My Rescue Dog, Pepper

My rescue dog, Pepper.
On the left, at the shelter, on the right, in my backyard some months later.

In Sept of 2007,  she was seized by the police on a street corner approximately 15 miles from her home and brought to a municipal shelter. The only ID she carried was a rabies tag hanging from a tattered collar. Through the tag ID number, the municipal shelter, a “kill” shelter, identified her owners and made repeated, unsuccessful attempts to contact them. Their lack of response confirmed the shelter’s suspicions that she had been abandoned 15 miles from her home. How long she had been a stray is anyone’s guess. After her owners didn’t respond, she was scheduled to be euthanized.

Fortunately, in the nick of time, she was adopted. Unfortunately, due to being heart worm positive and because of behavioral issues, one week later she was returned to the shelter.  She was again placed on the euthanization list.

Again, she avoided that fate when she was rescued by a no-kill shelter.

The good news was that they nursed her back to physical health; the bad news was that she lived there for 22 months and received next to no training (with the only training being administered by a very heavy handed shelter trainer); zero life enrichment; and no behavior modification, as she became increasingly aggressive, while developing a host of behavior problems including object guarding; reactivity to strangers and other dogs; body touch reactivity, and severe thunder phobia. For an added bonus, while in my car (a Corvette) if someone passed by, she would redirect her hostility toward the inside, leather door panels.

I was volunteering my time at the shelter and got to know her. She rarely made eye contact with me (or anyone else) and was clearly in a downward spiral but we somehow connected. I would sneak her to a secluded part of the shelter for training (lest we were caught by the shelter’s trainer, who once referred to her as having a “screw loose) and while there I slowly/gently clicker trained her to make eye contact, perform solid “sit stays” and to even perform tricks, like jumping over tree branches while I held them.

In May of 2009 I adopted her. From day one, we began to work together on modifying her shelter survival behaviors and replacing them with ones that suited a happy and safe home environment. We did so without the use of heavy handed, “correction” based training methods. Instead, I utilized positive reinforcement training techniques. It wasn’t easy as she bit me twice within the first week after I adopted her and also landed me in the hospital for knee cartilage surgery after lunging at another dog that was easily 100 feet away from us while we were on a walk. I also discovered that she suffered from separation anxiety.

Today, all the “problem” behaviors have been resolved. I tell her, often, that I marvel at her ability to change. She is even much less afraid of thunder storms than she used to be, (read about how we achieved this, here) which is a good thing, now that we live in Cary, NC.

It has been a wonderful ride. Below is a picture of her with my good friend and world renowned trainer, Dr. Ian Dunbar. From being a stray on the streets, to hanging with Ian – I’m darn proud of this dog.


Ian and Pepps 2

Today, she’s my best friend and has become a part of me. I hope she feels the same way.

The moral of the story is that dogs, even those with behavioral issues, can be coached to replace their unwanted behaviors with acceptable ones and that this can be achieved without the use of force, so long as we are dedicated and knowledgeable about how we interact with them.

If you would like to read a six part story about her life, click here.

Videos of Pepper

Video 1 –  Pepper enjoying her first romp in the snow. (my original music as the soundtrack)

Video 2 – Pepper, who used to respond to “come” with a look that said “let me check my schedule and get back to you”
responding to a sound I make as one of my ways of calling her to come.

Video 3 – Pepper does her favorite trick “Ding the bell” After completing it, since she figures she has me trained (which is exactly
what we want dogs to think) to give her a treat for dinging the bell, she goes back a second time, without being prompted. Mission accomplished.

Video 4 – Pepper performing the first trick I taught her (while she was still in the shelter). We used to jump over branches instead.

Video 5 – Shows my “Heads Up” cue. It’s very useful on walks if you want to have your dog focus his/her
attention on you and not something else, like another dog who’s behaving badly.

Video 6 – shows a combination of a solid “sit stay” and a recall as she leaves the food behind (the bowl next to her contains
chicken, scrambled eggs and bacon) to come to me when called. Upon arrival I reward her with a helping
of what was in the bowl and then we go back to the bowl to allow her to take what she has worked for.

Video 7 – Pepper showing me that she’d rather not help me with my continuing education at
Jean Donaldson’s Academy for Dog Trainers. Can’t say I blame her, she already knows everything she needs to know about being a dog.

Video 8 – Proofing Pepper’s “sit stay” cue against a major distraction – her favorite tennis ball. Always remember, with your puppy or dog, to adjust your criteria slowly so that both you and your puppy/dog can succeed.

Video 9 – A typical start to the day for Pepps. Amazing that this dog didn’t know “sit” when I first brought her home, now starts her days with Easter Egg hunts and agility. By the way, I didn’t teach her how to use her Kong without using her paws. She taught that one to herself. :)

Video 10 – Teaching a new behavior requires patience. In this video, you’ll see Pepper processing information in my Cary backyard, as she learns a new behavior.

Video 11 – Fun game for those bad weather days. Or those 100 degree heat index, Cary NC days…Pepper and her snuffle mat. Just toss in some dry food and let the fun begin. You
can purchase your own snuffle mat at

Dog Training Puppy Training Services in Cary, Apex, Raleigh, Holly Springs, Morrisville.