I’ve thought about writing this post and then talked myself out of it over and over again. I don’t know if I can convey in words what life with Brody is like, and much of the time I’m not sure I want to, at least not publicly. Sharing his story is fraught with peril, and it’s a carefully considered choice every time I do. I know full well that someone – well-meaning or ill-intentioned – will attempt to backseat drive. With Brody, trust me when I say: you can’t know what this is like. Your advice or judgment, no matter how much experience you have with odd dogs, is not going to hit the mark because – again, you just have to trust me on this – Brody is different.
Let’s get a few basics out of the way. He’s not being a brat, he’s not trying to be dominant, he’s not overmedicated or improperly medicated or undermedicated. He’s not “working me” and I’m not failing to demonstrate leadership. He’s not engaged in bad behavior and I’m not “just his pal.” These are all good suggestions and worth exploring when you have a dog exhibiting unwanted behaviors. However, they are all incorrect. I have a metric ton of unanswered questions about Brody, but these are not among them. This much I do know with certainty and confidence.
He has been getting worse, and while it’s not a linear progression, it’s worrisome. I seesaw between dread and hope, knowing in my gut that this is organic and degenerative, and hoping beyond hope that just like Mica and her cancer, sometimes miracles do happen.
Brody’s beginnings are largely unknown. Some trainers would say that doesn’t matter and that you work with the dog in front of you. I agree fully when the dog in front of your is medically cleared – free from medical conditions that may impact functioning, behavior, temperament, and ability to learn. However, when the dog in front of you has medical conditions due to starvation while developing, background knowledge is useful. By way of example, if you are trying to teach trigonometry to a brain-injured adult with a 75 I.Q., knowing that person’s medical history is definitely going to impact how you teach. If you are a compassionate guide, your understanding of the individual’s past will also impact your goals as a teacher. You can lure, bribe, praise and punish using every technique and method under the sun but it’s unlikely you’ll get a passing grade on the trig regents exam from your human student. And it may be unkind to try. Understanding Brody’s history – bio-psycho-social history – should impact what we expect of him. If we are compassionate and devoted to him (not some training dogma) then his history and limitations (genetic, medical and emotional) matter.
Brody was found when he was about nine months old with four other dogs. It is believed they are all littermates due to their physical similarities (age, size, markings). Finding one Belgian malinois in rural upstate New York is unusual. Finding five is an indicator of a backyard breeder dumping unsold dogs. Of all five dogs, Brody was the largest and the closest to a normal weight. He was close to 30 pounds, and for a pup his age and breed he should have been closer to 50. Now, at a healthy adult weight he weighs 53 pounds. The other pups weighed between 22 and 27 pounds.
He was adopted out from the shelter and returned for aggressive behavior. The shelter contacted malinois rescue and he entered foster care. Over the next two years, he was adopted out and returned 4 times, each time for aggressive behavior. He was tried as a solo dog in the home, and also in multi dog homes. He didn’t work out in any of these situations, and was returned to his foster owner each time. None of these behaviors were seen at his foster home, but his foster owner – one of the New York State coordinators for malinois rescue – felt that I could give him a more enriched life than she could. I hike daily with my dogs and have a very flexible work schedule such that I get to spend time and interact with the dogs a lot. Brody was doing well with Debbie, but Deb worked full time and was often competing with her other malinois on the weekends. I finally agreed to take him after meeting him and falling in love.
I took adopted him in late July 2017. He settled in remarkably well, given how difficult his presumed littermate, Peeka, can be with new dogs. But within a day or two, the pack of five dogs was coexisting peacefully.
My immediate concern was that Brody seemed to respond to invisible stimuli. He would suddenly snarl, growl, and start barking aggressively… at nothing. At least nothing that was visible, audible or detectable by humans. He would also react aggressively to all unknown experiences by charging me or Tom, barking like Cujo. Opening a jar, using a citrus juicer, or the inadvertent clatter of silverware in the sink were all causes for charging and intense barking. If either one of us left the room, when we returned Brody treated us as if we were strangers. These situations are troubling, but I was more concerned about the reactions to ‘ghosts’ and wondered if maybe he was having some type of atypical seizure.
After ruling out seizure disorder, the vet suggested a trial of Prozac. On the medication, his reactions to invisible stimuli stopped. He continued to have issues with us, but at least we could always see what happened to precipitate the charge.
Getting charged is startling, and the psycho barking is annoying, but I’ve never felt afraid of Brody. His behavior never stopped me from doing what I was doing (e.g. walking down the stairs or making dinner) and underreacting by just saying “knock it off” and essentially demonstrating by my attitude and behavior that what sure looked like an attempt to intimidate me wasn’t working. I totally ignored the outbursts, beyond saying “cut it out” and for the most part, Brody would just sheepishly back off after an initial barrage of barking. I have never had a problem handling him for grooming including nail trims and can muzzle him at the vet’s without any drama. He is nervous but under control at the vet’s and recently handled a series of x rays without sedation or a muzzle – no problems.
We also tried to give a command when we looked like he was getting ready to spazz out. This was helpful sometimes – he could respond to a command instead of charging us. Sometimes he charged anyway.
He was stable at this level of screwy behavior for about a year and a half, with some problematic resource guarding (and everything, from a splinter of firewood on the floor to a human seated at the dinner table, could become a resource) and some very odd quirks – his bowl obsession being the most photogenic and winsome of these.
I did see progress as well. When he arrived he seemed unable to play. He loved being outside with Hawkitt and Peeka at playtime, but he didn’t seem to be able to engage with a human for an organized game. He just chased Hawkitt as Hawk played fetch. Brody ran at Hawk’s side for months. He’d spin with excitement for each throw of the ball, but never attempted to pick up a ball or stick or play himself. Over time, he has developed the ability to play fetch, which included understanding our directions, and complying with our commands to come, sit, wait, and leave it. For Brody, this is monumental progress.
He developed a nagging cough or retch. As escalating treatments failed to improve it, we did x rays and a contrast series. The tests showed that Brody has malrotation of the small intestine and some partial form of situs inversus. His guts and organs looked “wacked out,” to borrow his vet’s technical term. Perhaps some of his shrieking at ghosts was also pain related?
Slowly over the past few months he has gotten worse. He has good days and bad. He has gone after all his packmates here, and while none of these incidents have escalated into a fight that sure seems like only a matter of time. He has had a couple of outbursts where he fails to “come back” as quickly as he used to. He is once again growling and barking at “nothing” and is definitely much worse in the evening. Some nights, he lies against the couch as we watch tv, and just shrieks at the world. No dogs near him, no humans touching him, no perceptible problem… but suddenly he is furious or terrified or both.
It looks a little bit like rage syndrome, but not enough to strongly consider that as a diagnosis.
He is a handsome young dog. He is sweet and affectionate with both Tom and me, and loves to be petted. He rolls over for belly rubs, and obeys me even when he doesn’t want to. He sits calmly at mealtimes, accepting the bizarre human notion of taking turns and taking food from my hands gently. He has come so far, it pains me to admit that he is getting worse. Of the five siblings he was found with, one died at age two from a fast-growing cancer. One has been diagnosed with mega-esophagus and struggles with comparable behavioral issues. Peeka, his littermate, has struggled with serious medical issues for years, as well as terrible temperament issues. From what little we know, it sure seems that the genetic loading on these dogs is godawful.
The nagging question of what to do is ever present. Yes, he’s been on CBD oil and no, it didn’t help at all. No, I won’t use any “alternative” approach if there is no science to indicate it’s actually effective. Yes, he’s still on Prozac and we added some trazodone. No, it isn’t a miracle. Yes, I make sure he gets unstructured and structured exercise, mental stimulation, play, affection, and training every day. No, we’re not working with a trainer but we are working very closely with a veterinarian who has said point blank “this is not a training or behavioral issue. This is a brain issue.” Yes, I’ve listened to some excellent advice from a trainer anyway because once you start thinking about euthanasia, you have to grasp at straws. And yes, we have said the E word.
I began writing this post after an especially bad day. Nothing happened, no fight, no dramatic incident, no bite. But Brody was clearly miserable, shrieking fury and fear at the universe repeatedly all day. We’re well into the second good day in a row, a day in which Brody tolerates Tom and me moving freely about the house without charging or growling, and he hasn’t flipped out on any other his packmates either. He seems calmer today than he has been for a while. Perhaps he felt all my worry and distress? Perhaps the trazodone is kicking in? Is it just too hot and humid to get all worked up? Maybe I should try some Pepcid in case his outbursts are partly just due to a tummy ache?
This is life with Brody. In between all the worry and all the soul-searching, we snuggle and laugh and play and have fun. I look up from cooking to find him seated at my feet, often with one front paw lifted in his beseeching gesture: please sir, may I have some more? I want to give him more and I hope I can. Life with Brody is all about hope.