Scary Things and Body Language

I’m big on reading a dog’s body language!  I look back on my early months with Rugby, and I see an epic fail on my part to fully understand what he was communicating through his body language and facial expressions.

As a dog trainer of many years and dog owner virtually my entire life, I had a very good idea of what my dogs were speaking to me most of the time.  I recognized many of the common signals that all dogs use to speak in some form or fashion.

However, until I lived with Rugby, I didn’t realize how many different ways a dog can communicate fear and anxiety.  I didn’t know how much Rugby was constantly speaking with his body and face, and I didn’t realize that I could mimic some calming signals right back to him with success!  If I had known this information in the early days of my life with Rugby, I might have seen him deeply trust me sooner, and I might have seen much more progress from him in those really critical late puppy months when he was sprinting into adolescence and adult behavior!

When Rugby is fearful, he furrows his brow, and pulls his ears up much higher on his head. He often loudly pants when he hasn’t had any exercise, and his body is very stiff.

When dogs are really fearful, and an owner disregards that fear, it’s like throwing your dog under the bus.  When high emotions of any kind hit your dog, no new learning is taking place.  This is why even excited dogs can’t easily comply with known commands.  Think of your dog’s response to a doorbell ring and company coming in. When I arrive at a lesson, I often hear owners telling their dogs to sit and stay on the opposite side of the door, and I know that the moment the door opens, that dog is flying up to jump on me.  The excitement has overruled any thinking taking place in your dog.  It takes time, practice, and maturity for a dog to work through the over-excitement to respond consistently to given commands.

When fear is the emotion, however,  your scared and fearful dog is simply thinking that he has to survive.  His survival instincts kick in, and the situation can quickly morph into fight or flight.  When a dog trusts his owner or handler, he can learn to ask them for help.  But when there’s no trust, your dog will feel very much as if he’s completely on his own in the scary situation.  This is why it’s so very important to read your dog’s fearful, anxious body language.  Dogs will often quickly show anxiety or fear in their body language, which will give an alert handler time to respond in a helpful way, which will engender trust from your dog!

Rugby had been in our home for less than an hour. He was heavily panting, his ears were flat and pulled tightly back, and he was leaning against my leg for support.

When Rugby is overwhelmed, even to this day, fight or flight is exactly the behavior that I see from him.  Once he’s outside the safe parameter of his yard, he is very tense overall.  His ears are high on his head, and his forehead furrowed.  He starts a heavy pant when he’s had no exercise.  He looks frantically left and right, trying to see something scary before it sees him!  He often yips an excited, high pitched yip, and he starts to pull on the leash as he looks frantically around him.

Rugby working on a Down/Stay in our front yard. He is very tense, his body stiff, and his ears pulled tightly back into “bunny ears.”  He’s tightly bunched up, as if he wants to make himself invisible.

Once he sees or hears a trigger. he tries first to bark….to keep the scary things away, and then he runs, as if barking and running will keep him alive.  Because he thinks he’s trying to save his own life, in his mind, he can’t stop either behavior and still survive.  In our early days together at home, this was my daily life….trying to catch my little spotted greased pig who evaded capture like his life depended upon it!  This behavior happened multiple times every day and for twenty to thirty minutes each time.  No matter how much you love your dog, that’s some wacky behavior to live with on a daily basis!

My first step was to stop the running behavior by leashing Rugby to me, so that he would have a safe protector in his corner.  I wanted him to learn that coming to me would always be his best line of defense…not running and barking to escape!  Puppy Rugby did respond well to this training, when the stimulus wasn’t too big, and as long as we were inside the house.  Big issues or moving outside saw a completely different response from him.  I had the opportunity to reinforce the behavior I wanted from him much more easily since he was right next to me. Rugby did continue to bark….only now, he was leashed to my side doing it!  Ugh!  However, he did stop barking a bit sooner than he had when he was running through the house, so I knew I was heading in the right direction with him, anyway!

Outside, because we didn’t have a safe fence to contain Rugby, he was always on a leash.  Instead of running to escape when triggered, his responses included lunging against the leash and wild barking, and when that was unsuccessful, he turned to aggressively bite the leash to free himself so that he could escape.  He usually managed to snag the leash, but there were a few times that he missed and got me instead!  Clearly, he was one scared, reactive pooch, but it has always been puzzling and challenging to know how to help him work through this issue because he reacts negatively in a nanosecond!  I can rarely get enough lead time to set up a successful trial to teach him new behavior.

When your dog is aggressively barking on walks, it’s absolutely terrifying!

When you’re a handler with a fearful, reactive dog, time and distance are your best friends.  Having distance from the stimuli gives both you and your dog time to think of and plan for what to do, and time will give you a buffer to re-direct your dog into new behavior so that he can learn to respond differently.  In Rugby’s case, if he hears a trigger he immediately reacts, and his sight triggers with dogs often start at a football field distance from us…that’s 100 yards!!!  It’s been virtually impossible for me to get the really tough stimuli far enough away that he can stay calm at all.  He often negatively reacts at everything….just in case!

In my early socialization work with Rugby, I missed his early anxious signs:  yawns, whale eyes, heavy panting, lip licking or a tongue flick, etc.  I am sure that he exhibited these obvious signals throughout our walks together, but I was focused on other things on our walks.  When he was showing obvious signs of fear that I recognized, by that time, I couldn’t get him far enough away from the scary thing or help him calm down.  I didn’t realize it at the time, but I needed to start much sooner to intervene before he exploded into his meltdown.

I kept thinking that if he saw a neighbor’s scary garage door go up and down day after day, over time, he would be able to generalize that garage doors do go up and down, but they never eat small dogs on walks!  Instead of helping him work through his reactive fear, all I did was reinforce his fear of garage doors and things that move!  Instead of calming down on walks, he became more and more reactive, looking around him in a panic, wondering what awful thing would overtake him next!  In all honesty, I think that those early days of repeated exposure to fearful things still haunts our relationship to this day….some nine years later.

For many, if not most dogs that I train, this socialization method works, especially when food is used as a reinforcer, and most dogs do sort out something like a garage door, over time.  It often doesn’t take many exposures for most dogs to figure out what it is, and when a yummy treat gets shoved into their mouth, just at the moment the door starts to go up or down, over time, they learn to stop reacting to the movement or noise.  In Rugby’s case, he has always refused all food when we leave home….a huge indicator of his stress, because my little dog is a chow hound when he’s relaxed.

In his early life with me,  I kept thinking that Rugby just simply needed more exposure to generalize things that set him off. I just never realized how terrified he really was, and day after day, I exposed him to terrifying things, without offering him tools to cope.  I wish I had worked more on helping him cope with his fears, but I just didn’t recognize his behavior as having a fear base.  I thought it was simply a lack of exposure, which was likely absolutely true.  However, the lack of exposure created deep fears in Rugby that triggered his fight or flight responses, and I was completely clueless to what he was telling me right from the moment that I leashed him! Rugby became the Guinea Pig to teach this dog trainer a different and better way to recognize and handle fear in a dog!  This is exactly why all young puppies need massive amounts of socialization well into adulthood!!  Doing so will prevent your dog from being socially handicapped as an adult like Rugby is.

More than anything, I had hoped to give puppy Rugby a safe home and a big, big world!

To be sure, Rugby does trust me now, and for the most part, I really do think that he believes that I am in his corner to have his back and keep him safe.  However, there are still times when I see shadows of his old fears surface, and the look on his face and body tells me that he’s going to revert to old behaviors rather than trust me.  I’m not sure Rugby ever would have figured things out….even if I had handled things differently in our early days together.  He had many critical puppy months of improper training long before he came to live with me.  I do wish I could have a “do over” with Rugby, to fix the mistakes I made in our early days together.  Unfortunately, that ship sailed, and Rugby is who he is.  The good news, however, is that to this day, I closely watch every dog’s body language, and when they talk to me, I listen!!  I’m able to intervene so much quicker and help frightened dogs learn to work past their fears.

For more information on understanding what your dog is saying to you, please read a book review I did on a book called, “On Talking Terms With Dogs: Calming Signals” by Turid Rugaas.  Here’s a link to the post.  It’s a great read and one I recommend for every dog owner’s book shelf!

http://rugbyjames.com/2015/11/05/book-review-on-talking-terms-with-dogs-calming-signals/

 

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What Happens When I’m Sick….or Rugby’s Stealthy Sofa Stealing!

Recently I had the misfortune to be sick for a couple of days.  It was nothing serious, just a really bad sinus issue that wouldn’t drain.  I’m not sick very often…in fact, my last cold was about a year ago.  But, when I get sick, I’m usually pretty sick, and typically need to rest and recover for a few days.

Enter Rugby James.

On normal, healthy days, I rarely hang out on the sofa in a prone position.  I generally keep going like the Energizer Bunny, until about 9:00 pm, and then I start to crash!  At that point in my day, I simply go to bed, and Rugby couldn’t be more pleased with that.  He often likes to go to bed around 9:00, so when I suggest going and he doesn’t have to bark me to bed, he’s one happy dog!  He’d rather not nag, but when pushed into it, he can bark me off to bed like a champ!

However, when I’m sick, I’m often laying either in bed or on the sofa.  Rugby looks at these situations as prime snuggle opportunities, so I know that I’m going to be inundated by a twenty-three pound furry heating pad with long legs!  There’s a delight that I see in his eyes when he observes that I’m getting into a prone position, and he springs into action!  He’s not a little dog who lets any kind of wonderful snuggle opportunities slip past his ever watchful eyes!

I appreciate the sentiment!  I really, truly do.  It’s sweet, thoughtful, and completely self serving on Rugby’s part, but he is a little dog, after all, and I can’t blame him for wanting to capitalize on a good thing when he sees it!  And to be perfectly honest, when I’m sick, it’s nice to have a family member who dotes on me and wants to make me feel all loved up. (I know that Rugby is truthfully only caring about how he feels in these situations, but I can fantasize right along with the best of them!)

I typically choose the sofa when I’m sick, because I know Rugby feels very strongly about snuggling me back into good health, and I would rather not have to deal with being sick and also dog fur in my bed!  (Because of Rugby’s aggressive issues, I also keep my bed as a dog free zone).  Rugby is extremely vocal and persuasive, and that comes with lots of grrrrring and barking, so I generally move to the sofa when I’m sick just to help keep the peace at home!  I honestly don’t mind if he gets on the sofa with me, as long as he asks permission first.  The bed…not so much!

Rugby says “Please may I get on the sofa” by sitting and quietly waiting for his invitation.

He can hardly wait for me to get the soft, fuzzy, snuggle blankie out before his bright little eyes light up and he starts the pleading looks.  It’s ridiculous the way this dog has mastered that sweet, soft beg in those two little dark chocolate drops peeking out of mountains of fluffy, marbled fur.  He’s almost become a professional beggar, and my show dogs had nothing on Rugby’s pleading looks!  He caps off his generous snuggle offer with a gentle brushing sweep of his fluffy tail, which slowly wags over his back to and fro like a metronome keeping precise beat for a musician.  How can I saw no to such sincerity?  Besides that, he knows he clearly has a strong advantage because he’s playing to my compromised mental and physical state.  I’m too weak to fight him off, so I succumb to the power of the paw and those beautiful, drippy eyes!

*sigh*

And who says that dogs are just dumb animals?

This is the face that starts it all! I’m powerless against those beautiful, sweet eyes!! I’m just putty in his paws!!

In my mind and dreams anyway,  I have this image of a sweet, dutiful puppy, who sleeps at the foot of the sofa, carefully making sure that I have all the room that I require, and looking up at me with adoring eyes from time to time.  However, when dreams and reality collide, sometimes the results aren’t pretty!!  Let me just say that we both have really great intentions, and the dream that we both share is a good one.  But that’s really where the similarities end!

The honest truth is that Rugby James is a sofa pig.  He is.  He just is.  Yes, the sweet, fluffy dog with those killer eyes and sincere angelic look is actually simply plotting a way to take over the sofa.  I’m convinced that is his ultimate goal in life when I’m sick.

He knows that the house rules require that he has to ask permission to get up on the sofa, and he’s extremely good about using his manners.  He can say, “Please” just about better than any dog I know.  That’s part of the issue for me.  When he’s so sweet to ask, and when he uses such wonderful manners, I sometimes feel like a Grinch if I tell him no, especially when I don’t feel well. So I cave in, and generally live to regret that decision, because it’s the exact same scenario played out each time I’m sick.

Every. Single. Time.

When I invite Rugby to get up on the sofa with me,  I always direct him down to my feet where there is extra room for him.  He gleefully jumps up at the far end of the sofa, no problem whatsoever.  But he quickly tries to maneuver his way to the middle of the sofa, where he can score a nap laying right on top of me, successfully pinning me to the sofa and ensuring that I can’t leave or easily boot him off.  In his heart of hearts, Rugby just loves a “puppy pile” where he can wallow all over his humans as he naps!  And, if he’s wallowing on me, he’s successfully stealing a large part of the sofa at the same time!  He’s stealthy, this one is!!

This is a mild “stink eye” because he genuinely wants to move up the sofa, but I have told him that he has to stay put right where he is!

I have to be quick to make sure that I prevent him from plopping down where he wants, because if I wait that extra nanosecond, he anchors himself in place and then there’s no winning in the battle for the sofa.  He’s not only adorable, but he’s cunning and quick like a fox!  He always looks a bit disappointed that I’m not allowing him to wallow all over me, but trust me on this one:  this story always has the very same ending, and it’s not a good one!

This was one of the most hopeful looks I saw from Rugby while I was sick. I think if you look up “HOPE” in the dictionary, this is what you will see!

At the foot of the sofa, he generally curls up in a ball, filling the adequate space quite nicely and he settles right down…wistfully looking at me from time to time.  It’s blissful for a while….maybe fifteen to thirty minutes anyway.  I look at him and smile, and in a few short minutes, I watch my little love sponge close those little chocolate brown eyes of his, and drift off into a sweet nap and I think to myself, “Life is good.”

After time goes by, Rugby starts to make his move.  He’s ninja-like….quiet and sneaky….stealthy and cunning.  He yawns….and stretches…..a big yawn, and a bigger stretch!  And so it begins!  As he stretches, he invades my space, and begins a systematic takeover of the sofa!  And he’s so stinking cute while he does it!  It’s genius!!  I’m completely disarmed by his good looks and that’s a brilliant plan!

The stealthy Ninja dog plots his next move….beginning with that charming face and sincere eyes….

What I really don’t understand is why Rugby thinks that he needs two sections of the sofa for his naps.  There are three sections to the sofa.  Clearly I need at least two of them.  I’m five foot four inches tall.  My full size doesn’t easily fit on one section unless I’m simply sitting on the sofa, which I rarely do when I’m sick.  I prefer to lay down, or at the very least, assume some similar position with my legs fully stretched out on the middle and third sections. Rugby clearly doesn’t think I should be entitled to that much sofa real estate.

He starts out on mostly one cushion section, but you can see the slow, steady progression as he is silently spilling over….

What really doesn’t make sense to me, is that we have a matching loveseat on the opposite wall of the den.  If Rugby really wants two comfy sofa sections for napping, he could ask for permission to nap on the loveseat!  He could easily have the entire thing all to himself!  But noooooo!  Rugby wants my two sofa sections, he wants his little puppy pile, and he is pushy and rude to get it all!

As the afternoon progresses, Rugby ends up laying on me in some form or fashion.  He is a master of  attaching himself like Velcro to human body parts! After a while, twenty-three pounds of a sleeping dog on your legs or feet will actually cause you to lose all feeling in them.  And really, who ever wants to disturb a sleeping dog?  Rugby looks so cute while he’s sleeping!  He is so angelic as he takes one deep breath after another.  My heart always sighs a big awwwww when I see him blissfully napping on me.

Eventually, I simply have to wake him up because I can’t feel my legs or feet, and I’m starting to cramp up after laying in the same position for too long.  When I wake him up, I always get his stink eye as I tell him that he simply has to move.  He often gets up and hops down on the floor, giving me a dirty look as he goes.  When I’m sick, I move his dog pillow bed so that it’s right next to the sofa to give him a cozy spot near to me, but the honest truth, is that when I’m sick, Rugby seems to think that his snuggles will make me well again!

Rugby offers an over the shoulder stink eye about having to sleep on his dog pillow!

Fortunately, I’m not typically sick for very long, which is a blessing in more than one way!  I can only take so much fighting over sofa real estate with Rugby James!  However, at the end of the day, these memories will be filed away into a very special spot in the file cabinet of my heart.  His sofa stealing behavior is both an annoyance and endearing, and it’s something that has always made Rugby a unique dog in my world.  All of my dogs have been so very special to me, but the memories I will have of Rugby’s Stealthy Sofa Stealing will earn him a very large trophy in my heart and smiles from ear to ear!

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Your Dog Really Does Give You What He Can….

I heard a really profound statement in a podcast earlier this week, and I’ve been thinking about it ever since. The speaker said, “Dogs will give you what they can, but sometimes they can’t give you what you really want.”

It made me think back to my early days with Rugby.  It made me remember all of the dreams that I had dreamed for him, and how disappointed I felt when Rugby couldn’t be the dog that I had wanted.  Yes, I said it. When I realized that Rugby would not be the dog that I had dreamed of, I felt very disappointed.  Don’t judge me.  Rugby was not the dog that I wanted.  And since I was at least his fifth home, clearly four other people hadn’t wanted him either.

The day that I met him in his foster home, I was smitten!  I remember driving home with him in my back seat, and dreaming of what a treasure I had sitting in a crate in my back seat.  I felt like the richest dog trainer in the world.  I really did!  He was such a darling puppy, with such a cute personality that clearly shone through as I watched him in his foster home.  I just couldn’t believe that he was all mine!

Puppy Rugby was not only beautiful, but such a sweet soul and a real love sponge!

It’s one thing to dream about life with your dog, and quite another thing to have the honest reality of living with that dog slap you in the face. When I brought Rugby home, I had no idea that he would have the behavior issues that he did.  Cute can only carry a dog so far.  But being a dog trainer, I really, truthfully believed that Rugby could be that dog that I had been dreaming of.

I worked and I trained and I read books and I consulted colleagues to get help in dealing with some of Rugby’s behavior.  I honestly never considered that he couldn’t be the dog that I wanted, because I just knew that I could train and shape his behavior.  It was only behavior, after all, and behavior in a dog who isn’t even a year old…can change.  And truthfully, it did change!  It did get better, little by little.  But we hit a whole lot of roadblocks in the process!

Looking back on it now, the big problem with my plans for Rugby, is that I had forgotten to really consider Rugby in the process.  I assumed that he wanted my dreams for him.  I assumed that he could fulfill my dreams of  being “that” dog in my life.  I didn’t really consider what he might have wanted, or even what he could offer.  Of course, much of what I learned about Rugby’s background was learned many weeks and months later.  In spite of that background, I still had a big set of expectations that my little nineteen pound puppy was supposed to meet for me.  What a heavy burden I placed on his thin, puppy shoulders.  What big shoes I expected him to fill for me.   And really, more than anything, I think of how selfish I was in thinking of what I wanted, and not really thinking about what Rugby might have wanted for his own life.

Rugby is much too small for the big shoes I expected him to fill!

For those of us with special needs dogs, it’s just entirely too easy to get caught up in what’s wrong with our dogs.  We can get super focused on what they can’t do, rather than seeing all of the amazing things that they can offer to us.  Tonight, for example, Rugby stood in the living room and barked incessantly for five minutes.  I timed him.  Why was he barking?  Apparently, because he can.  And while this behavior annoys me to the ends of the earth, I smile when I remember that it used to be thirty minutes!  I have chosen not to let those five minutes of irritation frame my day to day life with Rugby James.

Rugby really does offer me what he can.  He gives me everything that he’s got.  He approaches training with a great attitude of excitement and willingness to work hard.  He loves learning new things, and he is absolutely enthusiastic about figuring things out.  He tries so very hard, and I think anyone who is watching can see that heart in him.  He simply can’t always cope when things overwhelm him, and that’s something that he just can’t seem to figure out no matter how hard I try to help him.

When we work, he has wonderful focus and gives me all he has!!

I believe that the reason that Rugby doesn’t give me what I wanted in a dog is simply that he can’t.  He can’t be the dog that I really wanted when I brought him home on December 1, 2007.  Despite hours and hours of training and socializing, Rugby simply can’t give me that great, social dog who can go places and have fun with me out and about.  He does give me what he can, and that meets some of what I wanted in a dog.  But he’s never going to be the dog that I hoped he would.  He’s just not able to do that.  It’s not for lack of trying on either of our parts.  It just is what it is…and that’s all.  It just is.

An amazing thing happens when you let go of a dream.  Suddenly, you’re making space for another dream to take its place.  I had really always hoped that I would be able to take Rugby with me, just about anywhere that I went.  I wanted his companionship, and I really wanted to give him a big, safe world.  Because he was a rescue, I wanted him to have a really great life with lots of amazing adventures! Rugby, however, had different ideas.

I just could not bring myself to recycle my little dog! He had already been through so much, and I wanted to stop the cycle of recycling him into the next home!

Over time and lots of public failings, I had to reach the painful conclusion that my little guy was never going to be able to enjoy a big world. He really didn’t seem to want one.  He ran to hide when he saw his harness, or thundershirt, and even though he seemed willing enough to go with me once he was all suited up….he quickly morphed into one stressed little pupper, who was a barking hot mess on a simple walk!  He lunged at anything and everything, both sights and sounds, and once he was fired up….there was no calming him down.  When he started becoming aggressive and re-directing his frustration and anxiety into really hard biting at the leash and my shoes and pants legs, I knew he was just way too overstimulated to cope with the environmental changes that happened in our neighborhood on a daily basis.

I have learned over the years that I can occasionally take him to some select, low stress public places, and we both really seem to enjoy the outing. Rugby’s  day to day life is our house and his yard.  We enjoy going to the vet for friendly visits, and he copes really well with their staff, so I can do some great socialization with a scary place all the while that I’m giving him a small, fun adventure.  We walk in a few cemeteries that are large and have wide paved roads.  I also walk him in our driveway, and right in front of our house, during the day when my neighbors are at work. If he hears a squirrel rustle in the leaves on our walks, Rugby comes unglued, thinking that some invisible bogey man is coming after him, and that’s the end of our adventure for the day.  He just can’t handle much, and I understand that it’s just who he is.

Rugby does very well with occasional outings that are wide open spaces and very little activity to cause him to explode with reactivity behaviors.

So instead of me giving him a big world, the biggest surprise for me, is that he’s given me that really big world.   Because of Rugby James, I started a micro blog on Facebook, to help other owners with special needs dogs.  And that Facebook micro blog has grown into a full sized dog blog!!  I wanted to provide the knowledge and support that I never received when I was desperate to help my little dog.  I knew that other owners had their own versions of Rugby at home, carefully hidden away, listening to friends and family who judged them and who told them to “get rid of that dog!”  I knew how deeply a human heart could hold the love of a dog who was healthy, but just wacky and neurotic.  I knew how important it was to laugh every day, and those were things that I really wanted to give to other dog owners, because owning special needs dogs can be a very lonely, scary and overwhelming existence.

Since starting Rugby’s Facebook page, I’ve met people from all over the world.  I have friends on multiple continents, and I’ve even gotten to meet many of them face to face!  While Rugby has been so happy and content to stay home, I’ve been the one who has had adventures in a big world!  I’ve accomplished things I never dreamed of in 2007.  I’ve learned new ways of training dogs that are effective and fun because of Rugby’s learning style.  I’m less fearful of failing, because when you’re a dog trainer and you can’t fix your own dog, there’s not a  failure too much bigger than that.

In Rugby’s doggy wisdom, he showed me that neither one of us were failures at all.  We just needed each other.  We needed to learn to communicate well, and trust each other, and have safe boundaries for life together.  As a result, we make a great team. He’s one of the most amazing dogs that I know, and he really doesn’t even leave home all that often.  His world is small, but he’s such a happy little guy, and I love the way that he enjoys the simple things in life:  chasing squirrels and chipmunks, the smells from a breeze when he’s hanging out on the patio with me, his beloved polka dottie piggies who are always nearby, a good snuggle with someone he loves, an unexpected special snack once in a while, etc.  He keeps me grounded, and focused on the really important things in life that humans so often overlook.

Rugby really loves it when I will work outside on the patio and just hang out with him.

I’m just so very grateful that I’ve learned to accept that he can’t be the dog that I wanted.  Ten years into my relationship with him, that’s really okay with me.  Rugby is enough.  He is who he is, and he gives me what he can.  If you’re the owner of a special needs dog, it’s really okay to be disappointed that your dog can’t give you what you really want from him.  It’s okay to grieve the loss of your dreams and feel some sadness over those things.  But I want to challenge you to let new dreams grow up in place of the old ones.  Dare to dream new dreams….big ones!   And decide to let your dog give you what he can….and decide to let that be enough.

 

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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!

 

 

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