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Trooper: The Dog I Credit With my Sparking my Interest in Dog Behavior: Six Mistakes I Made With Trooper Dog

Most dog trainers have a dog they can point to that got them into dog training, a dog who had so many needs that they needed to learn more to help that dog have a great life.

For me, because I began this work in animal rescue, I can’t point to just one dog who got me into training. There’s a long list of dogs: Aurora, May, Tee, Bruno, Conrad, Marty, Oscar, Katnip, Autumn, Chance, Neville, Baby, Fausto, Ahsoka, Hercules…and many, many more. Each of these dogs taught me a lot and motivated me to learn more.

All of these dogs captured my heart and I wished I could download Matrix-style, the information I knew I needed to help them. Unfortunately, I couldn’t, it took years for me to gain the foundation of skills and knowledge I need to better help dogs (and I am committed to continue learning).

However, when it comes to animal behavior, there is one dog who lived in my home who I credit. Little Trooper is the dog who fuels my interest in animal behavior more than any other. When I started my training journey I began in behavior, first reading about it and then earning the University of Washington’s Applied Animal Behavior certificate

But Trooper lived with me before I worked with dogs and dove into learning about them.  I made a lot of mistakes with her and knowing what I know now there are a lot of things I would do differently.

A small dog with fluffy shining fur in sunlight.
Trooper dog in sunlight

At the same time, I know Trooper was lucky to have me and she had a good life, even so.

Although it often feels like we can never do enough for the animals in our life, we are all doing the best we can with the knowledge we have at the time. 

Let’s take a deep breath here and a moment to connect with this: We are all doing the best we can with the knowledge we have at the time. 

Nurturing guilt and blame over what we did with our dogs or cats in the past isn’t going to help the dog or cat in front of us now. I want us all to feel more confident, at ease, playful, and safe. It doesn’t feel good remembering what we may see now as mistakes, but let’s learn from them and see what we can do differently.

Then, we can take a deep breath, give ourselves some grace, and have fun with the animals in our lives.

Let me tell you about some of the mistakes I made with Trooper.

Trooper and her sister, Storm, came to us after we had had a succession of five senior dogs with medical issues. After all of those heavy losses, my spouse was ready for a younger dog. When he noticed I was looking obsessively at Petfinder, he sent me a link to some adorable sheltie puppies.

True to form though, I gravitated to the older dogs on the page. Still Trooper and Storm would be the youngest dogs we’d cared for. They were about seven when they came home with me.

Mistake #1: Trooper and her sister came from a small breeder. Although the person I met cared for the dogs and sold them to me to better their welfare. She admitted they had been “kept in crates too long.” She was selling them because they had had miscarriages and were no longer able to breed. Now that I’m more aware of how poor some of these breeding conditions can get, I’d look to local shelters or stick with Seattle Purebred Rescue. Even the most well-intentioned work with animals can go south quickly and not be what’s best for animals. What I would do differently: Adopt from a reputable rescue or local shelter.

Mistake #2: I took a ferry ride to get Storm and Trooper. I refused the offer of crates to bring them home in. After hearing about how they’d spent so much of their life in crates, I thought. “No way! No more crates.” Instead, I put the dogs in my backseat. I also stopped to let them out for a potty break at a park on the way home. The dogs were skittish and I was lucky I didn’t lose them right there! What I would do differently: Use the crates! Drive straight home!

Mistake #3: Not long after I brought them home, my spouse and I took the new dogs for a walk. Storm got away from him. The leash slipped out of his hand and she bolted. Fortunately, she ran out of gas quickly and hid under a car. We were able to get her back within minutes. It could have gone differently.

With my current rescue dogs, we followed these steps over weeks:

  • first, a slow, supervised acclimation to the backyard

  • then, brief outings into the front yard on lead with lots of treats

  • short forays down the street eventually to the end of the block and back

  • for a  long time, we stuck to walks around the block before changing up the routine and venturing out to new places

I was much more concerned with having them be confident, at ease, and safe and not so concerned about walks for exercise, initially. 

This wouldn’t be necessary for every dog, but I would recommend planning on a similar schedule for a new rescue. Use a secure backyard with supervision for exercise while the dog is settling in. For skittish, excitable, or undersocialized dogs a sniff trip to the front yard might be plenty stimulating. Walks aren’t the only exercise or activity for dogs. There’s no need to take a dog who is still getting to know you and their environment out for a long walk. Just heading out for walkies with a new dog can be dangerous and not a great way to set them up for success. 

Also, back to the crates, while not every dog needs or likes a crate, often fearful dogs really do or they really do while they are acclimating to a new place. I bet Trooper would have felt more secure in her crate. Letting her hang out in it while she got her bearings in those first weeks and months might have helped her confidence overall.

What I would do differently: Use the crate initially. Pay better attention to Trooper’s body language to gauge her comfort level. Do a more gradual introduction to walkies.Take treats with me on those walks to reinforce behaviors and help her become more comfortable.

Mistake #4: This is the one that sparks my desire to learn more about animal behavior. Storm acclimated to our house pretty well and realized she was safe, but Trooper was always a quite fearful dog. 

  • She was very quiet and didn’t show a lot of behaviors.

  • She didn’t like to cuddle next to us for long. She didn’t sleep on the bed. 

  • She wasn’t playful and she didn’t do a lot of sniffing on walks. 

I described her often as a fearful and shy dog. That’s just how she was. I treated those behaviors as if they were part of her personality, not symptoms of anxiety and fear.

Now, I know that there were a lot of things I could have done to make Trooper feel more safe and help her be more confident, at ease, and playful. 

What I would do differently: I would have provided her a lot more opportunities for fun activities (enrichment) including some basic training (for fun and confidence-building). I would have asked my vet about behavioral modification medications and supplements to help her relax and let go of some of that pent up fear and anxiety. This may have helped her get used to home life and all the new stimulation much more quickly. 

Mistake #5: We named her Trooper? Was this a mistake? I’ll let you decide. It was pretty cute, but it was definitely aspirational. Storm came with her name, but the name Trooper came with was too cutesy for us so we picked something else that went with Storm. The Star Wars geeks in us cracked up over “Trooper.”

What I would do differently: I would probably still name her Trooper!

Mistake #6: After Trooper died, I began working with adoptable rescue dogs, but it was two years before I was ready to bring another dog home (except for overnights!). Trooper is the dog I think of when I say, “They are so little, but they take up so much of our hearts.” It’s so true. Looking back at photos, I am amazed how tiny Trooper was. She was a huge part of my life. I invested a lot of emotional energy in her care. After she died, the empty space she left behind felt huge. When Trooper died I put away all of her things immediately. 

What I would do differently: As an animal chaplain, I would have mourned her more openly and created some rituals for myself to help me process the loss, which affected me, and still does, so profoundly.

OK, so it’s time for the deep breath and the grace. 

I’m grateful for what I have learned. What I now see as mistakes, brought me to where I am today, better prepared, educated, and informed to help the animals in front of me.

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