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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.
The snowflakes came in big and fast. Biscuit Eaters, the agility field where we often train in Boulder, looked like a Hollywood set, with oversized, impossibly fluffy flakes sweeping in. Other than our voices and the chug of panting dogs, the air rang with winter’s silence. I ran the sequence – jump, jump, tire … with a hard left before the tire. Except after I made the turn, I realized Lilly wasn’t with me. Instead, she crouched between jump #2 and the tire. The huge snowflakes stuck to her from head to tail. She looked forlorn, as if God was pelting her with rocks. Our trainer shook her head in dismay and said, “You have a working dog who’s afraid of snow.”
Mind you, we live above 8,000 feet in the Rocky Mountains. Lilly knows snow, plays in it all the time, but something about working and thinking and running a short agility sequence loomed heavy. She simply couldn’t think straight with those big flakes popping her on the nose.
I just laughed. My sensitive, smart working dog.
This is my life with a “soft” dog. That’s dog training lingo for sensitive, shy, fearful dogs.
Yes, wild, out of control dogs make for great reading – a la “Marley & Me,” but having a soft dog generates its own brand of humor. The next weekend as I regaled my friends with the tale of Lilly’s reaction to snow, some said, “I heard.”
So, you know, great [eyeroll] to be famous for training a working dog with flaws.
Word got around. We were somewhat the butt of jokes, but that’s OK with me. The laughter came with sympathy attached — most of the time. [There will always be people who suck and gossip.]
I guess working dog and dogs at work kinda similar in that way.
It’s not just snow that shuts Lilly down. Planes or geese flying overhead cause her to glaze over too. Dry leaves rustling in the wind, whining dogs on the sidelines, big trucks or buses rumbling set her on edge.
When we began learning the chute (a collapsed fabric tunnel the dog must push through), I learned quickly that the command “chute” caused her to slink off course.
It sounded like “shoot,” which Lilly knows as a cuss word. I didn’t realize how much I “shoot” my way through a typical day of writing until Lilly pointed out this flaw. Since she practically lives in the knee hole of my desk while I write, she’s learned “shoot” means something bad. (I realize it’s also tone of voice, but with her vocab, I’m pretty sure she recognizes the word too.)
So, for us, the chute is called “Push,” as in push-push-push your way through – not a simple task for a shy dog.
It’s not all bad, though. Some fears subside.
Lilly no longer cowers under the bed when I vacuum. She no longer flees in terror if I accidentally squeak the Styrofoam egg carton when I’m putting it back in the fridge. She’s stopped giving me stink eye, when I ride my mountain bike on the stationary trainer. At first, the zzz-zzz-zzz of my wheels made her crabby.
Yet, other things don’t faze her at all. We did early obedience proofing at the fire station up the road, and the noise fire trucks did not bother her. She thinks nothing of the motorcycle noise, when my husband rides in the pasture. In fact, they’ve devised a game, where he rides very slowly and lets her herd him.
Heck, neighbors saw Lilly jump on a coyote’s back and ride it out of the creek bed (with our big dog Ginko, chasing from behind). And, I once had a huge elk buck running straight for me, with Lilly hot on his tail.
A thousand-pound elk? No problem.
A stack of papers falling off my desk … holy terror.
My rotator cuff hurts. Shooting pains when I work out. Razor-thin stabs when I sleep. I blamed a mistake during a workout, until the real cause crept to mind. My shoulder hurts because I play so much fetch with Lilly. And, here’s the thing … As a pup, Lilly hated fetching. So, it’s entirely my fault.
At first, she simply didn’t understand the game.
With the disdain only a smart dog can muster, Lilly looked at me like I was a complete idiot. I swear she thought, “I just brought that back. Why did you throw it again?”
When our first obedience trainer recommended fetch as the perfect way to burn off an active dog’s excess energy, he conceded that some of us quietly thought, “Great. My dog won’t play fetch.”
Add in a few expletives, and that’s pretty much defines my inner dialogue that day.
His solution? Play fetch with food. No, the dog doesn’t actually bring back the food. But throwing it sets up the pattern of running back and forth. Over time, you introduce the ball (or whatever) and trade it for food on the return.
The process, he reminded us, also introduced the chance to train several commands:
– Drop it
It worked. So, if your dog won’t fetch, I highly recommend it.
Granted, the category of item Lilly deigns to fetch is limited to a very special foam-filled ball, certain stuffed toys, and (I kid you not) sticks, including kindling she steals from the wood pile.
My girl, who once turned her small black nose sneered at even the idea of fetch, now simply won’t stop. She’s relentless in ways beyond enumeration.
I’m lucky in one respect. While she waits me out, staring intently in hopes I might throw the toy, she is mostly silent. (Like right now, she’s quietly fixated on my every move.) My husband, however, isn’t so fortunate. She’s figured out how to bark until Daddy gives in. And, he always does.
He’s Captain Chaos to her General Disarray (full credit to “South Park” for those hilarious puns).
But, I too throw the ball. I throw, and throw, and throw.
We even play fetch with snowballs sometimes.
Lilly drove me to applied math theory to our fetching efforts. Using fetch to tame Lilly’s bottomless energy requires intricate calculations:
12 tosses x hilly terrain = 1 hour of peace
25 tosses x flat pasture = 1, maybe 2, hours of quiet
50 tosses x any surface = an evening off
Now … if only I could teach her to throw the ball herself. (My shoulder needs a rest.) The person who invented flyball must have had the same thought about making crazy fetching dogs happier.