Rusty and Kay, the Labrador Retrievers

Kay and Neal Castagnoli
Blacksburg, VA 

And then there were five!

Megan helped us with a challenging situation. We were two people and a cat had adopted us. Then due to a dear friend’s death, two beautiful dogs, Rusty and Kay, became ours. They were transported across country from Denver to our home in Blacksburg. We were so excited to have these dogs come into our home that we hadn’t thought out how the cat and the dogs would relate, so we were somewhat anxious when the dogs arrived.

The dogs in general were well behaved and very nice. However, their owner was a vigorous man who walked them together at a maddening pace. Rusty (male, ~6 years, mixed lab) ran this way, that way and pulled and pulled. Kay (female, ~9 years, mostly lab) pulled but in a rigorously straight line. We needed help in getting the dogs under better control and in developing a strategy to enable the dogs and the cat to live together in peace.

Very fortunately, via references, we were led to Megan Maxwell who set up a meeting to analyze and evaluate the situation. She drew up a plan, which she sent to us in advance. We accepted the plan and under her guidance set to work. It is amazing what can be done when someone understands the underlying motivations and behavior of animals. The first two targets were the interactions the cat and dogs and how to develop a more effective walking behavior, particularly on the part of Rusty. It is stunning what can be done via a single kibble.  As we quickly learned, a single kibble treat can be an astounding reward! And small bits of cheese or chicken are unbelievably enticing.

She initiated a program whereby Snowy (the cat) had to be in view of the dogs while eating. They could be, as we learned, distracted by offering a kibble so that the cat wasn’t so important - the focus would be on us. We initially had gates to separate the dogs from the cat, but eventually we were able to eliminate the gates. It appears that the cat will never be truly comfortable around the dogs, but is slowly becoming more tolerant of their presence. Once the cat learned that when the dogs were outside a glass door or on the other side of the gate that they couldn’t get to him, he occasionally would walk up and hiss at them (what a way to make friends? silly cat). Now he can at times, tolerant either walking past them or having them walk past him. But we doubt that he will ever be very comfortable around them.

Barking was an issue that Megan taught us how to control. What does a dog want? Particularly Rusty thought it got attention. Whoa! Well, say “no” only once and get to where the dog can’t see you. Sad Rusty – what is going on here? Quiet for 10 sec.; wow Rusty got to see you and got a treat! Slowly increasing the time for the treat Rusty became very good at not barking on command. He is funny sometimes because you can see his jaw just wiggling as he desperately tries to hold in that bark. I always tell him, you are doing well, big boy.

Neal worked with walking Rusty. Rusty is a big strong dog (too big and strong for Kay (the person not the dog) to handle. He had pulled Neal over twice and had an unpleasant encounter with another dog. Megan gave all kinds of help – always explaining the ‘why’ of the procedure -- addressing it in terms of the animal’s behavior and motivations. Now Rusty walks so nicely that our daughter who knew him before was just amazed when she came to visit at how well behaved he was.
Finally, before we had our last training session, one evening when Rusty was supposed to get up and go to bed (they usually followed ‘go to bed’, very well), Neal reached down to encourage Rusty, but Rusty growled at him. We had never had either dog growl at us and we were very concerned. Was there something within Rusty’s personality that we had missed or didn’t understand? Neal phoned Megan to see if she thought there was a potential serious problem. She explained that she didn’t think there was a serious behavior problem, that Rusty was just trying to see if he could get away with not going to bed. Amazingly, Rusty never growled again – the next time he just went to bed when he was told. 

The dogs are big dogs, generally very well behaved and now we are all very happy together. They add joy to our home and we thank Megan for her outstanding knowledge and efforts in helping us and letting us know that if a problem arises she is available to help again.