Protecting Vera: A reactive German shepherd

Protecting Vera

In the very beginning, Vera pulled.  She pulled on the leash so hard that she could drag a person into the ditch, and did so with volunteers at the shelter.  She pulled because she needed to be first, because she was scared, or because she wanted to run.  She pulled because she wanted to see another dog or because she needed to keep him away.  Her legs were sturdy and powerful, well-muscled, her body whip-like and athletic. And she was single-minded. And strong. Incredibly strong. 

Vera was polite and smart by nature…

Because she was so polite and smart, she soon learned to walk on a loose leash—even on a flat collar—without tension. Unless there was a squirrel or a cat or a deer or a dog.  Then her reactions were dramatic, her bark frantic and cannon-loud, her body tense as steel, her eyes wild. 

With such distractions and Vera in a flat collar, we, as her handlers, were doomed. I was dragged; Joel was tripped by the whip and spin of her body. And if we had Tessie or Lola, they would join in with dedicated excitement.

I was overpowered, her attention swallowed by her victim, such that even cheese and steak couldn’t distract her. She would choke, and with her trachea damaged from the chain that bound her in her first year and a half of life, we moved to the gentle leader where we could at least turn her head away from the distraction and maintain some control.  

Two points of contact
Kane working on two points of contact with Vera

After working with a reactive dog trainer, we changed to two points of contactwonder walker harness coupled with the head collar to take pressure off her muzzle and transfer it to the harness. Each end of the leash was clipped to one piece of equipment. For a long time, V shied away from the harness. The one she’d worn at the shelter had been too small, and rubbed behind her front legs, causing a raw, painful sore. Not realizing it was there, we had continued to walk her with it. It took years for her to get past this.

She was easier to handle with two points of contact. Sometimes we walked her on the narrow, winding roads of Sudden Valley.  At 100 feet from a dog she would tense, alert, her eyes riveted, tail high over her back. We would treat her with cheese, hot dogs, do “look at that”, and walk her away. But still, she would look back, scared, tense, and ready to take on the world. 

Two dogs bark at us from a deck high above.  A crash, and in slow motion, the barrier shifts, gives way, smashes onto the steps below.  The dogs leap the rubble, the drum of their paws thunderous on the wooden steps, their barks insane. I am quick, but V is quicker.  She lunges, barks, her voice frantic, teeth exposed. I turn and run, my throat closed in panic. But V is like an anchor and in seconds the dogs are upon us. 

“V, behind!” I shout. It is more of a scream. There is nowhere to go, nowhere to hide.  The road rises steeply above us, drops off below us, the hillside a 45 degree slope.

But V is intent on facing them off. She stands her ground in front of me. And attacks. 

They fall back, their faces shocked, and in that moment, I swing my body between them. I face Vera. She is too strong to hold behind me. I pivot between Vera and the dogs, blocking their access to each other. If they connect, there will be blood and punctures, possibly slashes and tears. I can’t bear for Vera to be hurt. I can’t bear for her to injure another dog. I pivot between them and shout for help while the dogs bark and snarl and lunge around me. I am wearing shorts and my legs bleed and throb from Vera’s claws. The moments stretch, and I feel I have been there for eternity. 

There is a honk, people shouting. The loose dogs falter, whirl, and they are gone, loping up the road away from us. The people in the car shout curses up at the house on the hill above me. And we leave. 

Vera is unruffled. She struts beside me, calm, her mouth open, back straight, her eyes soft.  There are no wrinkles on her head, and her ears are neutral. I have protected her. But I am fried. My body trembles like I’ve survived a battle. Every muscle aches, and I am chilled to the core in spite of the warm day. 

Back home, we sit in the garden on the bench next to her digger-dog hole. She hops up beside me, allows my arm to circle her shoulders, allows my hand to caress her face, to rub her chest.  She is not a demonstrative dog, and sitting there beside her, peaceful and safe, I am honored. I sink into her courage, am lost in her grace. 

Training Tips

  • Loving and living with a reactive dog takes on a whole new meaning if you are only used to lovely, sweet, good natured dogs.
  • Your goal is always to keep your dog safe.  For me it was at any cost and for years, blocking Vera from loose dogs with my body was my last-ditch diversion. Ironically, I  was never bitten by V or by any of the loose dogs who tried to approach her.  But I was lucky.
  • Watch for open garages, invisible fences that dogs can blow through, insecure fences and barriers.
  • Turn away from approaching dog walkers, always keeping in mind an escape route.
  • Carry high value treats.  Dogs cannot respond to you when stressed in the same way they would  when they are relaxed. But sometimes they will follow the odor of food.
  • As V aged, we learned that a small air horn, blasted at an approaching dog, even from 50-100 feet away, would keep approaching dogs at bay. They never seemed frightened, just confused and not interested in approaching–much better than having a human rage at them to stay away thus triggering a fear of humans.
  • You do need to desensitize your dog to the sound of the horn–best done by having someone help you. When you blast the horn, move your dog behind you.
    • To desensitize: Give a short blast a distance from your dog (up to 100 feet depending on your dog’s sensitivity) with the sound focused in the opposite direction from your dog. Play with or feed your dog after the blast.  Repeat twice more.  If your dog is afraid after the first blast, stop play with your dog. A few days later increase your dog’s distance by at least 50 feet  from the horn and increase the reinforcement after the blast. Play with your dog.

Baby Jaws, the biting puppy



The unfortunate thing is that although most puppies are sold at eight weeks of age, it’s one of the worst times to introduce puppies to new things.  We know now that at eight weeks, puppies are going through a fear period: they may suddenly be scared of things that have never bothered them before, and it’s possible that these experiences may imprint them for life. In other words, they may hold onto that fear of the scary man or child or loud noise—forever. So going for their first car ride, meeting new dogs, new people, or being introduced to a new environment, to say nothing of being removed from their pack of siblings for the first time in their lives to spend their first night alone in a new setting, can be very traumatic. Seven or nine weeks of age is a better time to take puppies home—when they are more confident and not as easily influenced by fear. 

My eyes felt bleary when I finally found the appropriate “What to do when your puppy bites” chapter in response to my scratched, bleeding arms.

golden ret pup

“The book says to grab her muzzle, look directly into her eyes, and say ‘no bite’ in a stern tone,” I read aloud. “If she bites again, do it harder. Ow!” I dropped the book on the table and reached down to swipe Sascha away from where she was attached to my jeans. “Sascha, stop it!” I dropped to my knees and grabbed her small, snarling muzzle in my hand, but she whipped away from me and made another playful lunge. She was all baby growls and needle teeth and when she made contact with my skin, it hurt. “Shit! No bite!” My voice was very stern and very loud this time, and when I made a grab for her, Sascha danced away and flattened herself on the floor four feet from me, not sure whether to be scared or to join in the devilish game. She chose the latter, sprinted back to me, grabbed my slipper in her teeth, and tugged as hard as she could. This time I nailed her muzzle with a firm hand and shouted “No bite!” while glaring into her eyes. She cowered, ears flattened to her skull. With her tiny tail curled up on her belly, she crawled under the couch and all we could see were her big, brown eyes peeking out. 

“Well done!” Joel’s voice was thick with sarcasm.

Tears burned my eyes, and an ache in my chest threatened to derail me. “I did what it said!”

“You didn’t have to do it that hard!” 

I tried to pull Sascha out from under the couch, but she stayed just out of reach. Would she ever recover?  I was sure she wouldn’t. 

Moments later, Sascha fell asleep—a ball of golden fur all alone under the couch—but when she awoke, she seemed to have forgotten.  She bounced into the kitchen, gobbled down the kibble I offered her, peed again on the carpet before we could entice her outside, then grabbed a shoe from the mat by the front door and charged around the house, full of glee. The extent of her joy was contagious, and we laughed, mirth rising from our bellies until tears ran down our cheeks. Finally, we managed to herd her outside to our fenced yard, she did her business, then settled down to chew on a stick. We heaved a sigh of relief and dubbed her “Baby Jaws”. 

Somehow, we managed to survive the rest of the day.  We barricaded off the kitchen, found some tennis balls, and Joel drove to the grocery store and returned with a couple of stuffed toys, a rubber hamburger with a squeaker (which she demolished instantly), and a Nyla bone that she set to work on with those killer teeth. We played tug with an old sock (unwittingly reinforcing her delight in these readily accessible toys), and tossed the ball for her, the tennis ball enormous in her little jaws. We discovered that she was a natural retriever.

Annie and Kong
Annie and her Kong

* * *


What would we have done to prepare for that day now, in 2018?  

  • We would have waited until Sascha was nine weeks old before bringing her home; we would have taken time to get to know her and visited her at least three times during the week that we waited, leaving something that smelled like us (an old T-shirt, for instance) for her to chew on, sleep with, and eat her meals on. By the time she came home, she would have known our faces, our scent, our touch. 
  • We would have worked on crate training her during those visits so that she had a familiar, safe place to be–both in the car on the way home, and to retreat to once she was in her new house. In the years to come, unfortunately she never did have a crate, but would wedge herself into the space beneath the lowest laundry shelf in our bedroom for comfort.
  • We would have had a familiar-smelling blanket from her litter mates and mother in her crate, and a variety of chews, balls, tug toys and stuffed toys to offer her when she got mouthy.
  • And thanks to Ian Dunbar, we would have had long and short-term confinement areas set up for her to explore—puppy-safe, reassuringly confining, and mentally enriching—with water, toys, a few stuffed Kongs, a potty area, and a bed snugged into a crate.

short term confinement
Annie in her short-term confinement area.  Surrounding her crate is an ExPen, giving her an area of 8 feet by 5 feet for her long-term confinement space.  She has water and toys available. At six months old, she is house trained, so she doesn’t have a potty area. A canvas drop cloth protects the carpet.


  • Kong recipes: Kong recipes can be simple or complicated.  I have found over the years that simple works best for me–I still make several Kongs a day for my year-old-puppy, Annie, and fourteen-year-old matriarch, Vera. There are many reasons to give dogs Kongs. Read more about it on WebMD
  • To start, I have available dry kibble, soaked kibble, and at least one high-value food to layer with the soaked kibble—peanut butter, banana, (if your dog likes banana—Sascha did!), small chunks or grated apple, canned tuna, canned dog food, or Fresh Pet (available in the refrigerated section of pet supplies in some grocery stores), but you can use whatever your dog likes. Remember to limit foods high in fat to thin layers in the Kong.  Never stuff a Kong solely with peanut butter or cheese, for instance–it can give older pets pancreatitis, or younger dogs diarrhea and vomiting.
  • I start by putting a few dry kibbles in the bottom of the Kong to make it easier to clean when your dog is finished with it, then I start layering the ingredients. As I fill the Kong, I pack it in with a dowel (or with my finger), so that it’s solid.  I finish with one of the high-value ingredients, and top it with a treat.
  • For dogs who are adept at emptying Kongs, you can freeze them, and it will take the dogs  longer to empty them. However, if your dog has never seen Kongs before, especially if they are rescues and stressed, pack it loosely and show them how to empty it. Roll it, drop it from a few inches off the ground, and praise them when they clean up the treats that fall from it.  Once they are adept at it, try freezing it for them.


Why Dogs?


annie lake3
Annie at 5 months and Kerry Claire at Lake Whatcom

Why dogs? 

This question haunted me for years.  Dogs have been part of my life since I can remember. They have molded my days, slept with us, hiked with us, sailed the San Juan Islands with us. They have traveled with us and they have kept us from traveling.  They have filled me with joy and anguish and continue to do so.

For years, sensing that they had bewitched me, I sought out activities that excluded them, reluctant to narrow my world and fall completely under their spell.  But dog training and work with reactive dogs, the study of their behavior, and finally the writing of their stories inserted themselves into my life as surely as breathing. I have now been a dog trainer for thirty years, volunteered at a shelter for fourteen, and written their stories for six.

In this blog, I wish to share some of their stories.  Finding Vera, my first novel, relates the story of Vera, a reactive German shepherd and her two sisters—partially from their point of view. Writing it helped me to better understand the evolution of their behaviors and motivations, their political interactions, and who they were.

But there are other stories to be told, insights gleaned from all the years of working with dogs. I hope my readers enjoy them.

v on hot tub
Vera surveying her meadow