Freedom To Try

Dogs who come from puppy mills or who have lived on chains or confined with limited opportunity to interact with a varied environment, are lacking in many skills. I’m not sure if ‘trying’ is considered a skill or not, but it’s not unusual for a dog who suffered deprivation in their early life, to ‘give up’ easily. When faced with a challenge, a partially closed door, a ball under a chair, a treat out of reach, instead of trying to remedy the situation, they do nothing. In some cases they may be afraid of what happens when they try, the chair moves, startling them. Or they don’t appear to be inclined to try at all.

It’s easy to come to the conclusion that a dog is stupid when they behave this way, and it’s not a fair assessment of them or their potential. We need to be prepared to provide the dog with numerous opportunities to learn to be successful when faced with a challenge. When we talk about building a dog’s confidence, this is how we can do it. You can help by making sure that the solutions to problems are simple.

Instead of giving a dog a frozen stuffed food dispensing toy like a Kong, put a few bits of meat into it and spread some canned food on the rim. Make it easy for them to get a taste of the food and then let them discover how by manipulating the toy more food can be had. Hide toys and treats in easy to locate, accessible, places where they feel safe. Put food under towels or pieces of paper or cardboard if their range is limited.

Following is a video you may be see circulating on the web. It’s not just a cute puppy playing with a stick, though it is that. It’s a sophisticated animal trying to solve a problem and through her efforts, discovers a solution. Even if Maddie never tries to bring a big stick through the door again she has learned an important lesson- her behavior matters and sometimes it pays not to give up. Maybe it’s a good lesson for the rest of us as well.


11 comments so far

  1. Catherine McBrien on

    Such a cute example of problem solving.

    My Gracie is also a problem solver. She is obssessed with carrying cat food cans around and when she saw two on the floor she wanted both of them. So she studied the cans intently, saw that one was smaller than the other, then neatly placed the little one inside the big one and proudly carried them both off.

  2. heather on

    Oh my Dog, u r killing me with these posts Debbie. About a month ago, I completed my first foster experience–a 6 yr. old from a puppy mill who was quite shy, sounding similar to your Sunny in his experience with the human world. I think I spent our 15 months with this as my focus-trying to create situations where he could and would try something new. He’d had such limited experience working the world. Between fear and just not knowing how, we baby stepped through quite a few moments that once seemed like something dogs “just know.” I found myself doing stuffed kongs that were room temp at the front with a little frozen. Squirt cheese was a gift from the heavens!!!

    having been a puppy mill dog, he wasn’t always comfortable letting his guard down around my dog (even though she often gave him security). he and i would play in the yard together. i’m lost to express watching him open to playing with this ball he found and the routine we developed. i was late for work quite a bit, trying to spend that time. i went to work with a smile on my face and centered though. And of course, we had to play at night too. he developed confidence and pride. som ething like Humor, too, i think.

    I chose not to adopt this little guy and oh, i am missing him. your last few posts have truly resonated lessons that he taught me. just like this puppy, who came at a different angle, find that perspective and our fearful pups can soar.


    • Debbie Jacobs on

      You learned lots of skills from this fellow that will help another dog down the line!

      It’s just been my personal experience but when you ‘flip the switch’ for these dogs, and they continue to have opportunities to discover what we might label, joy, even with what might be lifelong limitations, they can have a ‘good’ life. They may not be the dog for just anyone, but when they find the right home, it’s a grand thing.

  3. Sam Tatters on

    When Inka first came home, I got so sick of reminding him to let Inka figure things out for himself. “More than half of that antler’s sticking out from under the sofa, he can get it himself”, or “He can fit his head under the chair, let him get the bit of kibble himself”, and so on.

    It didn’t take Scott long to realise the difference between our dog (an able problem-solver), and his parents’ dog (who will bark to ensure someone comes to the rescue ASAP).

    I think trying is a skill, as it can be encouraged, or lost through lack of use.

  4. Sam Tatters on

    Darn phone. Of course, the him I had to remind want Inka but my partner…

  5. Jodi, Kolchak & Felix on

    I definitely recognize that “learned helplessness” in our Felix. Five years after his rescue, he just started playing tug of war this summer. Before this, like with everything else, if I challenged him by pulling on a toy, he’d just give up. The unwillingness to play tug is one of the last wisps of that sad, scared dog he once was and I am almost brought to tears every time he tugs back, but it was a long road to get here. Baby steps and patience, worth every agonizing moment.

    • fearfuldogs on

      Sorry I didn’t respond sooner to your comment Jodi. We learn the true meaning of patience with these dogs, that’s for sure. Five years to tug. Good name for a book!

  6. gingerspacedog on

    “I’m not sure if ‘trying’ is considered a skill or not, but it’s not unusual for a dog who suffered deprivation in their early life, to ‘give up’ easily.”

    We’ve noticed this a lot with our fellow and it has made training and working on his reactivity to other dogs a little harder. What we are really working on now is teaching him that interacting with his environment, trying new things and solving relatively simple problems leads to positive results (lots of freeze dried duck liver, clicks and quiet praise).

    • fearfuldogs on

      Sounds as though you are on the right track with your dog. Any track with freeze dried duck liver sounds pretty good!

  7. Adrienne on

    I enjoyed your article. I think our dogs know much more than we think they do. I was reading this article in Science News about how they can take advantage of us because they understand the way we think. Quite interesting

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