The veneer of fear

stripping a piece of furnitureIt’s easy to think that the fear we see our dogs display is just a veneer that needs to be stripped away to expose the solid oak dog. Certainly there are dogs for whom life has tossed a curve ball and they struggle to for a bit as they sort out their new life, but they have the skills for doing that.

Perhaps a more appropriate way to look at a dog’s fearful behavior is to see it as a scab which is protecting the sensitive tissue beneath it. The more we pick and scrape, the more likely we’ll create a long lasting scar. We can cover it with a band-aid, pretend that all we need to do is make the dog do the things they’re afraid of, and all will be well. But for dogs who were born with a predisposition to be wary or were not socialized properly as young pups, take the band-aid off and the wariness and fear remains.

Some dogs have been gifted with skills they take with them, wherever they go, that allow them to feel comfortable in whatever world they find themselves. When I worked with street dogs from Puerto Rico most had mastered the ‘how to work the crowd’ behaviors humans find so appealing. Their survival depended on it. They wiggle and wag, grin and beg. My border collie Finn lived in at least 7 different places before landing with us at age three. He was taught how to catch frisbees and he never meets a person without expecting they can throw one. As far as he’s concerned every person is a potential game player.

We may never know the exact reasons our dogs are afraid, but we can know what  makes them feel good. With this information in hand we can build up the ’tissue’ of our dog’s confidence and skills. For some dogs all that will remain is the faintest of scars that is only visible in certain light. For others we will always need to be respectful of the sensitivity that lingers.

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19 comments so far

  1. melfr99 on

    Wow. Great metaphor. I love how you write Debbie.

    I was trying to think of how I would describe Daisy using the example you used. She has come so far – much farther than I ever thought she would, and yet there are things that she will always be afraid of in her life. Pulling on the leash (which pulls on her collar) still scares her – I should mention this only happens when we get tangled.

    People don’t scare her as much anymore. In fact, lately she has been quite confident when meeting new people. I never would have expected that.

    The fresh scar is still there on some things and healed over on others. Knowing which ones is so key for me and for Daisy.

    • fearfuldogs on

      Thanks Mel, you’re kind for saying this. Very cool to hear that Daisy is showing confidence greeting new people. You helped her develop that skill. I think of some fears as though they are fingernails on a black board. There’s something about them that will always make a dog feel uncomfortable. I can’t even THINK about fingernails scrapping on a black board without cringing a bit.

  2. George on

    I really like this post, and may be one of your best. Along with the street dogs in Puerto Rico the wild dogs in Moscow have learned how to ride subways, buses to get into town to beg for food. Sometimes I think humans should just leave these dogs alone and not cause any scabbing or long term scaring. Then again the “other me” says if we treat the scab correctly with time and allow it to heal properly there may not be any scaring.

    If you don’t mind, I’m going to use this metaphor when talking about fearful ones at the kennel.

    • fearfuldogs on

      Don’t mind a bit. One of the things I think that makes a difference between street or feral dogs, and many of the puppy mill or hoarder dogs that we see, is that the street dogs had the opportunity to experience lots of different things, and develop skills for dealing with them. The lack of exposure and experience captive dogs face is often irreparable. They don’t get to move and their brains don’t get to develop in ways that street dogs’ brains do. They are lacking the raw material to work with.

      • honeysjourney on

        That is so true, I continue to be amazed watching the brain work in Honey.

  3. Lizzie on

    Always thought provoking your posts Debbie, and I particularly like this one!

    And yet, it occurs to me that some captive dogs may have brains that work apparently quite noramlly,once they have the opportunity to use them, well at least I now think that’s the case where Gracie is concerned.

    The more I ‘work’ her brain the more skillful she becomes, she excels at nosework, and obedience providing she is in a calm situation, and has this wonderful energy about her, a real zest for life, typical Lab, lively and goofy. I got her a couple of the Nina Ottosson interactive games and she loves them, it took her no time at all to work them out.
    She has no fear of storm sounds, or fireworks and gun shot, passing vehicles or cyclists and joggers don’t phase her, even large trucks she tolerates.

    However, parked cars, houses and especially humans remain her nemesis, and I can’t see her ever overcoming that fear of humans. It’s such a shame as she has so much potential. We’ll keep working on it though.

    • fearfuldogs on

      Thanks Lizzie. I think Sunny and Gracie would be good pals. Sunny also retains his wariness and concern about people. When we drive in the car, for over 5 years now (not continually of course ;-), he will sit on the seat and scan for people. Handing him a treat after he sees them has helped, but he’s also quick to leap down onto the floor if we are stopped and someone walks by.

      We are big and unpredictable. We look, sound and smell different from each other. A dog playing with the proverbial ‘full deck’ learns to deal, dogs like ours still play ‘better safe than sorry’.

  4. Lizzie on

    Tell me Debbie, what do you do when Sunny leaps onto the floor of the car, if he sees a person. Do you give him verbal comfort or ignore him?

    Five years+ is a long time, and you know sometimes it’s as if dogs like Sunny and Gracie are just too smart for their own good, they think too much LOL

    • fearfuldogs on

      I will give him a treat when he sees someone whether he’s chosen to get on the floor or not. Or else I just notice and keep driving. Sometimes when he acts afraid of stuff I laugh at him and talk goofy with him..’oh no run away it’s piece of paper blowing across the deck, get your frisbee!’ it often gets him wagging his tail.

  5. Amy@GoPetFriendly on

    I absolutely love your analogies. Ripping off the scab before it’s time is the worst. I’ll keep this post in mind when I feel like the boys are driving me crazy. =)

  6. Nancy Freedman-Smith on

    Nice ! I was emailing back and forth with the vet who helped to rescue Sunny. She said that she remembers him and it took a slew of people over an hour to catch him and that he was one of is not the most fearful dog at the site. She said she was set to take him becuse no one else could, until she heard a gal from VT was taking him. She still has 2 dogs from that rescue.

    • Debbie on

      I never heard that about catching him. I was just told that dogs like him need time. I should have asked for that to have been more specific. Weeks? Years? I was not planning on adopting him but was going to foster him.

      A dog that takes a bunch of people an hour to catch should not IMHO be transported for adoption.

      I don’t blame folks at CK, they were swamped and dealing with a disaster the likes of which rescue groups had never seen before in this country. But it is an example if what goes on routinely in rescue. It’s not fair to the dogs or the people taking them on without an understanding of just what it is they are taking on.

      • Lizzie on

        Couldn’t agree more Debbie.

        From my own experience; Gracie had a 400+ mile car journey to my house from her fosterer. She had been with the foster mum for 10 weeks who had already given up on her and stopped trying to take her out on a lead because she was so scared. In the beginning she had to carry her out into the garden to pee and pooh as she wouldn’t move.

        The only easy thing about Gracie at that point was the fact that she had no issues with getting into a car and travelling, no sickness or whining etc. I picked her up on a Friday lunch time, I asked that she was not fed that morning. I had to break my journey at a friends house, and getting Gracie out of the car was a hell of a task. She went mental once inside the house, I thought she would trash the place. I finally got her into the kitchen and that’s where she stayed till the next morning, cowering in a corner. I left food and water, but she touched nothing.
        The next morning, very early, after a sleepless short night, I tried in vain to take her out on a lead to get her to pee, again, nothing. She was so traumatised poor girl that she was even unable to relieve herself.
        I had no choice but to put her into the car and start my 300 mile journey back to Scotland. It was at this point that I thought to myself, what the heck I am going to do with this dog when I get her home.

        By the time we got home it was Saturday afternoon. Gracie had not had a pee since Friday morning nor had she had anything to eat or drink. She had simply shut down.

        Knowing her as I do now I think she would be just as traumatised now if she were to be taken away from me and her now familiar surroundings. She just doesn’t have the skills to cope with changes.

        She is lucky to be alive, most other rescue centres would have terminated her life. Perish the thought……

        But I do agree with you that people need to know just what they are taking on with a dog that has serious issues.

  7. Roxanne @ Champion of My Heart on

    You indeed are the best at analogies in these situations. Love this post.

  8. pennyronning on

    As with the others who have posted, I love this post, Debbie. Your approach to the paradigm of not just “working” with fearful dogs, but the entire mental and emotional understanding that we humans have of what defines a “fearful” dog is outstanding. Thank you for the time, energy, and wisdom you share in your posts. I am grateful for those who post comments on their own dogs’ journeys as well.

    I so appreciate Temple Grandin’s theory of creating a mental and emotional state of well-being for an animal. Your approach as to how to that state of well-being is uniquely defined in each dog is awesome! And so greatly appreciated.

    • Debbie on

      Thank you very much for taking the time to send this comment it is greatly appreciated and motivates me to plug on!

      Sent from my iPod

  9. pennyronning on

    Glad you understood the message through the typos and misspelled words! Eeek.

  10. Karleencalmdoglindsey on

    Debbie, I just found your blog and am impressed with your knowledge and compassion for dogs. I rescue and foster dogs and have had several who were the kind who were comfortable in any situation. But one I kept was about a 7 yr old black lab/great dane mix who came from another rescuer who died of cancer. Before she rescued Zoey, I’m afraid Zoey had a terrible life and came to me so traumatized and terrified that it took several days of just sitting in the yard with her before she let me touch her. She has come SO far it is unbelievable, but she still has trembling incidents when a voice is raised or she sees someone with a stick in their hand. She has bonded totally with me and trusts me completely. I feel so blessed to have her in life. In this case, it just took a lot of patience to help her overcome her fear of people and like I said, there are still some issues, but I love her dearly.
    Sorry about the long comment, but I just wanted to share that. Thanks for a great blog. Now that I’ve found it, I will return.


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