Having a shy or fearful dog in public is a lot like walking around with a screaming 2-year-old. “Dog people” and even the general public make the same negative assumptions. Beyond the dirty looks come really mean comments disguised as helpful suggestions. Two, in particular, stand out because they are entirely untrue … and incredibly rude.
The first one is, “Your dog doesn’t trust you.” Ouch! I went home and cried the first time someone at a dog event said this to me. I was in the middle of coaxing Lilly to enter the building and sit quietly for a few moments as part of ongoing socialization work. (Now, I actually like the woman who said it. I think she and her dog are a hoot, but the comment still wounded me and shook my confidence.)
First of all, I spend all day every day with Lilly. And, that’s been the norm since I she came home in October 2004. I think I know my dog better than “you” do (and by “you,” I mean the snotty people who say mean things).
The relationship I have with Lilly is stronger than any I’ve ever had with any other dog. And, that’s saying something. We’ve come a long, long way from where we started, but people don’t see that. All they see is her behavior in the moment. And, baby, do they judge.
The second one, which I’ve heard from two PhD applied animal behaviorists is utterly false, is that comforting really fearful dogs rewards the fear and makes it worse.
In very early 2005, I took Lilly to an agility dog birthday party. She did OK at first, but she freaked out when another dog banged the teeter-totter unexpectedly, and I’ve been screwed ever since. (I now know this incident has scarred her, but at the time I had no idea how far reaching the effects would be. We’re still trying to unravel the damage nearly 18 months later.)
She fled. I coaxed. Several people scolded me. “Just ignore her, they told me.”
And, since I didn’t know better at the time, I tried that strategy, and in ways I’ll enumerate later it only made things worse, which made some think Lilly was “manipulating me.”
It’s true that you can inadvertently “reward” dogs for unwanted behaviors like playing rough, jumping up and such. Ending the game and turning away are good options in these cases.
However, with true fears, a little comfort goes a long way. When Lilly shuts down completely, in fact, the only way I can reach her is through touch.
Her eyes go blank, and it honestly looks like her soul has left her body. With the help of our big-picture, behaviorist-type trainer and the instruction of our holistic veterinarian, I’ve learned ways to soothe Lilly physically when she’s literally out of her mind and cannot be reached with logic or typical training.
My trainer watched her shut down once. Then, showed me how pale Lilly’s gums were. Seriously, they were almost white. All her blood was in her core, like she was in shock. That’s not manipulation. That’s sheer terror.
I’m happy to report that I rarely see this ghostly version of Lilly these days. But, it’s been a long road, and I often feel like I too am earning a PhD in animal behavior to help Lilly conquer her fears and have a happy and successful life.
It’s hard work, and anyone who pretends otherwise is entirely full of beans – especially overly-hyped dog trainers on TV who use old-fashioned, dominance style methods. (People often recommend I use those methods too. Gee, no thanks.)
There’s one other thing people say that bugs me lately. Sometimes when we’re walking on a trail or training in public, clueless people let their dogs approach Lilly without permission. Or, they’re too busy doing whatever (eating, chatting, talking the phone) to pay attention to their unruly dog at the end of a fully extended flexi-leash.
These kinds of dogs scare Lilly. And, if I don’t control the situation, she feels the need to snark at the other dog to warn them off. That can be barking, lunging, and even snapping at times.
Again, through hours and hours and hours of training over many months, she does this less and less because I distract her and shield her if necessary from what she perceives as a marauding dog (even though most times these are just super friendly pooches).
Lilly has an “off trail” command that means step off the path, sit down, and face me. I then block for her as the other dog passes.
Now, my body language could not possibly say any clearer to “go away,” but some people still let their dogs approach Lilly.
So, I’ll say, “She’s afraid of other dogs. She might snap.”
And, they answer, “That’s OK.”
Uh, no it’s not.