May I have this dance?

border collie looking uncomfortableI was reading a blog recently written by a woman who confessed that though she had not always been a dog lover, she now had to greet every dog she saw. If that is truly the case I hope we never cross paths. My dogs don’t necessarily want to greet every human they meet. Even my fabulously social and cuter-than-buttons cocker spaniels began to  hide under my chair when sitting at an outside cafe in Provincetown and they couldn’t take one more person cooing over them. I understand that people’s behavior is coming from a place that is essentially good, but it’s also often only essentially good for them.

At a large pet event I watched as a dog trainer, who seemed like a lovely, kind person, took the leash from a woman who had brought along a young dog she was fostering. Walking away with the dog the trainer began to gently manipulate the dog into heeling position and a sit. This was occurring in a function room with high ceilings, hundreds of people, tables, chairs and even ferrets. I watched as this sweet, stressed dog complied with the requests being made of her. Even if the trainer and dog had met before it could only have been the equivalent of a first date and here the trainer was asking the dog to hop into bed with them. The dog to her credit did the best she could. I was desperately trying to figure out the point of the exercise.

Was the trainer trying to impart some skills to the foster care giver? To the dog? It sure wasn’t a teachable moment as far as I could tell. Was the trainer trying to show off their skills? Even if only gently pushing down on a dog’s hind end and lifting up their tail to get it to sit works, I was far more impressed with the dog than the trainer. It was loud enough in the room that I had to lean closer to people speaking to me and crowded enough that people brushed by as they maneuvered past. I can’t imagine what the dog, with senses more sensitive than my own, was experiencing. But I tried. I tried to imagine the world at that moment from the dog’s perspective. A dog who had not only never been in a place like this before, was a dog in transition.

The experience likely did not cause any damage to this resilient and tolerant dog but I continued to wonder why two people who were obviously caring, kind, gentle dog lovers, would take the risk of putting a dog into a situation in which she might be continuously pushed toward being overwhelmed. The only conclusion I could come to was that they were unaware of what the dog was trying to say. I’d like to think they’d care, if they had taken a moment to pay attention to what the dog was asking for with her slight resistance, look-aways, attempts at avoidance, or in one case flopping to the ground.

Fortunately most dogs are resilient and adaptable. They manage to learn and cope despite how we handle them, not because of how we handle them. Some of that handling may even contribute to their ability to cope with extremes, but some dogs may not benefit and become anxious or negatively reactive. If we really and truly love and care about dogs why don’t more of us inquire as to whether a dog would like to add us to their dance card or sit this one out before we drag them onto the dance floor?

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20 comments so far

  1. robertforto on

    Great post, Debbie!

    • fearfuldogs on

      Thanks Robert!

      Heard from my friend in Alaska who has offered to send me some sled dogs so we can get down our road this winter. If they are not rebuilt after the floods we’ll be skiing them.

  2. Lizzie on

    I think that there are not many people on this earth who truly understand where a dog is coming from.

    You, Debbie are one of them.

    I constantly watch how others relate to their dogs, (I use the term loosley) and wonder how and sometimes why they even bother to own such an animal. But you would think that a ‘trainer’ would at least have some expertise in body language.

    I took Gracie to see the vet last week for her annual check up. Whilst the vet was listening to Gracie’s heart I asked what the rate was and she said good, that it was perfectly normal and steady. I was so surprised as Gracie seems always so stressed when at the vets. She is usually pressed up against a wall with big whale eyes, avoiding anyone’s gaze and just looking so afraid.

    Anyway I broached the subject of drugs again, specifically prozac, knowing full well my request would be declined, and the vet said that as she really didn’t know that much about SSRI’s she would ask someone who does.

    The vet called me a couple of days later having spoken to the head of the ‘behaviour dept’ of an large animal and teaching vet hospital, about Gracie and suggested that because she hadn’t shown physiological signs of stress, ie heart rate, blood pressure and pulse, that her fear might be ‘fake’, and that her reactions are learnt behaviours and not emotional ones. So much so that drugs would probably have no effect on Gracie.

    I am now so confused. It is true that Gracie is very reactive, but she is always as right as rain as soon as the trigger is gone. It might make some sense, but I have to ask ‘what is it that makes Gracie react in the first place? Is it not an emotional reaction? I would not have thought that animals could fake their feelings. I’ve always had the belief that what you see is what you get with a dog.

    Any thoughts on this Debbie?

    • fearfuldogs on

      Every behavior has an emotion associated with it. I wonder how one separates a dog’s fearful behavior with the emotional response that causes it. A dog who is ‘faking’ being afraid deserves an Oscar.

      It’s like testing someone with diabetes’ blood and because they have taken their insulin and are at a ‘normal’ level, telling them they are not diabetic because tests don’t show high blood sugar.

      I am very sorry you have been unable to find a more supportive vet to help you. How about a trainer? In most cases the best we can hope for with meds is that they make training new behaviors and responses easier.

      Have you done the ‘look at that’ protocol with her?

  3. Jen on

    My Doberman has done an Oscar-worthy performance of paralyzed shyness, only to break into a vigorous dancing play bow when the stranger said “oh, you poor shy thing” and I laughed. Or maybe she was unsure, and my laugh made her relax? I don’t know for certain; I know her eyes were Disney-limpid, and her chin tucked in just a bit, but she was standing steady and square to the stranger, her stub up but relaxed. I’ve seen her play pretend, certainly, which I never realized a dog could do.

    Play scared, though? I don’t know if that’s a vet I would keep going to.

    I think a lot of people, Professional Dog People especially (and this does include vets and trainers), get caught up in what they feel about the situation, and how they want a dog to react to it, regardless of how the dog is actually acting, what the history is, etc. I agree, it is to that foster dog’s credit that the dog complied.

    I do confess my inexperience in dogs and dog training, the Elka Doberman is my first dog, and I’ve tried to do right by her. But, lifting a dog’s tail to make him sit? I’ve never heard of that before.

  4. fearfuldogs on

    The tail was very long and it looked like it was being lifted to get it out of the way, but honestly I couldn’t tell you for sure why it was done.

    • Jen on

      I guess they just figured the dog might need a little “help”. Or perhaps they thought it would be like “somatic therapy” (that’s not really what it’s called, but I can’t think of it now): tail down = stressed, tail up = happy, so if you force the tail up, the dog will become happy. Kind of like “if you smile anyway, you’ll eventually feel happy”. Or I’m thinking about it too much.

      • fearfuldogs on

        Your guess is asks good as mine!

  5. Merciel on

    Oh god yes, the well-intentioned friendly greeter has been a special bane of mine these past few weeks.

    My resident dog, Pongu, is a fearful dog. Undersocialized, inherently skittish, AND coming from an abusive/neglectful first owner (who luckily only had him a few weeks… but it was the crucial few weeks from about 7 or 8 weeks to 12 weeks, when I got him). He does not do well with strangers.

    The foster dog I just placed, Gremlin, is a bold and fearless little mutt, but recently went through a period of growling and barking at strangers after an unsettling incident we had with a stranger who followed us around the park late at night several weeks ago. Fortunately, this didn’t seem to be an innate response for her, but rather a reaction to that one specific incident (she never did it before that, and I fostered her for months), so she was very amenable to “look at me” training and the unwanted behavior went away after a few weeks of consistent work.

    During those weeks, though, it seemed like every third person we passed on the street wanted to walk right up and wave his hand directly in the dogs’ faces with no warning. I realize they were trying to be friendly, but it was NOT a good idea and it was NOT helpful for me while trying to coach these two dogs out of their respective issues with pushy strangers.

    I’m pretty sure all those people now think I’m a complete psycho for telling them (as politely as I could) not to do that to my dogs, but you know what, I am totally okay with that.

    Anyway, thank you for this blog. I just found it yesterday while Googling around for more resources that might help me work with Pongu, and I’m very much enjoying reading through the archives. 🙂

    • fearfuldogs on

      Glad you found the blog and appreciate you sharing your tale about people just trying to say hello. If you haven’t found it yet my fearfuldogs.com website has lots of info and resources as well. Good luck with your pups. Sounds as though they were lucky to land with you, if only for a visit.

  6. Rachel on

    I just went to Provincetown a couple weeks ago and had the same reaction. I brought my dog (because the internet claims that Ptown is very dog friendly), but I immediately regretted it because there was just too much noise and movement and people everywhere (actually it was just too much for me too). I wish the internet had told me it would be so crowded and busy.

    So we left and went to the beach further down the Cape. On another note – at least some of the National Seashore beaches on the Cape allow leashed dogs! And my dog _loved_ the beach (wriggling in the sand, running in the water, not too many people), so I think the trip ended up being net positive for him.

    • fearfuldogs on

      Yes, summer in Ptown is not the place for anyone looking for some peace and quiet 😉 We were there off-season and even then too many people had to stop and admire my dogs. Since it’s a given that people will interact with a dog despite any indication that the dog may prefer ‘not’ to interact, I don’t bring a couple of the dogs I have now. Annie my cocker could learn to deal with it, Sunny would probably end up shutting down from the stress. When we do go out I am very directive with the dog or with the people who try to approach us. Sometimes I’d rather not bother. That’s when I bring my bombproof border collie Finn.

  7. Holly on

    “I continued to wonder why two people who were obviously caring, kind, gentle dog lovers, would take the risk of putting a dog into a situation in which she might be continuously pushed toward being overwhelmed”

    I just found your blog today. Up until this post, I kept nodding my head, saying….yep, yep again oh yes,exactly.

    But this one……there isn’t enough information to make an accurate assessment of the dog. Stressors are a part of life, and just being in an environment like this is a stress for most dogs. This is a foster dog and might have an inexperienced handler so perhaps this dog was simply stressed right then, and had good bounce back.

    *sigh* I don’t know, your post came across to me as if we should not ever stress dogs, that they are tremendously delicate and should be handled with special care. I think this is the wrong impression to make, and I hope I am wrong because dogs….even fearful ones, need to learn about bounce back….they need to learn to deal with and shake of stress.

    I am not advocating tossing fearful dogs into overwhelming situations. But a normal dog, who might be unsure in such surroundings…..gentle handling might not be so bad.

    • fearfuldogs on

      Thanks for reading and sharing your thoughts Holly. Certainly stress is part of life and there are optimal levels of stress which facilitate learning as well as levels that impeded it. The whole idea behind counter conditioning and desensitization is not to ‘never’ subject a dog, even fearful ones, to stress, but to do so thoughtfully, taking into account what our goals for the dog are. I’d like to think that those goals should include giving the dog skills, not just hope that they are better for the experience. My annoyance was less with the idea that the dog was being traumatized but more with the one-sided conversation that was going on between dog and handlers. I know that most dogs need to learn to suck up and deal with a lot in their lives, I will probably never feel good about watching it happen though. The outcome is not always a more resilient dog, as much as anyone thinks it should be.

  8. Holly on

    No, the outcome is not always better for the dog, but we really don’t know how it turned out for *this* dog do we? Was the whole session one sided, or just this portion? I’ve found as I get older (50’s now), I’m far more sensitive to what the dog might feel about things, but I also find that my view can be skewed if I’m searching for things to be hypersensitive to as well.

    • fearfuldogs on

      It is the case that I am sensitive (and I’ve stopped apologizing for it) but I rarely have to search for things to makes me cringe. At this particular event I was at a table seated near a woman with a cat in a harness. I was watching the cat and noticing facial expressions it was making & asked the woman what they meant, “Oh that’s panic,” she replied. Subsequently the cat managed to slip the harness and needed to be chased, climbed up my arm and hung on, youch. And despite all this the woman never left the venue with the cat. For the life of me I could not understand the point of it. How many cats, or dogs for that matter, need to learn to deal with 100s of people in a conference hall? And what exactly was the cat learning?

      That dogs are incredibly adaptable is evidenced by their evolutionary success. That many dogs don’t make the cut is seen by the number who end up in shelters for behavioral reasons. That one particular dog is able to thrive under stressful conditions is of interest, that it should set the standard for all dogs doesn’t make sense to me. I saw one person at this event helping her dog learn skills for coping with all the noise, activity, etc. & I was so surprised I went and introduced myself to her. Turns out she was a well-known trainer and also commented on the same thing-the number of dogs who were left flapping in the breeze to figure out on their own how to respond to rapidly changing novel situations (while on a leash or harness and unable to move).

      I suppose it’s like anything else. When you have your eyes attuned to something you are more likely to notice it. Like the fellow who oil undercoats our cars and suggested that I deal with those small spots of rust appearing on my bumper before they got worse. I didn’t and ended up having to replace a rusted out bumper.

      I like to think that dog was no worse for wear when she got home. But I bet she slept like a rock when she did.

  9. Holly on

    this is such an interesting conversation for me……
    ““Oh that’s panic,” she replied. ” *blink* ! To expose your pet for 5 minutes or less might be beneficial, to expose your pet to the point of panic……no. Just no.

    “How many cats, or dogs for that matter, need to learn to deal with 100s of people in a conference hall? And what exactly was the cat learning? ”

    this is very, very true and those that do (competition dogs come to mind), are more likely to have trainers who can help them.

    thanks for discussing this

    • fearfuldogs on

      Ditto Holly! Thanks for the invite to think 😉

      At dinner last night with a friend she wondered about her friends’ dogs who lived to ripe old ages and did not much other than be a loved family pet, go on walks, snooze on couches and get whatever grocery store food that was on sale. Good genes? A low stress life? Coincidence?

  10. Holly on

    “Good genes? A low stress life? Coincidence?”

    since one thing almost always causes a ripple effect, my guess would be all of the above. We already know constant stress is not good for anyone and can cause all sorts of physical issues. I also wonder about the need for some people to change up the environment all the time for dogs, take them out of their home range a lot to new and stressful places (shows for example). Now I’m not talking about exciting places that the animals are familiar with, but rather stressful places, like the one you outlined above.

    • fearfuldogs on

      That was just the point my friend was making. She wondered if just being a pet dog without a lot put on them in regard to performance meant that they were better off then many who spend days in crates waiting for their event, or being carted around everywhere (I am still not sure why any dog ‘needs’ to go into a pet shop), even if they were eating raw, all natural, organic, etc., and weren’t being vaccinated every year.

      I grimaced a bit at an APDT conference when Turid Rugaas suggested that Americans train their dogs too much, not what that audience would like to hear! But I did think I understood what she was talking about. Sometimes dogs just need to role in sh*t.


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