Sunny is a yellow lab we adopted from Lab Rescue LRCP, which serves the Delmarva region. We brought him home last September, and we had a rough time adjusting to the first dog in the house after having three cats (the cats had a rough adjustment period too).
Sunny spent his first few months with us barking a lot for attention. We tried keeping him in the kitchen at our old house, but his 70-lb frame and 8-month old energy made it easy for him to make it over the tallest pet gates we could find. We eventually bought a pen from Amazon so he had a safe place to relax if we were working or couldn’t focus on him for awhile. At some point, the basement became his hang-out area, where he only got into a little bit of trouble….
This guy is our first dog together and Matt’s first dog, period. I grew up with labs, so I had a better idea of what to expect, but I still wasn’t prepared for being the “adult” in the situation. I had to figure out what to do without my mom telling me what needed to be done!
Thankfully, he came to us house- and crate-trained. It was the socialization that was the real problem, we think. So we started taking him to obedience classes at Petsmart. These were great, because Sunny quickly became a teacher’s pet in his desire to make her happy and get cool new treats that his lame parents didn’t give him.
However, our petite trainer quickly realized that holding and walking him was out of the question, as I had already realized. She went to demonstrate walking him and slid down the slippery aisles of the store, with Sunny enthusiastically pulling her along with a big smile on his face. From then on, she made sure Matt was the only one who held him.
(At this point, I had made Matt watch Marley and Me, which features a fellow rambunctious yellow lab who refuses to be whipped into shape at obedience classes, or anywhere else. I have regularly felt like we were the actors in that movie since getting Sunny.)
Once Sunny graduated with some skills like sit, lay, touch, leave it, and drop it, we thought we were at a good point to try some training on our own. Still concerned about socialization, I suggested we try bringing him to doggie daycare once or twice a week. Matt finally agreed this was a good idea, and we got set up at the closest location.
We have been consistently nervous bringing Sunny to a new place, and, at least here in Maryland, even the doggie daycares can be a bit selective in their admissions process. As we got him out of the car for his meet and greet, we both held our breath.
Sunny pulled us toward the door and the sound of twenty dogs barking. His face filled with excitement, which was a good sign at that point, as we were still worried about leaving him somewhere that he might think meant we were abandoning him since he was still fresh from the rescue organization.
“OFF!” Matt said exasperatedly as Sunny’s now 80-lb body jumped on us in frustration that we weren’t opening the door fast enough.
The owner of the daycare greeted us with a smile, and I’m sure we greeted him with fear in our eyes as we nervously watched Sunny and Matt tried to look casual while wrapping his leash all the way around his hand, turning the “short leash” technique into the “basically no leash” approach.
Sunny whimpered as he struggled under Matt’s tight grip, presumably thinking he looked rude for not jumping on the owner in excitement to greet him.
“Yep, you’ve got yourselves a lab!” the owner chuckled. We pretended to chuckle, poorly, I think. “Don’t worry, you can tell he’s just a puppy, he’ll settle in here quickly. We’ve got plenty of labs here, and their demeanor is perfect for this type of environment.”
He continued on with his usual spiel about how worn out Sunny would be at the end of the day, how this would be great for his socialization, yadda yadda yadda. Matt and I nodded along while exchanging nervous glances at Sunny, trying not to look too worried.
“Is this your first dog?” the owner asked us, knowingly.
We made another attempt at chuckling. “First as a couple,” I offered, “but I grew up with labs.” I didn’t add that Sunny was, so far, the craziest lab I’d met, and I’d spent time with much younger pups.
The owner nodded again, reassuring us that everything was normal, and that he’d be taking Sunny back to meet a few of the dogs here today as his first test. I watched nervously as Matt let the leash loose as he went to pass it off. Thankfully, this guy was built and clearly experienced with dogs, so he had no trouble bringing him to the back. We were able to watch on a screen to see how his meet and greet went.
As the only ones left in the room, we let out a brief sigh of relief before moving over to the monitor, each of us tense and still hesitant to say much.
“Here we go…” Matt said as we watched the assistants bring other dogs in the room.
To our pleasant surprise, Sunny seemed to be sufficiently caught off-guard about what was happening to react how he normally does when we catch sight of a dog while walking. There were barks exchanged and an attempt to jump, but overall he displayed what we call “appropriate dog behavior.”
The owner came back out with a now-worked-up Sunny, who was anxious to see what happens next.
“That went pretty well,” the owner said. “He’s definitely overly excited, but not to the point where I thought he might accidentally hurt anybody. You’re welcome to bring him back tomorrow and we’ll do a half-day trial. If it goes well from there, he’s in!”
I returned the next day on my own, as Matt was still working in Bethesda at that point and had left the house at 4:30 a.m. I had already stopped walking Sunny on my own, as his strength and excitability were a bad combination for my weakness and arthritis. This was a rare occasion that I was left to manage him on my own.
Unfortunately for me, Sunny recognized the place from the day before and immediately began flipping out when we got out of the car. The owner came out to greet me and chuckled again, taking him and giving me a run-down of how the day should go.
He showed me the backyard play area, the “time-out” room they have for dogs who get too excited, and their water spray-bottles they use to get the dogs’ attention when they don’t respond to verbal cues. At this point, I was already imagining a soaking wet Sunny returning to me this afternoon.
With a deep breath, I told Sunny to be good and headed home to start my workday.
The daycare center had a camera mounted in the backyard, and the owner gave us access so we could see how the day was going. Matt and I signed into the site from our work computers so we could keep an eye on him throughout the day.
We watched as various new dogs got dropped off and the group ran around in excitement to welcome each dog. The owner had told us that this is how the days go. The mornings are a bit crazy, but they settle down quickly.
This was Sunny’s prime time. Running around? Barking? Getting sprayed with water? Meeting new friends? Sniffing stuff? What a great day!
We watched nervously at each water bottle spray.
He’s getting sprayed a lot lol, I texted Matt.
Haha yeah, said Matt. But he seems to be doing well?
Yeah, not too bad.
I don’t know if we were being optimistic for ourselves or for each other. We needed this break from entertaining him. He needed to get comfortable around other dogs. He needed a place to be crazy for awhile each week.
That’s when the time-outs began.
He had barely been there for an hour when we both checked in from our work and noticed he wasn’t in the yard.
Must be in time-out haha.
Yeah but he was just in time-out like five minutes ago.
He came back out to the yard. He happily pranced around before approaching a sleeping dog.
The sleeping dog tried to give him the usual dog signs to back off. Sunny thought it was a game and further pressed his new friend for attention.
Back to time-out.
Is he….is he like the only one still playing now?
Yeah and he won’t leave the other dogs alone. They don’t look happy.
(I later learned from Matt’s coworkers that this was about the time he announced that Sunny was about to get kicked out of daycare.)
A few time-outs later and we received a long text from the daycare owner.
I’m really sorry to do this, but you need to come pick up Sunny. This is not the best environment for him right now.
It had only been a couple of hours.
I hesitantly got back in my car and headed toward the daycare, nervous to hear the real reason Sunny was being kicked out.
I walked in the front door and rang the bell to signal I had arrived. I took a few deep breaths and glanced at the monitor showing the dogs outside. Sunny came up front quickly, as he had once again been in time-out while they awaited my arrival.
He came through the door soaking wet, as I’d anticipated, and still wagging his tail excitedly.
“Hi…” I offered the owner sheepishly.
“It’s ok,” the owner said. “He’s not a bad dog, he just lacks impulse control and self-awareness. In fact, I’d say he’s friendly to a fault.”
“Friendly to a fault?”
“Yeah, I don’t know how much you were watching on the cameras today–“
“Quite a bit.”
“Well, he just doesn’t get tired! The other dogs were trying to relax and Sunny kept bothering them. I’m mostly afraid that he was going to get hurt since he doesn’t react to social cues. Also, he doesn’t seem to know his name?”
“Yeah we say he has selective hearing, because he’ll only respond if we say his name nicely.”
“Oh…. Well, he’s not ‘expelled,’ exactly, he just needs a bit more training before I’m comfortable letting him become a regular.”
I looked down at my soaking wet dog who had a big smile on his face. He was proud of himself, and I didn’t have any way to tell him the bad news. He spent the next few weeks assuming he was going to be going back to daycare, approaching the back of my car for a ride there each time we left for a walk.
I wish I had an update here that went something like “And now Sunny is a trained therapy dog with no impulse control issues whatsoever! Daycares around the area are begging him to be a student!”
Alas, I can only report incremental improvements.
We worked with Consistent Canine for a month of private training, and Sunny did a great job with focused attention! He has really improved his impulse control and his ability to focus with distractions and other animals around.
So yes, Sunny is still a work-in-progress, but isn’t everyone?