Friday, November 25, 2011

The Chosen One

There are understandable feelings of honor and pride attached to being the person that a timid dog decides to trust. This also applies to being the person allowed to safely interact with a dog who is normally aggressive toward those outside of his or her comfort zone. As a child, I never thought twice about these things. I was fearless (read: ignorant) around dogs who only liked "their" people but still managed to never once get bitten. I also had a knack for knowing when to run back into the house for a treat to offer a dog who wasn't too sure about human beings but was very much into the idea of a full stomach. There was even one time when, after simply petting a big fluffy stray, the dog decided instantly that we belonged together for life. He spent the entire day following me around or napping at my feet until I went home and my dad chased him away (which was not an easy task as the chow's mind had clearly been made up that I was his person and as far as I was concerned, the feeling was mutual). 

Our foster dog, Luvins, immediately
decided that Matt was her best friend.

Some people and some dogs just mesh, there's no denying that.  There are even people who typically don't have a hard time making friends with a shy or timid dog they've never met before. My significant other, Matthew, happens to be one of those people. Dogs tend to favor him above others pretty much instantly. Part of this could be that he's a calm person and was more into cats before I (and Cricket) came along. This means that he doesn't go out of his way to show affection to a dog he doesn't know, and so I guess to many canines that makes him less intimidating and more inviting. His mother confirmed that being a dog person is pretty much in his genes; there's no escaping it sometimes.

That said, it is very important to also embrace a very healthy level of awareness and respect. Despite being approachable to most dogs, Matt is not the type of person who is going to march up to an aggressive one with the assumption that they can be fast friends. Unfortunately, I have seen many people get hurt and many dogs put into bad situations by people who do just that. Sometimes they possess the mentality that literally all dogs like them or sometimes it's just a matter of them being familiar with a certain type or breed of dog and believing that they will all react the same way. Regardless of the reason, people who generalize dogs this way have a habit of producing a very tense type of situation. They will often disregard very real warnings from the owner of the dog, a qualified trainer, or even the dog itself. This means that they will often get bitten or lunged at.

Sometimes even trainers make this mistake. Just the other day I saw one on TV approach a dog who was known to show fear-based aggression toward strangers. Because he seemed calm from a distance, she thought it would be safe to approach and extend a treat from her hand. By not thinking the situation through, she really put herself and the dog in a very bad position. You see, the dog was on a leash so as far as he knew, there was nowhere to run. And even though he was comfortable taking the treat for a second, he quickly realized what was happening and panicked. Unfortunately, his realization hit him while he was in the middle of taking the food from the trainer's hand. I watched the screen nervously as his body turned tense and the trainer got badly bitten. Honestly, I would bet that this trainer noticed the tension that came right before the bite but what was she to do at that point? Jerking her hand away was probably more likely to get her bitten than continuing to extend the treat, though neither was a great option. Her lack of foresight caused the dog to feel backed into a corner and then left her with no safe way out of the confrontation. The better choice would have been to gently toss treats to the ground and remain nonchalant so that the nervous/anxious dog had plenty of time to make a decision based completely on trust rather than panic and impulse. That said, I'm sure that we've all made similar mistakes. I once made a bad judgment call when desensitizing a Schnauzer to having his feet touched. We were making so much progress that I allowed the session of treating him for allowing foot touches to go on a bit to long and as a result, got nipped.

Dogs bite for less obvious reasons too. In one of my classes I had a dog that became overstimulated very easily and when this happened while he was on the leash, he would release that pent up energy as a bite to his owner's ankle. The concept behind his reason for biting was the same as when you see two dogs in a crate biting each other because they can't break out and partake of all the excitement going on around them. All of that energy has to go somewhere and dogs like this have trouble controlling their impulses.

Patient people make for very happy dogs.
It is unfortunate that in instances like this, everyone is automatically looking for the magic answer. Sometimes they're looking for a magic person who can step in and wave a magic wand that transforms a hyperactive, reactive, or fearful dog into a calm, confident canine. Sometimes it's just a magic technique that they want to be able to use to gain instant control in otherwise out-of-control situations. In many cases, they are at their wit's end but just want to enjoy the pet that they've brought into their home. What they don't want to accept is that it takes time. What they don't want to believe in are methods that require some effort but actually take work. I've said this before and I will say it again: Patience comes from knowing that something is going to work. When people don't believe in or support what you are doing, then they quickly lose patience and look elsewhere. Instant gratification is the human way. It's too bad that for us trainers, we can't always fast forward to a sneak preview of what's to come.

I have literally stood up and demonstrated to people how to safely handle dogs like this. I've taken the leash, pulled out the appropriate treats, taught some incompatible behaviors (those that the dog cannot do while acting aggressively) and waltzed the dog around a room tail wagging; no harm to myself or anyone else. The result? Completely dismissed. I've even watched as someone else who thought they could handle the dog better stepped in, disregarded all previous instruction, and got bitten.  (Big trainer fail on my part there; more intervention was definitely called for in that situation.) Even though the methods I used to handle the dog safely and with ease were never actually practiced by others, they were set aside without a second thought. Other trainers will quickly attest to this same issue, I'm certain. When we're dealing with a dog who responds quickly, we're compared to The Dog Whisperer or Victoria Stilwell. When faced with an issue that is going to take more time and patience to address, we sometimes hear the phrase "What I need right now is The Dog Whisperer!" or "I wish I could get that lady from It's Me or the Dog!" They don't realize that in the case of the latter, the methods are the same and it would still take time. People are in love with the idea that there can be instantaneous results. Those who show real dedication and stick with positive methods however, do see the results that they hope for. Those who give up also end up giving the dog up. That's what you don't get to see on TV.

With fearful dogs, I have demonstrated that a slow and predictable approach results in a more stable and calm response than flooding the dog with the object of its anxiety. Still, some people will dismiss this as sub-par training or worse, no training at all. It is this type of mentality that creates irreparably fearful, aggressive dogs and this will only change when people take the time to stop focusing so much on the symptoms and begin to focus on the source of the problem. Yes, you want the growling or biting to stop and the shock collar does the job quickly but what have you done about the fact that your dog was afraid of you (or someone/something else)? What will you do when your dog finally hits the next level of fear, and thus, the next level of aggression? While you've found a way to force him to suppress his signs of fear, you've also given him even more reason to be afraid.

It takes very little skill level or effort to bully a dog around but when you attack a problem from a psychological level you have to expect to do some real work and real training. This work is going to happen over a period of time. It will not satisfy that part of you that desires instant control over another creature. It will not immediately wow your friends and family or turn you into a super star. Real training tackles behavioral issues at their core to create a dog who is mentally, emotionally, and physically sound. While many of us do possess a natural talent with animals, not a single one of us was ever gifted with a magic training wand that can instantly correct any and every problem. Choke chains, prong collars, and shock collars most certainly do not count.

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