Scary Things and Dogs!

The reason that many dogs are fearful is because they were not properly socialized from birth.  Socialization starts at birth!  Puppies are born blind and deaf, but they have a great nose, so that they can find the food!  Their eyes typically open at ten days, and their ears typically open at 14 days.

Our Happi with one of her ten day old puppies. She was a wonderful Mama!!

Once those ears and eyes open, especially in those first few days, puppies can be easily startled by all kinds of scary things that they aren’t expecting.  A careful breeder will ease them into noises and help them identify the source of the noises so that it makes sense to the puppy and won’t be quite as scary to them. As they grow and develop, a careful breeder will expose them to more and more people, places, and things so that their puppies will understand how the world works.

Backyard breeders, puppy mills, stray dogs having litters on the mean streets…..just don’t have the benefits of properly socializing these puppies, so they are more at risk for being fearful in life.  If socialization doesn’t happen, or doesn’t properly happen, these dogs are more at risk for having critical foundational skills that they will need in life as adults.  They are much higher risks for becoming aggressive at some point in their lives.

This is really what I suspect happened with Rugby James.  By the time I adopted him, the socialization ship had sailed, and left him essentially unable to make sense out of scary things in life.  As he grew from a young puppy to an older one, he developed “coping skills” which were patterns of behavior that helped him when he felt overwhelmed or stressed or scared.

When Rugby first came to live with me, his primary coping skill was a pattern of barking and running.  When he didn’t know what to do, he barked and he ran.  He dodged capture and continued to bark and run with a fearful look in his eye that told me just how scared and overwhelmed he felt.  In his mind, as long as he was running and barking, he would stay safe.  The running and barking was keeping him safe, so he knew that he had to continue to produce that behavior if he was going to survive.

In his previous life, before he came to live with me, when it came time for Rugby to be adopted, people saw this adorable little puppy, and couldn’t wait to bring him home.  Once home, they also saw Rugby’s crazy barking and running patterns, which are so very difficult to live with.  This is often where dogs get surrendered to a shelter, or tossed out into a back yard, because owners just can’t stand the crazy behavior.  As a dog trainer, I look at the behavior and know that there’s something behind it.  Owners often simply see a naughty dog who can’t straighten up and fly right!

Rugby’s first night with me. He was sooo scared, but trying so hard to put up an excited and brave front!

It’s really important to know that coping skills are learned behaviors!  They are behavioral patterns that dogs develop in response to other things going on in their environment.  Dogs are not born with these crazy behavior patterns; rather they learn them to help them cope with things that must seem crazy or out of control to the dog.  To correct the naughty behavior, we have to know what drives the behavior, and work with the root issue that causes the dog to respond the way that he does.  I’m part dog trainer, part detective!

Dogs are masters at spotting patterns in their environments, and they are also masters in problem solving!  They try and fail and try and fail until they try and succeed.  Once they figure out what works, they learn to create a habit of behavior.  This is true for learning good behavior as well as naughty behavior.  Often the naughty behavior is reinforced without an owner understanding that they are doing so, and as a result, strong naughty habits are formed, and sometimes coping skills as well.

Scared dogs exhibit many body language signals, such as lip licking or tongue flicks. This is why it’s so very important to understand how to interpret your dog’s body language!

In Rugby’s case, whatever overwhelmed or scared him made him run, and barking kept the scary thing away from him, and that’s what he learned to do.  When he produced that coping skill, he stayed safe, so in his mind, as long as he kept running and barking, the scary thing couldn’t get him.  Over time, he developed a habit of running and barking whenever he encountered anything scary.  It’s what worked for him, so he continued to do it.

Young Rugby taking a short break from running in the yard.

For an average dog owner, Rugby must have warmed their hearts with his looks, but his wacky coping skills were things that they just couldn’t manage, so he got surrendered when they’d had enough of him.  If his very first home had taken time to carefully socialize baby Rugby James, I think he might be a very different adult dog today.

As it is, when Rugby sees anything that’s scary or weird to him, his response is to bark and run.  When he’s on a leash, he can’t escape to run, so his response is to bite out of fear, frustration and anxiety over his situation.  He skips so many middle steps and leaps right to the conclusion that he will likely die, so his emotional response is to save his life, and he comes out fighting!

Rugby doing some training in the front yard. He’s got pinned bunny ears and a very stiff Down/Stay, showing how nervous he is training in that environment.

Over the years, I’ve tried so many different ways to help him understand that he is safe with me, but trust has been an ongoing issue with Rugby James.  This is the by-product of multiple homes.  People think that surrendering their dog will mean that their dog will get a “happily ever after” with someone else.  Sadly, that’s not always the case.  In Rugby’s case, he has a great, safe life with me, and I have worked to create an environment that is secure and happy for him.  I think that he’s very happy here.

Contrast Rugby’s body language hanging out on the patio in the back yard where he feels absolutely safe and relaxed.

But his world is so very small, and so very predictable.  Every time he was adopted out into an new home, he had to learn to trust new owners and figure out a new world with new rules all over again.  And over and over, he was surrendered to another home and new owners who started the process all over again.

New rules for living in a new house.  New hands on him.  New voices either speaking loving words or spewing mean, hateful things.  The only thing that I think was probably consistent for him was the inconsistency of his life.  So he learned to cope….to get by…to survive.  After so many homes and so many experiences with such a very young puppy….in his formative months….trust in humans to keep him safe and help him understand the scary stuff all around him just didn’t happen.

When the humans left to care for him didn’t carefully help him work through his fear and anxiety, he learned not to trust humans for help.  It took me five years to see Rugby transform to the point where he frantically ran to me with a pleading look in his eyes, asking for help when something scared him.  That was a huge milestone in our relationship together, and the beginning of his learning to trust humans.

This snuggle was one evening after we had had contractors in the house all day repairing storm damage when a tree fell on our house. Rugby was soooo happy to have me all to himself, and a quiet home!!

I’ll be writing more about this topic, because so many dogs that I see and train are fearful, and there is so much that owners can do to help their dogs feel safe and learn how to work through their fears!




Leave a Reply