Labrador retriever mix's lifesaving transformation

Labrador retriever mix showed aggressive behavior so his family took him to many trainers who could not help him, but this story has a happy ending.
By Denise LeBeau

Similar cases had passed by her desk many times. As a Best Friends No More Homeless Pets Network specialist, Linda Gage supplies resources on behalf of dogs whose behavior ranges from irksome to troublesome. She knows the shelters are filled with the results of failed canine-human relationships.

Troubled Labrador retriever mix

When a troubled Lab mix, Casanova (“Nova”), came to her attention, she was determined to not let him become a fatal statistic. Nova’s perceived aggression was escalating, and the “experts” seemed to offer little to no real advice — well, they did offer one suggestion: Put him down.

“When I first got the email, it was no different from others I’ve gotten, but there was something about the compassion behind the words that struck a chord. I knew Nova’s guardians really wanted to keep him, and I would do all I could to help turn their situation around,” shares Linda.

But could the beloved dog get the right trainer in time?

Loveable pup to antisocial adolescent dog

Eric with Nova black Labrador retriever mix as a puppyLori Taylor and Eric Heffron adopted the lovable rescue puppy when he was just a few weeks old. Nova started out life like many dogs: He was loved and socialized. Everything seemed normal.

At about a year and a half old, Nova started displaying signs of aggression. He and his family lived in an apartment complex, where encounters with other people and animals were triggering a reactive response in Nova that Lori and Eric hadn’t seen before. “It was heartbreaking to see our dog start taking a negative approach to life,” says Lori. Not taking his behavior lightly, they started exploring ways to get him help right away.

Thus began their foray into canine behavior and the missteps of many. They started with one trainer who quickly kicked them out of the class. After Nova snapped at a second trainer recommended by their veterinarian, they were once again asked to leave. Their next attempt was reaching out to Tufts University’s veterinary program in hopes of finding someone who could understand and help. That resulted in a quick send-off and disappointing recommendation. Not giving up, they then hired a well-known behaviorist from Boston. Although dubbing Nova a cool dog, the trainer recommended Nova be put down. Thinking Nova’s behavior may be medical, his people took him for a full exam to rule out illness or injury. Not giving up, they attended a private lesson at a training program for “impossible” dogs, where Nova was determined to be impossible.

Positive dog training produces results

Linda knew of an amazing dog trainer in New Hampshire, close to where Nova and his family lived. Carolyn VanderHorst, a clicker trainer and positive reinforcement devotee, had been to Best Friends where she met with Sherry Woodard and others from our training staff whose shared values and philosophy regarding training couldn’t be more congruent. Carolyn is the founder of Wagtime Dog Training and is the animal behavior cornerstone for the Manchester Animal Shelter. If anyone could help Nova, Linda knew Carolyn could.

“I have a passion for rescue, and I’ve seen so many animals at the shelter that were such great dogs. I believe in saving dogs’ lives, especially those that are misunderstood,” says Carolyn.

As Carolyn learned about Nova’s training false starts, she realized he needed positive reinforcement. He needed his confidence built up. Where others saw an aggressive dog, she saw through his behavior to an insecure dog who didn’t need harsh correction. He needed to be understood and guided toward proper behavior.

Black Labrador retriever mix Nova with his family“I saw a dog that wants to trust, and so I started working with him at a safe distance from people and other pets in his environment, where he could be rewarded for good behavior. I look at each dog as an individual and ask, ‘Why is this dog reacting? Is it fear? Has the dog had his bad behavior inadvertently reinforced?’ There are many factors that produce the behavior we see.”

Lori, Eric, Casanova and Carolyn continued to work together. As months passed and Nova built up his confidence and continued to be praised for good behavior, the transformation occurred. Nova was no longer a reactive, fearful adolescent. Under the right guidance and with hard work, he has blossomed into a confident, well-mannered dog.

Dog training resources

Check out Best Friends’ dog behavior resources for tips and tricks to properly train your dog.

Looking for a good dog trainer? Many of our No More Homeless Pets Network partners can recommend a purely positive reinforcement trainer near you. Find a partner in your area.

Photos courtesy of Lori Taylor and Eric Heffron

Caring for Pets