Shortcuts to Enlightenment

black & white dog sittingSorry there aren’t any. Thought I’d get that out of the way.

When you find yourself living with a dog who has fear based behavior challenges (one way of saying ‘fearful dog’ for those who eschew labels) it’s not unusual to think, hope, believe, that there’s something, anything, that is going to turn them into a dog who doesn’t have fear based behavior challenges (is not a fearful dog anymore). For some dogs it doesn’t take much. The dog, suffering from culture shock, just off the transport bus, recently pulled out of a shelter, owner gone or no longer able to care for them, digs deep, has the resources and once they put a few pieces together about their new life, are fine. I suspect that many of you reading this blog didn’t end up with a dog like that. I didn’t.

It’s hard to give up the idea that if we could only come up with something-we consult with a communicator to tell us why the dog is afraid, we buy supplements, scents, wraps, collars, harnesses, medication, music, adjust diets, get another dog- all will be well, our dog will be fixed. We move from one remedy to the next, trying what someone else had success with, hope springing eternal. But still our dog startles easily, they flee, cower, cringe, lunge, snap, growl, bite, hide.

Changing how our dogs behave and how they respond to the world takes time. It takes patience. It takes effort. It takes time. It takes money. Most of all it takes an understanding of dogs and how they develop and learn. All of the things we can do and buy to help our dogs may contribute to improving the quality of their lives, but when we spend time looking for shortcuts we may neglect the daily attention we should pay to our dogs, the routine practice that brings competency and mastery of a skill. Doing this requires that we have the ability to acknowledge the dog we are engaging with, at that moment.

Learning to help ‘fearful’, ‘reactive’, or ‘aggressive’ dogs takes practice, and heaven knows our dogs will give us the opportunity for that.

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13 comments so far

  1. Debbie Wolfe on

    Funny you should post this today. We seemed to have a breakthrough of sorts with Watson, my fearful mastiff foster, yesterday. At the park, he got off the seat and was ready to come out of the van even before we had the other two dogs out. He marched across the scary bridge with his tail wagging. He peed half a dozen times as we wandered along the path. He wagged his tail a lot. He held still when I squeezed him between my knees while the bicycle passed close by, and even looked – calmly – at the bicycle. I was patting myself on the back for how far we’ve come when reality hit me. Over weeks and weeks and weeks of going to this same park, taking this same walk, and carefully managing his exposure to scary things, he has become comfortable with THIS place and THIS routine. So perhaps it’s time to start the same process in a different location, but it is far from time to declare victory. In fact, this gradual acclimation process is probably going to be the way Watson will need to live out his life. So I guess we did have a breakthrough yesterday, but it was in setting my expectations.

    • fearfuldogs on

      It does often happen that much of the improvement or progress that is made is with our own ability to appropriate respond to our dogs. Sounds like Watson has some skills under his collar and hopefully can put them to use in new situations. Nice going.

  2. rangerskat on

    I have tremendous sympathy for those looking for a quick fix. But it’s a sad fact of life that there aren’t quick fixes there are only slow improvements and things that might help a little bit. I spent weeks debating with myself about whether adding Chinese Herbs to my “treatment plan” for Finna would be worth the stress she’d have to endure in order for the vet to meet and assess her. In the end I decided to gamble that it would and Finna had a very stressful experience but, just a few days into the experiment, it does seem to be helping. She’s not magically better but I didn’t expect she would be. However, she is recovering more quickly from Finna Fits and Freakouts and her reactions to the things that frighten her are less intense. I’ve been describing it as buying her a split second to think before she reacts; when we can do that she makes better choices.

    Still, I know the lure of quick fixes. I can see steady improvement in Finna in so many areas but I still find myself impatient for more improvement, faster improvement, and for life with a dog that doesn’t have to be continually managed. I didn’t know when we brought her home that we were signing up for a doctoral program in patience but that’s the reality of life with a fearful dog.

    • fearfuldogs on

      I think we should have a certificate we can frame declaring us doctors of patience.

      I tried Chinese herbs with Sunny as well.

  3. Amy@GoPetFriendly on

    Boy, ain’t that the truth!? The good news is, our dogs also don’t hold grudges for screwing up as we figure these things out.

    • fearfuldogs on

      So long as you don’t scare the poop out of them, you may be given a second chance 😉

  4. Heather on

    Ah, yes, the allure of short cuts. I see a post with title and think “professional, with great experience, is about to share all those great secrets the experts know.” then I hit your first sentence and returned to earth.

    And it’s true of course, patience and humor can be the best tools. Not just to help with our beloved dogs, but also to help us deal with our own reactions through the process.

    But, man, to see my boy during those moments when he gets it together; only to see it fall away if I reach too fast or a little too far this way rather than that way. Yes, I’m frustrated for myself; but, more so, wishing he didn’t have to keep going through that. He does seem to recover faster and be able to use his new knowledge in other settings.

    We did have a wonderful time when we went to puppy school the last 2 weeks. Our 3rd round of classes and the group have finally discovered that my dog has a tail. He walked proudly and happily before sampling some agility equipment. He even explored some of the people–who all had treats at the ready for their own pups. (My dog came from puppy mill, so other dogs can be of comfort to him.) The people aren’t sure of him, so weren’t really interacting…which worked out great for us. (Couldn’t have gone better if I’d borrowed your trick of saying the dog’s name is Bosco.)

    So, my dog thanks you for the timeliness of your post. I needed the reminder to focus on the moment and not worry about how things went yesterday as I’ll be given another chance today.

    • fearfuldogs on

      Not that I’d recommend anyone get a fearful dog to learn patience and acceptance, but it can happen. It’s not that I don’t still harbor, in a quiet corner of my heart, the desire that one day Sunny will be ‘ok’, it’s mainly that both of us have gotten good at the routines we have and the foundation of skills that he has are enough for our daily lives.

      I was reminded of the process when I took scared little Nibbles to his first agility class this week. I could see how the cavernous, brightly lit space with bad acoustics and barking, lunging dogs were horrifying for a dog who didn’t get out much in the world. I remembered sitting against a wall in a similar space with Sunny years ago, while he sucked down canned cheese and prayed for escape (if dogs pray I’m sure he was). Today I can bring Sunny to a training facility and with a few tosses of a tennis he finds that life has meaning again.

      • Heather on

        Ahh, the power of cheese. Open space can be a challenge for us too. Thought we’d go spend a beautiful day on the beach once. Not so much. My resident dog was running the waves-having a blast. My fearful dog alternated between hiding behind overgrowth/boulders and darting out to heard my resident dog. i was stuck in the middle trying manage the long lines (we don’t have off leash areas, nor is that right for us) while trying to sort out my spooked dog. Once I saw his response, I remembered his first responses to even our relatively small backyard. He preferred the cover, not the open space in the yard. But, the beach, with lake as far as he could see–(Sunny isn’t the only dog that may know some prayers!!)

        But, after being with me for 8 months, he was willing to try some of the agility equipment. Wears an expression like he’s having a root canal, but is moving through more smoothly each time. And, hey, he’s moving. Unless we try the dog walk. Then, he reminds me-one obstacle at a time, sometimes one step at a time.

  5. Lizzie on

    I stopped stressing myself about Gracie ever becoming what is perceived to be a ‘normal dog’a long while ago and concentrated on having a full and satisfying relationship with her.
    You are so right Debbie when you point out that we are training our dogs all the time without realising it and not always in positive ways.

    I more than most have learnt that time and patience is the only way with these dogs. Gracie is not only fearful but obsessive and compulsive which hinders her in many ways, but can also be a very positive thing for her because once she ‘gets’ something it is usually in there for life!

    Coincidentally I published some photos of her earlier in the week on You Tube illustrating just how fearful and shut down she was in the beginning; whilst she was in foster, (when I first met her), and after I brought her home. I look at these shots from time to time to remind myself how far we have both come over the past nearly four years. Perhaps I could share them with you all :

    • Debbie Jacobs on

      Geesh Lizzie, get me crying why dontcha! Very good images though showing how fearful dogs look. Some people might look at those images and think she isn’t feeling all that bad, but you know better! The shots while she’s in the basket, is she feeling good or stressed? It’s hard to tell if her open mouth is because she’s doing ok, or is panting.

  6. Jay from The Depp Effect on

    I have ended up with several dogs whose fearful behaviour was reasonably short lived, and who learned to be unafraid within a fairly short time, because I adopt ex-racing greyhounds who do suffer from ‘culture shock’ when they’re adopted .

    They need work, and careful introduction to ‘normal’ things like vacuum cleaners, other breeds, stairs, town centres, buses, etc. The more sensitive ones do take a very, very long time to learn to cope with the bombardment of new noises, smells, animals, people, situations, etc. and there are a few who are genetically predisposed to be ‘spooks’ and will never lose the fearfulness – they need very special people to adopt them, for sure.

    I get so ANGRY with people sometimes. Why can they not just do the homework necessary to learn what makes a new dog growl/snap when (for instance) they or their children lean over them while they’re sleeping or lunge at them for a hug? And that the way forward is NOT to force the poor dog, or punish it?

  7. Lizzie on

    Well spotted Debbie!

    The basket was her first day here. She ran around the house like a thing demented, saw the door open to a small dark place and headed for it, sqeezing herself into the laundry basket. She was so stressed and tired; hence the panting. I had a terrible time trying to get her out of there!


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