Changing Tactics in Training

Once I had identified that Rugby didn’t trust me as well as I had thought he did, I knew where I needed to focus my work with him.  It wasn’t really what I wanted to do, because I could hear his socialization clock ticking louder and louder in my ear.  I knew he hadn’t had much socialization as a very young puppy….or at least I was guessing that was the case.  Few dogs get enough.  And there’s a window of time that closes on socialization, and once it’s closed….it’s a done deal.

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I was on borrowed time to socialize Rugby…and time was running out!

I felt very much as if I was racing against the clock to get Rugby trusting me to the point where I could once again socialize him so that he could have that big world that I so wanted to give to him.  Without the trust factor, any time I took him away from home, instead of having good results for him, I was creating additional stress for him, and teaching him in appropriate ways of coping with those things which made him anxious.  It was a difficult balance to find, to give him outings that were safe and fun, and didn’t cause more stress for him.

For the first time in my life as a dog owner, I was faced with having to build trust with my own dog, and I really had no idea how to do that.  I know that sounds crazy, but I honestly had never had dogs who didn’t trust me.  Everybody trusted me!  Why couldn’t Rugby?  What was I doing wrong?  I thought trust would just come along as a by-product of being fair and consistent, and that Rugby would see that I loved him…and automatically trust me.  Why wasn’t that working?

RJ. Veteran's Cemetery 002For rescue dogs, it often takes 30-60 days to settle into a new home.  What that means, is that it generally takes that length of time for a dog to adjust to his new home, bond to his owners, and feel safe and secure.  And in Rugby’s case, because he had so often had new homes, just as soon as he bonded to humans, the bond was broken and he landed in a new place.  In my gut, I suspect that at some point in time, Rugby made the decision that humans couldn’t really be trusted, and to keep his walls up to protect himself from yet one more abandonment.  For a dog barely one year old, this was just heartbreaking for me.  He was too young to have experienced the rough side that life had to offer.  I really wanted him to experience the good side as well.

This is the price we pay when we recycle dogs over and over and over.  Breaking trust with a dog has a definite cost to the dog.  In Rugby’s case, all of this happened to him as a young puppy, before he had figured out how the world works.  All of the shuffling from home to shelter to rescue to foster to home again….left a deep negative imprint on my poor speckled pup.  He had no idea what end was up in life, and I was just the next in a long line of humans to say, “I love you” to him.  Only I really meant it.  Always and forever.  I just had to convince Rugby I meant it.

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Tick, tick, tick, tick….

So I had to figure out how to teach an adolescent dog to trust me, and I wasn’t quite sure how to do it.  I knew that there was a distinct possibility that Rugby would make a permanent decision not to trust me, so I had my work cut out for me, and the clock was ticking to get this accomplished and still have time to meaningfully socialize him.

The challenge that I faced as a dog owner, and also as a dog trainer, is that Rugby held all of the cards in play.  It was completely up to him to figure things out and connect the dots.  I couldn’t wave any magic wand to somehow make all of the previous abandonment go away.  I couldn’t mumble magic words to erase his memory banks.  I didn’t have the ability to reprogram his DNA to give him the tools he needed from birth genetically to be a sound, balanced dog.  Things were what they were, and all I could do was go forward from where we were at that moment in time.

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He was so scared that first night.

All the while, I was grieving for him.  I was grieving for a little puppy who could have had such a promising life in a big world that was more safe for him than not.  I didn’t want him to just exist…getting food and water and medical care.  That’s what shelters do.  I wanted to give Rugby a life.  I wanted to give him adventures, and love and safety and fun in a big world where he could count on me.

But how was I to effectively communicate that to my little speckled treasure in fur?  Would he ever be able to connect the dots?  Would he be able to trust me?  Would we be able to work through his fears and past his negative experiences to help him enjoy all that I wanted for him?  I could only hope so, and the only thing I did know how to do, was to put one foot in front of the other and just dive in, heading in that new direction.  I was in for an adventure myself, but had no idea at the time.

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