This is our story of our house sitting experience caring for Kai – a strong 4 year old rescue German Shepherd/Pit Bull cross. It has been our most challenging pet sit and at the same time, our most rewarding one.
We were able to meet Kai and his lady owner at their small flat in Santa Monica a few weeks before the Sit start date. She had chosen us because we had experience with large dogs. During communications, she had already informed us that Kai had huge anxiety issues and that he likes to be dominant and he can be very boisterous when playing.
On arrival at the flat we were greeted with boisterous excitement from Kai as he pounced towards us thrusting his Tug toy frantically wanting us to play tug with him. His Owner said he loved this type of play but can get a little aggressive. As we chatted we were constantly having to ‘defend’ ourselves from Kai by turning away from him and not acknowledging him, he wanted to play and of course he wondered why strangers were in his home. We then joined in on Kai’s walk around the block. We quickly noticed Kai pulled a lot on his lead. His owner was constantly on the look out for other dogs and avoiding them as soon as she could, she told us Kai barks at dogs he doesn’t like.
Kai’s owner acknowledged Kai was very possessive of her and let us know about the strategies she has had to develop when she needs to leave the flat without him ie for work etc. Kai does not like her leaving him and he began the behavior habit of placing himself between her and the door and even growling when she tried to pass him. Her strategy for this was to entice him into the bedroom with a treat and then quickly leaving the house, Kai is a very clever dog and she said it almost always works and we may need to follow that same procedure.
To add to all of the anxieties Kai has, she told us about the awful experience Kai had when a previous pet sitter got his prong chain collar stuck on him tightly and had to call in Animal Control to snip it off of him. Since then he has been understandably guarded about his collar. A next sitter left after just one day as Kai became aggressive towards her (all because of his anxieties with this collar).
On returning back to the flat after our walk together she talked us through removing Kai’s choke collar, it had to be done swiftly not to alert Kai and Jonathan also took a go at removing it and all went well. Further down you will read that it didnt always go that successfully.
On leaving Kai and his owner after that first meet up, we had a conversation about Kai’s aggressive behaviour but we weren’t going to let his owner down, she needed her yoga retreat holiday we knew that and we also knew it would not suit Kai at all to go into kennels. Kai’s dreaded prong collar was going to be the big issue. As we tried to imagine what an awfully distressing experience it must have been for Kai, being held tight as his collar was cut from him, we began to think about strategies we would use to go about fastening and removing his collar before and after each walk.
We arrived on the day of the Sit and Kai was already hyper, we mostly ignored him and had a short chat with the Owner before she left for her trip.
When she left of course Kai wondered what was going on. He began leaping about on the furniture, frantically getting his toys, we just kept being quiet and calm. And when he did keep still, for even a moment, we praised him in quiet tones with a ‘good boy’ . Eventually he curled up at the end of the sofa, but always having his ears pricked high. Then it was tea time for him and his walk. (We had asked his owner to leave his collar on when she left us, just for Kai to get to know us before any dealings with his collar). That all went well, clipping on his leash for his walk, of course he wanted to pull all the way around the walk. We already knew of strategies to assist with a dog’s frantic pulling, we had a pocket of treats for distraction needs and rewards.
From the moment we took charge of Kai, we toned down the tug playing game to a more gentle style, if we felt he was starting to show any signs of becoming over aggressive, as oppose to enjoying the game, we would immediately let go of the toy.
Also, we soon became aware that woe betide anyone that strokes Kai without him seeing your hand move first and takes him unawares, lots of loud defensive barking. But they are actions that sitters have to learn and know about the character of the dog and be respectful of his anxieties and patient.
Now we’ve sat for a number of dogs that love a game of tug of war, but Kai’s toy tugging play was true to his owner’s comments, meaning it quickly turned to aggressive behaviour and at one time this did happen, a game of tug turned into Kai accidental biting Jonathan. Kai really just didn’t know when and how to stop, the build up of excitement just got to a stage where he lost control.
With lots of praise and encouragement to be gentle and this very calm approach to his favourite tug play, as soon as the second day of the Sit, we saw signs of a much more calmer playing temperament from him and very little sign of the aggressive play we’d first experienced from him. As with all dog training, repetition, routine and rewards are definitely key. We noticed through the week Kai was playing in a much gentler manner.
As experienced Sitters, we knew if a dog has aggressive issues, its perhaps not such a good idea to encourage games that encourage signs of aggression. We found Kai a Kong toy and this was his new playtime, we filled the Kong and rolled it around the living room floor space for him and of course then he loved the treats he found inside.
So back to the collar episode and just to describe Kai’s collar – it is a prong chain collar, his owner said she chose this type to help with Kai’s frantic pulling. Personally we are not a lover of this type of collar at all.
We’ve explained above that Kai was understandably very wary of having his collar put on him and in particular having the collar removed, especially with us being total strangers. Therefore, we took a gentle approach which seemed to be working well for the first couple of days. We knew it was far more comfortable for Kai to have this large metal collar off in the evenings, especially when cuddling up with us on the sofa and at night.
When he relaxes and lays on us in the evening it melts our hearts. He actually sleeps on the bed, so he must want to feel close to us, we didn’t mind.
He has a cuddly blanket that he holds and sucks on at night when he’s tired, he’s such a needy boy really, it pulls on out heart strings. He often burrows under the quilt and makes a ‘cave’ at the bottom of the bed, again we didnt mind.
All was going well. Kai is a clever dog and we believed he could quickly be trained to walk better on the lead without pulling and then eliminating the need for the prong type of collar. We kept him close to us when walking and avoided other dogs when we could. When we had to pass another dog, we would turn and distract Kai away, getting him to sit for treats and then lots of praise when he ignored the other dog. We soon noticed Kai was pulling much less frantically on his walks out. His face when we praised him when he walked to heal, his eyes said it all, that he loves the praise (and of course he loved his treat rewards). And we were so thrilled when he began sitting for us on command, as we waited at the traffic lights.
However, on day three, back at the flat, as we were taking off ‘the collar’ after a walk, Kai got spooked by a loud sudden outside noise and became very aggressive to us warning us to stop. Now any one that has experienced first hand a large aggressive dog lurching at them, will know what a scary experience it can be!
A few minutes after the event though it was so obvious that Kai was very sorry and that his intention was not to harm us but just to tell us he was frightened.
In order to ensure Kai didn’t have any undue stress we decided to leave the collar on while we came up with a plan that may help him become more trusting of having the collar removed and be more comfortable with what, for most dogs, is a regular part of daily life.
One evening when Kai was resting on Jonathan’s lap on the sofa, Jonathan saw a way to unlink the collar taking it apart, eliminating the need to remove the collar over Kai’s head. But even though Jonathan was slow and gentle in his movement, Kai got upset and began aggressively barking, again afterwards when Kai had calmed he couldn’t stop licking Jon’s hands, Kai was so sorry. But the collar was still on Kai now and its prongs can catch on material, in fact he got a knitted blanket caught up in it later that evening and was running around with the blanket in tow, luckily he eventually let Julie unhook the blanket. You could tell he knew we had helped him.
We wanted to take him to the dog park, but if his collar got caught up with another dog when they are playing it could be a bad situation. We began walking him to the beach , he loved it especially digging in the sand, it was fun to watch him playing. Of course always on his leash and keeping our distance from other dogs.
We are true believers that the best form of dog training is praise and rewards. So using this Reward method, we would sit Kai down, 4 times a day, and show him a treat while we clipped his lead to the prong collar. Each time he let us do this we gave him the treat and plenty of praise. Kai was very intelligent and got the idea very quickly that the treat related directly to him letting us clip the lead to the collar (no returning to collar removal as yet).
We felt that we needed to gain Kai’s trust more before we attempted again to take his collar off. So coupled with the treats and praise when attaching and removing the lead, we spent a lot of time cuddling him, stroking him and pretending to ‘accidentally’ touch the collar while giving him plenty of praise. We continued this for a full 3 days before we made the attempt to try and remove the collar. On day 6, on our return from the morning walk, Kai was already sitting waiting, his eyes fixed on his treat which was showed to him every time we removed the lead, but this time, very gently, we also SLID THE COLLAR FROM HIM…… and it worked! He got lots of praise as well as his treat, as you can imagine.
The combination of treats, praise, building trust and repetition turned Kai’s bad experience into one that he now associated as being a positive experience (even if he ultimately new he would receive a treat as a reward for being so good!)
Kai will always be our Special Boy! We will remember mostly how much he loves his walks at the beachside and digging in the sand. A real joy seeing his happy face when he heard us say “should we go to the beach”. As we got our shoes on, his tail wagging so much, licking our faces and hands and he sits near the door ready looking round at us as if to say hurry up.
It was quite bizarre, this big dog that could easily show signs of frightening aggression, had his own comfort blanket and loved nothing more than cuddling up to us both.
Also, we remember, his routine at bedtime, as soon as the tv goes off he collects his cuddly blanket, jumps on the to the bed and watches and waits for us and then he likes to burrow down to the bed, yes he’s far too big really but he just loves it so much.
He loves his morning cuddles on the bed before we get up, he’s never demanding about his breakfast or a walk etc.
Kai is a big strong dog and he gets over excited and hard to calm down. But when he does we can tell he has a loving side to him and wants to be good.
As Pet Sitters we do all we can for the pets in our care and call on all our experiences and kindness to keep them safe and happy and feeling loved and respectful of their characters and anxieties.
We learned so much with Kai and so happy that we didnt give up on him and that we tried to provide him with the best pet sitting experience we possibly could.
Kai will always have a place in our hearts.