Are Board And Train Programs a Good Option for Dogs Who Make Bad Choices
July 11, 2022 10:28 PM   Subscribe

Our new-to-us dog (8 year old, 65 lb standard poodle mix) is lovely when he's hanging out at home with my husband and me. But he is bullying his canine "cousin" (a submissive 25 lb dog) and he gets fearful/aggressive at human visitors. I don't think we have the energy and vigilance to keep everyone safe (especially the little dog) while we try to correct this behavior. Is a board and train facility the solution we need? Any experiences good or bad?

Our one deal breaker in adopting a new dog was it needed to get along with my daughter's ESA (we'll call "Little Dog") a little dog that gets along well with other dogs. Daughter and Little Dog don't live with us but frequently visit, sometimes for as long as a week. For the first month, New Dog seemed pretty OK with Little Dog, not thrilled but no real problems. Second month, Little Dog wasn't around much, New Dog was settling in and building confidence. Next time Little Dog came around there started to be an escalation in dominating behavior by New Dog, especially if Little Dog is coming over to me for petting or running around too energetically. Then, there was an unfortunate incident where Little Dog found a treat dispenser, New Dog charged him, Little Dog rolled over in submission and New Dog had his mouth around Little dog (not biting). It was now clear to everyone we had a problem and we contacted a trainer with experience with rescue dogs.

Meanwhile, we have almost no visitors to house (other than my daughter),but when we do, New Dog is reactive. When family was visiting for a long weekend, we basically made sure that the dog was under our close control any time a visitor was standing up or moving around. (like "text us before you come downstairs in the morning") Once everyone was seated, New Dog would eventually relax but even after a few days, he was still upset when the male guest did something outrageous like stand up and walk out of the room. Then I made the mistake of relaxing my guard and not keeping physical hand on the dog when my son came to visit and was still standing up in the kitchen. He was 15 feet away in the kitchen, the dog was next me as I was trying to keep the dog's focus. My son moved and the dog charged across the room and bit him (fortunately just a scratch through the pants) This crossed a line - not just for the humans - but also escalates my concern that he could bite and serious injure Little Dog.

We had already had an intial meeting with trainer experienced after the escalating bullying of Little Dog. With the more recent events, she thinks that she can still help us but recommends a very slow, gradual progress with lots of safety checks and no guarantee it will work. I just don't know that we can maintain the high level of energy and focus needed to keep everyone safe while hoping the training will work.

Someone has suggested a board and train facility as an option. Is there anyone with experience (good or bad) with board and train facilities for this type of problem?

When I called one, they seemed very confident that they could train New Dog to the point that we could easily redirect any early signs of bad behavior. Maybe not problem solved, but ideally everyone would be able to be fairly relaxed around each other including New Dog, Little Dog and our visitors. It is expensive but we could find the money in the budget if it is worth it. Is this realistic? Would such a training facility be traumatizing to our dog? At the moment the only other options seem to be undertaking a risky and uncertain training program at home or asking the rescue organization to rehome New Dog. Any other ideas? Specific recommendations for the Bay Area appreciated too.
posted by metahawk to Pets & Animals (15 answers total)
No personal experience, but the YouTube algorithm recommended Beckman's Dog Training to me once.
posted by oceano at 10:43 PM on July 11, 2022

What kind of training does the facility practice? There are many approaches to training dogs and some can be traumatic, harmful, and based on outdated science. From your use of the term “dominance” and “problem behaviour” I am concerned that you may be heading in that direction.

Find a dog behaviourist who specialises in force free positive behaviour modification to come to your home and assess your dog and give their opinion on what can be done.

I would be wary of anyone who is saying they can give a blanket guarantee that they can fix “bad behaviour”. Reactivity is challenging and I would at least want someone to come and see the dog and his behaviour and be able to give their professional opinion, rather than an organisation that will take your money based on cure-all promises.

I would be concerned that what you are contemplating is an extreme option which has the potential for making things worse. A good trainer/behaviourist also needs to work in context with the places, people, and other animals that your dog is reacting to. Shipping the dog off for a stranger to do unknown things to for it then to return to you with you having not gone through the process and also been “trained” yourself so to speak sounds worrying to me.
posted by Balthamos at 11:25 PM on July 11, 2022 [20 favorites]

It's ok to rehome your dog.
posted by kingdead at 1:07 AM on July 12, 2022 [13 favorites]

I missed that you have already had a trainer in to see the dog. Anything successful will be slow, painstaking and frustrating. A quick fix will cost you a lot and could lead to some very dangerous consequences. I.e. if a “trainer” uses force and aversion to discourage biting and reactivity, the negative behaviour is likely to spring back tenfold.

If you don’t have the time or capacity for slow, gentle, frustrating work, I think this is the wrong dog for your household and you should talk with the rescue about finding him a home better suited to his needs (probably with a single person and as an only pet).
posted by Balthamos at 3:31 AM on July 12, 2022 [7 favorites]

It sounds like you want an easy-going, low-maintenance dog. No amount of training will make your current dog those things. A dog with this level of aggression can be rehabilitated, but that is ongoing work that requires a lot of effort day-to-day in your home. This is true even if you did do a board/train program. It would still be up to you and your spouse to implement and reinforce the training at home, every day.

This is not the dog for you. Perhaps more importantly, this dog is not happy in your home. Contact the place you adopted it from and see if you can find a pup that is better suited to your actual lifestyle.
posted by ailouros08 at 5:04 AM on July 12, 2022 [20 favorites]

I had a rescue dog with similar behavior issues and the entire time she was with us I was in a state of hypervigilance trying to keep the household peaceful and everyone safe (we have other dogs, but few visitors).
She was a very large dog, a Saint Bernard, and I actually worried she’d go through the closed front window to attack a delivery person.
In the end, she bit me, badly, while I was walking her and a loose dog ran toward us. She was just so reactive and I didn’t have the tools to help her.
It was such a relief when we gave her up - I hadn’t realized how much stress I was under with my concerns and lack of knowledge.
I know my poor outcome rescue story is not yours, but I wanted to share it because your post reminded me of how difficult that situation was and how relieved I was once I was on the other side of it.
posted by hilaryjade at 5:18 AM on July 12, 2022 [3 favorites]

Best answer: Nthing it’s okay to rehome your dog.

Training is going to take time and is slow. If you do think you have some time and space to do so, one thing you can do relatively quickly is muzzle train. It does take a little work to condition your dog to like a muzzle, but it’s much faster and can give you a bit of space (and less anxiety when people come visit) while you work on the rest of your dog’s training. It is totally fine if you and your family are not up for the journey.

Anecdote on board and trains, I guess the more specific question: a friend of ours found a highly-rated trainer on yelp in the Bay Area and got talked into a board and train, and took their adolescent Coton du Tulear (think Maltese / Bichon like dog; super friendly and mostly chill). When we were discussing trainers, he warned me about this trainer and most board and trains, because his wonderful dog turned into a fearful, anxious mess (who did do things on command for a few weeks) since the trainers put an e-collar on the dog the first day and used aversive methods to control the dog. My friend worked with other trainers to help build up trust again with his dog, and it took a long time to try to undo the few weeks of trauma at the board and train. It seemed really messy when he tried to get the trainer to actually make good on the guarantee, and I guess you can’t be too surprised that they are combative with their customers as well.

I know a few positive reinforcement trainers that take in dogs for boarding, but they probably wouldn’t take in dog-reactive dogs since they’re boarded at home. In any case, it’s more like bonus training (or peace of mind, really, because we’re always worried she’ll regress with other folks and we’re always working on something) if we are boarding our dog during a vacation anyway — certainly not a quick fix.
posted by sincerely yours at 5:41 AM on July 12, 2022 [2 favorites]

Best answer: It's okay to rehome your dog, particularly if they are not a good fit for your family. It's hard and it's horrible and the rescue is not going to make it easy but sometimes, you're not the right fit. And that's okay!

My future in-laws were recently in a similar situation- the rescue promised them a low key, laid back dog who was a good fit for their needs. (65+, previously had a border collie mix who lived to be 17). New-dog seemed to be a great fit for them- he was affectionate when it was just the three of them, laid back, loving. And then someone would come to visit, and suddenly they had an aggressive, possessive 50lbs of pup to deal with. They worked with trainers, their vet, they walked the dog miles and miles each day to get out any excess energy they could. They had to stop the walks after he dragged FIL to the ground going after another dog. And then his behavior escalated to the point that he overpowered MIL, got out the front door and attacked a delivery driver. I'm not sharing this to be a horror story- it was heartbreaking- but when they had to return him to the rescue after almost six months of trying, the rescue admitted the dog had a history of aggression and had bitten their volunteers in the past.

Board and trains can be a great solution for some situations. I know that people with issues like POTS or balance issues have had great success in these situations because the dog learns, then the trainer teaches the owner. But it sounds like you've engaged a trainer, you're on high alert whenever your family is around, and the dog has already attacked your family. Taking it away from its environment for the short term may get you some short term success, but I don't think it will ever give you peace of mind.
posted by Torosaurus at 6:30 AM on July 12, 2022 [5 favorites]

Best answer: The board and train isn't going to be able to address the specific behavior that's a problem because it's related to people and dogs coming into the dog's own home. They can work on impulse control and calmness and obedience despite distractions, but the specific distractions and impulses the dog is faced with are going to be different in their facility. And even if the training works as well as the board and train suggests it will, I don't think it's going to mean everyone can just relax when visitors or other dogs are in your home. I think you're still going to need to be very aware at all times of what your dog is doing and feeling and constantly ready to redirect him.
posted by Redstart at 6:43 AM on July 12, 2022 [2 favorites]

I had a relative with a lovable but very anxious-aggressive rescue dog. She felt unable to re home it knowing that it had been returned to the rescue centre at least twice and may have not survived being returned again.

Over the next few years she stopped going on trips and holidays, going anywhere there were other dogs, changed job so she could take her dog to work, stopped going out socially as it couldn’t be left alone at home or even in the car for 5 minutes. The dog basically dictated her entire life - various trainers and even a dog psychic (!) didn’t help.

I really love dogs and totally understand the feeling of responsibility that comes with taking them into your home but… there is a limit. Please don’t feel like you’ve done something bad if you do need to rehome the dog.
posted by ElasticParrot at 7:25 AM on July 12, 2022 [5 favorites]

Best answer: I want to normalize for you the part where it took a while for you to see your dog's reactivity. My dog was "selective" with other dogs when I first brought her home, but after the first month it was clear she was actually terrified of them and would react very aggressively out of fear. Often dogs are in such a state of stress and disorientation when they are first adopted that you don't see their real behaviors or personality until they relax a bit, and this can take weeks or months.

I considered board & train for my reactive dog, but decided against it for a few reasons:
1) She reacts to people coming onto her territory/into her home, and the board & train location wouldn't be her regular environment
2) She would be learning to follow instructions from someone who wasn't me, and I would then have to enforce them (her reactivity is in some ways worse when I am around than when she's with my parents (who are my pet-sitters); she is defensive of me as part of her space)
3) I couldn't get over my fear that there's really no way to know what is being done to/with/for the dog when she's at a board & train, even if they say they're using certain methods. And no way to really be sure the surroundings are physically safe and that my dog can't get into a fight with one of the other training dogs.

So far we have managed well for 3 slow years of work at home by controlling her environment (lots of closed doors and gates in our house, there are other dogs who live here and my dog is never in the same room with them and let people in/out while she is behind a door as well, shifts for having the run of the house, etc). She has gotten better but reactivity is a very tough thing to deal with and takes a long time to get to a manageable level--board & train will not be a "one and done" training experience where the dog is "fixed." My dog is an awesome dog when she is in her comfortable, controlled environment. She's never going to be a adventure dog or a dog who comes to work with me, and that's okay for both of us. But that might not be feasible for you and your family, and that's ok, too!

If you do decide to go the board & train or any other training with your dog, I've learned a lot from r/reactivedogs on reddit--including a lot of things that normalized my experience and made me feel less like a terrible dog owner for feeling overwhelmed and not being sure whether I wanted to keep this dog.
posted by assenav at 8:35 AM on July 12, 2022 [3 favorites]

This dog is 8 years old and very reactive.

I don't think much of anything is going to change his behavior now.

It's okay to rehome a dog if the current situation doesn't work for the dog (or for you).

My sister adopted a gorgeous 3-year-old St Bernard some years ago. Six months in, we discovered he was violently dog-aggressive and considered me to be a threat to his position in the household. He died just a month ago, at 12, and still tried to bite me not six weeks ago. He never stopped trying to claw through the backyard fence to get to the neighbor's little dog. My sister couldn't walk him, couldn't do the dog sports she wanted to with him. It was all very sad, and she tried for years to work with him. Just didn't work.

It's okay to find a new home for your dog, one where he will be calmer and happier.
posted by suelac at 8:54 AM on July 12, 2022 [2 favorites]

Best answer: very slow, gradual progress with lots of safety checks and no guarantee it will work

This is very frustrating, I know, but it's counter-intuitively a sign of a good trainer. Any trainer who guarantees big results, especially quick ones, is a quack and/or uses abusive methods. This goes double for board and trains, which are infamous for lying about their training methods and abusing their dogs (sometimes to the point of death). The goal of the abusive methods is to force the dogs to shut down to avoid the pain, which looks like compliance but is more like a human dissociating, and it can have severe mental fallout later, including increased aggression. So many dogs have been ruined for life by the trauma caused by those places. Not all of them are like that, but way too many are, even if they look nice on the tour. Even if you find the exception that uses humane, evidence-based methods, you still have the issue that the problematic behaviour is happening at home, and what's learned in the training facility will have very little, if any, effect on home behaviour.

Reactivity is a very challenging behaviour to modify, and a dog that charges and bites someone across the room just for moving is on the extreme end of reactivity (many would say aggression more than reactivity at that point). Please make 100% sure that this dog can never ever escape, and also ensure that you have no children or small dogs ever visiting you. I understand that the bite was relatively minor, but these things tend to escalate and can have very serious or fatal consequences for small children or dogs. Training the dog to happily wear a muzzle will also be helpful for you.

It's very reasonable to return the dog to the rescue at this early stage. If you choose to rehome instead, be aware that the bite history has to be very carefully divulged, and you still may be liable for future bites in some cases. If you choose to keep him, be prepared for a long, difficult, expensive and potentially heartbreaking road ahead. There are unfortunately no quick fixes for things like this. If the dog can be rehabilitated it'll take a lot of patient work with expert guidance, with careful environmental management in the meantime to make sure nobody gets hurt.
posted by randomnity at 11:41 AM on July 12, 2022 [4 favorites]

Best answer: As someone who loved a reactive German Shepherd cross for 11 years I say - I give you full permission to rehome this dog.

I don't think we have the energy and vigilance to keep everyone safe (especially the little dog) while we try to correct this behavior.

In my experience, it's a lifetime of thinking about the safety issues. Even a trained dog who is reactive will need their humans to be aware of the situations they are in. I noticed in your title you called the behaviour a choice but for my dog, anyway, it was more like certain things turned offhis ability to choose. So it was about keeping him in the choosing zone.

The situation you described - where adult visitors have been in your home for a while and the dog still can't relax if they are moving - is more reactive than my dog was, who was considered a big risk by our two trainers. My dog also never bit a human although we had two close calls.

However, my dog gave no warning when he was triggered (which we know he was; he came from a very abusive situation, with cigarette burns.)

Is a board and train facility the solution we need? Any experiences good or bad?

I've been thinking about this all day. When I had my dog we didn't have access to all the information and expertise that's available now. So I might be wrong, but...I can't think of a way a board and train facility could have helped him. Definitely they could have taught him some commands and socialized him some, maybe helped him associate other dogs with treats or something. He was a smart dog.

But it took us hours, every week, years, and constant awareness of his environment and people/pets/animals in it to help him stay in the zone between "under stimulated and edgy" and "over stimulated and getting fearful." It wasn't something you could teach exactly, it was more about achieving equilibrium. There were tricks that helped (how to introduce people, chicken treats, etc.) but even those depended on us to be 100% with them.

And even so, we never felt ok having kids or other dogs around him freely in the house...he was fine with other dogs except the rare one or twelve times he wasn't, but we couldn't predict it, and with kids - we just didn't want to risk it.

It doesn't sound to me like this dog will be compatible with your extended family lifestyle. But if I am wrong and a board and train program helps him I hope you can update. :)
posted by warriorqueen at 3:30 PM on July 12, 2022 [4 favorites]

Response by poster: I marked several best answers but for me, warriorqueen's response was the best of best. I appreciate that you chose to take the long slow road with your dog and your reply gave me a realistic picture of what the best case might look like. (It is also a picture consistent with the trainer told us but somehow your story made it more real.)

We decided that we needed to prioritize the ability for my daughter and her dog to feel safe and relaxed in our home and we recognized that this was not compatible with adding this dog to our family. Fortunately the rescue agency involved in his adoption had a requirement that any dog that could not be kept must be returned to them. Once we made our decision, they were able to find him a foster home fairly quickly. We gave them lots of detailed information about what happened including all of his wonderful features as well as the problems. Hopefully, with this extra information, they will be able to find a new home that is better for him.
posted by metahawk at 7:10 PM on July 23, 2022 [3 favorites]

« Older Looking for a specific America's Got Talent...   |   Personal finance, being a landlord, tenant rights... Newer »
This thread is closed to new comments.