turnarounds, including my own Kerry Molly. Still we had no idea what we were facing with Heddy, we knew there was no roadmap for rehabilitating such a dog nor would there be any guarantees. We also knew that turning a dog around required a total commitment and dedication for which few have the time or stamina.
We are a small group, three people volunteering time on an ad hoc basis. Our resources are limited. At the time, we could find no one in the greater Kerry community who was able to take her in, even long enough for her to be evaluated. Boarding her in a kennel didn't seem an option, knowing the harm four years as a kennel dog had already done.
Through the connection of our animal behaviorist we met Sarah, and miraculously a foster home fell into place. Sarah has a wonderful practical and common sense knowledge of animals, and a wealth of experience handling dogs, having grown up on a ranch with working dogs and around her uncle's hunting dog kennel. This was Heddy's first break.
Heddy would have to work hard to prove and save herself. The first step was an intensive week of board & train. Intensive basic obedience training laid the ground rules and clear lines of communication were established, the goal was for Heddy's to realize she was no longer "in charge". She was pushed to her limit and evaluated in a variety of situations. Once the ground work was laid she was transferred to her foster home.
Initially Heddy was in a state of constant tension and would become defensive under very slight tension. The defense she used most often was to bite. She exhibited several stereotypical behaviors of a dog of confinement; whirling, weaving, champing, air-snapping, head wagging, and foot-licking. She would also dribble urine constantly and defecate in her sleeping crate and within the confines of her tie down.
Sarah and Heddy worked with the trainer for the first month, the goal of the intense behavior modification was to eliminate Heddy's aggression towards her handler, to establish Sarah's authority, which would essential.
Sarah is remarkably compassionate, and a keen observer. For eleven months, Sarah has provided Heddy a very structured foster home, with clear limits, a controlled environment, where new stimulus has gradually and carefully been introduced to her with lots of positive motivation. For 24 hours a day, Sarah has been able to observe Heddy's behavior, and has worked diligently to help Heddy overcome her fears (umbrellas, remote control devices, remote training collar and cameras just to name a few) by desensitizing her with food rewards - being incredibly food motivated has helped greatly.
Sarah has a dominant, neutered male Newfoundland mix and a dominant (yet geriatric), large neutered male mixed-breed. She also she cares for several dogs on a daily basis including; a two year old spayed female Boxer, a two year old, sweet, neutered male Labrador and a somewhat neurotic three year old neutered male Dachshund. Through gradual socialization Heddy has learned first to ignore, then to co-exist with, and eventually to enjoy her canine companions. She prefers the company of the dominant males.
Sarah's approach to foster care has been to provide Heddy a safe place, a clear guidelines, and let Heddy explore Sarah's human world (initially so foreign to Heddy), at her own pace, to find her own path, in a way that would not endanger humans or animals in her household.
The goal of phase two of foster care - passive socialization, was to allow Heddy to gain experience with people, dogs, cats and objects within the confines of the home and large fenced yard. 24-hour passive restraints (muzzle and or tie/down, see below) protected people and animals from being bitten yet allowed Heddy to fully participate in household life and activity. Heddy gradually became more relaxed and showed less and less tense, defensive and frantic behavior.
Sarah has coaxed and encouraged positive outlets for Heddy's energy. Heddy has learned to play interactively with people, and to play with objects (balls, toys, food). Heddy enjoys taking part in group games of search for or chase the ball, and has begun to engage the other dogs in one on one play. In recent months, Heddy has begun mimicking her canine companions, and is learning a great deal from them.
During the past four months Heddy has been given total run of the house and secure yard, she no longer wears a muzzle or is restricted to a tie down - except during feeding time or when visitors come to the home. Heddy is able to engage in interactive play with the other dogs, and walk on leash through the neighborhood and remain at a "heel" despite distractions. Heddy's affectionate side has blossomed, and she seeks contact not only with her foster mom, but also guests to the house, and even strangers she sees along her walk.
Heddy's newest passion is playing in a kiddie pool. During the recent hot spell in the Bay Area, Sarah put out a pool to help keep the dogs cool. By watching her Retriever housemates, Heddy overcame her fear/reserve and jumped in. She realized that it not only felt good, but it was fun to splash about, and even dunk her head underwater to retrieve objects (especially carrots).
In foster care Heddy has shown remarkable promise. She has a real "want to" personality and true Kerry spirit. She continually surprises us in how much she has overcome and how eager she is to please. Heddy has blossomed, she clearly enjoys life, anxiously anticipates her known rewards, and has become extremely affectionate - gladly accepts and returns affection. She has learned to trust people, and now looks to them to help her solve problems or in times of stress or fear.
But she is not totally out of the woods yet, and still has lapses where she will unexpectedly lunge at dogs, even her canine house companions, especially if she has recently been over-stimulated (by a trip to the grooming salon, after tracking a squirrel). At times, if she is stressed or frustrated, or startled her from sleep or even touched during puppy dreams, she will attempt to bite a distracted or unsuspecting handler. If people rush past her, she'll attempt to lunge at them from behind.
We feel that Heddy's current behavior is within the normal range of terrier behavior and that she is ready for permanent placement in the "right" situation. We feel the best home would be with experienced Kerry Blue Terrier people or people other terrier experience. We feel her future owner/family must commit to ongoing training under the guidance of a professional trainer, preferable one with a good understanding of animal behavior.
We feel her future owner/family must establish firm ground rules and clear lines of communication, right from the start. There must be no doubt in Heddy's mind that they are "in charge" and making the decisions. Once Heddy understands her place in her new pack, we believe she will respect the relationship.
If however, Heddy senses a vacuum, ambiguity or laissez fair attitude, she will push and test the limits, like any terrier. Heddy will try to take advantage of soft, overly sympathetic or indulgent, or squeamish owners.
Two very important tools have allowed Heddy to make progress; the tie down, and the Jafco Muzzle. Both will be important, ongoing tools for her future owner/family.
The "Tie Down" is a 18 inch cable bolted to the wall or around an appropriate stationary object. It functions much like a crate (but is much more portable and compact), allowing the dog to be at the center of activity in the home but securely in their own space. It helps teach limits, and builds dominance passively. In anticipation of situations that might over-stimulate Heddy such as guests to the home, the presence of an unfamiliar dog, or the presence of children, Sarah always practices "safety first" and has Heddy on her tie down. Heddy can therefore feel a part of all that goes on, from her own place. I know from my own experience with my own Kerry Molly that the tie down feels safe and has positive associations for the dog. Although we not longer use a tie down, those former locations are still Molly's favorite places.
The Jafco Muzzle is a plastic basket muzzle that offers a great deal of security and freedom in nearly any situation. It is easy to put on and easy to take off. Through purely positive association, Sarah taught Heddy to wear a Jafco muzzle, without the slightest fuss. Sarah would say "Let's get dressed", and Heddy would eagerly place her face in the muzzle - anticipating some additional freedom as a reward, a walk around the neighborhood, or maybe a romp in the yard with Sarah's dog Buddy (a Newfie mix), or some "free time" off her tie down to meet and mingle with guests. Being as adaptive and creative as the best of Kerries, Heddy, has even learned to drink through the muzzle, by submerging her face, muzzle and all, into the pool of one of Sarah's water features.
I know many people have negative feelings about using muzzles, as Sarah did initially, however this has been a very important tool which allowed Heddy to begin to explore new situations in total safety (her own and others), and learn that some of those feared and scary things are indeed harmless.
Heddy's future owner/family must not only be able to provide love and compassion, but must set and firmly and fairly enforce limits. They must also to be committed to a "safety first" approach in anticipation of situations that might over-stimulate Heddy (guests to your home, the presence of an another dog, in the presence of children), or while walking her on leash and meeting strangers.
Understanding Heddy, being 100% consistent, and keeping inappropriate behavior in check with ongoing training will be important to Heddy's continuing success.
In closing I want to mention that Heddy's foster mom is not a professional dog trainer or behaviorist, and she knew nothing about Kerries when she agreed to help Heddy. She did have the benefit of having worked and solved behavioral problems with her own dog. I believe the most important ingredient of their success together is the incredible commitment Sarah made to helping Heddy. She understood where Heddy was coming from, and had empathy for the lasting effect those first grim years had on Heddy. As long as she felt that Heddy was trying, and making progress, she was able to forgive mistakes, small and large, and get through periods of slow progress, or backsliding.