It’s In Their Head!

Finn, Sunny's mentor in all things frisbee.

Finn, Sunny's mentor in all things frisbee.

It would seem that many of us put more thought into what color we’re going to paint a wall than we do into thinking about what dog to live with for the next 15 years. I’m not pointing fingers, I am right in there with the best/worst of them. When trainers want a dog to work as a service dog, or search & rescue dog, or scent detection dog, or herding dog, or obedience competitor, they carefully consider the temperament and physical capabilities of dogs they adopt or purchase.

Compare that to how many of the rest of us choose a dog:

“Oh my god she looks just like Muffy, the dog I had as a kid!”

“Now that is one good looking dog.”

“Awww he’s so sad and scared in there.”

“Check out the bold one running around with the toy!”

“A dog would be good for the kids.”

“I’ve always wanted a German Shepherd.”

Is it any big surprise when we get home and discover that the dog we’ve chosen may not be the best choice for how we live and what we expect of it? Heck we even do it with the people we choose to include in our lives, but that’s for someone else to blog about.

My parents may have wanted a kid that could be a classical pianist but they got a kid whose claim to musical fame was that I was able to learn to play ‘Love Story’ really fast. Perhaps, given the right motivation, time and training, I might have been able to become a concert pianist, we will never know, it turned out that neither my parents nor I really cared all that much about a possible career for me in playing the piano. I’m glad I had the opportunity to learn to play, such as I can, because I think it was good for my brain to practice and learn the skills involved in learning to play even easy pieces of music, fast.

When we find ourselves with a fearful dog it can be disappointing and frustrating. The puppy or dog that was afraid of most everything when its life included only a dozen different things is now afraid of most everything when its life includes hundreds of different things. The dog I’d hoped would join me for swims at the nearby pond can barely tolerate the ride in the car it takes to get there, never mind that the presence of other people is going to dampen his enthusiasm for getting out of the car once we do.

One of the most important and helpful steps I took in regard to my scared dog Sunny was to understand that for whatever reasons he ended up living with me, a good or bad decision on my part, his fears are quite literally, all in his head and it’s not his fault. For me to do anything that scares or hurts him is not only counter productive, it’s just plain mean.

If you took a baby and kept them tied to a chair until they were two years old, during the time when they learn to walk (and I am not suggesting that you do this, even if you feel like it sometimes), when you untied them not only would they not be able to walk, their brain would be different from the brain of a baby that had been able to move, practice and learned how to walk. A whole bunch of brain circuitry would have been created for ‘walking’. A similar sort of thing happens when a dog does not experience variety and novelty during the time when its brain is learning to deal with new stuff, it’s brain doesn’t have the wiring in place to deal with ‘new stuff’. And if that dog was startled and scared on a routine basis, then its brain would develop some very nifty circuitry that caused it to repeat the behaviors it practiced when it was scared. Well… maybe not so nifty.

It happens that brains, both dogs’ and humans’, are remarkable organs, their ability to change and compensate is astounding. I read a story awhile back about a man who it was found, was missing portions of his brain, a congenital deformity which no one was aware of until he was an adult. He had lived a fairly normal life, different portions of his brain had developed the ability to take over tasks and functions that they might not have otherwise developed the ability to do, had the entire brain been present.

What does this mean for our fearful dogs? To me it means that a dog that was not properly or appropriately socialized needs to change its brain in order to behave and react in ways that we want. The fact that they don’t or can’t is not their fault, it’s just the way their brain works. The process of training or rehabbing them involves encouraging and promoting this change. The same is true for dogs that have learned fearful responses to situations, they too need to change the way their brain responds and reacts. To expect this to happen quickly or easily is to set them up for failure and to set ourselves up for frustration and disappointment. Some changes many never occur, there are no guarantees.

I have come to accept that some of the expectations I have for Sunny might never be realized. I also have seen how given time and training he has made strides and improvements. He has learned skills that make both of our lives easier, less stressful and downright fun at times. It’s not his fault that he does not have the brain to deal with certain people or situations, my goal is to help him develop it to whatever extent is possible. In the meantime, he’s not playing any concertos, but we do make some beautiful music together.

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18 comments so far

  1. barrie on

    Interesting post as always! The thing about Jellybean is that I TESTED her at 8 weeks when I brought her home! She passed the fear test, recovered from the noise, etc. and while not an overly friendly puppy she was within the realm of normal up until about 4 months. I am TIRED of people asking me if she was abused. A friend of mine suggested that I just start saying yes but I am a lousy liar and also I want people to understand that some dogs are just born this way and even if you do everything you are supposed to do in terms of testing, socialization, etc. sometimes you wind up with a Jellybean.

  2. Oh, Barrie! We get that question all the time. Once when someone asked why Lilly was the way she is at class, our trainer (who knows all too well our struggles) joked, “Roxanne beats her.”

    We all laughed.

    My usual answer, if people are really interested is this:

    It’s part genetics. Some 10% of dogs are hardwired this way. It’s partly because she was very ill as a puppy (parvo, kennel cough that turned to pneumonia, all manner of tummy parasites and issues), and it’s partly because she had a deprived puppyhood (poor socialization) before we adopted her at 6 months old.

    Our behaviorist told me that if you take these 3 elements and mix them together you will get dogs JUST like Lilly, over and over again.

    It’s a recipe for fear. It’s the trifecta seed of lifelong worry.

    Debbie is so right about the brain things. That’s why little bits of training, consistently over time helps. It’s tedious, but that’s how you build new pathways and help your dog understand that there are options other than the highway to hell (as it were).

  3. Lizzie on

    Debbie, you are so very good with words. In all that you explain and the way you go about it is just so meaningful to those of us with fearful dogs.
    If it weren’t for your experience I know that Gracie would not have come as far as she has today. And we still have such a long way to go.

    I too have people look at us, and you just know what they’re thinking. It really makes me wonder how most of the canine population ever survive with owners who have no idea of body language if they can’t see when a dog is scared and that they’re scared of THEM!

    • Melfr99 on

      So agree Lizzie! I’m always amazed when people assume a dog’s wagging tail means it’s friendly. As you and I know, that is not always the case. It’s the same with fearful dogs. If only people took the time to learn more about dogs in general and dogs they intend to adopt. The pet population might be better off.

  4. Samantha on

    I get the “abused” bit quite often too. Many people cannot fathom that a dog is either a) predisposed to fearful behavior due to genetics or b) fearful because of poor socialization in puppyhood. It IS possible that she was treated with less-than-kindness, but my hunch is that going to Animal Control at only days old, living her life in cages and being trucked nearly 1,000 miles has something to do with it too.

    In some ways, I kind of knew what I was getting into with Marge. I knew her background as a dog that grew up in shelters, and I knew she was not terribly fond of people. Would I ever actively seek a fearful dog again? No, probably not. But there’s a bright side to everything: Marge has been at the other end of a great friendship and has taught me SO much about dog behavior. I wouldn’t trade her for anything.

  5. fearfuldogs on

    Thanks to you all for sharing your thoughts. I think that we can turn the tide on how people think about and treat their scared dogs. All the disagreement about the best way to work with dogs makes me think of a quote by Ed Abbey, just add in your version of being with & enjoying your dog and your relationship with it.

    “Do not burn yourselves out. Be a reluctant enthusiast .. A part time crusader, a halfhearted fanatic. Save the other half of yourselves and your lives for pleasure and adventure. So get out there and hunt and fish and mess around with your friends, ramble out yonder and explore the forests, climb the mountains bag the peaks run the rivers. Breathe deep of that yet sweet and lucid air, sit quietly for a while and contemplate the precious stillness, the lovely mysterious and awesome space. Enjoy yourselves keep your brain in your head and your head firmly attached to the body, the body active and alive and I promise you this much; I promise you this one sweet victory over our enemies, over those desk bound men and women with their hearts in safe deposit boxes, and their eyes hypnotized by desk calculators. I promise you this; You will out live the bastards!” Edward Abbey

  6. bravepup on

    Thanks for the blog, for the comments and the unexpected support. After a tough agility class with my fearful pup, it was great to read this post!

    I came to the computer, hunched shoulders, and was soon smiling after reading barrie’s comment about the “abused question.”

    I too, have had my fearful dog since she was 10 weeks old. Now that she’s a year old, I’m always asked, “Is she a rescue?” To which I reply, “Yes.” This is then followed by, “Did you just get her?” “Nope.” Next comes the awkward pause or raised eyebrow.

    I use to take this personally, but one of the side bonuses of working with a fearful dog is that I don’t take much personally anymore. I’ve even come to quickly telling the encroaching, hand extended, “hello sweet doggy” offenders, “She’s not friendly!” to save my pup from an unwanted encounter. Thankfully, she bites only flies, but I’m learning to err on the side of being “that dog/dog owner” who everyone makes a wide circle around if that helps my pup have a successful outing.

    Probably like the rest, was this what I hoped for when I adopted my pup? No. Would I change anything? No.

    Thank you all! Keep working. Keep educating.

    • fearfuldogs on

      It is a unique club those of us who live with scared dogs 😉

  7. Deborah Flick on

    Ah yes. I couldn’t agree with you more. If nothing else our fearful dogs teach us “what is, is” and to deal with their reality with as much compassion as we can. Sometimes I am stunned at what Sadie is NOT fearful of. Really? I think. How can it be walking under the echoing underpass doesn’t freak her out. Then, out of nowhere someone looks at her intently–she is beautiful, if I do say so myself–and she freaks out and barks at them. Happens in a split second. Not so much as it used to, but still.

    Lovely post. Thank you,

    • fearfuldogs on

      Thanks Deborah. Yes, I have watched Sunny lie there as the leaf blower blasted him with leaves & dust, be nonplussed by the vacuum cleaner and sleep through thunder & lightening, only to have him leap off the bed and race back to his safe spot under my desk because I turned the shower on. Go figure.

    • Sue on

      I try to remind myself that my fearful Lucie is also very brave about many things. Sure, shadows and dark objects scare her. And, she’s afraid of gates. But, for instance, she is not afraid of bugs. Me, I’m terrified of them. I’m not minimizing fearful dogs’ feelings, I use this as an example when someone asks me, “well, WHY is she afraid? it makes no sense for her to be afraid of that.” Who said fear has to make sense? There’s no reason for me to be afraid of bugs, but there I am huddled in the corner calling for my husband to take it away in any event. What matters is how we respond when they are afraid.

      • fearfuldogs on

        Often it makes sense to compare a dog’s reaction to our own, it helps put their behavior into perspective. I too think that my fearful dog shows incredible courage much of the time given that so many things scare & startle him.

  8. Melfr99 on

    Thanks for another great post Debbie. Volunteering at a shelter for the past 7 years has shown me that our “throw-away” culture we’ve had here in America has transferred to pets (actually it’s been that way for a while now).

    I see people come in and say, “Oh! What a cute puppy! I want that one!” Then, they get it home and realize it’s a living and breathing thing that has fears, needs training and has no idea what a leather shoe is other than a chew toy. Suddenly, the “cute little puppy” is not so cute anymore and requires more work than the new owner anticipated. As you can guess, “cute little puppy” ends up back at the shelter and is traumatized one more time.

    I wish people would realize that pets are not purses and should not be bought on impulse. Maybe then some of the fearful dogs could find a home and owner willing to work with them to help them with their fears.

  9. fearfuldogs on

    I think that the general ‘decline’ in the quality of life for many Americans affects dogs as well. We have more ‘stuff’ and less time for family, recreation and reflection.

    I won’t go on about it, but I do believe that we are dragging out dogs along with us. Present company excluded of course.

  10. Lori on

    Thanks for the great website. I have a fearful greyhound. I’ve had him for almost 3 years, and he’s gotten quite a bit better. Have you ever heard of some sort of fear transference? Mine used to be terrified of people. He’s a lot better now, sill not the friendliest dog, but he’ll go up to people if there’s no eye contact. Then he went through a barking, nippling phase with other dogs, once again I’ve gotten him to be better. Now he runs out of the room when he hears the neighbor next door walking (I live in a condo). I guess he’s just determined to be afraid of something.

  11. fearfuldogs on

    Unless you also change how a dog feels, just getting certain behaviors may not be enough to create solid change in a dog. Also if you have a dog that is fearful or stressed much of the time about something or another it might be a kind thing to speak to a vet about meds that might help it feel better. It’s no fun to be worried and anxious most of your life.

  12. Cade'sOwner on

    Sometimes I am pretty sure that Cade is just shy like some people are shy. Nothing bad happened to her before I got her (that I know of)…so interesting to see this post and the responses for me.

    • fearfuldogs on

      Your assessment is probably not far off the mark. In any population there will be variations in tolerance, resiliency, anxiety levels, etc., for whatever reasons. Some we can pin point, but often we can’t. Anyone who has raised a couple of children will attest to the fact that some kids seem to pop out of the womb bold and reckless and others more reserved and cautious. Sometimes the best we can do is try to support our dogs and our children so that they are provided with the best set of conditions for learning and growth based on their individual needs.


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