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A dog perched on a cushion. Dana Rodriguez for Vox

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The best $3,000 I ever spent: training for my dog

We loved Beau from the day we met him, but it didn’t take long for his true personality to emerge.

I don’t think it’s a stretch to say that Beau, our beloved 80-pound goofball mutt, tricked us. We met him on a sunny afternoon at the Petco in West Hollywood, right on the border of Beverly Hills. It was a fancy address for a bunch of dogs who were there that day having been rescued from various crappy shelters, waiting to be adopted.

That day, Beau was lying calmly in his crate, seemingly bored with the chaotic situation around him. Dogs were barking and whining and pacing. Others had blankets over their crates because they were so sensitive to their surroundings.

“We want to meet that one,” I said to someone from the rescue organization who seemed to be in charge. Beau had an enormous head and floppy ears, and when they opened the kennel door, he wagged his tail. They put him on a leash and let us walk him around the block. He went with us willingly and trotted along on the leash like a gentleman. At a light, we encountered a family with small children. Beau ignored them. I was pleased.

“I like him,” I told my husband, Matt, as we drove home. “I want a chill big dog.” Matt was less convinced; he wasn’t sure that Beau was The One.

A few days later, we passed our home inspection, and a couple of days after that, Beau’s foster mom dropped him off at our house with a dog bed, collar and leash, and some food. We would have him for five days, during which time we could decide whether we wanted to keep him.

During his five-day trial, Beau was a perfect angel. He knew basic commands and didn’t have any accidents in the house. He walked calmly on his leash. He seemed fine when people came to the door. He was cuddly and sweet, a goofball with a huge head that seemed out of place on his slim body. We decided to keep him.

It only took a couple of months for his real personality to come out, and by then, of course, it was too late. He was ours and we were his, and no amount of window breaking, lunging at old ladies, destroying the mail, freaking out when people came to the door, and getting in fights with other dogs was going to change that. We were going to have to try to change him. And changing him, it turned out, was going to be expensive.

We didn’t set out to adopt a dog with behavior problems. In fact, I had been pretty emphatic that I wanted an “easy” dog — my last dog, Lee, had been scared of kids and also somewhat leash-aggressive — and buying a dog from a breeder wasn’t an option. Part of Beau’s appeal was how calm he had seemed when we first met him. It wasn’t that we couldn’t train a difficult dog; it was more that I wanted to give ourselves a break and acknowledge our own limitations.

But the trouble started not long after we had signed the adoption papers. It turned out that Beau had pretty bad separation anxiety, which culminated in his breaking a pane of glass on the French doors leading to the patio in his effort to stop me from driving away.

That was the first time we hired a trainer, a woman named Hannah who also made her own soap. Hannah cost $100 an hour, and she showed us how to use Kongs — rubber dog toys that you can stuff with treats — to make Beau less stressed about our leaving the house. To our slight surprise and great relief, it worked almost immediately.

But every few weeks, something else would come up. Beau had been fine with people visiting the house, until he suddenly wasn’t. He was also fine with people we encountered on our walks, until, again, he suddenly wasn’t. In addition to lunging at old ladies, he lunged at construction workers; he lunged at anyone who dared walk by him.

In the beginning, he had ignored other dogs when we saw them on our walks, but then he started singling out particular dogs who, it seemed, had offended his sensibilities, and tried to attack them. He also started freaking out when people came to the door, and took to attacking the mail as it came through the mail slot. Bills, magazines, greeting cards, and small packages all ended up with bite marks.

It was pointless to be angry at Beau — he was a dog! he operated on instinct! — but I was angry at myself for putting him in a situation where I knew there was a chance he would react badly. This is one of the tenets of good dog training: You always want to keep your dog “well under threshold,” meaning that you want to keep him beneath the level at which he will react badly to something.

But what I was learning was that to keep Beau “well under threshold” seemed like it meant that we could never have anyone come over, and he could never safely leave the house. I had ended up with just the kind of dog I said I didn’t want, but now it was too late.

Beau’s behavior issues coincided with my husband and me undergoing fertility treatments — also something that we hadn’t signed on for, and something that was even more frustrating and costly, and with an uncertain endpoint. I hate the idea that our life experiences are “lessons,” but dealing with Beau’s one step forward, two steps back behavior issues and doing yet another seemingly fruitless round of IVF both seemed like someone was trying to teach me a lesson about how life is sometimes out of your control, despite everything you might do to try to control it.

Every time we decided to do another round of IVF, we told ourselves it would be the last one. With Beau, we never stopped to consider where it ended, or what the end even looked like.

Eventually, we found ourselves in the behavior department of a large veterinary hospital in West Los Angeles. Veterinary behavior is an emerging field; people who are veterinary behaviorists get their training at vet school and are essentially pet psychiatrists. This one cost hundreds of dollars for an initial consultation, and it took months to get an appointment.

As we talked with the vet and her assistant, it was hard not to feel like we had failed Beau somehow. If we had treated him differently from the beginning, would he have developed these issues? What had happened to him in his first year or two of life that had made him so anxious, or was he just genetically predisposed to anxiety and aggression? Dr. Cho’s recommendation was to put Beau on Prozac ($10 a month), and practice more positive reinforcement training. He would start on 40 mg per day, and if he reacted well, she’d increase it the next time we saw her. (The follow-up would be cheaper — “just” $185.)

You’d think that at some point we would have stopped and asked ourselves whether all of this was worth it. But there is a reason why dogs live in our homes and are our companions, and why we care for them so deeply. Dogs are loyal and devoted and always, always excited to see us, and they snuggle on the couch with us and they can sense when we’re upset and snuggle even more. We want to do right by them in the same way they seem to want to do right by us, even when they aren’t able to be the exact dog we think we want them to be.

Beau became one of the most important parts of our lives so quickly that we never questioned our devotion to him. And when things got really dark with fertility treatments, when it looked like nothing was going to work and we were not going to be able to have a biological child, we pictured our lives alone with Beau, and maybe another dog or two, and even though it wasn’t what I had originally envisioned for myself, I realized it was a potential life that I could be more than content with.

He got better, sort of. The Prozac seemed to calm him down and make him more inclined to listen to us, and he pretty much stopped lunging at people on walks. And then, after two and a half years of IVF, my embryo transfer worked and I got pregnant last August. There were suddenly new factors to consider, like the arrival of a crying, pooping miniature person who was going to require most of our attention.

Would Beau be jealous of the baby? Protective of him? Not care about him? And how would he feel about friends and family coming in and out of the house? How would he feel if we got a nanny? All our decisions about the baby had to be refracted through the lens of Beau, which was challenging because we could never be 100 percent sure how he was going to react.

I asked Cho for a referral to a trainer we could see regularly and she sent me to a woman named Kristin. Where Hannah had been a kind of dog-training free spirit, Kristin was hyper-organized and overloaded us with information. She was more expensive — she charged $200 for an initial consultation, and then you could buy packages for subsequent sessions at $120 per session, or $150 per session à la carte. We told Kristin we were concerned about how Beau would react to the new baby, but also about how he would react to so many new grown-ups coming in and out of the house. In between her visits, we were supposed to practice — which we did, inconsistently.

But every week, he gradually got a little bit better.

At its core, training has reinforced a fundamental principle: that the best way to make sure Beau doesn’t do anything that would put him or someone else in danger is to try not to put him in situations where that can happen. The responsibility lay with us. The biggest mistake we can make, I think, is to assume that Beau thinks like a human — especially assigning him intentions that he doesn’t have — or to misread what he’s trying to tell us when he’s in a situation that could make him anxious.

As we waited for the baby’s arrival, Beau went on a maintenance plan. He takes 60 mg of Prozac a day, plus a new liver-flavored supplement made by Purina called “Calming Care” that costs $50 for a six-week supply; we sprinkle it over his food. We see Cho every three to four months, and we try to positively reinforce Beau’s behavior.

The real test came on a sunny Saturday afternoon at the end of April, when Matt walked in the house carrying our new son Henry in his car seat; I was on the couch, barely able to move after an unplanned C-section. Beau growled at the newcomer, and for a moment, my heart was in my throat. But he stopped growling and sniffed the car seat and the baby, and went back to his bed with some treats.

Now, weeks later, Beau seems comfortable in the role of protective older brother. When he comes back from a walk, he trots over to Henry’s room and pokes his head in, just to make sure the baby is still there. When Matt and I feed Henry and read him a bedtime story, Beau gets up on the daybed in the nursery with us and lays his head in my lap. He occasionally tries to lick Henry’s head, which Henry doesn’t seem to mind. I don’t know if it will always be this way, but Beau has become the dog that I don’t think any of us thought he was capable of being.

Doree Shafrir hosts podcasts and writes books. She lives in Los Angeles.

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