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.

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14 comments so far

  1. Anne on

    Beautiful beautiful post brining tears to my eyes. Thank you (& Sunny)

    • fearfuldogs on

      Thanks for commenting and reading!

    • Vickie on

      Got your link from a friend who is working w/ a fearful dog much like your Sunny.
      My gal, Sequoia, was the friendliest dog on the face of the planet until she was about 1 & 1/2 years old. I had taken her to a dog park near my house on a daily basis. Dog parks are great for dogs and their owners unless the humans are not paying attention to their fury loved one.
      Sequoia was rolled and pummeled by the bigger dogs and even hurt due to the other dogs’ human either talking on a cell phone or generally of the conception–let the dogs work it out–BIG mistake when out matched in age and size. Then several months after being beaten-up by another doge–twice in another dog park–Sequoia started to exhibit an ” I’ll get them before they get me!!’ attitude. It was as though she completely forgot all her nice dog/good communication skills.
      We have been to several trainers from ‘pretend’ clicker trainers to e-colar/prong colar trainers and have finally found a trainer who works with reactive dogs and allows them to join in doggie games. Sequoia is now in Reactive Dog Agility IV and although she is still reactive to new dogs coming into the class; she can tolerate them if I tell her it is ok for the new doggie to be in the class too!— She is now able to walk in the woods off-leash and move on when other dogs or humans approach or surprize us on the trail.
      Thank the goddess for clicker reactive-dog trainers—Sequoia is remembering to use good communication skills around other dogs and is more of a pleasure to take in public. We still need to work on her desire to herd people’s feet or baggy pants but I am confident that will ‘click-in’ soon!!!
      Thanks for posting—enjoyed reading!!!

      • fearfuldogs on

        Thanks for sharing your story about Sequoia. Few owners realize that depending on the dog, even one bad experience can have adverse effects on their dog’s behavior.

        I deal with a similar behavior with my newest dog, Annie. Once she is able to assess the threat level with a dog she’s fine, but like Sequoia, her first response is to go on the offensive. It either works and the dog backs off, and so reinforces the behavior, or fails when the other dog responds aggressively and reaffirms for her that new dogs are indeed dangerous. It’s challenging to work with, but everybody wins when a dog is able to be out in the world and not always worrying.

        I appreciate your feedback!

  2. Tamara on

    Being owned by a fearful dog myself I find your blog to be very comforting. It resonates so much with my thoughts and feelings, and this post is particularly inspiring for me. Today my Gus and I embark on a new chapter, taking new classes to further his canine education and keep working CC/DS techniques in new environments. We’ve taken a bit of a break over the last few months and I was beginning to feel disheartened by approaching this again because I know how challenging it is going to be for him and for myself. Thank you for this beautiful post, reminding us of why we do what we do and that the pain and struggle is worthwhile.

    • fearfuldogs on

      Thanks for reading the Fearful Dogs’ Blog and commenting about your experience living with a fearful dog. You may find that both you and your dog have benefited from some ‘down time’ when it comes to training and feeling better in scary situations. Hope it goes well for you and your dog.

  3. Kelly on

    Another excellent post – and your yoga instructor had great insight that proves true for more than just that one specific situation. When working with my fearful dog, I try to always prove to him that he can trust me, no matter what the situation is. I’m hoping that as he matures, he’ll learn to rely on me a bit more, and to trust me.

    • fearfuldogs on

      Thanks Kelly! I have to admit that when you win the trust of any animal it feels good. When a fearful dog accepts your attention and affection, and asks for more, there’s nothing quite like it. I remember the months and months that I looked forward to seeing Sunny wag his tail for me. I have become addicted to it now, it felt so fabulous when it finally happened. If you keep working gently with your dog I think you’ll get what you hope for.

  4. Laurie on

    I watched an episode on tv last night of one dog trainer’s notion of success in dealing with a dog that was terrified with people. A one year old male large breed dog that lunged and barked when anyone came near.

    At the end, the dog was being taken to work and used as a form of therapy dog with people with disabilities. Both the owner and the tv trainer saw this as a huge and happy ending.

    What I saw was the whites of the dog’s eyes and the tail tucked firmly between his legs as people came at him from all sides with no room to move.

    I was astounded that neither could see the high degree of fear this dog was clearly showing and the very real risk it poses to a very vulnerable sector if people continue to ignore the warning signs. Very troubling to watch.

    • fearfuldogs on

      I can imagine the scene. Here are a few of the ways situations like this can play out.

      It all works out and the dog which was once afraid of people no longer is. I’d be looking for physical indications that this was the case, a waggy, opened mouth, happy to see you, dog.

      The dog snaps at or bites someone. Owners will claim that it occurred without warning. Or the person who gets bit will be blamed for doing something wrong or provoking the dog, when in fact all they ever did was what anyone would and could do with a dog that was not afraid of people.

      If the dog’s fearful response is being suppressed through the use of intimidation, force or punishment, there exists the possibility that when the dog does end up responding anyway it will be a powerful and exaggerated reaction.

      The trainer will accept none of the responsibility.

  5. Laurie on

    I agree Debbie.

    The scene was in stark contrast to what I experienced with Chewy yesterday at her very first visit as a certified therapy dog. May I say she did a great job and looked like a natural at it.

    Met everyone happily, was gentle, calm and cuddly for those who just wanted that and played fetch or catch with anyone who wanted more active interaction. She immediately greeted anyone new joining the group

    A year ago it was impossible to envision her doing anything even remotely like this. In fact it was months and months of socialization, desensitization, manners and obedience work before the thought of her being a therapy dog even crossed my mind. It sure didn’t happen in 3 weeks!

    I was so proud of her I could hardly stand it.

    • fearfuldogs on

      It’s always fantastic to hear about dogs like Chewy, they remain inspirations for the rest of us. Unfortunately many people cannot accept their dog’s limitations and assume that all dogs given the right training or being made to deal with things, will achieve the same level of success. Owners can become disappointed and frustrated and their dog’s behavior degrades rather than improves.

      I maintain the belief that my fearful dog will continue to be able to learn new skills and gain more comfort around his triggers, it may be a long road, but what the heck, they say the journey is what’s important. 😉

  6. Susan on

    Well hello and I am so glad to have found this blog and your website via the Dog Star Daily email newsletter I recieve. This is the first resource I have found that specifically addresses this issue. My amstaff and I had some not so good (although I suppose well intended) instruction when I first got her as a 6 week old puppy. It was all about “making” her obey and not “reinforcing” her feelings of terror at the firworks and storms. The result was as you might guess-she became afraid of me as well and like Sunny would cower and shake continuously in the corner of the bathtub or closet. In time I found a behaviorist that was able to better instruct me and we have been able to repair our relationship and begin to build some trust. It has been vital that I learned to respect my dogs fears and make her feel safe instead of trying to force her comlpance as I was instructed in the beginning.

    So glad to have found your site and looking forward to reading more.

    • fearfuldogs on

      Thanks for reading and taking the time to comment Susan. I’m glad to hear that you found someone to help you out with your dog. It’s tough enough working with a fearful dog as is, no need to make it any harder by using inappropriate handling techniques! Keep us posted on your progress.


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