I’ve Got Your Mouth or Worrying About Why

face of black & white dogAt my first appointment with a new dentist after I moved to Vermont I asked if he’d like me to have my charts sent from my previous dentist. His reply was, “I don’t need them, I have your mouth.” Everything he needed to know about my teeth was in front of him.

When we begin to work with fearful dogs it’s not uncommon for us to think that we need to know the dog’s past in order to help them. It’s not that the information would be superfluous, but it likely will not change how we are going to work with the dog. We have their mouth, so to speak. Their behavior will guide us. Whether it’s an 8-week old pup or 8 year old dog who won’t come out from under the bed, our approach will be the same–help them feel safe. The same would be true of a dog growling, we don’t need to determine whether the dog is fear aggressive or aggressive and not fearful, our response to the situation will be the same–do what we need to do to end or prevent the growling without punishing the dog. We take away any perceived threat, desensitize and countercondition, and teach the dog to do something else using positive reinforcement-based training.

I have had clients spend the majority of a consult describing in great detail everything that happened to their dog. They think that something is going to inform me about the exact “fix” their dog needs in order to stop being fearful. If there was a sudden onset of the dog’s behavior it would indicate the need for a vet visit, and even with that, we’d prepare ourselves to work on any newly added fears that occurred due to pain or illness. We’d do this the same way if the dog had been displaying fearful behavior for years.

“Why” can get in the way of developing humane and effective plans for working with a dog. Decide that a dog is being aggressive because they are trying to dominate you and respond in a way to thwart this attempt and you’re likely to start brewing trouble. Knowing whether our dog was timid from birth, spent years in a cage at a puppy-mill, was tied up in a yard for most of their life, was beaten by a man with a hat and a beard may satisfy our curiosity, but it won’t change our training plan. Make sure they feel safe, DS/CC and teach them something.

My dentist did take x-rays. It would be nice to have a machine to look into a dog’s past, but don’t worry that we don’t.

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14 comments so far

  1. Linda Trunell on

    “Make sure they feel safe, DS/CC and teach them something.” Yes! The first priority with every dog should be to make sure they feel safe. If a dog doesn’t feel safe he will never have a good life – which every dog deserves..

    • Debbie Jacobs on

      And it’s not always easy to do, so caregivers can become frustrated.

  2. faithtrustfosterpups on

    So true. I spent way too much time at the beginning trying to pinpoint what happened on Balton’s road that made him become reactive, which was more a disservice to both of us in figuring out how to help him. Once we finally started focusing on the behavior instead of trying to figure out the history, and following our trainer’s guidance on what steps to take in that moment, we were able to start moving forward.

    • Debbie Jacobs on

      If the best we can come up with is “they’re afraid,” we have our starting point. Nice to hear about your success.

  3. Lynn on

    I wish I’d started with “she’s afraid” with my reactive Jazzie. Her “bad” behavior didn’t fully emerge until several months after we adopted her, so I assume her anxiety grew because I didn’t recognize it as such. A trainer who labeled her a “bully” and looked down his nose at “pez dispensers” certainly didn’t help. Now we’re working with her in a positive way, as we do for our fearful Tulip, and making good progress. It’s rough to think I was part of my dog’s sad history though.

    • Debbie Jacobs on

      Rougher to continue to be part of their sad history, and that certainly doesn’t sound to be true in your case!

  4. doggess76 on

    Thank you for this, an excellent reminder. I had a similar experience to Lynn above in that my dog took several weeks to exhibit reactivity, probably in part because I didn’t recognize early anxiety. I wrack my brain trying to figure out “what happened” even though in the end, it doesn’t matter. We have to start where we are now.

    • fearfuldogs on

      Every day we start with the dog we have.

  5. jet on

    Maybe the past stories are necessary for humans to develop empathy with the dog rather than seeing the dog’s problems as disobedience. They shouldn’t effect the steps taken but maybe they will effect the motivation of the human.

    • Debbie Jacobs on

      It’s hard not to want to know!

  6. Debbie Simpson on

    I completely agree, Debbie. Sometimes the why can be a hindrance to recovery. I have a friend who always makes excuses for her dog (she was an only child) rather than helping her treating the problem. She’s immersed in the story rather than the fix.

    • fearfuldogs on

      The past certainly plays a role, but most of these dogs can always learn new skills.

  7. Debbie Simpson on

    I knew about my Sophie’s past. She was raised in a loving foster home. She was fed well, she was exposed to all sorts of love and affection in the foster home. The only thing that was lacking was any exposure whatsoever to the outside world.

    As a result, I adopted a 5 1/2 month old German shepherd who freaked out about everything new and unfortunately everything is new. Luckily my vet ordered me to get her into training quickly before it was too late, and now, even six years later, we’re still working on helping her feel secure.

    Unfortunately, her litter mates were not so lucky. They were considered unadoptable. So sad.

    • fearfuldogs on

      That is a shame. Given what we know about puppy development it’s not surprising that by 5 months of age a dog’s potential would be diminished due to a lack of exposure to novelty. She’s lucky you’re working with her.


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