Sometimes you can teach an old dog new tricks

Rusty's a trouble-maker. He doesn't get along with other dogs. He's aloof. He's got aggression problems.

These are just a few of the things that I heard that others said about Rusty, my 9 year old German Shepherd/Akita mix. Lucky for me his foster dad saved him from being put down in the shelter or I would never had the chance to prove everyone wrong.

Back two months ago when I got him, I might have even thought some of those things were true, but it became obvious early on that it was more nerves than anything that were causing what appeared to be aggression brought about his nervousness.

Each dog is different, but the most important thing that I've learned is that you first need to build trust. Trust and not letting behaviors of the past control the future. Sure, there were times when there was a bit more barking than I would have liked, but almost immediately, we had a very tight bond. I would say within a few days he was pulling a lot less on his chain and had chilled out around the house so that meeting other dogs became possible.

Now, don't get me wrong... this was a bit of a stretch for me, reintegrating an 80 lb. alpha dog back into his place in society. 

First, we set up some ground rules for my new senior dog:

1. No meeting dogs that were too anxious - Common sense and the results are that we're on our walks, when we see other dogs like that and I don't give him the signal to move to the other side of me, 4 times out of 5, he's avoiding them anyway.

2. Always meet face-to-face - This was a little bit easier said that none, considering there are folks who interpret the leash laws differently than we do. Two or three times I've had to turn him around to face a charging dog that wanted to meet us. Every time, but once the other dog stopped well short of us when we faced them. Almost every time the owners of the other dogs (those that weren't on a leash) had no control of their animals and couldn't get a response after 3-4 times calling them. Very uncool and irresponsible.

3. Be ready for anything - They're still dogs. I'm in no way a professional trainer and I certainly don't have a dog's senses that tell it when another dog is anxious or not. The plan was to play it cool, calm, and alert.

To date, I'd say that we've met on average one new dog every day and in most cases we've all had very positive experiences, and after seeing the same dog 2-3 times, Rusty and the other dog usually just pass each other wagging their tails.

Now, that's not every case, and I'll get into how I could have done a better job in some of those instances in other posts, but reinforcing socialization every single day, including knowing when not to socialize, has paid off in a big way, so much so that we can pass barking dogs on the other side of a fence without so much as an acknowledgement.