After a year-and-a-half of marriage and two cross-country moves, my husband and I decided it was finally time to grow our family. We were getting a dog! We had both grown up with dogs, but this one would be 100% ours, so we were looking for a “beginner’s” dog — one that wouldn’t be too hard to handle. I hoped for a running partner, and my husband wanted an overall companion, but besides that, we weren’t picky.
We decided to go to the Humane Society to “just look”. But when a ten-month-old Rhodesian ridgeback mix stared at us through the chain link fence with the most beautiful golden eyes I’d ever seen, we had no choice but to change our plans. After a short introduction and an un-ceremonial name change, we took Copper home with us.
One week later, I was holding back tears while we seriously discussed the possibility of taking Copper back to the shelter. It turned out that while he was an older puppy that was fully housetrained and knew basic commands like “sit” and “stay”, he was not the easy- to-handle dog we were originally looking for. You see, Copper had a biting problem.
Most of the time, the biting resulted from him getting too excited and not knowing another way to play with us. But there were times I seriously doubted my new dog’s intentions. If I took something away from him, he would lunge and snap at me. If I scolded him, he only got worse. After a week of walking on eggshells, I was covered in bruises and at my breaking point.
“But he’s not a pair of shoes, we can’t just take him back!” I cried.
“We also can’t keep living like this,” my husband rationalized.
We tried everything we could think of to break Copper of his aggressive habits. We made sure to give him plenty of exercise, we gave him time-outs, we yelped like hurt puppies, and even coated our arms in soap and vinegar to deter his biting. Nothing worked.
“If we send him back because he has a biting problem, he’ll never be adopted again,” was how every Copper-related discussion ended. “It would be giving him a death sentence!”
Finally, we did what we should have done in the first place and called a dog behaviorist. She talked about positive reinforcement and redirecting bad behavior, and by the end of our meeting, we had a game plan — specific steps to take to give Copper one last chance. While the behaviorist seemed very knowledgeable, I initially doubted that anything she said would work. Copper behaved relatively well the entire time she was there and I didn’t think she believed me when I described his behavior. I assumed she thought I was overreacting, because how could this sweet pup be the reason I was covering my bruised arms with long sleeves in the hot Hawaiian weather?
I put my doubts aside and committed to the new plan. It was either that, or ruin Copper’s life for good. So we started a routine. We went on a run first thing every morning. This would sometimes backfire at first, because Copper would get so excited he would jump up and bite me. After our run, he got a stuffed Kong for breakfast. Throughout the rest of the day, I rewarded him with a treat every time he did something good. I would redirect him with a different command if he started getting out of control. If that didn’t work, I gave him some time-out; there were days when his time-outs numbered well over 20. I gave him another walk before dinner, and his meal was served in Kongs and puzzles. We had a training session every night to work on reinforcing old commands and learning new tricks. Finally, it was time for bed.
It seemed every second of my day was dedicated to Copper. It was stressful, but I was determined. I stayed in contact with the behaviorist, and she continued to give me tips and encouragement. Within three weeks, the work started to pay off. Copper’s time-outs went from 20 a day to ten, then down to only two or three. My bruises were fading, and I wasn’t afraid to sit next to Copper on the couch anymore. We bonded, and he started showing us more of his sweet, affectionate side.
When my husband left for extended military duty, I told him: “By the time you come back, Copper and I are either going to hate each other, or we’ll be inseparable best friends.” It took a week or two to adjust and to know for sure, but Copper and I are now the best of friends. Yes, he has his difficult moments, but what one-year-old pup doesn’t? The biting has virtually stopped, and Copper is the sweetest, smartest dog I’ve ever had the pleasure of knowing. He knows over 30 tricks and is my constant hiking, beach, running and errand buddy.
I’ll never know the exact reason our relationship started out so poorly. Maybe it was because I didn’t know what I was doing, or because Copper was a rescue. Either way, he has taught me a lot. He taught me there is no such thing as a beginner’s dog. He also taught me that everything worth having – including a dog like Copper — is worth fighting for.