Ruby’s Story: Growls, Barks, and Stolen Hearts

Winner: Best essay involving children in the training process

Author: Shannon Finch

Shannon Finch
Shannon Finch

The voice on the phone was pleasant, but there was an edge to it.  Joyce Engstrom explained that she and her husband Carl had recently adopted Ruby, a 16 month-old border collie mix from a local shelter.  They had recently lost their beloved companion Riley, and missed having a dog in their home, so they hoped Ruby would liven things up.  She did, but definitely not in the way they expected.  In the week they had had her, Ruby growled at several people, and lunged aggressively when a male friend tried to pet her.  Even more distressing was that she lunged at Joyce’s five-year-old nephew.  She didn’t bite him, but did grab his sweatshirt.  The final straw was when Joyce’s son came over, and Ruby met him with hackles raised, barking hysterically.  Ruby’s apparent dislike of visitors was a huge problem; the Engstroms had an active social life, with family and friends dropping by all the time.  What’s more, their granddaughters, Evie, age four, and Mayce, age five, were coming to stay for two months in the summer.  The Engstroms had less than three months to find a solution.

The most important thing that Joyce and Carl needed to understand was that Ruby wasn’t behaving this way because she was willful or dominant.  I suspected that Ruby was suffering from stress and emotional overload, which was confirmed during our first session.  The entire time I was there, she was exhibiting stress signals, even though I was very careful in my interactions with her.  Imagine how she felt when confronted with so many new people who simply wanted to welcome her to the family.  They didn’t realize that they were scaring her.  But the noise, the new faces, people looming over her, it was all too much.  Ruby was a perfect example of how stress can influence behavior.   Her way of coping was to go on the offensive, which manifested as aggression.  The good news was that I thought Ruby could overcome her fear of people.  We came up with a three-pronged approach that consisted of stress management, physical management, and obedience exercises.  Joyce and Carl were highly motivated and willing to do the work.  Joyce says, “If you had told us to somersault across the lawn, we would have done it.  Failure was not an option.”

I taught them to recognize Ruby’s signs of stress, such as lip licking, yawning, and blinking.  She also ducked away from being touched on the head, not uncommon for many dogs, so I instructed them to pet her on the chest or shoulder.  Ruby’s muscles were very hard, which indicated she was carrying a lot of tension in her body.  Chronic tension can make a dog reactive, so I taught them some Tellington TTouch bodywork to help Ruby learn to relax.  For obedience exercises, I taught Joyce and Carl how to use a clicker.  While it would help Ruby learn to walk on a loose leash and come when called, the clicker also provided them with a way to mark calm and brave behavior, which they could then reward.  The most difficult thing for Joyce was learning to use a quiet voice.  A naturally ebullient person, she tended to be very loud, which stressed Ruby more.  Joyce and Carl also had to revise their expectations; they were still mourning the loss of their “wonder dog” Riley, who had been easygoing and loved visitors, the exact opposite of Ruby.  Ruby wasn’t perfect, but they needed to see her as her own being.    

We started working Ruby around adult visitors.  Initially I had Joyce use a Halti head collar so she would feel confident that she could control Ruby in case she lunged.   Visitors simply tossed extremely yummy treats at Ruby without looking at her.  Joyce walked her past people, clicking and treating Ruby for ignoring them and paying attention to her.  When someone came to the door, she had Ruby sit while the visitor came in, clicking and treating her for calm behavior.  Soon, Ruby started to initiate contact with visitors, who were under strict orders to not stare at her, lean over her or attempt to pet her. 

To give her some parameters, Joyce and Carl also worked on Ruby’s recall and leash manners using the clicker.  I encouraged them to get Ruby out and into the world to give her new experiences and teach her some flexibility, but to do so carefully so that they didn’t overwhelm her.  They took her in the car when they went on errands.  We met at the feed store and had strangers toss treats to her.  They even brought her to my farm where she encountered new dogs, braying donkeys and large horses.  Ruby had a few setbacks, which were frustrating to Joyce, but I reminded her that Ruby was generally moving in a positive direction.  It was time to start working with children.


Joyce enlisted the help of her nieces, 10-year-old Wylie and 8-year-old Teghan.  We set up a TTouch Confidence Course with the idea of giving Ruby something interesting to do while the children were around.  Joyce led her through the obstacles, being sure to keep her in physical balance.  (Dogs who are physically in balance are less reactive than those who are pulling on the leash or climbing up the handler.)  Joyce clicked and treated when Ruby walked calmly past the children.  Ruby did the obstacles easily, completely focused on Joyce.  We then asked the girls to run around and make a little noise while Joyce took Ruby around the course again.  Ruby was interested, but not stressed.  I had the girls throw yummy treats to Ruby as she came around.  In our next session, I put a second leash on Ruby, and walked with Wiley on one side, and me on the Halti lead for the first go-round.  Joyce then took over the Halti lead.  Then Teghan helped lead.  By the end of the session, the girls were able to click and treat Ruby for walking nicely on the leash and sitting.  We discovered that Ruby loved to play soccer, so with Joyce using a long line, the girls kicked the ball to Ruby.  The real test was when little sister Zain tottered into the game.  Ruby was a perfect angel as Zain tried to kick the ball, fell down, cried, and got back up to run again. 

Our next session was in the house, a more confined space, which we knew would be challenging for Ruby.  I first had the girls work with Ruby behind a baby gate.  They clicked her for sitting and lying down.  Whatever they asked, she did with gusto.  Then we went into the living room, where the girls did gymnastics and danced while Ruby was on leash.  Joyce clicked and treated Ruby for remaining calm.  We did a little round-robin, with Joyce leading Ruby to each person in the room.  Both Wylie and Teghan asked Ruby to sit, and then clicked and treated her.  Ruby was perfectly willing to take direction not only from the adults, but also from the girls.
Since safety was the top priority, we worked out several contingency plans for when the grandkids arrived.  The Engstroms made a “Ruby room” with a baby gate to keep her confined and separated from the kids.  When she figured out how to climb over the baby gate, they made plans to enlarge their laundry room and put in a dog door to the outside so, if they had to, they could use that as Ruby’s room.  As a last resort, we discussed muzzling her, especially for the initial introduction.  It was up to Ruby now; we had done all we could in the last two months to prepare her.

When the big day arrived, Joyce says, “We were on Ruby like flies on you know what, and the next thing we know, she decided she just loved these kids, the other dog, and all the chaos that came with them.  She let them lay on her, play ball with her, the whole nine yards.”  The Engstroms’ hard work had paid off.  In nine sessions, they transformed a stressed and frightened dog into a wonderful companion, without yelling, hitting or otherwise damaging their relationship.  Now when people come over, all they have to do is throw a ball or a Frisbee for Ruby, and she is a friend for life.  She watches TV with Joyce and Carl on the couch or in the chair Joyce bought especially big enough for both Carl and Ruby.  Ruby likes to hop in the shower with Carl, and sleeps on their bed.   She’s an excellent traveler, at ease on long road trips to California to visit Joyce’s daughter and granddaughters.   She has even spent several weeks hanging out with Evie and Mayce in California when Joyce was out of the country. 

Joyce says, “I have never worked so hard to instill good habits in a dog in my entire life.  It wouldn’t have worked without the training, and we are so glad we didn’t give up on her.  We are overjoyed with her, and can’t imagine life without her.  She still barks at people when they come, and she has the loudest man bark I have ever heard!  But I am no longer worried that she will eat anybody.  I’m a firm believer if you can’t solve the behavior issues on your own, there is some wonderful help out there, and it does work.”

About Shannon Finch

Shannon Finch has been training dogs professionally for over fifteen years.  She is the owner of The AnimalKind Company, providing services such as life skills classes for puppies, rehabilitation for traumatized dogs, and behavior modification for aggression, using positive training techniques.  She is also a certified TTouch practitioner for both companion animals and horses.  Shannon lives with her husband, two dogs, two cats, three horses and two elderly donkeys at Black Dog Ranch in Stanwood, WA.    

About the Engstroms

Joyce and Carl Engstrom live with their beloved Ruby in Arlington, WA.   Ruby is an avid traveler, regularly accompanying Joyce to California to visit the grandkids.


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