Archive for January, 2010|Monthly archive page

Keeping Perspective

black dog with frisbeesThis past weekend after a presentation I had given at a nearby humane society, a trainer in attendance was kind enough to approach me and compliment on the work I had done with Sunny. I’m not bringing it up to brag, it was just that having someone who understood the challenges of working with a fearful dog acknowledge his progress, was reassuring. Over the years I’ve had people who call themselves trainers claim that they could ‘fix’ my dog or that it was somehow my fault that I still have a dog that startles easily and remains wary of people. The belief that there is a cure for the lack of early socialization (which is likely the cause of Sunny’s fears) is tempting, and dangerous.

Dogs like Sunny die by the thousands in shelters everyday. Their inability to feel safe with people often leads to aggression and reactivity. With the mistaken belief that forcing their shy dog to deal with the things that scare them is going to teach the dog not to be afraid, owners unwittingly contribute to the degradation in their dog’s behavior. Not becoming more anxious and afraid around its triggers may be the biggest hurdle for many fearful dogs, and learning to manage their dogs to prevent an increase in their dog’s reaction, the challenge for owners.

Sunny is not like other dogs that are happy to see people, and I’m encouraged to see that his response to people in some situations is leaning more toward neutral. Last night after a training class with my border collie Finn, I brought Sunny in to play with a small dog. Two trainers who have known Sunny for years were there and even though Sunny was his old apprehensive self, he was willing to target both of them in exchange for the chance to chew on a squeaky toy that had his attention. He ran and played, stole a tennis ball and chose the agility table as the location to lord his triumph over the other dogs.

Accepting that there is no magic cure for the damage done by neglect and abuse is not easy for people. Not giving up may be a trait that has stood humanity in good stead historically. Sunny might have become one of those dogs thrown away at a shelter, or was left to spend his life alone on a chain. I’ve almost forgotten that once he was a dog that couldn’t move because of his fears, or defecated when handled. His remaining limitations are often what I choose to see, so it was helpful to have someone remind me of his successes.

It has been the goal to help Sunny become the happiest dog he can be that has propelled me to learn as much as I can about animal behavior, dog training and the physiology of fear. In the process I’ve learned a lot about the limitations to my patience and skill. The picture of the potential reality we can expect with our fearful dogs is often too rosy, but there are plenty of shades of pink to enjoy along the way.


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It Doesn’t Have To Be Tough Love

Dachshund on woman's lapLast spring I took care of a friend’s dog, a young Rottie, named Abby. Abby was living in a family with a senior Rottie and 3 young children. She was a great dog and any challenging behaviors could be chalked up to age and inexperience. While she was with us I treated her as I would my own dogs. We worked on life skills such as not rushing out doors, waiting quietly while I prepared meals, and playing nicely with others. She was a quick study and we all enjoyed having her here.

Not long after Abby’s visit my friend commented that it seemed as if they had dropped off a puppy and brought home a dog. I felt a mild blush from what seemed like a compliment, until she added, “It’s like we sent her to doggy boot camp.”  The implication made me cringe. Boot camp is rigid, demanding and often demeaning. I was surprised at her assumption that anything that improved her dog’s behavior dramatically must have resembled ‘boot camp’. I knew she meant no insult, but I felt a sting.

Abby had played and was rewarded with food treats when she came when called, sat when asked and responded appropriately with other dogs. I prefer to think that what I offered Abby was a few days at language camp. She learned some common words and had the ‘culture of human’ more clearly explained to her. I was pleased to hear that Abby went home with more of an understanding of how to live with people than she arrived with, but I hope that word of mouth about what I offer dogs does not include the ‘boot camp’ analogy.

It’s not about whipping them into shape, it’s about helping them understand and interpret what the people in their lives expect of them. You can love them if you like (or can’t help yourself), but there doesn’t have to be anything tough about it.

Edges & Flexibility

Black & white dog with tennis ball at feetAfter a too-long hiatus a group of us started our weekly yoga classes on Friday. During class, while seated in a particularly challenging hip-opening posture the instructor gave us this piece of advice regarding stretching, “You earn the trust of your body by respecting its edges.” As I do with many things I immediately thought of how this comment applied to working with fearful dogs.

I won’t ever know what my dog is thinking and I can only guess at what he’s feeling. When I say I believe life has become easier for Sunny because he has a human caretaker he can trust and be comfortable with, it’s just conjecture, but sure looks like it’s the case.

I try to imagine what it must be like for dogs like Sunny who having spent their lives in a small, limited world, suddenly find themselves surrounded by people and objects which are new and terrifying. Even the people who Sunny was dependent on for all of his needs frightened him so much that he would defecate if handled. I’ve never been that scared, and hope I never am. If it does come to pass (no pun intended there!)  I’ll be grateful if someone acknowledges my fear, takes my hand and brings me somewhere where I can feel safe again. There have been animal studies which indicate that after a stressful experience having the opportunity to ‘chill out’ with a trusted cohort, helps to lower the stress the animal is feeling.

Forcing muscles to stretch causes tearing, which not only hurts, requires time to heal. My dog’s ‘courage’ is like a muscle which over the years has become stronger and more flexible. When it has reached its edge I want Sunny to know that I understand and he doesn’t have to worry, flee or try to defend himself. Often it’s easier to get closer to the edge when you know you can back away if you need to.

It Doesn’t Matter If It’s Not Scary To You

A common misconception that dog owners have is that they, or other dogs, can show their fearful dog, that something is safe. While a dog that is merely inexperienced in a situation may take cues from other dogs regarding how it should feel about or behave around something new and scary, a fearful dog will not. I have watched climbers scale rock faces with the ease of a gecko, yet when roped in and fifty feet up myself, have been so frightened the only movement I was able to make was the uncontrollable shaking of my legs, regardless of how easy someone else made it look.

If we are with a person who is afraid of something, we recognize from their facial expressions, body language and what they tell us, the extent of their fear. It would be callous and insensitive to insist that someone afraid of snakes lets you drape your pet python over their shoulder. Forcing them to let you show them how harmless the snake is is not going to eliminate their fear and you’ll likely lose a friend in the process.

Dogs try in subtle and not so subtle ways to express their fear of things, yet this notion that by forcing them to ‘deal with it’ we are doing them a favor, is pervasive and potentially dangerous. Changing emotional responses to situations is difficult if not impossible. If it was easy to do there would be no Hollywood movies about angst filled family gatherings at the holidays. Our parents and relatives would not ‘push our buttons’ simply by making an off-hand comment or suggestion.

Your dog’s fear may seem silly or be frustrating to you, but that does not change the fact that it is very real and powerful for them. Understanding and accepting that your dog is scared, and this fear is not under their control, or yours, is an important step in learning how to help a fearful dog.

It’s A Dance

Sunny is one of those fearful dogs that will likely never be totally comfortable with people. He spent the first year of his life in the company of dogs, not people. The mental and emotional development that occurs during that time of life for dogs is important for their ability to interact socially with whatever animals and humans they will deal with in the future. The damage from the lack of early socialization is often not repairable. But even all that said, Sunny continues to learn skills that make it easier for him to be around people.

Knowing when to ask Sunny to deal with more than he has in the past, or to let him find a safe and comfortable place to hang out away from people, remains a challenge but I like to believe that over the years Sunny has learned to trust my choices for him. Rather than digging in his heels and resisting, he follows my lead and I try not to step on his toes.

I was away during the New Year and 4 people stayed at our house caring for our dogs. Two of the people Sunny was familiar with, two he was not. By all their accounts, Sunny did great. He was able to go outside when offered the chance and come back in when called. He was his frisbee stealing self when games were played in the yard and though he wasn’t snuggling on the couch or snoozing in bed with people as the other dogs were, he was not aggressive, the biggest behavioral risk owners of fearful dogs need to be on guard for. But both Sunny and his caregivers knew the routines, averted glances, no petting, some hand targeting, so there was no need for Sunny to completely avoid all the action.

The dance is different for each dog. It takes practice and patience to learn the steps myself, but the results are fantastic to behold. I am honored and complimented when any dog chooses to join me when the band starts playing. Right now my dance card is full, and I’m loving the music.