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 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!
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.
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 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.
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!