Just what is it we expect?

brown dog with leash

Why not?

My border collie has a high tolerance for pain. When his attempt to herd an SUV a couple of summers back proved to be a dismal failure, I was amazed and at the same time heartened to see his tail wag as I carried him into the vet’s office- a hind flank degloved, opposite hind leg broken, fractured pelvis and other lacerations- when the staff greeted him. Shock was likely providing him some degree of numbing, but it still couldn’t have felt good. Keeping him from overdoing it on any limb that has shown tenderness is a challenge when the opportunity to run after something presents itself. Unlike my cocker who when sore or injured would scream in anticipation of the pain.

So I was surprised when Finn the border collie snapped at the vet’s hand when he was having stitches removed from a paw pad. I was equally surprised by the vet’s response, she shouted at him and popped him on the nose with her fist. It wasn’t her physical response that surprised me, it must be tough working with clients who can send you in for stitches yourself, and I’ve had knee jerk reactions when scared by a dog, but rather it was her emotional response that surprised, and disappointed me. She was angry with him.

More than the reprimand and even the pop on the snout it was her lack of acknowledgment that he had a good reason for his behavior that didn’t sit right with me. I’m not making excuses for my dog’s behavior, I don’t need to, he didn’t do anything wrong, though he did do something we didn’t like. He applied a controlled ‘bite’ to try to stop something that was painful to him. After suffering through several stitches he couldn’t tolerate it anymore. He needed a break and this was his way to get that point across.

I communicated recently with a woman who was having trouble with her dog on walks, he would stall in certain places. A physical exam showed no apparent reason for the dog’s reluctance and hesitation to go for walks, and the fact that he was a fearful dog led us to assume that something was scaring him. The concepts of desensitization and counter conditioning were explained but the owner was concerned that her dog might just be being ‘stubborn’. What did she mean by that?

When people use ‘stubborn’ to describe their dog (or other animal for that matter) they typically mean that they can’t get the dog to do what they want it to do. Just because she couldn’t figure out why the dog was behaving the way it was didn’t mean the dog didn’t have a reason for choosing one behavior over another. We don’t have to like or support whatever reason that may be, but we sure as heck need to accept that it’s important enough to the dog to affect his behavior.

Why is it we seem to expect things from our dogs that we don’t even expect from ourselves or other people? When working with fearful dogs it can help if we change our thinking by changing a few letters in our assessment of their behavior. It may not be that they ‘won’t’, it may be that they ‘can’t’. Instead of being upset and punishing the ‘won’t’,  help them learn new skills so they ‘can’.

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11 comments so far

  1. Amy@GoPetFriendly on

    Great points! I think in our hectic world we sometimes forget to be considerate – both to each other and to our dogs. We’re in a hurry, generally running late and we don’t take a few extra minutes to try to understand what the dog is attempting to tell us. If we’ll just listen, dogs are a great reminder to slow down and not get too far ahead of ourselves.

    • fearfuldogs on

      Thanks Amy! Courtesy does seem to be a dying art. The attitude that dogs should be able to immediately switch gears when we decide we need something from them is pervasive. It doesn’t mean that we can’t put lots of behaviors on cue and achieve stimulus control, but they’re not robots after all. And that’s probably why we enjoy their company as much as we do.

  2. Lizzie on

    As always great food for thought.

    One of the things I observe while frequently scanning my neighbourhood to see if it’s ‘all clear’ to take Gracie for a short outing, are owners who do not pay attention to their dogs, are not connecting with them. Either they are on a cell phone talking or texting or in a hurry and repeatedly drag their poor dog along even when it needs to stop and relieve itself. In other words, an outing with the famliy dog is a chore and not a pleasure.

    Then there are the few who watch too many ‘dog whispering’
    programmes on TV and think they are showing the dog who’s boss by not allowing it to stop and sniff and take in its surroundings as a dog should do. They have no idea how to fullfil a dogs needs, nor care I dare say.

    Wistfully I think how much they take their dog for granted and guiltily think how I wish I were able to take Gracie for a ‘normal’ walk. One day maybe…….

  3. JoAnn on

    I came across your blog while google searching “how to handle a fearful dog” We adopted a yellow lab in April. She is a great dog but we suspect that she has been a kennel dog most of her life. She started exhibiting fear issues not too long after we brought her home. We were told it was just a new house new sounds etc. Well, it turns out that it is more than that. She has just not experienced much of the world. Luckily she is only a year old so we think that a lot of this will pass as she gets older. It’s almost daily that we have to work on something but she has learned “check it out” and we see improvements. I am grateful to have your blog as a resource as we work with Mazie.

    • fearfuldogs on

      Welcome JoAnn I’m glad you found the blog and hope you have also visited the fearfuldogs.com website which includes more information and resources for folks living and working with fearful dogs.

  4. Mary Hunter on

    Great post!

    So many people don’t stop to consider things from the animal’s perspective.

    So much of what we do with our horses is initially terrifying to them. They spook, startle, and jump because they actually think the halter or the saddle or the water hose is really going to kill them.

    It starts to make sense to go slowly at the animal’s pace and to have a bit of empathy when we try to see the world through their eyes.

    • fearfuldogs on

      Thanks so much for reading and commenting Mary, I appreciate it. I have never worked with horses but imagine that it would give you some perspective into helping fearful dogs. There are those who would find fault with choosing an animal´s pace. Too bad.

  5. Lizzie on

    Had a bit of a break though a few days ago with Gracie, so I just had to share it with you. She has finally found the courage to take food from Brian’s hand! He still cannot touch her and she is not 100% comfortable around him but we are getting there slowly.

    It is so important for these dogs to be able to make choices. In the end it pays off if you just have the patience to allow them to develop at their own pace.

    I am so proud of her 🙂

    • fearfuldogs on

      Poco a poco la hormiga se come el coco

      bit by bit the ant eats the coconut

    • melfr99 on

      Lizzie – I am so happy to hear about Gracie’s progress! Congrats!
      It is only this year that Daisy the Wonder Dog seemed to come into her own. Everyone has commented on how different she seems – more confident, more sure of herself. It took almost 3 years, but progress is often measured in tiny successes with dogs like ours. So happy to read your update!

  6. melfr99 on

    Amen! I so agree with your thoughts.

    Too often we think of dogs in human terms and from a human point of view, not from the dog’s perspective. Perhaps a new language or a few new letters, as you suggest, would help us to interact better with all dogs – not just the fearful ones. Thanks for once again bringing new light to shine onto a common issue. I always leave your blog thinking. Thanks!


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