difficult dog
Dog situations

We have a difficult dog. Here’s why I’m glad.

difficult dog
It wasn’t his fault, but Lincoln has been a difficult dog.

How we came to have a difficult dog

A difficult dog has come into our lives, even though we didn’t plan it.  And it hasn’t been easy.  But this is how we ended up with Lincoln and I’m so glad we did. It’s an interesting story, actually. We entered this situation willingly, although we did NOT realize just how life altering the decision would be.

My husband has always wanted a Belgian Malinois. He’s talked about it for years. We’ve discussed it over and over, reading and learning all we could about the breed. He always thought we could handle a challenging breed such as this, but I was slow to come around.

They sounded like really cool dogs; smart, intelligent, athletic……special. He liked that they were used as military and police dogs and thought about how he’d train such a dog. By the way, neither of us are professional dog trainers. Not even close. We’ve owned dogs, but have not been the best at teaching basic obedience, let alone more complicated skills. Boy, did we have to up our game!

I knew this sounded like a lot of work, much of which would fall on me since I work from home and he doesn’t. I wasn’t sure we were up to the task of helping such an energetic, high drive, challenging dog reach solid family dog status. Or if a dog like this was ever going to be a good fit for us.

difficult dog
The first day we met our difficult dog. He needed so much help!

Lincoln had a rough beginning

As luck would have it, Lincoln was found running loose in town and was picked up by animal control. The shelter took him in and were trying to find him a home. By best guess, he was a young dog; maybe 2 years old, although we’ll never know. They called him a shepherd mix. Malinois aren’t very well known around here so German shepherd was a close as they could get.

When I saw him, he looked a lot like the Malinois we’d been studying. Probably not a purebred, but he did have the behaviors of a Malinois as we understood them. We could have done a DNA test, but we didn’t see the need. He was already neutered and it wouldn’t change anything for us anyway. For all practical purposes, we call him a Mal.

Long story short, we decided to adopt Lincoln, despite knowing he was going to be a challenging dog. We believed we could learn to give him a good home and help him find the stability he needed.

difficult dog
A difficult dog has alot to teach, if you let them.

Where we started

We knew very little about Lincoln when he arrived. We knew he’d been on the streets, probably for a while since he was a good 10-12 pounds underweight (20% below ideal weight). He only weighed 40 pounds and should have been about 52 pounds.

Lincoln seemed to like us and seemed grateful for our love and attention, although he was very guarded. We couldn’t touch his tail, hindquarters or feet. We used caution in approaching him since we didn’t know how he’d take our touch or approach. Slowly, as we worked with him, he relaxed and warmed up to us.

When he met our other dogs, things went pretty well. He tried really hard to get along with each of them. We had a houseful at the time, an Aussie, 3 mini Aussies and a rescue boxer. Lincoln and Tasha, the boxer, became great friends. I think maybe they had a greater understanding of what not belonging feels like than the other dogs who have never known want.

Lincoln had very few social skills, and definitely no recall. We kept him on leash outside since we live on acreage where he could get away from us if he got scared, or more likely hyper-focused on catching something. We knew this was going to be an important goal for us; to teach him social skills and recall.

This guy definitely has the drive of a malinois, although possibly a little less intense than average. If something catches his attention, it’s really difficult to get it back on us. Cats are a biggie! We have a bunch of “barn cats” that live in our garage and love to hunt outside. Lincoln will watch them endlessly and guard us from those “evil” things if they get close. This will most likely be a lifelong obsession from what I’ve come to understand.

We needed a plan for helping this difficult dog

We came up with a game plan for how we were going to help Lincoln become a part of our family.

  • First, he needed to gain weight and get healthy. We focused on feeding him high quality food to help him build up.
  • Getting him used to being handled. We slowly worked on building trust and getting him to let us handle him.
  • Teaching him basic skills, especially recall. Every day, we worked on the basics like sit, stay and come.

Issues that came up at the vet

As we tried to help Lincoln gain weight, we gave him extra fat, as well as protein and calories. He didn’t tolerate it well, having a lot of diarrhea and vomiting. We took him to the vet where we eventually decided that he was a dog that couldn’t tolerate fat.

Taking a difficult dog to the vet can be a big problem. When he first arrived at the shelter, Lincoln went to the vet just like all their other dogs. He got his vaccines and a general check up. As far as I know, it went well.

Unfortunately, when we took him in, we had some problems. When Lincoln has to go to the vet, he puts his guard up.  Now that we’re his family, his job is to take care of us, as far as he’s concerned.  So when something happens to take away his ability to do his job, he fights it off with all he has.  This isn’t always a good thing.

Since he was having the GI issues, we have needed to take him in to the vet repeatedly to find out what was going on and to get him feeling better. Unfortunately, each time we’ve gone in, the problems would get worse. He gets more guarded.  So he fights.

Lincoln hasn’t bit anyone yet, but it’s been close. We’re currently working on teaching him to wear and accept a basket muzzle. We found a vet who talks us through without visits as much as possible, understanding the situation we’re in. We’re trying not to take Lincoln back to the vet until he can wear his muzzle and relax for extended periods of time. We want him to tolerate a regular vet trip without adding any more trauma.

We’ve tried sedatives. The vets tried force when they needed to for his health. Each time, the fight has gotten more intense. We knew it wasn’t good, but how were we going to get him better? We didn’t want to keep reinforcing the idea that vet trips were bad. Right now, we avoid the vet.  I’m sure we’ll have to take him back for something or other, but we’re still trying to find a solution that will work and not make him worse.

We’re making progress

Once we had him feeling better, we were able to focus more on the other stuff. Not being experienced trainers, we’ve needed to learn on the fly. We’ve talked to several trainers, done much online research and read countless books.

Working with a difficult dog such as Lincoln, with all of his trust and health issues, we have to take things a step at a time. Moving too fast just causes him to back track. Every day we work on making just a slight improvement. Slowly, Lincoln is becoming a confident and obedient dog. He’s pretty consistent with sit and stay. He is off leash at home most of the time and has a decent recall, although we would not trust him with a cat or in public yet. He’s trying really hard, as are we. I think we’re going to be ok.

What I’ve learned

Rushing anything is less than helpful and can be downright harmful. Lincoln is teaching me patience.

Planning the approach to a complicated situation really pays off. Since we are figuring out what the issues are, we have been able to come up with a plan. Instead of haphazardly trying one thing or another, we’re trying to build a step at a time.

Trust can be built. Fortunately, Lincoln wasn’t so far gone that he couldn’t ever learn to trust us. He tries really hard, as do we. We are reaching a point where we know what to expect from the other. He has come to trust that, when we ask him to do something, we aren’t going to put him in harm’s way.

Another post that discusses working with difficult dogs is this one from Vetstreet.com, or my post called Rescue dogs give us so much!

Why I’m glad we have this difficult dog.

He has taught me that it’s worth the effort to figure out what’s difficult and work it out. There is a reward in the accomplishment. Lincoln is a smart, kind, protective boy and we wouldn’t know this if we hadn’t tried. We have a lot to learn, but working with this guy is helping us learn how to be better dog parents. He’s much of the reason why I’ve been exploring alternative and combined health approaches. Read my post here.

Have you ever worked with a challenging dog? Tell me about it in the comments below.

Read more about Lincoln’s story here.

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