Somewhere along the line, I think I realized that Rugby just wasn’t making the progress that he should be making. I continued to use well accepted and proven training methods. By all rights, Rugby should have been figuring things out and improving in his behavior. I kept trying to fit the square peg into the round hole….and without success!
I think I kept doing the same tried and true methods, simply because I didn’t know what else to do! I had trained dogs for a number of years, and just really had never come across a “Rugby” before. Dogs always made good progress over time, and my little speckled furball just wasn’t! It was so discouraging, because he was really difficult to live with on one hand, and on the other, I couldn’t imagine how scary life had to seem to him. Add to that, my own feelings of having failed him, because he just didn’t seem to connect the dots to work through his anxiety driven behavior.
At some point in time, a shocking thought occurred to me that he might not really trust me. I had been holding his leash when he had been harshly rolled in the dark by the 70 pound neighbor’s dog as he had escaped their house. I had been the one who had handed over his leash to the other two trainers who had pushed him harder than he had wanted to go. As I started thinking about that and watching him around me, I came to the conclusion that Rugby really didn’t trust me once he got near other dogs, and I think that spilled over to his behavior at home.
What I saw, was a small dog who seemed to like me just fine most of the time. We played well together, he engaged in working on basic skills and commands. He loved tricks, and he was a wonderful snuggler. How could he not trust me? When I really started to pay attention, I could almost see two Rugbys….the one who liked me just fine, and the other one, who would look at me and almost shake his head like, “Nope….she’s not going to keep me safe. I’m on my own here.”
Once I really accepted this startling possibility, I was shattered. I’ve never, ever had a dog who didn’t trust me, and I was head over heels in love with my little speckled dog. He was still under two years at this point, and it was so very sad for me to think that my little guy was jaded by being shuffled around from home to home and owner after owner. This is one of the sad realities of rescue dogs. Each new home erodes a bit of trust from them. Some dogs never seem to be phased by it, and others, more sensitive dogs, have a harder time trusting their new owner.
It takes average rescue dogs typically 30-60 days to settle into a new home. If there’s abuse or severe neglect involved, and if the dog is a “damaged” dog, it will take longer. I didn’t think Rugby was a damaged dog….just a bit of a nutty one. But, I was his fifth home, and that alone had taken a toll on my poor, sweet little puppy. If he didn’t trust me, so many of the odd things in his behavior lined up with that and now made sense. He was just fine with me when it was calm and quiet in the house. But when he was overstimulated, or in a new situation, he avoided me like I was going to cook him and eat him.
As a dog trainer, I can tell you that when a dog doesn’t trust his handler, you just are not going to make good progress. From the dog’s perspective, he’s worried….wondering how he will survive. And because he’s focused on staying alive, any capacity for learning new information just gets lost. It shuts down. This is exactly WHY I’m always preaching to owners to work toward calm, relaxed behavior from their dogs, because that’s where learning takes place.
Well, that ended up being an “aha” moment for me. It completely changed how I was doing things, because instead of assuming that Rugby fully trusted me, I knew that he probably didn’t in certain situations, and instead of trying to move forward, I just stopped in my tracks and put all of my focus and training into building trust with him.
He was in hog heaven! We stopped going new places for socialization, and we stayed home. I tried to keep him from opportunities that would scare him, because if he didn’t trust me….continuing to force him into those situations would only increase his anxiety, not reduce it. I was entering uncharted territory, and really not quite sure how to do it! I knew I was trading socialization for trust, but I couldn’t have both at that point in time, and I knew trust was most important if I ever had a hope of socializing him.
I put all of my focus on having fun with Rugby. I tried to only introduce activities that really didn’t have any opportunity for Rugby to be corrected. I didn’t want him to hear “No” from me very much in training exercises. I wanted him to have success, and I wanted to build on that success. So, we focused on tricks and something new that I had just recently heard about….interactive puzzles.
This was a HUGE key to breakthrough in life with Rugby. I knew that by having to keep him home and minimize his exposure to the very things he needed to see to be socialized, I was probably going to continue to have a small dog who couldn’t cope with much. But it made no sense to me to continue to expose him to things he couldn’t cope with when he had nothing and no one to keep him safe…from his perspective.
And honestly, over time, I’ve seen my little dog really learn to ask me for help when he gets scared or stressed. Instead of escape away from me, he comes to me and asks me to help him….most often asking me to pick him up. I’m not sure he will ever cope with much change, because he really needed to be exposed to it all when he was a very young puppy. However, to see him come to me when he needs help tells me he sees me as his safe person, and one who can help him feel secure. That alone makes me feel like we’ve had success. I haven’t given up on the other things, but he seems to cope best when we keep outings few and far between.