Calm attentiveness

“Mindfulness means paying attention in a particular way; On purpose, in the present moment, and nonjudgmentally.” Jon Kabat-Zinn

black dogOne of the most important things I think we can do with our dogs is attend to them. Our shy dogs who, without words to tell us what they are feeling and what their next move might be, are showing us with every blink, turn of the head or lowering of their tail.

A woman contacted me recently who had reclaimed a fearful dog she had fostered. Although she had been willing to keep the dog, the rescue group felt it was best that he go to someone with 20 years of experience training dogs. Despite those years of experience, the dog was returned to the rescue group, the fur beneath his collar rubbed off from leash corrections (e-collar??) and with new aggression issues toward strangers. Since we have the brain to do it, let’s just imagine what it was like for this dog who trembling, went from shelter to rescue then foster care to a new home where abuse masqueraded as training.

I will assume that the woman who adopted the dog had the best of intentions, she was going to ‘fix’ a scared hound dog. Yet I can’t help but wonder why at some point when leash corrections were not working, she did not come to the conclusion that the problem was in her technique, not in the dog’s ability to change. Obviously the dog could change, his behavior got worse.

The dog has returned to a sanctuary where, despite a lack of years of experience training dogs, his newest owner knew that he could not be bullied out of his fear. I often think that the most important thing we have when it comes to working with fearful dogs is our humanity and our ability to see suffering for what it is.

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18 comments so far

  1. Kevin Myers on

    If only empathy were as hardwired into us as fear and aggression are. Frustration leads to reaction and not pro-action. Our ability to think is diminished and therefore our instruction comes from emotion and not logic. Being non-judgmental, both about the dog in front of you, and about you as the trainer, has to be the best way to work.

    • fearfuldogs on

      I know that as a little kid I was a source of eye rolling by my parents and older siblings when I cried about toads that I saw squashed or squirrels having their trees cut down. I was assured that they had no feelings.

      Maybe in order to survive and not go completely batty we have to turn down some of that empathy, there is just too much pain, suffering and injustice out there to witness.

      Thanks for reading and posting! I appreciate your continuing support.

  2. Emily on

    You can’t “fix” scared any more than you can “fix” working drive in a dog. As a rescuer it’s been my experience that all dogs work with us best when we are ‘working with them’. And that aside, you don’t make any progress with a scared dog by forcing them to become ‘un-scared’. A dog who is fearful will always carry that element of fear with them. Their sensitivity needs to be respected and they can always be set back by people who do not take that part of their character seriously.

    • fearfuldogs on

      Thanks for reading and commenting Emily. Nice to meet you. I believe that brains can change and many dogs who are fearful can learn to be comfortable with many of their former triggers. But you are so right that many of these dogs will always be ‘wired’ to startle easily, especially those which were not appropriately socialized early in their lives or who have suffered trauma and abuse.

      I especially like that you say ‘their sensitivity needs to be respected’. Wouldn’t that be a nice thing if it happened across the board for all species, including other humans!

      • Alyssa on

        I know just what you mean about some fearful dogs being wired to startle easily. My shy Cupid does quite well in situations where he is not startled. When he is startled, though, his first reaction is to bark and make the scary thing go away.

        I live in a row of townhouses where the yards are fairly small. On one side, the fence is only chain link, and if the neighbors come out–or in his mind, sneak out–then he gets very barky. If I see them and am able to point them out to him so it’s not a surprise, he does much, much better. I am trying to help him see that even when he is startled, things can be OK. But I think his reaction is hard-wired.

  3. Julie B on

    Some of this mentality has become so main stream (again), that the rescue I’m with actually had to write a position statement on our training philosophies. My former foster dog who was semi-feral and incredibly untrusting of humans was being introduced to a family who was interested in him. The lady grabbed his leash and gave it a pop – for no reason. His foster home said that he couldn’t be handled like that because he has issues with a leash still and having his collar handled. She said – “Oh well, he’ll get used to it.” Needless to say, that was the end of that.

    • fearfuldogs on

      Thanks for sharing this info Julie. Writing a position on training philosophies is probably a good idea for all shelter and rescues.

      ‘He’ll get used to it’ ugh.

  4. Eeek. While I’m no fan of “litmus tests” for adopters, it would be hard for me to feel good about a placement if I knew that the dog would be trained old-school.

    Still … I think fearful dogs need extra consideration in their adoption matches. Some people can handle it. Some cannot.

    • fearfuldogs on

      It’s a mixed bag. People doing rescue & sheltering are assumed to know more about dogs than folks looking for a pet.

      I spoke with some folks recently who had just returned a 6 month old dog they adopted to keep their older dog company & add to their family. They seemed surprised that the pup did not handle being home alone for over 10 hours a day well. She did a lot of damage. They should have known better and the person adopting out the dog should have realized that a household in which both people worked long hours was not likely to be a good place for a young dog. Sounded like a nice dog otherwise.

  5. Rod@GoPetFriendly on

    I was watching a documentary on the art of making bread (really). The lesson I learned, as applied to our dogs: When you walk the dog, WALK THE DOG. No phones, no mind drift … just pay attention.

    • fearfuldogs on

      Be here now, as they say 😉 thanks for the read.

  6. Jim Stay on

    Excellent post. Calm attentiveness and time. The fearful dog will grow on it’s own time. We can not let our ego tell us it must happen faster.

    • fearfuldogs on

      Interesting thought about how our own ego effects how we handle dogs and what we expect from them.

  7. Life With Dogs on

    I cringe at the thought. So many are not cut out for the challenge, and they often seem to be the ones who end up with tough cases…

  8. Alyssa on

    > I often think that the most important thing we have
    > when it comes to working with fearful dogs is our
    > humanity and our ability to see suffering for what
    > it is.

    Amen to that! My shy boy Cupid was my first dog and my family didn’t have pets as I grew up, so years of training was something I did not have. What I do have is empathy and a desire to understand what Cupid is feeling.

    His shelter profile said that he “needed a family that would spend time socializing him.” And I discovered certain things, ways of meeting people, and situations that would set him off. I knew his reactions were “off,” and I learned that fear was the reason for it.

    So I read a lot and continue to learn and work with him. I cringe to think what my Cupid would be like if he had gone with a trainer like the one you mentioned. He is doing well with me and making good progress.

    • fearfuldogs on

      Thanks so much for reading and commenting. There is always something more to learn about how to help our special needs pets. Some dogs do seem to be more easily startled than others. They’d make great gazelles, no lion would get near them! One of the things I’ve noticed with fearful dogs is that although they may always be more easily startled by noises or sudden changes in their environment they recover more quickly. Many dogs will startle if something crashes near them, but they don’t lose their heads over it. I have seen this change in my own dog.

      All the best to you in your work with Cupid. He’s lucky to have found you.

  9. Lizzie on

    Talking about gazelles, when Gracie first went into the Rescue Centre, the owner named her Fallow as she behaved just like a startled deer, still does sometimes 😦
    Although I liked the name and it did suit her, I found that it made me feel sorry for her every time I looked at her and so I changed it because I wanted something better for her.

    But as you say Debbie she does recover very quickly from any stress, but I know not to put her in situations that she finds difficult to cope with. Of course there will always be times of stress. Sadly it goes with the territory of having a fearful dog.


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