August 6, 2015 by The Dog Rules
When I thought about starting a blog, I was thinking of a person a lot like myself who had just adopted a puppy. My previous experiences of puppy adoption had been pretty average (I’d like to think) in that most puppies are pretty much the same. They’re little, need to be potty trained, need to learn the “basics” like their name, come, sit, etc. Like everyone who adopts a puppy, I thought about how this sweet little 7 week old charmer was the proverbial “blank slate” that had no known bad habits. (How many can a 7 week old baby have? Seriously!)
I thought I would be teaching the the things I had taught to many dogs before her. I was what “they” would call an “experienced owner”. I had done Obedience Training and very successfully competed in Obedience trials with previous dogs. I had trained and raced several teams of Siberian Huskies. I had previously taken on the challenge of “rescue” dogs who had been mistreated or improperly trained and, through the training methods I had learned and used, they had become delightful, trustworthy family members. Surely this new little bundle of puppy love would not prove that significant a challenge to me. I was looking at a 7 week old bundle of fur who snuggled into my arms like she had always been there. She did not appear to have any issues other than having been taken from her mom a bit early. (I should tell you now that her mom had been killed in an unfortunate accident when the litter was only 1 week old and that the people had done their level best to tube-feed and bottle-feed a litter of 8 puppies to the age of 7 weeks. They had had only “papa dog” to be the role model for the pups.) When I got her I met Papa Dog and he was a happy, well balanced dog. The litter were well cared for and I completely understood that the human parents were SO tired of frequently feeding little doggies. I had been there once myself (bitch had milk fever) and it is an exhausting endeavour!
So I brought my new little fur-friend home. She was bright as a new penny. Followed me EVERYWHERE. I even got my employer to allow me to bring her to work for the first few days because she was so young and I hadn’t had the opportunity to work out an appropriate workday routine for her. My co-workers would sneak into my office to view the napping babe in her crate under my desk. At break time she got to visit everyone and that built her confidence in meeting people. I couldn’t have asked for a better situation for socializing her to people.
Very shortly after bringing her home I learned that she was somewhat timid in certain situations. Big men frightened her. (By big I mean over 6′ tall) She would back away and submissively pee on the surface upon which she was standing. (This went on for over a year.) She was terribly fearful of bigger dogs. She was fine walking with me and my husband. She was quick to learn and only 2 weeks after bringing her home (9 weeks old) she was completely and reliably house trained.
She learned more quickly than any puppy I had ever had. Once for the “introduction”, repeat for the “practice” and by the 3rd time she knew (anticipated?) what was coming next. She did more than her level best to please. Her little eyes never, ever left me. There were times I wondered if she even blinked. She became my own personal little stalker. Wherever mama went, she followed. Unless one of her unknown (to me) fears popped up. Then she would flee the scene with total abandon. The dangers of obstacles, traffic, etc., were beyond her survival skill whenever she faced a TERROR! She would blindly bolt away from IT. In her terror she lost all sense of where she was, where she was going and whether or not her people were calling her. Her fear was palpable. WHAT was I supposed to do with this? I had never before had a dog filled with this much fear and at such an early age. I worried that she would panic and run blindly into a real danger before I realized what it was that frightened her so much.
Never having had such a sensitive pup before, I asked my veterinarian if there were something physically wrong with her. He could find nothing physical/clinical. The few trainers that I contacted recommended a technique called “flooding” (Flooding is a psychotherapeutic method for overcoming phobias. This is a faster, yet less efficient and more traumatic, method of ridding fears when compared with systematic desensitization.) This essentially did nothing to help her and may have actually prolonged the fearful reactions. Please note that after my experiences with my own dog, I DO NOT recommend “flooding” as a viable technique. Systematic desensitization works better and I will describe that more fully in a future post. Their next suggestion was to completely avoid any and all situations where she showed fear. Had I followed this advice we would have never left home.
Having tried what the professionals recommended and having had no truly positive results I decided that I would need to: A) learn more, and B) try whatever I could to help alleviate my girl’s anxiety.
The first thing I did was to enroll us both in a basic Puppy Obedience Class. The purpose of a Puppy Obedience Class is to train the owner how to train their puppy. I cannot tell you how many Puppy Obedience Classes I have attended over the years with each of my dogs. I know perfectly well how to train my own dog. What I cannot provide, in this era where dogs are excluded from many situations where they might learn confidence and appropriate behaviour, is a controlled situation where dogs/puppies are presented with “events” that provide us (their guardians) with the opportunity to safely teach them how we wish them to respond in a similar situation.
I used the Class to present my shy girl with all the distractions that it could present. Noise. Excitement. Other dogs. Other people. Doors opening and closing. Chairs moving (we had spectators), wheelchairs, in short a bit of chaos outside her “normal” life. I also had the benefit of the other people and trainers who might notice something that I had not. In this very controlled environment my puppy learned that she needed to focus on me for direction and that I would not EVER let anything happen to her as long as she was paying attention to me. (Know that I would never, ever let anything happen to her if I could prevent it)
Observing her responses in this situation gave me a new insight as to her fear reactions. I thought long and hard about how I could modify her behaviour and how I could help her feel more confident. We both learned a whole lot about each other during that Obedience Class.
As an aside: During the few months before I decided we needed an Obedience Class to give us practice distractions I had been watching a TV show called Good Dog! featuring psychologist Dr. Stanley Coren. When we “graduated” from Obedience, Dr. Coren was our judge. I was SO focused on how my puppy was doing that I was oblivious to what the other puppies and their handlers were doing. Upon completion of the “test” I heard Dr. Coren say “and first place goes to the only dog who did not break during the sit and long down”. It took me a moment to realize that this meant MY DOG! I was asked to stay by my trainer because my dog had taken the ribbon for her class. I was curious to see how the next (higher level) class performed so we stayed to watch the higher level class compete. At the end there was a ribbon for High in Trial (highest score across all competitions) which my girl won – even over the competitors from the higher level class. Because sanctioned Obedience Trials are only open to purebred/pedigree dogs, I asked Dr Coren to autograph our ribbon. I was SO VERY PROUD of my girl!
I tell this story because it is possible to succeed with a dog who has issues. It is possible to teach them appropriate behaviour and help them feel more confident in difficult situations. It teaches us, as guardians, that we must be prepared to take notice of those situations that our dogs find challenging and to help them through or get them out of those situations where they are feeling overwhelmed and frightened.
In training, one size does not fit all. We must choose those techniques and methods that will help our animal companions navigate the sometimes frightening situations that our world imposes on them. Occasionally we need to step outside the box and look for kind, positive treatments that will help our fur friends. If you need to find a path with your dog, please follow a path with heart.