It seems that fearful and anxious dogs have become my specialty. We already have a list going of which dogs will be my next fosters, and I haven’t even had my newest ward for more than 2 days! Maverick was put on my list when he arrived at the rescue, last Tuesday. I can’t say I was exactly thrilled about fostering a football sized, bug-eyed, little rat, but my job as a foster is to rehabilitate whichever dogs need me the most.
So…Thursday night I decided to take a visit to meet my would-be foster. After an hour-and-a-half, and several bites of my chicken pot pie, the little dude emerged from the tiny crate (he had barricaded himself here for at least 2 days), and ran straight behind the couch where he sat for another hour or two before we finally decided to grab a slip lead and help him calm down out in the open. He shook for several minutes, but finally relaxed enough to climb up into my lap and lay down.
Maverick is only 1 year old, and has already had a pretty hard life. The report is that he was confiscated during a drug bust at a crack house in Wenatchee. He was filthy from sitting in his own excrement for so long, and has overgrown toenails which he chews out of anxiety. The rescue workers who eventually handed Maverick over to us said they had been bitten (enough to draw blood) by him any time they tried to pick him up or get him out of his crate. Based on his extreme anxiety over the last few days, and considering that not every shelter/rescue worker has extreme stores of patience-this doesn’t surprise me at all.Fearful dogs are not like small children-their fears cannot be snuggled or petted away. Attempting to comfort a fearful or stressed dog is the wrong approach, and can lead to physical and psychological trauma to both dog and human. It’s extremely important when handling and anxious dog, that they be given the space they need, and praise for making steps forward on their own. Coaxing or pressuring an animal to step too far beyond it’s comfort zone-or using the wrong motivators-will enable the wrong behaviors.
Here are a few simple things I do when working with a fearful dog:
1) Pretend I’m Caesar Millan:-“No talk, No touch, No eye contact”
I know many people make fun about the dog whisperer, but the more I study other sources, and dogs themselves, the more I agree with Caesar’s methods. Dogs do not greet each other the same way you would greet a stranger (actually, subconsciously you may find that you interact with strangers the same way dogs interact with each other). Dogs-especially anxiety dogs-want to check you out from a distance to determine that you are safe, and trustworthy. They may come up and sniff at first, but will then continue on with whatever previously occupied their attention. Most dogs back away from the touch of a strange person, and will sniff the air when eye contact is made. All of these are communications that they are uncomfortable with a person. In some cases, though I’m sure the best is intended, making eye contact with, and touching a dog could trigger a reactive response from a dog.
Case in point: My Aunty C. has a German Shepherd Dog, Sheba, who is one of the sweetest and lovingest dogs I’ve ever met-however-she usually barks incessantly at strangers who approach the front door or who come into the house, and given the chance, has bitten strangers. One reason I believe she does this, is that her tie-down area is in the kitchen directly across from the front door so any time a person comes to the house, not only are they forced to make eye contact with her as they enter, but the family usually hangs around in the kitchen, so in order to greet my Aunt, her friends are forced to “charge” at Sheba putting her on defense. My Aunty is wise in telling all of her guests to remain calm, avoid eye contact, and make back-facing passes near (but not within biting distance) of the dog. This gives Sheba a chance to pick up a scent without feeling threatened, and relax because the family and their guests are calm.
2) Teach the dog to “mark”
Now I don’t mean pee all over your house and hope your dog learns that new trick! “Mark” is a common command used in agility, hunting, and many other dog-related sports when a handler wants to put their dog in a specific location, or have it target something. No, I don’t immediately train my anxiety dogs to go fetch birds. It’s the process of training this command that is so helpful-especially with dogs like Maverick who cower, and refuse to move. What I don’t want to do is reward fearful behavior. Doing so would be saying “Yes dog, you are responding the right way to your fears! Good job!!” and no one wants to see the results of that. Instead, I want to entice and reward courageous behavior. Thus, the “mark” command.
I don’t actually instruct or command the dog to do anything. I usually do this whole process in silence. I start by hooking the dog with a taste of peanut butter, kong filling, or whatever I have on hand. Once the dog has had a taste of deliciousness, he probably wont be able to resist. After this first step, I offer my treat-free hand. If the dog does not approach, I walk away for a few minutes. I repeat this second step until he voluntarily touches his nose to my treat-free hand, and I praise and reward with a treat. What this does is convert an unpleasant stimulus (human/dog contact), into a pleasant one through the use of a reward. The dog is already comfortable cowering, because it is pleasant and safe for him. The goal is to make human contact the preferred comfort.
3) Use what the good Lord gave you
Body language is so, so, so, so important when interacting with any dog, but especially fearful dogs. Just imagine trading places with a dog like Maverick. He is 10lbs tops, and the average person weighs around 150-200lbs. That’s more than 10 times his size. I think I would probably cower too if I was approached by a giant. So when you approach an unfamiliar dog, make yourself small, turn your body to the side so that you’re not threatening, and turn your head away so that you are looking at the dog through your peripherals. Dogs have very similar facial expressions to humans (I think this is what gives them such personality), so they are able to read your emotional state and body language much better than you can read theirs. It’s important to remain calm and relaxed around any dog because if you’re anxious or too aggressive when you approach, you will cause a counter-reaction in the dog, whether that be imitation of your emotion, or an opposing response.
Hopefully this info is useful to you in being around dogs period, and maybe for someone who is dealing with a dog who has fear aggression issues. It’s all very simple to deal with once you learn your human-dog communication skills.
Maverick is already out of his shell, and running around my apartment playing with Mr. Tyson. I believe this is all thanks to a slow initial approach, and my continual praise for his courageous behavior. It’s always so fun and rewarding to rehabilitate a dog that others think is a nightmare.
For information about adopting Maverick:
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Here are some more cartoons for you from the Inugami website: