Finian joined our household at the age of ten weeks right before Christmas in 1998. The rest of the family consisted of my husband and I, Bustopher and Mica, our two cats, and Sadie, a 13 year old Wheaten Terrier. We had always had terriers, but Finian was our first Kerry.
Sadie died about a year later, and a few months after that, Finian bit me. I was pretty upset about it, but rationalized why he had done it, and did not give it much more thought. A few months after that Finian bit my husband. Both of these bites broke the skin! At that point we began to get serious about the biting, as we realized that Finian had some dominance aggression issues and had a dark side to him.
One person suggested that Finian be put down. A trainer that we had worked with suggested that the dog be re-homed with someone who was more capable of dealing with a dominate dog. While we did think about it, neither of these ideas were acceptable to us. They weren’t fair to Finian or to us. We loved Finian very much, we do not give up easily, and we knew there had to be a better solution. That meant that we had to learn to live with him. We had always had dogs, but none exhibited behavior problems like these, so we had a lot of learning to do.
First, we took him to our vet and had him checked very thoroughly to rule out any medical problems. Then, we resumed working with a wonderful woman who used positive training techniques. Luckily, Finian responds very well to treats and he would do anything to get one. Food is one of his triggers! In addition, we made an appointment at UC Davis school of Veterinary Medicine with a behaviorist. I also bought a lot of books on dog behavior and read up. Some people might wonder about this part of the program, but we also worked with two animal communicators—and they were great. (If you’ve never talked to an animal communicator about your dog, you are in for a treat. Yes, I was a non-believer the first time I called, but by the end of that short conversation, I was quickly converted to a believer!).
At UC Davis, we found out that Finian’s problems fell into the category they call “dominance/conflict.” A dog like this uses aggression to control valued resources, such as food, toys, and space. However, after these aggressive episodes, these dogs then show signs of fear, which suggest that they are afraid and confused. This is a relatively common problem—much more so than a truly dominate dog. In fact, our DVM at Davis told us that in the all the years she had been a behaviorist she had only seen one truly dominate dog.
What we learned was that Finian is what he is and will be until the day he dies. He is not going to change, and there is no magic wand out there for him. We had to learn all of his triggers and how to manage a dog with his temperament. We had to become experts on his body language. We even had to make changes to our lifestyle. We had to learn how to talk to him--lots and lots of “happy talk” in a high-pitched voice keeps him up and that tail wagging. We had to learn that you can never let your guard down when you live with a dog like this. No matter how sweet and wonderful he is the vast majority of the time, things can change in a split second under the right circumstances and it can get ugly. We are not in denial about our dog. We know that it is possible that someday Finian might cross the line and have to be put down. That is why it is so very important that we manage him so that he will not be given the opportunity to make a serious mistake. Our daily assignment is that we avoid all situations that provoke the aggression, avoid the use of punishment, and we constantly work to desensitize Finian to those things that cause aggression.
Our behaviorist put Finian on the Nothing in Life is Free program. That means that Finian has to earn his living every day of his life. He doesn’t get anything without working for it. That means a lot of sits, downs, waits, stays, heels, etc. When he is being very good, we sometimes get lax. When he gets lax, we get very good at getting him back on the program. With a dog like this, the training never ends. It sounds like a lot of work, but once you have learned the do’s and don’ts, it becomes second nature.
More importantly, we have achieved our goal of keeping Finian with us. Has it been worth it?? Absolutely. We have never once regretted the extra work we have had to do to live with this dog. The payback is huge. He is probably the most amazing animal we have ever had. Smart, handsome, funny, charming, extremely sensitive and intuitive—a real character. Every time we think we’ve got him figured out, he is on to something else!! There is never a dull moment around here. He is a dog who loves life and lives it fully. Thanks to Finian we have learned more about dogs than we ever would have otherwise. At this point, we rarely have an issue with him. He is a good boy and a joy to live with and our biggest wish for him is that he live a long, happy, healthy life. Sometimes the things you work the hardest for, you appreciate the most!