In November 2010, Melania and her husband Brian rescued Scout, a beagle coonhound mix from a shelter in Westport, CT, after he had been shipped to New England from North Carolina. He was 11-months-old and in spite of being very shy and seemingly frightened, he eventually came out of his shell. While exhibiting very friendly behavior with the Woodhouse family, their friends and other pets, he was always still a bit apprehensive and reserved. Melania’s family always had two dogs in the home, so about one year later she and her husband rescued another dog named Finn, a 2-year-old male Staffordshire terrier, lab, boxer mix, who at that time was approximately 6 months old, malnourished and weighing only about 20 pounds.
In the early days after bringing Finn home, he was a tiny puppy trying to figure out what he was supposed to do, following Scout around wherever he went. If Scout got into bed, Finn would follow. They were growing to be good friends and Melania was pleased that they were getting along so well. What happened one year to the day of Finn joining the household, however, was a surprise and shocked Melania. As Brian sat on the couch eating a sandwich with Finn by his side, Scout attempted to join them, and Finn reacted by lunging at Scout and latching onto his neck.
Melania immediately consulted her primary care veterinarian, Dr. Troy Hexter, who explained that it was important that she get this aggressive behavior under control. To that end, he recommended she seek expert advice at Tufts Foster Hospital for Small Animals at Cummings School of Veterinary Medicine and Melania couldn’t be more grateful today. With her sister and niece in tow to assist with transporting Scout and Finn, Melania drove two hours to Tufts Foster Hospital for Small Animals in North Grafton for an initial appointment. During her 90-minute consult, she met Dr. Nicholas Dodman and Dr. Stephanie Borns-Weil, both veterinarians with specialty training as animal behaviorists.
Melania shared Scout and Finn’s history and the recent outbursts of aggressive behavior, and while doing so she reinforced to both of them that rehoming was not an option. She was determined to fix the problem and do whatever it took. Dr. Borns-Weil took Melania’s determination very seriously. Drs. Borns-Weils and Dodman, immediately recognized that a key to getting this under control was laying down the rules as to who was the “alpha” pet in the household. Because Scout had been in the home the longest, they recommended that Scout take the lead. “Humans are the leaders in the food chain and Finn is last,” says Melania. “They told me, when you come home, say hello to Scout first, even if Finn tries to push him away, Scout gets a treat first, gets fed first, and Finn gets everything second,” she continued. They also suggested a change in diet and prescribed Prozac for Finn. Both dogs were on a raw food, organic (high protein) diet, which can cause more aggression in dogs that have those tendencies. Melania was a little apprehensive about the medication. Dr. Borns-Weil’s response: “There is no need to be concerned. It enhances learning in dogs and helps them get through any anxiety they may be experiencing and also builds their confidence to make the best decision.”
Dr.Borns-Weil and Dodman are trained veterinarians as well as animal behaviorists who have the advantage of ruling out medical problems that might be causing the inappropriate behavior. For Scout and Finn it was deemed a “resource guarding” issue where a dog will defend or “guard” what he thinks is highly valuable from other dogs. In this case he was attempting to guard Melania and her husband Brian. There were no issues during the work day. The two dogs had free reign of the house, but because there were no humans in the home, there was no one to guard.
“Every pet has to know what his or her job description is and what role they play in the house,” says Dr. Borns-Weil. “With the implementation of behavioral modification, the devil is in the details (e.g., what to do with the bed in the living room or how far apart to place their food bowls.”
Over the next several months, Melania would have one phone call follow-up and a flurry of email communications with Dr. Borns-Weil, who has been Melania’s “go to” resource throughout the process. With a couple incidences of Finn acting out aggressively since the initial consult, Melania would document what was going on and Dr. Borns-Weil would respond with recommended ways to handle the behavioral problem. This led to the ongoing creation of new rules that continued to reinforce with Finn that he is second in the pet hierarchy. For example, Finn is not allowed on couch and is not allowed in Scout’s bed. Finn still has his bed in the living room and while watching television, Scout has the privilege of sitting on the couch. At night, Finn’s bed now sits outside a gate outside the bedroom door. “She is amazing. Everything she recommended worked,” Melania says.
“Melania was very serious and committed to the program from the start, which is critical to the success of our program,” says Dr. Borns-Weil. “I commend Melania for her commitment to seeing this through. It’s not an easy process but her extreme dedication and wisdom paved the way to her success and an ultimate positive outcome. It’s been wonderful to watch Melania trust Scout and Finn and truly understand each of their unique inherent traits, their needs and concerns.”
Scout and Finn’s owners Melania and Brian have seen Scout and Finn come full circle — together initially as friends, apart for a brief period and now together again with rules and adjustments. “From the beginning, Dr. Borns-Weil told me I wouldn’t have to rehome Finn; she knew they genuinely liked each other. Tufts has truly helped me to understand my dogs, their breeds and what they are trying to tell me. I am so grateful for family veterinarian, Dr. Hexter for referring me to Tufts and I tell anyone that will listen about what Tufts has done for Scout and Finn,” says Melania.