Taking It Slow

More than just tolerating!

More than just tolerating!

Early during my search for information about how to help my fearful dog Sunny, one rescuer of border collies told me that she ‘didn’t have the time that I had to work with her dogs’. Her point was that all the DS/CC I was doing might be nice but just making dogs deal with things worked for her, and was faster. I never doubted her success, though I had to wonder if she was working with dogs as shut down and lacking in skills as Sunny.

I have always wondered if I was taking things too slowly with Sunny, but recent conversations with trainers of fearful dogs seem to support my approach. Too often owners and trainers settle for a dog’s ability to ‘tolerate’ its triggers and move on, rather than continuing to work with them until they get to ‘completely comfortable’ with triggers, or even to ‘loving them’ if that is ultimately possible.

Imagine if when you asked the owner of a large breed, guard dog, if you could pet their dog, and their response was, “Sure, he tolerates people most of the time,” compared to, “Sure, he loves people,” would you feel safe with that dog? When someone asked your partner, spouse, or family member how they felt about you and they replied, “Oh I tolerate her,” are you as pleased as if they had said, “I enjoy nothing better than being with her.”?

Suzanne Clothier commented at a seminar that when working with a scared or reactive dog the process should be like ‘watching toast brown’, so gradual that the improvements are barely perceptible. This is not to say that one won’t ever see leaps in progress with their dog, but most often the kind of changes we want to achieve with our scared dogs occur slowly. It is tempting to get to ‘tolerate’ and want to plunge on ahead, increasing our dogs’ exposure to their triggers.

Only I know Sunny well enough to determine how much he can handle and when tolerating something just isn’t enough (vet visits are usually only tolerated by even the most stable of dogs). When it comes to his feelings about people I will not feel safe unless his emotional response to them is joyful and enthusiastic, anything less than that and we run the risk of set-backs or worse, aggression if I increase the pressure on him to be near them. I continue to see improvements in Sunny’s behavior around people, but each step forward brings new training challenges, but fortunately both of us do much more than tolerate each other and I hope he’s as happy with the company he’s sharing on this journey as I am.

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15 comments so far

  1. Penny on

    Just a quick not to say, finally, a site that actually may help my growing frustration with Ralph. My 1 year old standard poodle that is fearful of almost everything for no apparent reason. Ralph was a shy and fearful puppy, something I thought he would outgrow with patience and positive experiences and training. Though he’s slightly better than he was. . .he’s is the most fearful dog I’ve ever had.

    • fearfuldogs on

      I certainly hope that fearfuldogs.com does indeed help you with Ralph. Dogs that are predisposed to being fearful are challenging. You don’t want him ever thinking that he needs to be aggressive to control his world. Have you read The Cautious Canine? It gives a good foundation in triggers, thresholds, counter conditioning and desensitization.

  2. Lizzie on

    It is wonderful to see these scared dogs come on enough to be able to live something like a more noraml life, albeit very slowly. This is certainly the case with Gracie.

    But I wonder, as each dog is different, and has had different experiences, should we expect them all to attain the same level of progress. I mean that if your dog seems happy and not scared just to be pottering around the house, and comfortable with it’s owner, is it really necessary to keep pushing for more? How can you really know what the potential for any dog is?

    I was told by a trainer once that you may think your dog has overcome all of it’s fears, and it’s probably taken years, only to find you go out one day and it’ll be triggered by something else that has never bothered it before!

    My thoughts are just because your dog is scared some of the time, doesn’t mean it’s life is not good. It will probably be a whole lot better than it was before you took it on.

  3. fearfuldogs on

    You make good points Lizzie. I find that so much depends on how much someone feels inclined to continue to work with their dog. There is no reason to keep trying to make ‘progress’ if both dog and owner are in a place that feels like both have a good quality of life. We do often project our own definition of the kind of lifestyle a dog should have, and it may not necessarily be what a dog would choose.

    We will never know the ultimate potential each dog has. I suspect that it may be limitless though gains may be so minute that they seem inconsequential. I often joke that Sunny may actually end up being a normal dog one day, if we both live long enough. There is no way of knowing how much a brain can continue to change.

    The circuitry that is laid down and creates the behaviors we want to change, in my limited understanding of brains, never goes away, we just lay new circuitry down on top of it. It likely takes many years of using the new circuitry to have it become the default route when under stress.

    The idea of ‘pushing’ a dog is relative. It sounds negative in the way you’re using it, but it doesn’t have to be. If a dog never performs certain behaviors there’s no reason to believe they ever will, without some kind of structured training to prompt those behaviors. But I’m not talking about tossing the dog off the high dive, it might mean spending many months walking over to the ladder, something easy, which does not create a fearful response. Too often people push their dog and it is a negative experience for the dog which is bad, since it only causes the response to be further burned into the brain (so to speak).

  4. Lizzie on

    Bad choice of the word ‘push’, I should have said trying to achieve more!
    It was not intended in a negative way.

    Sometimes it’s wise to be content with how things are, especially when you know your dog is 100% better than it was, even if it is only from learning little by little and slowly.
    I think that we should all give ourselves a pat on the back for patience and perseverence 😉

  5. fearfuldogs on

    But it was a good choice of word because many people do ‘push’ their dogs in a negative way, so thanks for choosing it.

    As far as achievement goes, if we can motivate our dog, and motivate ourselves, there are probably fewer limits than we imagine. But again, I don’t think there’s anything wrong with finding a very nice comfy plateau and hanging out there.

  6. joyce kesling on

    Hey fearful dogs, just read this blog, great job and keep encouraging people to be patient, things aren’t always as pleasant and/or fulfilling when we rush our dogs using quick fixes.

    • fearfuldogs on

      Thanks Joyce! I know you’ll be doing your part encouraging and educating people to be patient, compassionate and smart about training.

  7. Gwen on

    I just rescued a 4 1/2 yr old cocker from the humane society that was in a puppy mill all his life. He is now totally unsocialized and horribly scared. He isn’t agrressive, he will let you pet him forever, if you can get your hands on him. I set on the deck and talk to him for long periods of time, he does better when my other two female dogs are out and about. He keeps coming a little closer everytime, but if I look at him, he takes off. Yes, all my dogs are altered, so we don’t have that attitude going on. He is so sad, but wants to come to me, he is wiggling his tail more, and if I leave the door open he walks in the house, but doesn’t stay. Does anyone have any other suggestions for me?

    • fearfuldogs on

      I have lots of advice and ideas for you Gwen, you’ll find it on the fearful dogs website at http://www.fearfuldogs.com I created the site specifically for people like you (and me) who are living and working with dogs with extreme fear issues. Please take the time to read through as much of the site as you can. There is a page on Damaged Dogs which I think would be well worth you having a look at. Just remember that a dog that ‘lets’ something happen to it is not necessarily enjoying it (though they may be!). The goal is to help the dog feel good about the things that scare it now. This dog has missed out on all the experiences a dog needs to have to not only help them feel comfortable, but to develop their brains fully. They can change, but it takes time and there is no way to know how much change can occur. You might also read the info on medications that can help these dogs, you say the dog is sad, and the meds can help with that. They are not a cure, but a useful tool that I for one wish I had started sooner, rather than later with my own scared dog. Being scared, sad and depressed is no fun and certainly not healthy for a dog. The sooner you can start to effect actual changes in the dog’s brain (which is where the meds come in) the sooner you may begin to see progress.

      Good luck. I recently lost my senior female cocker who I miss desperately, they can be wonderful dogs.

  8. Gwen on

    The male cocker and my female g. shepherd has been in two fights, it is easy to break them up so far, but my boston terrier thinks she needs to put her two cents in and i’m most fearful for her. The first fight was over food, I feed the cocker outside by himself, but the shepherd went over to the bowl and they got into it. The second time I was trying to get the cocker involved in playing more and I threw a stick and they both started to get it and started to fight. i’m just wandering is this a small thing or is it going to turn into something big as time goes on. I’m most concerned if this happens when no one is at home. I have watched some of the dog shelter-rescue shows on the animal planet and I realize that food aggression is a serious issue. What do you advise?

  9. fearfuldogs on

    This is a training issue and not an uncommon one. I would say that you NEVER leave these dogs alone together. Dogs can and do severely injure each other. You are right that it can get worse.

    You want the dogs to learn that having another dog near them or near their stuff is a wonderful thing, not just make them learn to tolerate it. It takes time and training and depending on the dog may not ever be 100%. I keep any high value resource (chewies, bones, etc.) out of the picture if I have any dogs that are resource guarders boarding with me.

    Get a copy of MINE! I forget whether it’s by Jean Donaldson or Patricia McConnell. You can find it on the book list on the http://www.fearfuldogs.com book page.

    My grandmother used to breed Boston Terrierists, they were described as ‘scrappers’.

  10. cjswartz on

    I just celebrated my 2nd anniversary with my dog, Honey. I adopted her from the county pound and discovered that she was not friendly with most men or dogs,and was overly excited about my cats. I had never had an unfriendly dog before in many years of living with dogs, and wasn’t sure I was interested in all the hard work it was going to take to work with her. Thankfully, a behaviorist gave me instructions about de-sensitizing her with the cats. When I saw that she could be near the cats and didn’t want to eat them, I decided that we could work together on other issues. I’ve learned to be more aware of her signals, and learned that she is willing to make friends with most men if they will be non-threatening for a few minutes at a safe distance. She has even walked right up to several strange men in the last few weeks to be friendly – but then barks at others. Haven’t been able to figure out the difference she sees/smells in who she’ll like instantly. It is an ongoing process, but I was lucky in that she had no shyness with women, so we learned to get along pretty easily. She can behave nicely around a few very small dogs, but always reacts with big dogs. Since she’s my only dog, we can live with that, but I’d love to be able to walk her without being on the lookout for other dogs. At least I don’t have to worry about looking around for cats anymore – she gets along great with them. It’s funny to watch her so friendly with the cats, but bark at another dog if it gets too close. Great blog and website – thanks for sharing so much useful information. I’ll be reading for a few more hours and have the RSS connection to get the updates.

  11. cjswartz on

    Thanks for the book recommendations – I’ll take a look at them.


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